Dawn lifted the mist off the Zambezi, vapour rising off the fast current like a pot about to boil. Squadrons of reed cormorants glided by in tight formation, a large hadida ibis, with his emerald green sheen and ruby beak, hark-harked for a mate as he plonked on a hanging branch, a pied kingfisher shot from the reeds. The northern waters tumbled east to the rising sun in their relentless journey to the falls.
After breakfast we headed over to the village, a short canoe ride across the channel on the northern side of the island. Godfrey showed us through the village, a scattering of huts over a dozen or so acres, housing 136 people at last count.
The village, with no electricity and water carted by bucket from the river, was authentically traditional. I had promised Brett and Godfrey that Sam and I would take my laptop over with us and give a lesson on the basics of word processing skills to the teachers in the primary school.
At the school, the kids were being taught outside in the sun, under a Zambian flag on a pole. The lessons were in Tonga and they spoke little English; that only came if their families could afford to send them to high school in Livingstone.
What the children lacked in English they made up for in enthusiasm. Fascinated by seeing themselves on the monitor on the movie camera, they tumbled over each other and Sam and me to get into frame, yelling, screaming and laughing as they did so.
As the children broke for lunch the three teachers, Maureen, Marita and Alice, sat in a classroom with Sam and me. I showed them the basics of a keyboard, a mouse and cutting and pasting. Sam gave them a display of what could be done with word processing when you are very fast. They very much appreciated the lesson, but I wondered how many years it might be before a school like this would get a computer.
After the lesson we waved goodbye to the throng of jumping children and made our way back to the village. Cruising up the track behind us was Godfrey’s sister, Manga (the one with autism), and a friend. This was going to be interesting.
Manga was certainly wary of us and aloof, but shook Sam’s hand and said hello before walking on ahead of us to her hut, next to Godfrey’s.
‘So what does she do?’
‘She fishes and sells oil. She is very good at fishing.’
Manga, just ahead of us, heard him and half- smiled. As she moved further away, Godfrey explained that she was very skilled at catching fish using a simple wooden pole, a piece of string and a worm on the end. She would sell the fish to people in the village, but only particular people on particular days. No one knew why it was only those people on that day, but she never relaxed her self-imposed rules.
She would also buy a large quantity of oil from a wholesaler before dividing it up and selling it to the villagers in small bottles. Once again, only certain people on certain days. Retail with rules, if you like, and she never made a mistake with the money. She lived alone, with only a small amount of support from her family, and had good speech skills that she would only use when she felt like it.
‘Do you think she is content with her life?’
Godfrey stopped walking and turned to me. ‘Yes. I do.’
It was fascinating to see how an autistic woman, probably one who would be classed as high- functioning in a developed world environment, coped in a village in Zambia, and also how the village coped with and reacted to her. After a while Godfrey started talking again.
‘You know, every now and then, say every few months, she just takes off. Just walks. She can walk all the way to Livingstone.’
‘Yes, sometimes she turns up at the police station there, asking for a lift back.’
‘Why do you think she does it?’
‘It tends to happen when she is stressed. Maybe it is a release.’
We reached the community centre, a small open walled hut where a local woman cooked over a makeshift fire to the side of the hut. A friend held her one year old baby for her, while she chatted while she cooked. Skinny dogs slept on the dusty roads, chickens tracked by their chicks scratched under the thickets and thorn bushes nearby. Rectangular mud huts, some with doors and windows, some not, but all with thatched roofs stood here and there. African music floated over the village from speakers somewhere distant.
Sam was wary of the food. Our cook prepared okra, eggplant and tomato, and ground peanut with rape, all to go with the cornmeal Pup. It looked and smelt good to me, but even though Sam might have managed some of this in a more familiar environment, I knew it wasn’t going to happen today, so I didn’t push.
Godfrey chatted to the women in Tonga. I heard Sam’s name mentioned and ‘computers’ and ‘teachers.’ He noticed I had noticed. He explained to me in English that he’d been telling the ladies about how Sam, even though he was like Manga, had still taught the teachers some computer skills.
There was an unmistakable sense of defiance and pride in his voice.