District Commissioner

It’s not every day that one gets kissed by a District Commissioner; this week, I’ve been kissed twice. Forget the image of a thin, white chap with a toothbrush moustache, wearing baggy khaki shorts, long socks and brogues. Caroline, known as “Madame DC”, is a charming, efficient Zambian lady who was born in Mfuwe and is its leading civil servant. She has a very chic dress sense, combining African fabrics and Western style. Her finger is on the pulse of the district and she seems to know about everyone and everything.

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On the first occasion, I was in Mambwe, the district headquarters, paying a courtesy visit to the District Medical Officer, who nominally supervises my work. He was very gracious, inviting me to lecture the medical staff on multidrug resistant tuberculosis at one of their regular education sessions. We also discussed the problems resulting from the transfer of HIV work from Kamoto to Kakumbi. He had worked in Botswana some years ago and he reminisced about what had been achieved with a well-organised HIV service, which had been adequately funded.

All the government buildings are in the same location, so after seeing the DMO, I dropped by to see Caroline, the District Commissioner. She knew me from my previous tour in Kakumbi, when she did an unexpected inspection of the Rural Health Centre. I had not been introduced to her, so I was rather surprised when her entourage swept through the clinic. All too often when officials visit the clinic it is to criticise and complain, but I was impressed by her open approach, and willingness to hear about the problems we were facing. She gave everyone an audience, even the unpaid volunteers.

This time, it was my first visit to her headquarters, a very modest building on the edge of the government compound. Her term of office is coming to an end in a month’s time. She says that she is tired and needs a rest, but I am sure that if the President asks her to stay on until after the elections, she will do so because of her sense of duty.

I saw her again yesterday evening at a social event. We had both been invited to dinner at the Kenneth Kaunda Centre, a few kilometres out of Cropping, on the way to the airport. Our hosts, David and Donna, had also invited Theresa, chairperson of the DEB (District Education Board) and two German volunteers, Martin and Thomas. These two worked for a bank which had donated funds to build a new school block. They had been painting school toilets for the past fortnight while the local people cut down the 2.5 metre high elephant grass on the site of the new football pitch.

The KK Centre was set up more than 10 years ago by an American visitor, Willard Colston, who originally visited the South Luangwa valley to do some big game hunting. He saw the damage that poaching was doing to the wildlife so he approached the Chief with a plan to turn poachers into vegetable gardeners. The Chief granted him a concession of land bordering on the river and he built a house but this was destroyed by the 2007 flood. Will moved to the current location of the KK Centre and set up training courses, supplied seeds and equipment, but most important of all, a market place to sell produce which would then be sold on to the tourist lodges. This has reduced the number of poachers and improved the general nutrition of local people with fresh local produce. KK Centre is a non-profit organisation, so all the income is quite literally ploughed back into the community.

We discussed their latest venture with the Sanctuary Lodge – trained female bicycle mechanics assembling and repairing a container-load of bicycles for local sale. What should be the price of the repaired bikes? Who can afford them? What about spare parts? How much money is being earned and how do they intend to spend it? Giving the bikes away for free is not the answer, but at $70 each, only the wealthiest people can afford them. Lodges have bought bikes for their staff, deducting money each month from their salaries to pay off the cost. The poorest, neediest people haven’t a hope of buying a bike.

One benefit of the scheme is that now most of the bikes have yellow reflectors on their pedals, which makes them easy to spot when driving at night. Few bikes have forward-facing lights, I haven’t seen any with a red, rear-facing light.

We also discussed the drug shortages at Kakumbi. David tried to get the German bankers interested in supporting the clinic, but they politely declined. They were more concerned about how to get the football pitch level. The grass had been cut by hand over several days by the villagers, but the land was very uneven. Their first thought was to hire a grader, a massive bulldozer which is used to keep the dirt roads flat, after the rains. The cost of this was enormous, several thousand dollars, so they asked the teachers what to do. They are employing a few men to level the pitch in the same way as they would level a new plot of land for planting crops. KIS – keeping it simple.

This afternoon, my telephone rang and it was the DC. “To what do I owe the pleasure?” I asked her. “You gave me your number last night, so I thought you should also have mine,” she said.

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