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Life Zambia

Journey to Zambia

In autumn 1978, before my first medical job overseas, Dr John Seaman, chief medical officer of Save the Children Fund UK, advised me to invest in a proper, sturdy suitcase, a Globe-Trotter. “Go to Harrods and ask the assistant to jump onto the case from a chair to demonstrate how tough it is,” he said. I went to Harrods but the eye-watering price of the Globe-Trotter deterred me from asking for a demonstration. As a result, I have bought a succession of cheap pieces of luggage ever since; false economy. The zip holders on my grey Samsonite case have been replaced twice, and one of its wheels is wonky, but it is fairly secure. The soft-walled Delsey Sidewalk can carry more supplies, but both its wheels have fragmented; I will leave it behind in Zambia.

Even with a generous luggage allowance of two suitcases each weighing 23kg, I couldn’t pack all the medical equipment and supplies I had collected. I packed the cases equally, the more valuable items in the more secure case. I guessed that each weighed about 20kg, but I needed to check. The cases were too big to fit onto a set of bathroom scales, so I stepped onto the scales carrying a case, noted the weight, then put the case down and subtracted my weight from the total. 25kg and 23kg. Perhaps Ethiopian Airlines will allow some leeway for a medical volunteer, I thought.

I packed my iPad, Kindle e-reader, laptop, binoculars, camera and long lens into my secure backpack. It weighed almost 10kg against the allowance of 7kg, but I could justify needing to keep expensive stuff with me on board. Thank goodness this airline allows carry on luggage, unlike some others who fear it will increase the risk of Coronavirus infection.

The only way I could carry both cases was by dragging them behind me. They were so wide that it was an effective way of keeping a social distance from others. Heaving them up and off the train to London St Pancras was trickier. The underground was quiet, even at “rush hour”, though I did struggle to get the cases down a few short flights of stairs, huffing and puffing behind a mask.

I found the check-in desk at Heathrow Terminal 2 and had more difficulty manoeuvring the cases around the maze of narrow, roped-off paths. The first attendant scrutinised my passport and documents before telling me that I had to see her supervisor at the end of the row. I dragged my cases past other check-in desks and smiled sweetly at the supervisor. She told me that she would have to call the station manager for the flight, could I wait a few minutes.

She took photographs of all my supporting documents, visa and passport to email to the manager. Five minutes later, she called the manager again and I was granted permission to fly. I heaved my cases onto the weighing scales while she was tapping on her computer keyboard, hoping she wouldn’t notice the excess. She tagged the cases and attached “heavy” labels to them before asking me where I wanted to sit. I said, “Away from everyone else, please.” She assigned me three seats in a middle row at the back of the plane.

The inflight entertainment system was not working, but I didn’t mind. I was able to scrunch down into three seats, wrapped myself in a blanket, extended the middle seatbelt as much as possible so I could lie on my side and fasten myself in. I pulled up my mask so it covered my eyes as well as my nose and mouth and managed four hours of fitful sleep.

Being seated at the back of the plane meant there were fewer passengers around me, but I didn’t get a choice of meal and there was no coffee left. We landed in Addis during a thunderstorm and had to stay on board for 20 minutes until the tropical rain eased off. After waiting for a couple of hours in Bole International Airport, I boarded the flight to Lusaka. I had three seats to myself at the front of the plane, perfect for a quick disembarkation. I had heard that it could take three hours to get through immigration and health checks, so I was perfectly positioned.

At Kenneth Kaunda International Airport, all passengers fill out three similar forms, declaring their lack of covid-19 symptoms and how they can be contacted if their test, or the test of a nearby passenger, turns out to be positive. One health worker noted my temperature and collected one of my health declarations. An immigration officer asked for my papers. Her raised eyebrows indicated that she was impressed I had managed to obtain a visa. “Go to the diplomatic channel,” she ordered. The next immigration officer in the kiosk was confused by my supporting documents. He saw that I had been in Zambia last year and asked his boss what to do. The boss nodded his head and the officer started typing my details into the computer using two forefingers. On the narrow desk there was not enough room for the keyboard, so half of it was unsupported. Each prodded keystroke risked it falling off the table.

I was disappointed not to get a pretty page stuck in my passport. The immigration officer just stamped my entry onto a cluttered page and waved me through to the health desk. The health clerk misspelled my name on the request form and swab container and handed it back to me. I said, “I have proof of a negative test from four days ago, done by the NHS.” She wasn’t interested and waved me over to the swabbing team.

Two nurses in full “Ebola-style” personal protection suits, hoods, visors, masks, wellington boots and double gloves took nasal swabs from all the passengers. I asked if I needed to quarantine, and she said, “No, but we will contact you if we need to in the next 14 days.” I thanked her and collected my luggage from the conveyor belt. A customs officer inspected the baggage tags and waved me through. My taxi driver, Friday, was waiting for me outside. He said that he remembered me from my first visit, six years ago. He had parked his taxi 400 metres away, across the official car park, in the apron of a petrol station, probably to avoid exorbitant airport parking fees.

During the journey to the hotel, I looked out for familiar landmarks, but could not see anything I recognised. There were lots of new buildings and shopping malls, but the streets were eerily quiet. There was a statue of a giant chicken commanding a roundabout near the city centre. It is probably called ZamChick. I would have remembered that, I’m sure.