Things fall apart (with apologies to Chinua Achebe)


The sound of expelled air at the end of a long day.  Not a puncture, just exhaustion.  Brain and body frazzled.  Frustrated with bureaucratic indecision and cumulative physical toil as the season nears its end.

Monday was a non-day.  A day both necessary and non-productive.  We travelled in convoy to the town of Kasama, a journey of just over three hours.  Our destination, the Department of Immigration.  Over the years I’ve come to dread these encounters.  They  mean stress and loss of precious time.

We prepare for the journey the Friday before. Report to the local immigration office.  Two officers, two views on how to proceed and two different fees quoted. The unease begins.

We just need a few days extra to complete our work at Kalambo Falls. And an extension to our “business” visas. [A separate issue in its own right, for another time, another place.] The desired extension can’t be granted locally and after a phone call to the regional office we have an appointment there for Monday morning and clear instructions on the documents needed. These differ from the ones we have, which are based on advice given before the team left the UK.

Add the Kasama office address on the letter of introduction from our host institution and provide a separate letter requesting a visa extension, listing our names, again.

Fine. Small changes, a manageable nuisance.

Phone calls made to our host. Revised documents sent on Sunday to my email. Another trip into Mbala from Kalambo Falls required. Two hours’ drive from camp roundtrip and an opportunity to restock on water – always needed in this unusual heat.

At the internet café, download and print the documents.  All paperwork ready for Monday’s encounter with Immigration. I manage to be back on site sieving in the afternoon, helping record the increasing abundance of Early Stone Age artefacts. Excavation going well, but still much to do before specialist support arrives Friday.

Setting the scene

Back pedal a few months, a few grey hairs ago, and preparations already underway to arrange transfer of funds from the UK to Zambia to pay for the group’s visa extension. Phone call made to London; confirmation from the Zambia High Commission:  we must pay full amount when in Zambia. In cash. Press on with arranging cash payment.

Obstacles emerge.  Traveller’s cheques no longer accepted.  Tick.  Temporary bank account in Mbala not possible.  Tick.  Extracting the full amount from ATMs not feasible given my low daily withdrawal limit and the need to be on site. Tick.

Now to Plan D.  Transfer full amount to host institution in Zambia who would then make the cash available when needed.  Double tick – way to go.  Transfer arranged via university and made just days before we depart.


Back to reality

Monday arrives and we set off early, paperwork in hand and money in the bank  Blue birds singing and roses over the door.  When will I learn?

Arrive in optimistic mood – day planned.  Visas first, bit of shopping for luxuries at the one supermarket in the region, and just maybe, after lunch a visit to the local rock art before making the three-hour journey back.

La di da. When will I learn?

Step up to the counter at Immigration. People in uniform, large-screen television on behind us – dubbed in soap opera.  Someone accused of murder, cheating, fraud – eyes half on the screen, half on us.

Falling apart starts.

There’s no record of our appointment. An officious dismissal given when I ask to see the person in charge. I hear Stravinsky, a discordant crash of scales falling.  When will I learn?  This is Immigration, there’s form here; a tradition of botheration to uphold.

Ushered into dimly lit hallway to wait.  Paperwork examined slowly.  There’s a problem. The subject line needs amending.  Change it then come back.  A simple sounding request, but far from it.

Deep breath. Add one-part frustration to one-part anger and shake vigorously.  But don’t drink this concoction – it won’t help.

A hollow feeling of uncertainty rises.  I’ve felt it before.  An arrest long ago at an Immigration roadblock, an experience that haunts me still.

No time to fret.  Make a plan. I’m on the phone to the head of our host institution.  He who gave up part of his Sunday to write the letter we thought we needed. He’s on the road now, can’t help until tomorrow.  Can it wait another day?  No.  Needs resolving here and now.

On the phone again, this time to another host institution, the one which issues our research permit.

The local office is nearby.  Short journey, long stay.  Two hours later a new letter in hand with correct subject heading.  Return to Immigration where I left the team – they’re in good cheer despite no lunch, but clearly hoping for a quick resolution.  Which doesn’t come.

A body rises from the grave and pursues a young mourner.  This soap opera has me and the uniforms watching.  One comes to our rescue.  A young officer with an engaging smile assigned to our case. The visa process is now all online and he’ll help set up accounts and scan passport images. Oh, and they don’t accept cash payments. Credit card only.  Can’t, but do believe this is happening. Par for the course.

Five hours later  we’re almost done.  Just one application to go. But then the lights and computer fail.  The final hour is completed in darkness behind the barred doors of the now closed office.

Load-shedding.  A national  headache of scheduled power cuts, and it hits Kasama as night sets in.

With each application I make payment by credit card.  And with each payment the card company checks on the validity of the payment.  A verification code is sent automatically to my wife’s smartphone – in the UK.  It  needs to be entered within a few short minutes otherwise the transaction is void.  I have a satellite phone for emergencies, and this qualifies.

Satellites come and go and with them so goes the signal.  It takes time to move from phone outside to computer in the office.  This relay race goes on for hours.  The final visa payment needs making, but there’s no power.  No light, no computer.  It’s dark inside and out.  Quick thinking by the kind officer putting in overtime and the assembled student team. We can do it by smartphone.

Outside the code is scribbled down. We rush down a smartphone lit corridor to input the precious code.  I drop the officer’s phone and the payment page is lost, temporarily.  Back outside, one more call to long-suffering wife, and rerun the rush between worlds.  It works.  A collective cheer.

We thank our saviour at Immigration. His six-month old son kept him awake the night before. His wife is ringing constantly to find out when’s he’s heading home. He’s tired, still smiling, but glad to get rid of us.

We have a three to four-hour journey ahead in the dark – I have poor night vision and the prospect apalls.  There are potholes, animals and people, barely visible. We prepare to leave and then it happens. Still in the dark office, we see that one of the visa forms is in the wrong name.  “Come back Friday, the correct form will be waiting for you”.

Normally, that would revive the hollow feeling, but this time I will be back in Kasama to collect two new members of the team, it’ll be fine.

Ok, then, let’s go.

When will I learn?

The ride back to camp takes three and a half slow hours.  We see many village dogs en route – where are they during the day?  And potholes, often at the last second.  Pascale and Clarissa keep me alert with a medley of the Disney song book.  “Ooh, ooh, ooh, I wanna be like you-oo-oo” – Jungle Book, Louis Prima.  It works, along with the fizzy caffeine drink supplied by Chris.  I’m buzzing and almost enjoying the long moment.

We arrive late, no lunch and no dinner.  What’s worse, the Livingstone Museum team will be leaving at 3:30 am to head back to Lusaka for another project.  Rushed goodbyes with Maggie, gifts brought for her and Ken given in haste.  Brief fitful sleep, caffeine overload.

Tomorrow is a busy day with a visit from the local school.

Kalambo school group by the site

School group learning how past environments are reconstructed from Clarissa


Friday, back at immigration.

No form waiting to collect. Shouldn’t surprise but it does – always the optimist despite long experience. But new form sourced quickly, printed.  As we leave Clarissa notices the stamped departure date is incorrect – out by a month.  The document must be redone and stamped correctly.

That roadblock arrest long ago comes to mind.  The issue was an error in the entry of my departure date.

“We at Immigration do not make mistakes”, the man in charge declared: “You have three choices. Hard labour which you are unlikely to survive; leave the country and never return, or pay the fine”.  The voice of doom. The fine was paid but just.  Mary – my wife – and I scraped together every kwacha in our possession (and quite a lot more, the town of Kabwe then had a Barclays bank).

Neither of us can forget that trauma.

Briefly, now, enfrazzlement number two. Physical exhaustion.  An early heat wave and poor sleep take their toll. Crew at the stumbling stage. Tears of tiredness erupt, small mistakes creep into routines of recording. A fall on site leads to a trip to the local hospital, and a plaster cast on a dislocated (not broken thank goodness) wrist*.  An unwanted end to time on site in this case. Even the equipment is showing the strain.  Sieves coming apart.  Car brake pads worn to the bone of metal.  The steep descent has taken its toll. Replacing them means another time-consuming but essential trip out.

And time off is needed by us all, with just a handful of days to go.

Change is good as a rest, so they say. We take a morning to visit Kalambo village (formerly Chiungu village).  The last person to make clay pots is our point of interest. An elderly woman demonstrates, answers basic question with great patience.

Mildred Nankamba, last potter in the village

Sample of Mildred’s work

Walking back from the village with friends

Villagers gather around and for a moment we are one.  Toil forgotten.

That afternoon, the team rests – and some sense of order returns.

*Ed note: she rang her mother en route to the hospital, if you haven’t heard, then the disabled wrist is not attached to your daughter, don’t worry!

One thought on “Things fall apart (with apologies to Chinua Achebe)

  1. I have been reading your vivid prose with huge interest and increasing admiration. I am guessing your time at Kalambo Falls is nearly up and I hope you leave with the success and sense of achievement that you and your team so thoroughly deserve.


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About Larry Barham

My name is Larry (Lawrence if I’m feeling formal) Barham and I'm a Professor of African Archaeology at the University of Liverpool, England, teaching evolutionary anthropology at undergraduate and postgraduate level.