We often fail to recognize a simple truth about modern city life – we are people of the road. We live off some road, we walk alongside the road, drive on a road, we buy our food at a shop next to the road. How would we connect without a road? Can we even begin to imagine life without a road? Roads are the arteries of the city, pumping life into every alley and cul-de-sac its long spindly arms reach.
The irony is that we only seem to notice roads when they fail us – when they have potholes, are full of traffic or there is some cop up ahead checking licenses. Infrastructure as a whole operates in the same manner – we only notice electricity when there’s a blackout and we only care about water when the pipes are dry. This does not demean infrastructure, relegating it to the realm of the ‘forgotten.’ In fact it speaks to its permanence and unquestionability; it is the supreme deity of the everyday.
What then of the roadside? Like in many African cities, the roadside in Lusaka is a place of constant activity. Not in the formal European manner, with sidewalks and zebra crossings as an area of pedestrian-only activity. No, in Lusaka we seem to live on the verge – next to the road is a bustling mix of pedestrians, the ever-ready newspaper and talk-time salesmen, cyclists, katembas, parked and broken-down cars and often enough a lion (perhaps the last one is an exaggeration, but what would an African city be for our Northern brethren without deadly predators roaming around?)
Practically, the roadside in Lusaka is usually a patch of earth at least a couple of meters wide – the tar road meeting it awkwardly at jagged steps. For those who live on a dirt road, the roadside is one with the road. If you were to look close enough, you’d notice the thousands of shoeprints on the dust, amongst them the occasional bicycle tire mark. If I followed every mark, where would I go? This roadside is an archive of memories, conversations and thoughts – how can I attempt to know it all? I soon notice I am that I am looking a bit too closely at these footprints, my magnifying glass in hand. I take a step back and look at the bigger picture – instead of looking at every footstep why not look at them all? Put in another way, what are they telling us altogether, as a whole?
I believe photography goes some way in answering these questions. Because we can only capture a single moment at a time, a frame of a second, we cannot expect to see and know everything. Instead we must wait for that jagged split-moment that captures the essence of what we understand, and more importantly at what understanding is being thrown right in our face. Many such essences and themes stare at us from across the street, like some deranged stranger. We see bicycles – what can the rusted frame, the worn handle bars and the tire punctured only-God-knows-how-many-times-before tell us? What can the two-step of a couple of schoolgirls tell us?
A part of the story is about objects and society – the bicycle and school are just two examples of everyday things that regulate everyday life. For many the bicycle tells the tale of how thousands get to work every day; for children the school represents their transitional, yet functional purpose in life. But there is another part of the story here – one of coping. Life is not easy for most Zambians, and by reading this you are probably better off than most. However, by the roadside I do not see depravity, rather I see acts of hopefulness. Issues of poverty, amongst other social ills, shall be there for a long time coming, but I think it is necessary to focus on the mechanisms and norms of coping in order to truly find the essence of what it means to live in Lusaka.
I hope this goes some way in sketching out the importance of the roadside in our imagination, in our thoughts and in our actions. I hope our pictures make sense, too.