Friday, 5 February 2010

Mene Mene Tekels and Parsins

Our first visitor each morning usually calls at around 7 hours. It is Julius, the cheery cook and purchaser from Kandiana, the old folks’ home. He comes with a list of what he wants to buy. Today it is dried fish. Fresh fish is not available at the moment. There is a two-month ban on catching over the breeding season. The dry fish will be simmered and reconstituted in water to make a stew. Onion, tomato and cabbage are needed to make a vegetable relish. A case of cooking oil for frying and a case of sugar, mostly used to sweeten tea and the cold nshima* and sour milk pudding that is regularly eaten are also on the list. Money for firewood was also requested and some money to buy some spare parts for his bicycle. Julius uses his bike to transport the maize, meal and all the other purchases. It is quite a work horse and has seen better days.

The Government allocates K2m per month to feed the residents GBP 285. There are approximately 7000 Kwacha to the Pound at the moment. That works out at 60p per day. The fish costs K100,000 about GBP15 and that does two meals for 16 people. The vegetables cost K70,000 around GBP10 and lasts the same length of time A case of cooking oil 12 x 750ml bottles and 20kg sugar costs around GBP30. That lasts about a month. Firewood costs K30,000 GBP5 for a scotch-cart load (sic). Generally two are needed each month. All cooking is done over an open fire.

The 16 residents, 12 men and 4 women, are looked after well in comparison to other destitute and vulnerable old people who are increasingly being left to ‘the care o the craws’ as HIV and Aids takes its toll on the traditional extended family care structure. The Church of Scotland helps by giving towards the salary of Catherine, a UCZ WCF member, who works as a more than full-time carer. Churches in Scotland and the US also contribute to giving the residents a monthly bag of necessities to top them up and allow them a bit of independence.

After signing for the money for today’s shopping list, Julius and Keith then make sure that the receipts from yesterday’s purchases match the list of requests and the account balances.

Yesterday, 20 ‘sacks’ of maize were bought for K1,100,000 and the Reverend Silishebo asked me to check this out with Julius. It is cheaper and better for the local economy at this time of year to buy maize and mill it at the hospital rather than buying commercially produced mealie-meal to make the staple - thick maize porridge called nshima* in Zambian English and buhobe in Silozi.

We entered the store-room and there was a chaotically untidy stack of bags of assorted sizes and colours, holding the purchased maize. I counted the ‘new’ bags and my heart sank as I counted only 13 ‘sacks’. There were two extremely long ones which would hold about 90kg each I guessed.

So before I tried again, I asked Julius if he knew what the total weight was? No, he replied, they used a bucket to measure, and he pointed to the old-fashioned galvanized ‘Oor Wullie’ bucket standing in the corner. This is the standard measure for maize in rural Zambia. These buckets are ubiquitous, most households still use one to lug water around in, so the bucket makes more sense to people here than stones, kilos or bushels. It is only Government officials and over-specific Westerners who bother about the exact mass of anything. Very few people have scales, Weights and Measures staff who check calibration are few and only found in the urban areas. Various sized containers are used to measure different things for sale. For example, tins are often used to sell beans and kapenta * like dried whitebait, tomatoes are bought by the crate and dried fish by the negotiable bundle! So there are conventional and socially-agreed standard measures and prices for most commodities on sale at the markets, but don’t expect scales or many pre-packed and priced goods from the stalls.

Some quick mental Arithmetic was required. There were 8 sacks holding 4 ½ buckets, 2 sacks holding 10 buckets each and 2 sacks of 3 buckets plus the sack of 3 buckets he had milled earlier this morning. This gave a total of 62 buckets. I then used long division - no calculator was available - to calculate the cost of a bucket. This is one of the few times I’ve needed to use this practically, after all the blood, sweat and tears spilled in Primary 6 & 7! The multiplying and dividing brought me back to all those Wheaton’s Arithmetic’s Social and Commercial Problems we ploughed through!

Anyway, it worked out that we paid almost K17,750 per bucket. We got discount apparently for a bulk order as the going rate at Mwandi Market is K20,000 per bucket.

And no, I still don’t know the weight of a bucket of maize because I don’t really need to know. A bucket of maize weighs a bucket of maize!

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