STORY: A Bartender Named Lovemore
"Welcome to the David Livingstone Hotel, sir. May I offer you a drink?"
I looked over to see a wide smile spread across the face of a man standing behind the lacquered wood top of a circular bar. Like many bartenders the world over, he seemed to be occupying his time by absentmindedly cleaning glasses and scanning the room for opportunities to strike up a conversation. I had wandered into his web out a sheer boredom - the river boat I was going to board made its home at the David Livingstone and I had made the unfortunate mistake of arriving almost an hour early in a country I would soon learn didn't take promptness quite as seriously as I did. As a staunch non-drinker, I had wandered the hotel grounds popping my head into various tour offices, intricate wooden lobbies with vaulted thatched roofs, and fancy bathrooms (you know it's nice when they have a stack of real cloth towels, right?) before deciding that the bar was the only corner I'd left unexplored.
"Hello. I'm sorry, but I don't drink."
The words felt treasonous in my mouth. What more awful words can one utter to a bartender?
"Ah. Everyone drinks, sir. But whether we prefer alcohol in those drinks is another matter entirely!"
Another wide smile. Like so many Zambians I met during my trip, he easily found his stride in that tricky middle ground between helping you and teasing you. It's a service style that sits well with me - there's nothing I love more than someone who can make you laugh while keeping you on your toes.
He picked up a small menu from the bar top and offered it to me with a wink.
"Our menu, sir. If you turn to the back you can find quite a few beverages that offer satisfaction but no sin."
Who can resist a sales pitch like that? As I reached over and took the menu from him, my eyes were drawn to the little silver name tag that was attached to the breast of this blue sweater.
It read Lovemore.
In my head I thought, "Wow, what an interesting name." I felt the urge to ask him about it but decided I should focus on picking one of the aforementioned drinks and perhaps make an inquiry if he continued to be so friendly. I settled on the orange and vanilla milkshake, which prompted Lovemore to congratulated me on selected a real winner. He stepped away, still with his ever present smile, to prepare my drink. Other than what appeared to be a young French couple at a table off in a corner, I was the only customer in Lovemore's realm.
Soon enough he saddled back up to the bar and delicately placed a rather elaborate tall glass in front of me, complete with paper umbrella and speared cubes of fresh fruit.
"Do you mind if I ask you a personal question?" I offered.
Another smile. "Well I suppose that depends on what you wish to ask, sir."
A smile in return. "Your name. It's very unique. I was just curious about it."
Up to this point he had been casually propped up against the bar with his elbow on the counter, leaning in to our conversation. When the words left my mouth he straightened his back and stepped back from the counter. I grew a bit worried that I had offended him. The wide smile quickly returned to his face though and I breathed a sigh of relief.
"This is a very good question! Many people think it is a nickname or a name I have chosen for myself, but this is not true." he began. "This is the name my mother and father selected for me. I do not know how much you know about our history sir, but it has not always been so nice."
Here he paused, lowered his voice, and glanced over his shoulders. I leaned in a bit closer.
"Even now things are not as good as they should be. Many people will tell you how far we have come, but I think we have longer to walk." he said in a hush toned, clearly afraid to be overheard speaking so frankly with a guest.
"My parents grew up in a time with turmoil and violence. White against black. Tribe against tribe. Rich against poor. So much hate. This is still the case today, though maybe not as obvious on the surface, yes? Still, my parents wanted me to avoid the mistakes of the past. So they chose for me the name Lovemore. My mother has said to me that they wanted me to be reminded that when someone comes to you with hate, when someone comes to you with violence - you always love more."
His hands worked a towel over the smooth service of a glass he had washed, gently caressing its surface with quick, precise strokes.
I retreated into my head for a moment. Something had been bothering me ever since I set foot in Zambia and I had not taken the time to fully processed how I felt about it. Any one who hasn't spent their life living under a rock knows of the massive impact colonialism has left on Africa, and Zambia is no exception. Called Northern Rhodesia during colonial times, it was first seized by Portuguese hands but spent most of its time under the colonial heel of the British. In 1964 the chains of colonialism were cast off and the country renamed itself as we currently know it. The path of self-government wasn't without its difficulties, but they, like many newly independent African nations at the time, surged forward with hope and optimism.
But just like recent events across the United States and even as far away as Tel Aviv have reminded us, you cannot solve the follies of man that have crept into our global way of life with a single action in a short span of time. The British handing back control of the country to Zambians didn't appear to have drastically changed many of the social norms, power structures, and economic inequalities that have lingered over the centuries. From the moment I arrived in Zambia I was struck by the feeling that colonialism didn't seem as far in the past as it should feel. Many of the hotels and businesses appeared to be owned by the descendants of European colonists and the hands doing the bulk of the services provided by those businesses were the descendants of native Zambians.
I couldn't help but ask myself whether things had really changed in the grand scheme of things. The few days I'd spent in Zambia prior to sharing a milkshake with Lovemore, I would occasionally run across an element of tension in the air. Not the oppressive, fear-inducing type of palpable tension that crackles in the air before violence breaks out - this was more of a simmering undercurrent of anger and mistrust.
Many white Zambians told me that their parents or they themselves had fled racial violence following the end of colonial power structures in neighboring countries such as Zimbabwe or South Africa. I was often told that black Africans in neighboring states could not be trusted to run their own affairs, though they'd follow up with a note that Zambians weren't like Zimbabeweans or Rwandans. This reminded me of refrains I've heard from racists/homophobes/zealots the world over - "I don't like people that are XXX, but the ones I know personally are fine." A delusional phrase that epitomizes that awkward moment when your nurtured need to hate a group of people collides with the personal experience you have that demonstrates your belief system is wrong.
While I bristled at quite a few comments and experienced some moments with folks that turned a bit heated and awkward when I expressed my disagreement with their worldview, I also felt a slight tinge of sadness. They were clearly a bit lost in their own skin. Many have had their world's turned upside down or were raised by those who experienced the same and hadn't really found a footing in this new world. The loss of power can be a terrifying experience and those who do not come equipped with the proper mindset can bloat and fester in the sun. It's not a pretty sight.
Of course my conversations during my stay were not limited to only white Zambians. Many black Zambians I spoke with expressed similar feelings of being lost in their own world. Some folks spoke of their frustration that despite the label of colonialism being removed, it still felt like they were working day in and day out for someone other than themselves. Others, like Lovemore, simply vaguely referenced how happy they were that I had come to Zambia and that they were proud of their country but felt like it was still struggling to find its place in the world. Those comments often moved into related discussion of Zambia's past, its struggle, and how its people are dealing with the legacies of history. One woman even went so far as to say that she believed things would only be fixed when the white Zambians accepted that they were unwelcomed and were driven out of the country back to Europe. Her own personal version of separate but equal.
The modern world has conditioned us to expect things immediately - fast food, fast internet, fast cars. Beyond that, human nature is wired toward impatience. iPhones and Netflix might have moved us further along the road of foot-tapping, but don't fool yourself for a second into thinking we aren't naturally inclined to impatience to begin with.
What a wonderful twist of fate that inevitably change is a slow process and we as people constantly struggle with the pace at which it rolls into our lives, right?
The tensions I occasionally felt in Zambia were likely linked to this inability for people to deal with the pace of change. White Zambians still stumbling for a foot hold in a world that no longer resembles what they have known their whole lives. Black Zambians struggling with dreams of a world that is still in the process of being birthed, one that really should have been reality from the get-go.
With this in mind, how wise of Lovemore's parents to select such a name and gift to him the explanation of what they wanted him to carry with him in life. If change were immediate and our ability to adapt to it so easy, Zambia would likely look like a very different place than I experienced. But life isn't that way. One of the greatest tools we have at our disposal to combat our frustration at the injustice and instability in the world (and to fuel the change needed to combat it) is to choose to love more.
Love your neighbor more. Love your employer more. Love your hater more. Love yourself more. These are the choices we as people can make in life that can soothe our burns and continue the lengthy process of dousing the offending fires in time.
And make no mistake - love can be a choice and it's a choice we should make at every opportunity.
"That's really a great story."
My delayed reply to his story felt insignificant compared to the inner dialogue it had sparked within me.
"Is it alright if I take your picture? I write a blog, and I talk about my travels and post photos."
"Yes, of course. Just leave me a nice tip!" he said with a laugh.
I laughed along with him before snapping a quick photo and continuing the conversation.
"Have you been successful? Loving more?"
It's one thing to be given the name, but it's another to live up to it.
"I try the best that I can."
And again with that wonderful, wide smile. And in the end, isn't that the most any of us can do? Try the best that we can? We're humans - far from perfect. All of us will either consciously or unconsciously participant in an activity or system that hurts someone unjustly. The world is not a fair and just place, but many of it's people still are. Or try their best to be. And the more you choose to love, the more people will gravitate toward making better choices in life. At least that's my world view.
A few more people walked into the bar and Lovemore politely excused himself to tend to their beverage needs. I slowly sipped my milkshake and thought about Zambia. It really was a beautiful, wonderful place. It has its demons, just like any country, but that shouldn't detract anyone from coming for a visit and experiencing the hospitality and history.
My experience in Zambia is singular - it may reflect what others felt while there or be wildly different. I'm not here to tell you what the truth of Zambian life is - that's for you as a visitor or Zambians as residents to experience and own. I should also emphasize that the tension I felt wasn't all encompassing. It only reared on occasion and had I chosen to ignore it, I could have done so quite easily. But issues regarding race and social justice are something I personally cannot ignore, so I knew full well before arriving in Africa that I'd be looking for insight into these topics.
Lovemore was still hard at work mixing drinks for the sudden surge of customers. On the shore of the Zambezi a few feet away the notes of a marimba floating into my ear letting me know that boarding for my river boat had started. I pulled a handful of kwacha out of my wallet and left them on the bar top for Lovemore and headed to the shore.
I wasn't able to say goodbye to him, which is something I regret. He has no idea that I still on occasion think about his name and his story when I'm faced with difficult situations in life. But that's one of the most amazing things about travel - the number of heart and mind-opening experiences you carry with you for the rest of your life.
When it comes to my memories of Zambia, I'll walk away with many but two thoughts distinctly stand out:
Victoria Falls is stunningly beautiful.
Speaking with Lovemore will stay with me for the rest of my life.
While both will walk with me for the rest of my life, I know in the long run which one of those two is more valuable. Always pick enlightenment over beauty.
So buy a ticket, put on your heels, go experience the world, meet new people. And remember - always love more.