Much to be thankful for but much to do in the parish of St Kizitu

In the first of a series of articles before the G8 meeting in Birmingham, Paul Vallely reports on Third World debt
THE guest house in the mission station in Lisutu in Zambia's Syavunga province was clean, and had a shower and loo which, it turned out, worked fine. But it was my first trip into the bush after the relative comfort of Lusaka. I stood in the hot little room, which an aid worker had earlier warned me was nicknamed the oven, and looked around.

Everything in this room was infected with killer germs, I decided. Every surface was hostile. I stood paralysed by fastidious inaction for a full minute.

We had arrived there after three hours bumpy travel along pot-holed roads. "These are the good ones," laughed Mulima Kufekisa, who heads a team to monitor the impact on ordinary people of the drain of Zambia's repaying its share of the Third World debt which world leaders are to discuss at the G8 summit this weekend.

"The journey to Casama or Chipata is not that much further but takes nine hours because of the roads. The vehicle has to go into the garage after every trip because so many bits have been shaken off."

"Please keep your car in a roadworthy condition at all times," said the chirpy little propaganda sticker on the back of the road tax disc. It might be easier, I complained, if the government kept the roads in a carworthy condition.

Mulima laughed again. There was no money for that kind of thing, apart from prestige roads in the capital, thanks to the cuts in public spending imposed to pay the interest on the debt.

It was not just my back which suffered. Poor farmers find it difficult to get their produce to market and end up taking whatever is on offer from any middle-man prepared to risk his lorry axle to get to them.

The welcome was warm here in the parish of St Kizitu. Two young church activists with the odd first names typical of the area had met us.

Robson Simweemba and Stembridge Siantobolo greeted us, along with an old man who asked if we had brought any newspapers from which he could make cigarettes.

Sister Gabriella, an Italian nun, once of Vicenza but now a Zambian of 20 years standing, invited us into a large barn, one of the few places with electric light, where a feast of goat's meat with nshima maize porridge awaited.

"This is where we used to store the maize, so it's full of mosquitoes," said the parish priest, Fr Angelo, cheerfully. He then went on to talk about how the malaria locally was resistant to many drugs. "I've had it a few times. We find that a drip of quinine is the only solution."

So what was happening in England one of the local farmers, a dedicated World Service listener, asked me. Was Tony Blair better than John Major? And how had Linda McCartney died?

Everyone had been very sad, I said; she was only young. "How old?" asked Mulima. Just 56, I said. That's old here, came the reply. "Life ends at 40 for one in three Africans. Health care has been cut to pay the debt."

"It's easy for Europeans to forget," said Fr Angelo. "Whenever I go back to Milan on holiday I tell the children never to cease wondering at the miracle of clean water which flows into their homes at the run of a tap. And I tell them: don't waste it."

It was the memory of that - and the glass of clean pure water by the bedside - which brought me back to my senses in my room after dinner. There was too much to be thankful for. Outside a lion roared a mile off. And too much to do.

Tomorrow: on the banks of the Zambezi