It's a cool grey morning in Lusaka. My friend Thomas passed away two days ago at the age of 40.
A few things come to mind when I think about Thomas. Tough as nails is the first. This is a guy who built a warehouse almost single handedly, and could write with a welding stick just as clearly as he can write with a pen. And after welding some metal, even though it was scorching hot, he would pick it up with his bare hand and then dip it in water before letting me touch it. I always thought of my grandfather growing up in rugged conditions when I watched Thomas work.
Caring is another word to describe Thomas. My second day of work he took me aside and told me that Zambian women just want you for your money, so take care, and definitely don't spend the night with one unless you first go to the clinic to get a blood test (to check HIV). Just one week ago I was in town purchasing various things with him and on the way one of the street vendors that I know was trying to sell me something, Thomas didn't know my history with the guy so he figured this vendor was trying to take advantage of me. The look in Thomas' eyes was of pure vigor, he was protecting me. It is really hard to read most Zambians, and the same is true for Thomas, I couldn't really tell if our relationship meant as much to him as it meant to me, so seeing him stand up for me with conviction was proof to me that we had created a good relationship...even though we hardly showed it to each other.
Another image that is crystal clear in my mind is the way he 'show boated' when we finally got a new drill for him to use. The drill took 3 weeks to arrive and when we went to pick it up, the drill came in a nice case, which resembled a sort of briefcase. When I handed it over to him, he opened it up, smiled, then after inspecting he closed it and pretended he was a business man, or more acurately, he pretended to be the boss and proceeded to point at some of us and deliver a few commonly used phrases that our boss uses. It was priceless, especially coming from a guy who is so quiet and humble.
So now Thomas has passed away. He died of TB, and he was HIV positive. The cause of death sounds like a broken record here in Zambia.
As for development, this represents the root of the problem. Short life expectancy.
There are other employees here who have great potential, they, like Thomas, have built up knowledge and skills over their life time and if they were living in Canada they would easily have another 25 years of productive time before feeling the need to retire. I can't say with certainty that they won't follow a similar path.
It is easy to accuse people of making poor choices.
I honestly think that if I were in their shoes I would make the same choices. I mean, imagine if I were born into a situation where I've never been able to afford a vehicle, but I see others driving them and having a good time; I've never been outside of the city, although I hear about all the beautiful places that exist in my country; I see people eating at restaurants and I'm only able to afford going once a year. In short, the things that may seem pleasurable to me are out of my reach. Surely I would make the best of the situation, enjoying visiting friends and family etc. When it comes to alcohol, and if it costs less than $.25 a beer, maybe I can rationalize a few drinks throughout the week to make my life seem better.
Then there is sex. Surely this is a pleasure that is sacred, and luckily enough, can be enjoyed by those of both high and low income. As for condoms, most Zambian's are at least vaguely aware of them (no thanks to USAID in recent years). But why would you reduce the amount of pleasure? What is the risk? The knowledge of HIV is relatively low and relatively unthreatening. It is a disease that is slow and hidden such that others don't see it or really fear it. Nobody even dies of HIV, the cause of death is TB or malaria or something else, which just happens to kill you because your immune system is weak. So when it comes time to decide about safe sex, the risk seems fairly low. Then there is the issue with women. Women seem to be at higher risk yet have very little say in most relationships.
We are leaving for the funeral in a few minutes. I fear for the future of his baby girl. His wife will be left with very little, the house they rent will soon be unaffordable, the furnature will be sold off along with any other assets. She will likely try to sell food at the market, but in the end she will likely try to find another husband, one that may or may not treat her well, and the baby girl will likely be a very low priority in his mind. What choice does she have? Maybe one of her parents are still alive and she can go live with them?
When I visited their house 3 months ago I was welcomed with big smiles and an ice cold coca-cola. I was impressed with the nicely painted rooms (both of them) and the modern furniture that was very clean, bright red and was free of stains or rips in the material.
What I realize today is how fragile that impression was.