On the way back from the Zambezi river crossing, the driver told me of his life's ambitions: he wanted to be middle class, to give his children a good start in life, and to have an asbestos roof.
In this country, he told me, there are two types of roofs: metal and asbestos. Asbestos is much better because it doesn't get hot in summer, and it's quiet - it doesn't rattle when the rain falls on it. Asbestos is also more expensive than metal, and that means it's higher status.
I thought "should I tell him that asbestos is deadly and causes cancer?" I thought of my friend's father, who is dying a slow and painful death, caused by exposure to asbestos. But said nothing.
Life expectancy in Zambia has just climbed from 37 to 43. The typical person can expect to die of Aids or tuberculosis long before they come down with mesothelioma, asbestosis or asbestos related lung cancer. Drilling holes in the roof to install wiring, or cutting a sheet of asbestos to size will expose people to deadly asbestos fibres. But an undisturbed, intact asbestos roof is a minuscule health hazard.
Don't get me wrong. Canada made the right decision in stopping its opposition to the international listing of asbestos as a hazardous material, because there is no denying that is is hazardous. I'm glad that Quebec's last asbestos mine has closed - it's not worth trading miners' lives for export revenue. I find it worrying that my driver (a sample of one admittedly) seemed to be totally unaware that there is any kind of health risk associated with asbestos.
It's strange to sit under a roof made of exposed asbestos, drink a cup of coffee, and act as this was a totally normal everyday occurrence. I find myself mentally doing the cost-benefit calculus: on this burning hot day is the increased probability of morbidity times the cost of morbidity outweighed by the advantages of a cool and quiet roof? What would it take to develop and promote a better technology, like roofs with solar panels to convert the heat of the sun into electricity and hot water?