New Orleans on my mind

SAKALALAND — Norman Sakala’s tastily furnished apartment in Southgate, North London, is where we are at.

People, Places and Development with Mthulisi Mathuthu

It is a Saturday afternoon; the sun is hanging up there alone on the azure sky — no cloud, none whatsoever.

I have brought my other two friends with me — Samuju Lunkunku the Congolese and Desmond Phahlane from Nkayi.

Four of Sakala’s other mates are already here. The occasion is just an ordinary summer weekend barbeque.

Civilities exchanged, Sakala asks me to help him serve drinks and as we do so he tells the gathering of how the two of us met in Lusaka in 2005, and then London, almost eight years later.

But I am more interested in how he ended up in London. Even though he told me the story, I still want him to share it with the gathering today.
“Tell us, how did you end up in London?” I implore him.

Clearing his throat, he begins his tale. Shortly after my 2005 visit to Lusaka and during which we met, so he says, tragedy struck.

Driving home one Friday morning and responding to an emergency call from home, he says, he unconsciously sped through a red traffic light and before he knew it, he had hit three pedestrians. One of them was picked up dead and two of them seriously injured.

The judge found him guilty of culpable homicide and banned him from driving. On serving his sentence — one year in prison — he was left jobless and the only job he found was a cleaning role at the Tazara Railway company — cleaning the trains travelling between Tanzania and Zambia.

His routine was straightforward — he would leave Lusaka Railway Station at night and work throughout the journey until the train stopped in Dar es Salaam the following midmorning. Upon arrival, he would spend the rest of the day sleeping in one of the storerooms before resuming his job on a return train that same evening.

Trouble would come when, somewhere in the middle of the journey right in the thick of the African jungle, the train developed a fault which meant waiting there until the problem was fixed. Depending on the severity of the problem, they would at times wait for days. It is then that pong would waft through the train.

Spurred on by rotten fruits, eggs, secret sweat and all manner of belching, the smell would just hang on there and it was Sakala’s duty to control its spread — a job made more difficult by angry and drunken passengers. One day and in a round-about way, and in the middle of the jungle, some lady — a middleaged white tourist — offered to help him as he was cleaning the gangway, sweeping and picking up papers.

That was the beginning of a romance that led to marriage and to him moving to Amsterdam, for that’s where the lady hails from. Finding Amsterdam boring, Sakala, who is good looking in a devil-may-care way, moved to London by Eurostar train and his wife — who is a nurse — followed.

But she is not part of the revelry today as she is at work. What a tale, we all agree in between bellyful of laughter.

With this tale, so it seems, Sakala has introduced a good subject — trains and the fortunes or misfortunes they bring along.

Almost instantly and at my instigation, some discussion ensues. Trains do interest me and make good tales and good songs. For the South African the train — just like in Sakala’s case — represents both romance and tragedy.

Between Johannesburg Central and Soweto, says Lushozi, he, as a young and unemployed school dropout, routinely embarked on endless free rides on the train. With the other boys they rode on the roof of the train and stood up there stylishly ducking the electric cables as the iron snake sped away.

The idea was to display latest fashion — always stolen — and impress the girls. All the times, he says, they did get girls just that way — dicing with death! Called train surfing, this sport has led to many deaths. Dozens have either been crushed or electrocuted to death. And yet it continues to this day.

For me, the train represents a variety of things and situations: Homecoming, joy, loss, exploitation and music. I can come with a crazy mix of songs on the train — some mellow jazz, soul, reggae and rock, I tell them. Sample: Coal Train (Hugh Masekela), Ngithathe we Stimela (Ray Phiri and Stimela), Mbombela (Bayethe), Ngihlangabeze (Ilanga), Sitimela seGoli (Lovemore Majaivana), This Train (Culture), Zion Train (Bob Marley) and People Get ready the Train is Coming (Rod Stewart).

“Where are the homecoming, loss, happiness and history part of it which you referred to?” they ask. “In the content of the songs,” I say. Hugh Masekela and Bayethe for example, lament a people’s departure from a home place aboard a train headed to look for work in the city.

When they return — and that is if they ever do so — they are met at the station as the Ilanga tune says, or they find that their homes have either been destroyed or looted.

As we discuss, I connect Sakala’s laptop to the home cinema for a good sound output and tune to the Internet radio station WE7. Without apologies and to no grumbling, I force my taste on all others and, to my surprise and thrill, the gamble works wonders.

A discussion, spurred on by drinks, wanders from this song to another and from this place to another. It is Cognac for Lushozi, Jack Daniels for all others but me. As always, I settle for the Carlsberg — probably the best larger in the world and obviously the cheapest and less toxic.

There is another exception: Lunkunku, a devout Christian is for water but, strangely though, he is also for jazz. I tell him of my last jazz get together with neighbours in Nkulumane, Bulawayo, in 2007. Together we agree that we must, one day, visit the home of jazz — New Orleans in the United States.

Mathuthu is a London-based Zimbabwean journalist. His recreations include jazz, travelling and books

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