Category Archives: Lusaka

A Zambian Opera…

A Zambian Opera…

Last night, I had the privilege of attending one of only three performances of “Damyna, Damyna” an original Zambian opera composed by long-time Zambian resident Peter Langmead, with an all-Zambian cast.  It may very well be the first opera ever performed in Zambia.
(All photos copyright Langmead & Baker 2014)


Opera has long been considered (by many) to be the pinnacle of musical performance.  When you do an opera, you’ve hit the height of cultural success .  And Lusaka’s emerging Zambian middle-class wants culture.  A performance of “The Magic Flute” or “La Boheme” might have sufficed – but Mr. Langmead wanted this opera to speak to contemporary Zambians, with contemporary music.  So the music was decidedly “modern” and the story explored the conflicts between life in a rural village and the attractions and challenges of living in the city.  And being a real, bona-fide opera, the story also had romance, intrigue, a big secret, mistaken identity, betrayal, jealousy, drunkenness, sexual innuendo, emotional distress and finally, resolution.

The opera was staged in the Lusaka Playhouse, a small theater that has seen better days, but has surprisingly good acoustics and sight-lines.  Incredibly, an long-forgotten orchestra pit was discovered under the stage, found to be still usable and opened up for this performance!

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The cast was made up of local singers and instrumentalists, a local church choir for the chorus, a dance troupe called “Team Jiva” and  several guest artists from the Stuttgart Philharmonic Orchestra and Music Academy in Germany and was  conducted by renowned conductor Theo Bross.  It was very clear that none of the performers had ever attempted anything like this before.  Their excitement and nervousness were both evident.  The rehearsals had been going on for several months

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The story starts with the village waking up and the chorus singing about Damyna; how she was rescued from being sold to a moneylender by her aunt and raised as a sister to Por Phiri, who believes her to be his real sister.

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Damyna and Por Phiri appear and it becomes clear that they are in love with each other, but because they believe themselves to be true brother and sister, they cannot marry.  They sing about how they are “best friends.”


Por Phiri’s mother sings about why she has kept up this deception – in order to keep peace in the family and avoid difficulty.


Two farming consultants from the city arrive in the village, in a fancy car.  The villagers see them coming and sing about why these rich people might be coming to their poor village.  “Perhaps they will build us a school!”  “Definitely NOT!”  “Perhaps they will build us a swimming pool!  It would be cool to have a pool!”  Everyone is very interested in the city people and their fancy clothes…and it is clear that the woman (a white European) is attracted to Por Phiri and the man (an African) very much enamored of Damyna.  (Note how the woman is dressed in order to appear “white and European.”)  The dancers in the background dance to show how the African consultant and Damyna are falling for each other.  However, Damyna is obviously a bit jealous of Por’s attraction to the European woman, singing about how that woman has “small breasts, not as big as mine!”

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The village witch doctor, not knowing that Damyna and Por are not really siblings, decides to help things along.  He conjures some spirits, casts a magic spell and when everyone wakes, it seems his charms have worked and love has bloomed.

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The second act opens at a cafe in town.  The chorus sings “Here we are in town” as the proprietors of the cafe declare how excellent their establishment is.

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The two couples are getting to know each other, but it is clear that Por and Damyna still have feelings for each other.  The witch doctor, realizing his mistake, tries to set things right, but is foiled by Damyna’s aunt’s estranged husband showing up and declaring himself to be the father of both Por and Damyna, as he boasts of having sex with both women.  The men in the chorus sing about how they wish they could have as much sex as this guy while the women sing their disgust with his boastful drunkenness.


But the aunt has the last word, when she calls her husband a pathetic excuse for a man and tells him that he is NOT the father of Por Phiri after all.  The witch doctor undoes his spell.


Damyna and Por are not brother and sister after all and are free to marry.


I loved this opera.  I loved it because of the love and effort that went into making it.  I loved it because of the ownership of the performers and the obvious delight each of them showed in performing.  I loved it because it was done in an old, inadequate theater by nervous and excited Zambians, so proud to be performing an opera – an opera! – for fellow Zambians, many who had dressed to the nines to come to the performance.  (I saw at least one mink stole, lots of jewelry and high-heels…and suits on the men.)

And I loved the obvious joy and unaffected enthusiasm on the part of the performers.  After the last chord had been sung and the orchestra played the last cadence, the entire cast burst into wild whoops of joy and ran off the stage, pumping their fists in the air.  Not very “professional?”  Maybe.  But you know what?  They’d just performed an OPERA.  A real OPERA.  In  Zambia.  About Zambians.

(I was reminded more than once of Scott Joplin and his only known opera called “Treemonisha.”  Scott Joplin, best known for his ragtime music, was America’s first published black composer.  He wanted ragtime to be taken seriously, not just thought of as “coon music” or “jive music” and so he wrote an opera using a wide range of musical styles, including ragtime and he spent the last 10 years of his life trying to get the opera published and performed.  Like “Damyna, Damyna,” the plot also dealt with superstition, romance, adopted children, betrayal and the conflict between old and new.  The opera had one concert “read-through” in 1915 and then was lost until 1970, when it was rediscovered (thanks, in part, to the movie “The Sting” which used many of Joplin’s works.)  It received its world premiere in 1972, in Atlanta and now is considered an historically significant musical work, with performances all over the world.  It would be wonderful to see “Opera Z” tackle this work for their next performance.)

After the performance, I met Peter Langmead, the composer, and told him how much I had enjoyed the performance.  I think it was a great occasion.  My hat is off to the singers, the orchestra, the dancers and everyone who helped make the show happen.







Courtesy, customs and kindness


Zambians are noted for their friendliness and courtesy.  There are certain customs that need to be learned when speaking with the locals if one wants to avoid appearing rude or boorish.

When starting a conversation, no matter how urgent the matter, it is expected that you will first greet the person and ask after their health and family.  For instance, when speaking to the maintenance man, you would first say, “Hello, Mtwalo!  How are you today?  Is your sore throat better?  And how is your wife feeling?”  Then, after he had exchanged similar pleasantries with you, you could say, “My hot water pipe burst and my bathroom is flooded.  Do you think you could come take a look at it?”

This holds true even in emails.  You never just dive right into the conversation, but start off with “Hello!  I hope you are well today!”

There are also certain phrases and colloquialisms to be learned here.  You don’t “arrange” for things – you “organise” them.  When I need a ride to the bus station, I ask the person in charge if she will “organise it” for me.  When I was on a game drive and said that I would love to see a black mamba snake, my guide said he would “Organise a snake for me.”

“Only” is used as a modifier. When asking the price for goods or services (a taxi ride, a car repair, a box of mangos) the price is given followed by “only.”
“How much are you asking for half dozen avocados?”  “50 kwacha only, madam.”
I am not sure if this is meant to show how cheap something is (as in “ONLY 50 kwacha”) or to reassure you that there will be no hidden fees involved (as in 50 kwacha, including tax and delivery)

Then there is the phrase “just now” as in “I am leaving for the store just now.”  This does not mean, as one would assume, that leaving for the store is happening as we speak.  It means “I may be leaving for the store within an hour or so” or even “I am thinking about leaving for the store at some point today.”  If you want to be immediate, you would say “now now.”   Time tends to be a bit more relaxed in Zambia anyway.

Last weekend, I unexpectedly bumped into someone who had been very kind to me in a time of great stress.  You may remember my driving mishap, only three days after I bought my car.   I had turned the wrong way onto to a divided highway and hit another car head-on.  Luckily, both of us braked and no one was injured.  However, I was frightened and a bit dazed and the Zambian man whose car I had damaged was ranting and raving and carrying on about how I was going to buy his car right this minute and he would make sure of it. I was standing there by my wrecked car, with tears running down my face.  There I was, a white woman – an obvious foreigner in a strange African country being sworn at by a very angry man while a small and curious crowd gathered.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, another Zambian man stopped his car and got out.  He came up to me and gently took me by the arm and led me a little bit away from the scene and over to the side of the road.  “Now, madam,” he said to me.  “First of all, are you all right?”  When I nodded yes, he continued, “Well, now that’s good.  You are not hurt, that is the most important thing.”  He glanced over to where the other man was still fuming.  “Do not speak to him.  The police will be here soon to take a report.  Do you have anyone you can call?”  I nodded again and got out my phone to call the head of security at the school.  My rescuer smiled encouragingly.  “It was an accident.  No one has been hurt.  It will all be sorted out.”

And it was.  And though I thanked him at the time, and he even gave me his card, I misplaced it and never got to really tell him how much his kind gesture meant to me.  And then, as I was coming out of Game (a Walmart for Zambians) last weekend, I heard “Hey, I know you!” and saw him gesturing at me.  “I remember you,” he said.  “You were in an accident up on Independence Avenue.” And he smiled that very nice smile.  I admit that I got a little teary as I told him that I had thought about him so many times and wanted to thank him for coming to my rescue.  “It was nothing at all,” he responded, as I gave him a huge hug.  He asked if I had gotten it all sorted out finally, and I told him I had and he walked away with a wave and another smile.  “It was nothing,” he said again.

But it was something.  It was kindness;  kindness to a total stranger with nothing expected in return.

And that chance meeting reminded me once again of an incident that I wish I could forget.  A time when I was not kind.  A time when it would have cost me nothing to show kindness and…I didn’t.

It was a few years ago and I had gone into Boston to meet up with some friends and see a show.  I remember that I was tired and a bit cranky after a full day of work and had gone into a local burger place for a bite to eat.  All I wanted was to sit undisturbed for a little while.  I had my food and a cup of coffee and had just sat down when I looked up to see a woman standing right in front of my table.  She had long, unkempt hair and was wearing a nondescript cloth coat and what seemed to be slippers on her feet.  She looked at me and said, “Hello, how are you this afternoon?”  I assumed she was homeless and begging and I was annoyed at being disturbed inside a restaurant when all I wanted to do was be left in peace.  So I said, “I don’t think you’re allowed to beg in here.”  The woman blinked and then said, with some emphasis, “Well, I am not begging.  I am selling.”  It was then that I noticed that she was holding some beaded necklaces in one hand.  Maybe she had made them.  But all I could think about was my desire to just be left in piece, so I responded, quite sharply, “Well, I don’t think you’re allowed to sell in here, either.”

She blinked again, obviously startled and hurt. As she backed away from me she said, “That is so mean…  Why don’t you…you….go and take a nap, you witch.”  And she left the store.

And left me alone.  And left me feeling horribly, horribly ashamed at what I had done.

How much would it have cost me to speak kindly to her?  To answer her timid “How are you?” with a polite “Fine, thanks.”  To look at her necklaces before declining?  Maybe to even buy a necklace, for God’s sake.  To treat her like a human being who needed help, instead of like an intrusion into my oh-so-important life.  To just show some common courtesy. 

I can never take that lack of kindness back.  I can never find that woman and apologize.  I can never make it right.  I think unkindness to a stranger is even worse than being unkind to someone you know.  You know you will see a friend or a relative again; you’ll have a chance to say you’re sorry, to explain how you were having a bad day, to admit you were being an ass.  To ask forgiveness.

But you don’t get a second chance to be kind to a stranger.

Somehow, I think that’s an important thing to remember.





The American Commissary


Because I work at the American International School (which is part of the Embassy) I am entitled to sign up at the commissary.  I could have done this months ago (and I should have!) but this weekend, I finally decided to go and get my paperwork in.  It’s not enough to simply be American to join the commissary. You need to be a card-carrying American School teacher (and a U.S. citizen) or a direct or indirect U.S. government employee.  And they are very strict about it…if you are found buying stuff for non-members, they can kick you out of the super-sekrit club!

Getting to the Commissary is like going on a spy mission.  You have to know where it is.  It’s on a residential street, there is no sign outside the gate and it looks like somebody’s house from the outside!  You almost think you might have to know a password and secret handshake!

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The commissary is a terrific resource for Americans here.  They get four shipments a year of all of your favorite American foods/brands that you can’t get anywhere else.  You can even request certain items, or put in for a full case which gives you a discount.  (For instance, you can buy 6 bags of Starbucks coffee beans and get 10% off the price!) Although I have been pretty satisfied with what I am able to buy at the local shops, it was a real pleasure to see some “stuff” that you just can’t find here! The prices at the commissary are very reasonable and in a few cases items are cheaper than they would be at the local grocery stores.  Of course, other things are more expensive but not outlandishly so.  And it is all “duty-free” – one of the reasons they are so strict about who gets to shop here!

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Never thought I’d be so happy to see Campbell’s soup…or decent paper towels!  (The paper towels here are more like thin toilet paper.)

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And honest-to-god laundry detergent and household cleaners!


They also rent DVDs – TV shows and movies.  $2.50 a day, but if you rent on a Friday, you can keep it all weekend!


They have a great selection of liquors and beers…however, teachers are not allowed to purchase these!  Apparently, these are considered “luxury” items and everyone knows teachers don’t need any luxury!  (I tried to tell the guy who runs the commissary that booze is a necessity for teachers…he laughed, but wasn’t moved.)  So all I was able to do was look with great longing.

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I left with about $70 worth of items…and plans to make a tuna-fish casserole.
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(On the way home, I was waylaid at the stop light and ended up buying 5 beautifully ripe avocados and some grapes the size of golfballs…)


I am glad I finally joined the commissary – my only regret is that now I am likely to spend more money on things I didn’t even realize I was missing!