Tuesday, May 19, 2009


In the past 6 months, I have found myself stranded in Solwezi for a total of 10 days on three different occasions due to car trouble. Our Toyota Landcruiser Prado is an impressive automobile, but despite being one of the strongest and most popular SUVs in 4x4 country, we have had to replace the shocks, ball joints, tie rod ends, and all four tires, and the wheel alignment and balancing are pretty much shot after just a few drives in and out of town. And then there’s that one time our brakes completely gave out on the way to Solwezi. And that time our mechanic persuaded us into buying parts all the way in Lusaka that were always on their way “just now,” or “now now,” but didn’t arrive until 6 days later, and were not even genuine parts.

The reason behind the breakdowns is singular and simple, the road conditions. The level of disrepair of the dirt stretch that is Meheba’s main road is severe, 40km an hour is the fastest you could possibly go while dipping up and down and swerving side to side to avoid the giant potholes that are over a foot deep and easily 6-8 feet wide. Sometimes you have to stop, get out of the car, lay down some tree branches in an impassible ditch, get back in the car, drive, and then do it again. And during rainy season, you can’t even see the road, because it turns into a river, so the treacherous terrain is invisible, forcing you to crawl at the pace of 20km an hour. One time, a pot hole became so large and filled with water that it was essentially a pond, in the middle of the road, and even ministry and UNHCR vehicles were unable to drive to their offices.

In Zambia, taking the road less traveled (literally) isn’t for the unadventurous or unprepared. And neither is it metaphorically. Under normal circumstances I am a remarkable flexible person, able to withstand wild fluctuations in a variety of external factors that shape my relationships with society, individual people, institutions, work, nature, money, food, and the list goes on. But here, those external reference points are so foreign, and often times so unfair, that the strain it puts on a person who is normally capable of adapting to tough surroundings can be acutely taxing.

From issues pertaining to living wages for refugees, to the stock of medical supplies in the clinics, to the cost of secondary education, the framework within which we operate needs to be reconstructed. Service delivery suffers when the infrastructure we take for granted in our plans doesn’t exist. But we aren’t here to build roads. We just hope to learn to navigate them as best we can to help get ourselves and those we are trying to impact to where we all want to be.

When we see unavoidable mud in our path, the best vehicular maneuver is to keep driving, fast, without hesitation. But even the most experienced drivers find themselves stuck in “black cotton” (very fine soil that acts like quicksand) from time to time. Reflexively, I rev the engine and spin the wheels, which only digs me deeper into the bog. Getting frustrated about things you can’t change is probably the most common novice development worker’s downfall, and dwelling on them only submerges you further. Instead, try standing still for a moment, relax, and reassess the situation. Look out the window, there’s a whole village of people willing to help push or pull you out. And once you’re moving again, keep up the momentum: if you pause, you will sink and stop.