Joan is a childhood friend. She’s the only childhood friend I’ve ever been able to find after all these years. When you’re from Zambia when it was colonial Northern Rhodesia and everyone you ever knew has disappeared, you go a little nuts when you find someone from ye old school days: St. John’s Convent School and Kitwe High. Here’s the two of us in front of one of the single-quarters units up near the Mine Club. We must’ve been around fifteen or so. Check out my skirt.Where I found Joan was on “The Great North Road,” an online forum created in 1996. Here’s the lead-in: “In the heart of central Africa, a frontier spirit engendered a hardy breed. We shared a very special time and place. Through this medium we’ve been able to reconnect again and to share our memories of the remarkable Northern Rhodesian experience. “The diaspora of Northern Rhodesians has scattered our small stock far and wide across the planet—from South Africa to Iceland, Hong Kong to Zimbabwe, North America to Australia, the British Isles to New Zealand . . . Northern Rhodesians Worldwide.”
Kinda cool, huh? Along with “Remember When” lists—remember when you could get a Fanta grape and two Wicks bubble gum all for sixpence?” there were black and white photographs of skinny, wild-eyed boys perched on those rocks in the Kafue river with a question mark above the middle, bat-eared one, anyone remember his name?
Funny thing, I’m not big on nostalgia and I couldn’t wait to emigrate to America, but finding Joan jacked me up enough to tell anyone who’d listen I’d rediscovered a childhood friend. So? But you don’t understand . . . So sweet after all this time. All the reasons why I wanted so badly to get out of Africa and all the shitty decisions I’ve made in my life dulled by time. Instead, all the good stuff came rushing back: the wildass chances we took, hitchhiking to Luanshya in the middle of the night down a bush road after sneaking out of my bedroom window; whizzing down the “foofie” slide at Rhodwins Resort—a thick metal cable the boys had strung across the crocodile-infested Kafue river—hanging onto a metal cylinder the size of a toilet paper roll; the snogging in the back of the Astra and Rhokana Cinemas with some “talent” from Chingola or Luanshya or Mufulira; the white sweaters worn back to front over waists cinched to 18 inches. We thought we were so hot.
What I mostly remember about Joan was that she and both her sisters looked like different versions of Ava Gardner, all olive skinned and sloe-eyed. She was not athletic, though she tried, just couldn’t see the ball coming, some spatial thing, I later learned. I was into everything our little bush town offered: ballet, swimming, softball, hockey and basketball, but still we hung together. She was a no-nonsense type, not one to chase the boys, never wanted to get married. I, on the other hand . . . She was my bridesmaid at my too-young wedding.
Skype, you know, the online phonecam deal revealed she’s still gorgeous and still loving her “Harry Champers,” (champagne). Oh, and she’s been married twice. Hah! When she saw my shoulder-length hair, she said, Oh, you California girls. Too funny. She lives in a place called The Cobbles, Morland, in the Lake District of England. Carrying her laptop, screen facing out with its built-in camera, she took a walk down the lane in front of her house. With the sound of a gurgling brook as an accompaniment, “we” headed to the local pub where she called out to a man standing in front, George, say hello to my friend. He obliged. I yelled back my hello.
I’m off to see her in April, next year. We’re going up to spend some time in Scotland, land of my dad’s folks. She remembered, told me how much my parents had meant to her after she lost hers in a head-on collision on the road between Mufulira and Nkana when she was twenty. To make it worse, she was the first one on the scene after the crash. More on Joan and my life pre-America after my visit.