I’m driving from Cape Town, South Africa to Livingstone, Zambia in a Sprinter van with close to twenty other people. I work for Greenpop, a tree-planting and green-living organisation from the Mother City and the people in this vehicle make up most of the crew that will run the Zambia Festival of Action, our biggest annual event.
It’s day one, and the dusty expanse of the Karoo seems endless. The only real sign that we’re making any headway through the desert are the undulating mountain ranges way off in the distance on either side of the road.
It’s well into mid-morning when Wilson, the team driver, pulls the van over and we all pour out onto the roadside to stretch our legs. Never ending strings of barbed wire run along the road. I walk up to the fence line and stand facing the flat lands. The distance blurs into a wash of grey, but the low-lying scrub and rock around my feet are all detail. There’s a flattened old can nearby. Its branding has been stripped off by rust. There’s broken glass glittering amongst the pebbles and old plastic bags caught in the thorn bushes.
Those driving through the desert might not remember much of it, but the Karoo never forgets them.
After a night at a backpackers’ in Benoni, we leave Johannesburg. We’re bound for Francistown, Botswana. The Karoo desert has faded into the flat grasslands of Gauteng, and the closer we get to the border of Botswana, the more the plains morph into woodlands.
I sit and watch it all slip by. The land is changing all around us, but the fluttering plastic bags, drainage ditches full of plastic bottles, and chip packets shining in the sun are a constant.
On day three, the sun is already low in the sky when we get to the border crossing at Kazangula.
Wilson drives the Sprinter onto a tiny ferry that chugs across the Zambezi River and carries us to Zambia. The crew leans on the yellow railing of the floating rig and watches the deep green waters lick its sides. I search for crocs, but if I were one, the throbbing engines of the ferries would have put me off long ago.
It takes some time to get clearance for our vehicles once we’re on the other side, so the Greenpop team perches along a wall and chats idly in the afternoon light. I leave the crew for a while and walk to the water’s edge. Halfway across the river there’s a ferry carrying a juggernaut. The bank is thick with reeds and men in a dug out canoe launch off into the Zambezi. Right close by there’s a man washing his clothes in the shallows. The water has rainbows of engine oil on the surface and flotillas of plastic bottles and wrappers have gathered in the reeds.
I get to thinking about the thousands of kilometres we’ve driven over the last three days and how every single one was strewn with litter. The scale of our waste problem is overwhelming.
The only thing stopping me from lapsing into a dark mood is Candice. She’s our official zero-waste warrior for the Zambia Festival of Action and will be in charge of waste-management on site. The minute we got into the Sprinter two days ago she briefed us on what to do with the non-recyclable waste we found ourselves producing on the ride up to Livingstone.
“Eco-brick it. Get an empty plastic bottle and stuff it full of chip packets, plastic bags, and all the other awkward little things you don’t know how to sort.”
We’ve been filling an old Coke and Energade bottle since Cape Town. Every now and then we pass one around and push our snack wrappers in.
“When it starts to get full, you can use a stick or a knitting needle to pack it in tighter,” says Candice hunting for something to use. “Here, feel it. See how it’s starting to get heavy?”
I squeeze the eco-brick and weigh it in my hand. It’s stiff and strong now. I can see how it could be used as a building material. “All the plastic acts as insulation,” adds Candice.
Greenpop’s camp, which we dub the Green Village, is on the outskirts of Livingstone, along a dirt road that runs through the makeshift market stalls of Ngwenya. Every time we drive through the township, there’s a soccer match playing on a flat screen TV in a corrugated iron shack, loud music blasting out of distorted old speakers and men chatting on their cellphones as they ride old Humber bicycles along the road. I always keep an eye out for the fresh cow skulls from the butchery that sit on the waste heap in the middle of the market.
We have a few days of set up before three waves of volunteers arrive for the Festival of Action. There are strings of bunting to put up and endless signs to paint. We do them all by hand. Marti, our muralist, and a team of sure-handed helpers spread out over the grass to carefully letter our signage. Under Candice’s guidance we create a pledge for volunteers to take on arrival at the Green Village, which they seal with a thumbprint. The pledge is not only a promise to be aware that materials have a life before and after we own and use them, it’s also a choice to care about what happens next. A choice to see waste as a resource.
Over the course of the next three weeks, the Green Village shrinks and expands with every new wave of volunteers. Together, our guests, the Greenpop crew from Cape Town, and its local Zambian team wake up at sunrise, have early morning dance-offs, run the camp as an eco-friendly collective and share three vegetarian and vegan meals a day. We head out into Livingstone to learn about deforestation in Zambia, plant trees at schools and farming cooperatives as part of our urban-greening project, develop food forests and eco-building projects, and come back to camp to recharge and have fun.
Part of my job is to capture the stories of the people that come from all over the world to join us, and week in, week out I see how people come in guarded, safe behind cynicism, apprehensive that they may have stumbled upon a group of happy-clapper environmentalists, and I see them leave earnest, genuine, and revealed. I also see each member of the Greenpop team give everything they have. Each one of us is a little piece in the puzzle of this heart-felt project.
I like knowing that Greenpop’s mission to “(re)connect people with our planet and each other”, is more than just a tag-line. Watching people from different economic, racial, cultural and linguistic backgrounds come together and connect with each other, all in the name of the environment fills me with pleasant certainty – pleasant, because I rarely feel certain about anything.
At the end of the third week, most of the Greenpop team takes the Saturday off to go white water rafting down the Zambezi River. Our plan is to collect any litter we find on the riverbanks as we go. We drive out in an overlander to the top of the Zambezi gorge where Captain Potato and Captain Stanley kit us out and make the danger of what we’re about to do abundantly clear before handing around indemnity forms.
The hike down the gorge is steep. We divide into teams, climb into our rafts and in the safety of a calm inlet, we practice rowing as a team, falling in, and grabbing a hold of the life jackets of the people overboard to dunk-lift them out of the cold water.
Captain Stanley has been taking people down the river for sixteen years. He has almost died enough times to take most things lightly – but not white water. His voice becomes urgent and clear as soon as we hear its roar. He barks orders to the people on the right and the left flank to row and sets a quick rhythm, “One-two-one-two-one-two.”
Our arms and chests pull the boat through the powerful draw of the Zambezi. The flat dark waters churn into froth over hidden rocks. We crouch and cling onto the ropes that run along the edge of the raft. It dips nose first into the curl of a steep wave that rises up and we lose the horizon for an instant before cresting the top and thrashing through the white water that bumps and bounces us on the rubber.
On the calm stretches Stanley tells us stories of seeing elephants – and men – go over the Victoria Falls. He reads the river like a book, but spares us the details about its hidden pitfalls. The only clue is the change of tone in his voice when he announces each new rapid by its name: Commercial Suicide. The Coliseum…
Several rapids down the river we get sucked in and spat upwards by a wave so enormous that the whole team is lost to the water.
I’m in the dark. My lifejacket is still on, and I’m under the upside down boat. There’s a pocket of air and I gasp once, but then the white water turns the air to froth and I’m submerged again. The raft is too heavy to push off and I feel my lungs growing tight. It’s been too long now and a bolt of urgency gives me the strength I didn’t have before. I push the lip of the raft up and off. When I come up there are bobbing helmets everywhere. We’re completely scattered and I see Captain Stanley’s face. He’s got blood running down his chin. His lip is split and there’s a wild look in his eyes as he clambers onto the upside down raft and uses the ropes and his phenomenal might to get it the right way up. It’s a look that says there are things ahead that we all need to be in the raft for. I fight against the rapids and surrender to Stanley’s hands as he submerges me and hoists me into the raft. Then begins the hasty battle of getting everyone back on board. We silently acknowledge that we won’t be stopping to pick up any litter on the way down.
Downstream, the calm river splits into Y shapes around slices of sheer rock. Hundreds of baobabs grow on the steep cliffs on either side. There is a hot smell of dry grasses and granite rock, and it makes me think of eagles soaring over the gorge.
The anxiety many of us feel about the environment can be crippling, and Greenpop’s goal is to move people out of anxiety and into a space of action. In the office we often talk about how our sense of awe and wonder for Nature is a powerful catalyst for action.
In this deep gorge, fully aware that I’m at the mercy of this river, I feel that awe and wonder. I feel connected.
We walk in single file to the top of the gorge. Our wet lifejackets hang from the ends of our paddles like the little polka-dotted handkerchiefs storybook characters always tie to the ends of sticks to carry their belongings when they run away from home.
We’re far from the launch site. Far from anywhere really. The overlander is at the top of the gorge to take us back to the start. The rafting company hands out water bottles to the boatloads of rafters that have gathered at the top, but the members of the Greenpop team politely decline. We’ve brought a jerry can of tap water.
I sit next to my colleague Matt on the way back. We rock in our seats over the rutted dirt road and swap anecdotes from the day’s adventure. The long drive carries us through a few sparse wattle and daub villages. Over the past month, being in the overlander is one of the few things that’s made me feel awkward about our presence in Zambia. I just know how we must seem. Predominantly white do-gooders come from afar, perched in what could very well be an armoured vehicle. It feels even more awkward today, because we’re in it as tourists, and we won’t be climbing out and meeting all of the little faces that peak out from the dark doorways of huts.
We drive through a slightly larger settlement and suddenly the vehicle is flanked on all sides by running children. They’re yelling and waving, and frenzied. Their faces call up to ours, eyes darting to the dusty roadside in front of them from time to time to skip over thorn bushes and skinny dogs. In my awkwardness I don’t know how to react, but they persist and the numbers of children grow bigger.
It dawns on us that they’re all chanting the same thing. “Kabolu! Kabolu! Kabolu!”
“It means bottle,” says Stanley. “They want the bottles,” he says holding up one of the plastic water bottles they were handing out earlier.
“They want water?” I ask.
“No, the bottle. Their families reuse them for bottling their home brews.”
There’s a sense of competition now. Who has the stamina to keep up with the vehicle? A naked boy standing in a tin bathtub on the roadside grips his genitals as we drive past. He’s paralyzed by his nakedness and seems to be the only child in the village unable to join in. A shared look with Matt is enough to communicate that we’re both aware of how loaded this scene is. We’re just another truckload of foreigners, floating through the lives of these children with things we don’t want, but that they need. There is so much power at play. There is so much having and not-having. And at the same time these children want to do exactly what we’ve been encouraging our middleclass festival-goers to do. Reuse. Repurpose. Upcycle. This is the perfect example of seeing trash as a resource.
Matt hesitates, then grabs a bottle and tosses it far from the vehicle to keep the children away from the tires. We share another look, but all he can muster out loud is, “This feels weird,” and he throws another bottle out for the children to catch.