We’re bumping along a track through scrubby woodland in a because-we-need-it four-by-four.
It’s the end of a dehydrating day spent working in a haze of heat and orange dust.
Digging, sieving, scraping.
Tstetse flies biting through clothing, sweat bees dipping in the corners of our eyes.
At last we reach the sliver of tarmac that runs through Mfuwe, Zambia.
Dilapidated businesses in brick and concrete boxes jumble along the edges of the road, ‘God only knows investments’ offering hope, of a kind, for the future, ‘Connie’s beer nest’ just an escape, for a while.
‘Can we stop at Captain Biggie’s?’ asks a young man, perched among buckets at the back.
‘Why?’ asks weary driver, aka, Archaeo-man.
‘I’ve run out of shower gel.’
Archaeo-man tries – and fails – to suppress a snort of derision.
A bar of pink soap with a scent that no rose knows, maybe.
Eggs, almost certainly.
Loose tea packaged in silver foil, indubitably.
And to go with the tea, a packet of biscuits. Free dead cockroach in the box, if you’re lucky.
But shower gel?
The villages here are clusters of huts, mostly mud-built under thatched roofs. Many just one room.
Under the decaying road bridge, in this dry season, a wide ribbon of sand stretches out where once a powerful river ran. Women and children sit around holes they’ve dug in the sand, gathering water, washing clothes, filling containers to carry back home.
For showers? I don’t think so.
But back to us. And the camp.
We’re having our end of day beer. Talking soap. As you do.
I confess I use it to wash my face.
‘You really shouldn’t,’ says young man.
‘Why not?’ I ask with a smile and a tolerant shrug.
‘It’s not good for your skin.’
I’m caught between modesty and a painful awareness of their youth. To them my skin probably looks like a crinkled paper bag that’s been uncrumpled and stretched around my face.
‘Um, I don’t think it’s done me any harm,’ I venture, ‘lots of people my age have more wrinkles than me – and my skin’s really not too bad.’
‘But you ought to use a special cleanser or something, you know, not soap,’ young woman says, grimacing slightly, as if recommending bikini waxing, from a standpoint of tasteful decorum.
‘Why?’ I’m becoming less tolerant now.
No. It’s no good. I can’t take it. I switch off.
You see they believe, firmly believe – in fact they KNOW – that soap and water’s not just cleansing equipment that’s cheap, lasts a long time and works on ordinary skin – but that it is BAD.
They have faith.
Faith in the healing power of cleansers, toners, exfoliators, moisturisers, serums, masks . . .
So, proclaim it to the world. Wave banners – sound drums – blow trumpets.
Everyone – yes everyone – is worth it.
‘NO!!!’ I want to scream.
‘I am not worth it! You are not worth it. He, she or it is not worth it!’
But it’s a lost cause.
So there we are.
Age gives way to youth. Soap gives way to shower gel – and necessity, to marketing.
Well, at least I’ve had my rant.
Now, where was I?