Get your free website from Spanglefish
This is a free Spanglefish 2 website.

A trip to LA LA Land

Everything was new to me in September 1970. I had just settled in the town of Luanshya on the Copperbelt of Zambia that was created from the British Protectorate of Northern Rhodesia. We were situated thirteen degrees south of the equator. I soon found we “non-Zambian” were locally called "expatriates" or for short "expats".

Coming from Canada just two months before, as a lecturer in electrical engineering, I was all-keen about having any new adventures I could find. I was open to any and all opportunity to learn more about the country of Zambia and its rich culture.

I had just moved into a small apartment on the Institute's campus on Shala Road that had been recently cut from the virgin jungle bush. A month after I had arrived, I bought an old VW Beetle car to travel around in the bush. I was eager for any excuse to get off of the campus and drive to new places.

On a hot Friday in October, John, one of the classroom cleaners came to me. He asked if I could take him to his village the next day. I wisely asked how far it was and if there was a "road". He said that it would take about an hour and the road was good all the way.

I said, "OK, but what could I do once I got him there?

He said, "You will wait and I will return with you."

I did not like the sound of that and asked, "How long will I have to wait and what would I do while I was waiting?"

He said, "plenty-plenty vegetable. You buy plenty, Bwana.”

I had not seen any watermelon for sale and I craved to have some in the land that watermelons grew naturally in the wild or so I was told. I naively asked, "Do they grow any red watermelons?"

He assured me, "Plenty-Plenty! Very sweet Bwana.” At that, I agreed to take him.

Saturday arrived, clear and hot (around +35 Celsius), just like every other day I had seen since I had arrived in Zambia. John arrived at my apartment early. At first light, (six o'clock) he had walked from some far-off compound to arrive about eight o'clock at my home. I was ready; full of expectations of adventure in the "jungle" and off we went. I had no idea where we were going ... or if I could find my way back. The road to his village was a thin trail composed of hard grape-sized red laterite nodules. We made a good speed over the bumpy but dry dusty trail. We branched off the main trail onto another lesser trail and in thirty kilometres or so of low gear we arrived at John’s village. I drove as far as I could into the village and parked under the shade of a large mango tree.

A spindly old man approached us. He had a bad limp and one of his legs was wasted below the knee. He wore only in a pair of ragged short trousers.

John said proudly that this was Chief Chisenga of the Lala Tribe.

I did not know whether to bow, salute or what, so I smiled.

The Chief seemed delighted to have me as a visitor. He shook both hands and then grabbed my thumbs as was the tradition and pumped them also. John said "Hello" to the chief and then good-bye to the Chief and me and left me with the Chief. It was about ten O’clock.

The Chief ushered me to a rickety table and stools under the shade of the same mango tree that shaded my VW Beetle. In rapid Lala he ordered one of his wives to bring pop and cookies. I could speak no Lala and the Chief could speak only a few words of English. There we sat, looking at each other and smiling. By pantomime and a few words of English the Chief cleverly asked what I did. I pantomimed back that I was teacher and taught about electricity, radio and television. He was delighted with my mimed answer. He chuckled through a few jagged teeth and hobbled off around some low-thatched mud and wattle huts to disappear out of-sight. He was gone for some time. I sat still as I could while being watched by myriads of small near naked children who stood at a safe distance. They burst into giggles at my every move.

The Chief returned with, what looked to me like, a cardboard shoebox. He proudly placed it on the table. He motioned for me to look inside his treasured box. I hoped nothing would jump out. I cautiously opened the box. Inside was what looked like a lot of junk. He then took the contents lovingly out of the box and mimed that no sound came from it now. I looked over the mess of parts that was spread before me.

Here were the sad remains of a common, "six transistor battery mantel radio". It had none of its plastic housing left. The knobs were all missing. The thin antenna wires had been removed and replaced by twisting the fine copper wires by hand. Many other wires hung loose. The intermediate frequency (IF) transformers had been taken apart. Their ferric cores lay loose in the box. There were several holes in the speaker's diaphragm. The electric-torch cells that originally powered the radio were growing green-grey beards and looked as though they had been dead for years.

The Chief stepped back, smiled proudly and motioned for me to make it work. He sat contentedly sipping a bottle of pop waiting for me to demonstrate my skills. At this point, I regretted that I had pantomimed that I fix radios.

Aghast, I spent some time just studying the challenge set before me. I did not really believe I would get the radio going, but trying, at least passed the time while I waited for John to return. So, I took up the challenge. I had no tools or fresh torch cells with me. I mimed a question to the Chief. Did he have any fresh torch cells?

He shook his head, "No.” I mimed for some hot water.

In singing Lala, he ordered it. While I waited for the hot water, I made a battery-checker by removing the radio's speaker and I connected each terminal of it with some “extra at this point in time” wires in the box. I got a little click in the speaker when I electrically connected it to each end of each cells. So, I now could make a very simple meter to test continuity by connecting the cell to the speaker to a couple more bits of wire. With the aid of my "bush-made" meter, I found a few other open connections. I fixed a few wires and put them back where they belonged on the printed-circuit board. I fixed them the best I could by twisting the wires onto the correct points on the printed circuit board. The hot water arrived in a clay pot. I drove the blade of my small pocketknife into the case of the old cells to made small holes for moisture to get in. I then put each cell in the hot water and tapped them with a stick thoroughly all over to get rid of any polarizing gas bubbles that were inside of the cells. The Chief watched and seemed to have absolute faith that I knew what I was doing. I let the battery soak for a few minutes.

Then I said a short prayer to myself and I reconnected the battery and speaker correctly back into the radio. I turned the off-on switch on and I got some static noise. I quickly turned it off again to save the life in the batteries.

Next, I carved a small hexagonal radio-tuning tool out of a twig of hardwood from under-foot. I replaced the ferric cores in the IF transformers with bits of rubber band, that I had found on the floor of the car, the bits of rubber band took up the wear in the threads. Next with great concentration, I inserted the hexagonal shaped head of the tuning tool into the reinserted ferric cores of the IF transformers. I turned the radio back on and quickly tuned the IF transformers with my bush-made wooden tuning-tool for maximum noise out of the speaker. As-of-yet no recognizable radio signal was heard.

The Chief was right there scrutinizing my every move.

Next, I tuned the radio frequency (RF) section and heard a faint radio station along with lots of noise. I was now just as excited as the Chief was. Maybe more excited! I re-tuned the IF section to hear distorted music boom out of the flapping ragged speaker. I quickly shut the radio off and mimed that the cells were sick, tried and would not work for long. I mimed that I would drive back to town and buy new cells for him and returned the next day with them along with some tools, a new speaker and some newer wires. To this he beamed and turned the radio right back on full volume. People came out of their huts and stood about all talking in rippling Lala about this small miracle. The Chief beamed at me and I assume, told all the people what I had done. Then he sent them all away and ordered more pop for us to drink as the sweat ran silently down my back and dripped off the lower edge of my shorts onto the ground.

My mind could not stop wondering what the Chief would have done had I not got music out of the radio. I had heard that white men still disappeared in out-back villages. After a while of just looking at each other and sipping warm pop, he mimed for me to follow him. I walked with him to a small mud hut to find that it was the village store. It was a "one shelf" store. That one shelf had salt, hand soap, laundry washing powder, and small packets of sweet biscuits on it. On the floor was the "bush" soda-pop cooler. It consisted of a tub of water with rusty-capped soda-pop lying in the evaporating and therefore cooling water.

He motioned for me to take anything I wanted. I graciously declined. He paused. He then mimed for complete stealth and secrecy by taking exaggerated wide-eyed stare and a hunting stance. After I nodded agreement and crouched also, he gestured for me to follow him again.

I copied his stance the best I could. We looked like some comic movie with him limping along in a stalking mode and me right after him doing the same thing. Under cover of tall plants, he and I snuck around the back of his hut and on through his vegetable patch to a tall cassava patch. (In Canada we use the cassava starch to make tapioca.) I thought he was going to give me some cassava; vegetables or maybe a watermelon that John had promised. The Chief stopped and picked up a hardwood digging stick. He dug in the soil for some time. Awkwardly, I stood by. He became tired and motioned for me to take over the digging. I dug, but did not know what I was digging for. After a while he took over again and uncovered some black things that looked like large cassava roots or maybe logs that had been in the ground for a very long time. They were covered with bark or cloth and something else even more disgusting. There were about six of these log-like objects that were all different shapes and sizes.

He picked one up and handed it to me. It was heavy. I thanked him with an exaggerated bow and held the dirty slimy thing away from my clothes, but with as much positive conviction and pride as I could muster. Still in the stealth mode, he checked for nosy villagers. When he had determined that the way was clear, he happily escorted me back to the Beetle and had me quickly put the black slime thing in under the cover of the Beetle’s bonnet storage space right away. We then returned to where the other villagers were waiting for us to re-appear.

We sat again looking at each other and he mimed, if I had any medicine for his sore leg. His one leg looked very badly wasted as if it had been burnt or something. I shrugged my shoulders in a question, "What was the trouble?" He said two words in English that I could understand, "puff adder”. He mimed that he hunted and while hunting he had stepped on the puff adder (A puff adder is a pit viper like a rattlesnake but without the rattle) and it had bitten him in the leg.

I only had a few aspirin in the car, these I gladly gave him. I told him through mime to only take one at night so that he could sleep better. He was happy about that. He left again and came back proudly carrying a long stick rapped in oily rags. It was his old big-game rifle well wrapped in oil-soaked rags. He was very proud of if as showed it to me. It was the first big game rifle I had ever handled. It had a bore as big as my finger. I think it was about 50 calibre. The rifle was old and very well worn and used. I sat and shared hunting stories with the Chief in mime until the chief looked up at the sun and measured its distance from the horizon. I looked at my watch. It was about five o’clock. It would be pitch-dark at six-fifteen. Thoughtfully, Chief sent a hovering young boy to summons John. I would be just home by dark if I left now. In a few minutes John came running. It was apparent to me that the chief was to be obeyed.

I then re-asked John, if I could buy any red sweet watermelon. John talked with the Chief but I got no red watermelon or explanation. I shook hands and thumbs again and said, "Good-bye” and headed home hopefully the way I had come to Chief Chisenga’s village. We got back to the University campus without incident. John was happy and thanked me for the ride and asked if we could do it again. I explained that I was coming back with a torch cells and medicine tomorrow. He was not interested and said in a week or two’s time he would want to go back out again.

As soon as I got home, I took the mystery parcel to my small second-story apartment to see what the Chief had so lovingly given me given for my radio-repair work. I unwrapped what appeared to be manure-soaked bark wrappings to discovered what I had been given. It was an evil smelling black rotten looking elephant tusk. I washed and scraped the worst of the black stuff off one spot and could see that if I scrapped it all over it might look nice. This was the first time I had never had anything to do with ivory. It was still quite a thrill to think that this was just one tooth from a small elephant that the Chief had shot, around the village that I was just been sitting in. He had probably shot it with his old rifle that I had just handled. I had seen big tusks in museums that were twice the height of a man. But this one was mine. Ivory fever had started. I later learned that the manure-soaked wrapping kept the porcupines, termites and ants from eating the tusk while it was hidden in the ground.

The next day, I took fresh torch cells, a new speaker and some more aspirin tablets to the Chief. He was not around and I left the stuff with one of the ladies, hopefully a wife, that seemed to be working in the store. Over the next few years, I visited with Chief Chisenga of the Lala Tribe on many happy occasions. He never learnt any more English and I did not learn any Lala but we communicated very well. I bought him a new radio and kept him in batteries and Tylenol.

Ah! ...but those are other stories for another time!

Over the next few weeks, in the evenings, I took on the task of polishing the tusk. First, I bought a coarse wood rasp. I rasped off the blacken parts of my big tooth. I marvelled that it smelled of burnt bone as I scrapped. I hoped that it just needed to be scraped and washed to get all the stuff off the outer surfaces. It took hours of manual rasping to get the black rot off. Then, hours of hand sanding to get the rasp mark, that I had made, off. As I sanded it smoother, the tusk became very slippery. It was very hard to hold on to, due to the fact that the tusk did not have a single straight line in it. As I tried to hold it while sanding, it would shoot out of my hands and skitter across the floor. I did not want to break it or hurt the apartment or myself.

All this just meant that I had real trouble to hang on to the tusk with one hand and sand with the other. I finally resorted to taking all my clothes off and sitting on the foam rubber mattress of the government-supplied bed. The bed cushioned the tusk and my own sweat made the tusk stick to me. The sweat would just flow freely off me as I worked each evening in temperatures in the plus thirty-degree ranges. It was the hottest time of the year just before the annual rains. In time, the tusk polished smoother and smoother. I was delighted, that, I now had a creamy-white, metre-long elephant tusk that shone and felt very smooth and warm to the touch.

Over those weeks I learnt all I could about ivory. I learnt the in 1971, Zambia had an Elephant population of 1,300,000. I learnt that all tusks grow out of the elephant’s mouth in a constant curve that makes all tusks have approximately the same half-metre diameter helix. The world record tusk weighed 257 pound and was ten foot 7 inches in length. When a tusk is about three metres long it would have completed 360 degrees of a helix. A very few old elephants had achieved this length of tusks before they died. After I got the tusk polished, I planned for a way to hold it for display. I decided to mount it on a board to put on the mantle of the home that was being built for me on campus in Luanshya.

To get a board to mount the tusk, I drove to the mine-timber works in the far end of Luanshya. I asked if I could buy a piece of wood. A Bemba worker that I spoke to, looked at me like I was crazy and pointed at stairs leading to the manager's office on the second floor of the office block.

I entered to find the white, expatriate manager was busy. I waited and looked at the timber samples mounted all around the walls. Each sample had the Latin name and some of the characteristics of the timber written below it. There were light woods, like balsa and heavy woods like ebony. The woods were every hue of red, green, purple, brown, and black. Some had very pretty patterns in the grain of the wood. The manager finished what he was doing and asked me what he could do for me. I told him I wanted a board to mount a trophy. It had to be about four feet long and a foot wide and at least two inches thick.

He smirked and hotly said, "We used only SI metric units here in Zambia." Hence, I quickly converted to metric measurements.

"A piece of wood about thirteen hundred millimetres, by three hundred millimetres, by sixty millimetres." I responded.

He minced back, "And what wood should this board be composed?"

I said I did not care but it should be something hard and brown or red in colour that looked nice.

He smiled a soft knowing smile again that shrivelled my confidence.

He told me that they made only mine timbers and large beams. They had no cut planks.

"Could you tell me where I might get a plank?" I asked politely through my increasing implied ignorance.

He decreed, "Follow me to the yard! (“You American cretin”, was unvoiced.) I followed him with some apprehension as to what was about to happen.

In fluent Bemba he asked the Zambian worker to move a couple of large timbers that were in an enormous pile of logs. They did this job with a large crane.

Pointing at a large tree, weighing tons, asked, "Will that wood do?"

I said, "I don't know! What's it like inside?" "It is a little bigger than I can handle." While pointing, he laughed and told the worker, "Take the fork lift and carry this one to the saw."

At the front of the work-site was a very large ripsaw, two-metre-plus (Metric units still did not come natural to me.) in diameter mounted in the middle of a ten-metre traveling table. I am sure it would have ripped any log up to a metre in diameter. He ordered the log cut into a couple of about sixty-millimetre-thick boards about twenty-five feet long. I was now sweating at what this was going to cost me, as I had little money. (My pay had not yet started to arrive.) He picked out one board and put it through to trim it to about five hundred millimetres wide.

"How long do you need it?"

" I said about one metre long. He had the labourers cut a length about three times what I needed.

"Isn't it a bit too long?" I asked hesitantly.

He explained that the board was a bracistasia and it was wet wood that would warp and twist as it dried. "You'll be lucky to get anything good out of it for finishing work. It is only good for pit props. The grain is braided and is impossible to work smooth."

He added, "Come back to the office to settle up now."

I followed him back to his office and explained that I did not come prepared to spend a lot of money.

He replied with a grunt and calculated the "cubic metres" of timber I had purchased. I heard him mouthing "big" numbers and I knew I was in "big" trouble. I could see that he wrote down that the board was twenty-seven million cubic millimetres. This was twenty-seven one thousandths of a cubic metre or point...zero...two...seven of a cubic metre. I was afraid it was going to cost me much more than I could afford! I later figured out that this timber is sold for a 100 Kwacha (about $200) a cubic metre. He handed me the bill that he had been writing on and laughed.

The bill was for two-kwacha seventy ngwee (about six dollars). I paid and he started to tell me about the timber in Zambia. He explained why it was not used as finishing wood.

He said that most of the tree species are not even named. The difficulty is that all the trees have to have bark that would withstand the grass burns that past though the forest every March. The bark must be wet enough to be able to char on the outside without hurting the tree. The result is that all the bark on the trees look very much alike and only by cutting them or researching the leaves and buds can the species be ascertained, and then only by an expert.

Furthermore, the trees all grew in a mix of species and there were no places where one species grew exclusively. His men cut the trees, stored them for some time wet and the bark rotted off some so that the wood underneath could be seen. He said that many trees including the one I had bought were full of pockets of glass-like silica, which was very hard on any cutting tools. This mill used only the hardest tungsten carbide tipped tools and still had a lot of extra cost due to the hard sand-like deposits in the wood. These bits of silica caused the saws to bind and become dull very quickly. He pointed out that the wood is about 25 percent water when they cut it at the end of the wet season and would shrink to about the size I wanted in time. It would warp very unevenly and the wood had different amounts of moisture in different places. He suggested that the ends would split back and I would waste a lot of the board. I could tell he loved the woods of Zambia and I told him of my love of woods in Canada. He warmed up somewhat and shared his dream that Zambia would learn to harvest the rich diversity of timbers that covered most of the land. He felt that in the future someone would harvest the trees with a laser-cutter that would not get dull and wood could be processed in a way that would stabilize the shrinking in a controlled manner. He felt that a laser would save so much wood that would otherwise be wasted in chips, that technology would pay for itself. He hoped the Copperbelt University where I worked, would graduate experts in lumber management to identify new methods of harvest and new uses for Zambian rich treasure of exotic woods. I thanked him and went down to my car and tried to load the three-metre board into or onto the beetle. I could not even lift the board. It was very wet and heavy. I opened the windows and asked the men who were watching and laughing to help me load the board through both front and back window so that it stuck out about two thirds of a metre on both sides of the small car. This they did and I travelled home slowly for fear of hitting someone walking or other cars or collapsing the door frames that were carrying the extra weigh that they were not designed for. When I got home, I got a couple of neighbours to help me get the long board out of the car. I put it in the house to dry. After many months of drying the board was dry enough for me to start working it. Both ends had twisted and split a bit. I bought a wood saw and sawed off the piece that I wanted and tried to plane it. I had a disappointing lesson. I now remembered what I was told, that the wood had braided grain. Whichever way I planned I was jamming the plane and breaking about a third of the grain. I planed and planed to get the twist removed from the board. When I got it the right size and shape, I bought the only sandpaper I could buy and started to sand it by hand. I did not have any machine to sand wood. One of the Zambians had told me that I should be using broken glass to scrape it, but at the time, I did not understand that technology or have any glass, broken or otherwise. Every night after lectures, I would sand for a while until I had blisters and was tried. I still had a long way to go, as the wood was very hard and tough. The Chinese sandpaper that was available was of poor quality. I did this same activity for over thirty evenings and was making progress at such a slow rate I became impatient.

Every day several men came to the door asking for work. One of these men claimed some ability for woodwork.

I asked, “Would you like to sit outside the house and sand the board smooth for a Kwacha (couple of dollars) and a meal a day."

He jumped at the chance and would sand off and on all day for a meal and a single Kwacha. He was better at it than me but I still worked on it in the evenings. I felt guilty having him work at such a menial task. When the job was near, I let him go with a couple of extra Kwacha for his tenacity. About two years after I got the tusk from the Chief, I had finished the board off and it was ready to mount the tusk.

As a scavenger, I got a small piece of plate brass from the mine school. With this material I fashioned caps to fit on both ends of the tusk. I bent, and hammered the metal in the evenings. I braised, with a welding torch, and then I filed, drilled and rebrazed a mounting bolt into both ends. I hand-filed and then polished the end caps. When the caps were finished, I filled the hollow end of the tusk with sand and epoxy resin for strength. Lastly, I cemented the caps on each end of the tusk with epoxy resin glue. I bolted the tusk to the board and for security, bolted the board to the mantlepiece so that unless someone had the right sized socket-wrench they would not be able to steal the trophy without a saw or taking the concrete mantle with them. In 1972, the Chief got the Zambian Government to issue me a export licence for the tusk.

What had started out as a trip into the bush to help a fellow man with transport to his home, ended up with a trophy on the mantle-piece of my Luanshya home. All parties had richly won in this strange networking exchange.

The Chief and I had both willingly shared what the other valued.

We had successfully networked!

Click for Map
sitemap | cookie policy | privacy policy | accessibility statement