DAY 24. THURSDAY MARCH 13th 2014. LIVINGSTONE, ZAMBIA.
Zambia, a country I much admired in my 2002 trip, and my destination this year, although my growing love of Zimbabwe is so strong that Zambia has quite a contest ahead for my favours. Zambia must be one of the gentlest countries on this continent: a place where people are polite, calm, friendly and peaceful. But they are a little more reserved than the warm Zimbabweans. I am often asked in which country, of the almost 100 I have travelled in, I would be able to live? Unreservedly, I would say Zimbabwe. I enjoyed such good conversation there. Crazy politics notwithstanding, many people were even remarkably candid about that, shrugging their shoulders and waving a palm skywards, saying, “All our troubles come from the top…” Zimbabweans understand better than any international media pundit what they need for success; they just don’t have the power to achieve it in the stranglehold politics that afflict their country. Zimbabwe is just a lovely, cultured, educated African country, a comfortable mix of modern and traditional with all the warmth of Africa. Yes, instinctively a place I could possibly live, perhaps the only country about which I would say that. Within driving distance of Lesotho and Zambia too!
Crossing borders is one of the more tedious things of travelling the world, especially since that Thatcher woman surreptitiously introduced visa fees for the whole Commonwealth (at the same time she took away much-needed subsidies on Commonwealth students studying in UK and gave those subsidies to people like the Germans, who obviously needed them more…). In retaliation every country imposed visa fees on British passport holders. Well do I remember from my early travels how we laughed at the American travellers, having to apply for visas everywhere they went, while we with our old stiff blue passports replete with all the ‘let and hinderance’ pomp, waltzed through borders and could stay as long as we liked. But the world has changed now: formalities are long and boring. Although, I have to say that exiting Zimbabwe and entering Zambia were achieved relatively effortlessly, just all the paperwork that had to be filled in took time: US$50 for a visa; US$10 for ‘carbon tax and road duty’; US$35 for insurance. All the details of these had to be entered into computers by slow fingers, but the officials were polite and honest.
I’m only a couple miles from my sleeping place of the last two nights. The border here between Zimbabwe and Zambia is the Zambezi River, half way across the Victoria Falls Bridge, a great iron span opened in 1905 across the deep, spray-filled gorge. The border formalities take place a few hundred yards from either end of the old wet bridge with its single file traffic and the big articulated trucks let across one by one. The railway takes up the other part of the bridge, carrying trains that actually go from South Africa to Dar es Salaam, I believe.
Two thirds of the Falls are in Zimbabwe, the other third in Zambia. I decided that waterfalls two days running was extravagant and with my shoes still drying (smelly from being enclosed in a warm plastic bag in a black pannier in the tropical sun!) as best they can, it would make sense to purchase a pair of cheap flip-flops for tomorrow’s dousing. So I will stay two days and ‘do’ the Falls tomorrow. It was lunchtime by the time I had completed all the formalities and reached Livingstone anyway and there were practical things to do like getting local currency, finding a place to sleep and orienting myself in a new county. It’s a pleasant town, more developed than Victoria Falls, an administrative and economic centre as well as a tourist town. It is quiet and disciplined and I have walked the streets with no hassle from anyone, not even tourist touts. How could anyone be ‘afraid’ in a place like this? For that is often the perception: that I need to be ‘brave’ to travel in Africa. I feel safer here than I ever did in Leeds; dare I say it, even in Totnes late at night! And I would be proud if many British cities were as clean and well cared for as many in these countries – with all their economic problems.
Slow-cooked goat for dinner tonight. But even slow-cooked you need African teeth for goat, not my friable apologies for white man’s teeth. It reminded me of the Ghanaian wedding I attended at which I was served my bowl of goat stew – and got a foot! Only hair and skin on a very hard bone indeed.
The Red Cross Lodge is my accommodation tonight. Small and basic, it is clean, en suite and has a nice yard in a quiet street one block back from the main street right downtown. Perfectly adequate in this tourist town at £13.50. As usual, I got the direction from the receptionists in a hotel way out of my budget. My policy is: just pole up in any hotel and smile, express regret that it is outside my budget “as your hotel looks so pleasant..” (often a bargaining point, that, for a decent reduction!) and ask for recommendations.
It’s getting considerably warmer as I go north into the tropics. Somewhere, some days ago, I must have crossed the Tropic of Capricorn but this time it wasn’t signed.
Happy to be back in Zambia, a country I appreciated very much in 2002 and to which I was determined to return.
DAY 25. FRIDAY MARCH 14th 2014. LIVINGSTONE, ZAMBIA.
For sheer politeness, kindness and thoughtfulness I have to put Zambia at the very top of my list. How is it that national characteristics can be so widespread? Maybe it is a sign of a nation confident in its identity, a peaceful country that later this year turns 50, and does so – in Africa – with no history or war or conflict. Perhaps the two are related. A man who is respectful to his neighbour probably will not go to war with him.
Wherever I go my smile is returned with a polite greeting and a quiet contact. I can’t describe the joy that comes form smiling at a young schoolgirl, singing as she walks, and getting a charming greeting and delighted giggle. All ages have this easy charm, from toddlers to old ladies and gentlemen in business attire. A remarkable nation. It is becoming difficult on this journey not to keep writing about how congenial I am finding each nation: first Lesotho, then the charms of the Zimbabweans and now the personable Zambians.
The Victoria Falls lived up to my memory from 2002. I recollected that they seemed so close and awesomely powerful from the Zambian viewing points. Here in Zambia there are only a smaller part of the falls but the sodden walkways take you to the very brink of the chasm. You can look down through your pouring eyes into the spray and violence of the narrow rocky defile. The water thunders relentlessly not much over a hundred yards away – and equally relentlessly in buckets over your head. It is SO exhilarating! To be dripping, sodden to the skin; half deafened by the endless roar and thunder of falling water; thrilled by the wonder of this sight. It is unparalleled. It is a wonder of the natural world. For millennia the Zambezi has been carving these zig-zag canyons, millions of tons of water per minute grinding away at the rocks, infinitesimally reshaping and reforming the cascades. It has been going on day after day, millennia after millennia. It is an awe-invoking, exciting wonder and a thrill to be here.
David Livingstone who, it must be remembered was first and foremost an evangelical missionary whose motive for his extraordinary exploration was as much to bring Christianity to the ‘less fortunate’ as the advancement of science and knowledge, said of the Falls: ‘It had never been seen before by European eyes, but scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight’.
Being before such a mighty force is a great leveller of man. All we puny viewers are made somehow equal by the power of the natural phenomenon, and by the fact that we are all so sopping wet, especially those of us who have opted to be part of it all without plastic rain-covers! We all laugh at and with one another, race and nationality insignificant. It makes for such a happy experience.
A thrill too to be amongst Zambians. Once again I met many lovely people, all happy to talk and to be together as complete equals. Skin colour is completely irrelevant in Zambia and Zimbabwe. My white (well, rather red) skin does not mean I represent anything other than the diversity of humanity. And the people have those two most attractive of qualities: compassion and curiosity. Such warm conversations wherever I go, and you know that for me travelling is about people!
Particularly enjoyable was meeting Daniel Chikupa. He introduced himself in the street as a curio seller. Immediately I was on the mildly suspicious offensive. But I forgot: I am in Zambia. It may be the tourist capital of the country but Daniel was merely curious and thoughtful. We walked together in search of a bookshop (unsuccessfully. I need a road map). Eventually we just ended up sitting on a wall conversing for about two hours! He is 35 with three children and sells crafts and curios to tourists for a living. He talked knowledgeably and articulately about the foundation and politics of his country. Like almost everyone, he is well educated and speaks English better than the majority of English people. English is the medium of education, government, media and communication in a land with 73 tribal groups.
But some of the early African leaders, who fought so hard for their independence, were wise indeed: Nkrumah in Ghana and Kenneth Kaunda here in Zambia, perhaps two of the most democratic African nations formed by two far-sighted politicians. For they created nationhood before tribal loyalty. Something that marks out these two nations is their strong sense of national identity. Kaunda, who I was surprised to find from Daniel, is still alive and in his late eighties, even manipulated the break-down of tribal prejudice by posting workers to other parts of the country and encouraging inter-tribal marriages. After all, as Daniel pointed out, you don’t go to war with your neighbouring tribe if your mother is one of them… The present president has been a politician since Kaunda’s days and is a close friend of the old statesman. The country has been pretty much at peace for all its fifty years. Intriguingly, the vice-president is a white Zambian much respected as a hard worker in parliament for many years, the son of Canadian parents, born in Zambia and thus qualified to be vice but not president. He cannot constitutionally act as president even when the president is out of the country. Zambia will have its fiftieth anniversary celebrations in October this year.
This is turning into such a good journey – made by the charming people I meet. Of course, my mood is relaxed and warm, the smile pretty well glued to my face. That helps my enjoyment. My own mood is almost always reflected: it’s human nature, and these are very natural humans.
With many African handshakes and a brief hug, Daniel left me at the hotel door. “Good luck, Baba!” was his parting greeting. Sometimes I think being an older traveller can be fun, and makes me more approachable and a bit different – not, of course, that I think of myself as any older than I was when I was doing this sort of thing thirty or forty years ago! It’s only when I see the grey-haired, white-bearded bloke next to trim Zimbabweans or Zambians that I see that I am a bit of a curiosity myself: an ‘old’ man on a motorbike travelling alone through Africa. Long may that last!
Haha! What fun life can be if you go out to meet it!
DAY 26. SATURDAY MARCH 15th 2014. LUSAKA, ZAMBIA.
It’s alarming, the fragility of memory. I rode all the road that I covered today twelve years ago, and remembered not one element! I suppose we only retain what is necessary for survival and what makes a special impression. Much of what I retain is entirely due to these journals I keep so rigorously… If I hadn’t written it all down my ten years of travelling would be reduced to a few picturesque images and memorable events. Even with all these words I sometimes go back to the journals and wonder if it was actually me – for I have even forgotten so much about which I wrote!
So a long ride, all of which appeared novel despite riding it all before. Maybe that’s just as well, for it wasn’t a very interesting road. Long long stretches of bush country, very green after all the rain but melding into a generic African bush road for some five or six wearisome hours. Here and there I passed small towns and just a couple of bigger ones. I rode 510 kilometres – about 320 miles, much more than I like to ride in a day, but there really wasn’t much to stop for on the way.
I left Livingstone, the former capital of Zambia, at nine and just rode. The road was good and the air quite chill on this cloudy day. I even had to resort to my thin jumper for comfort. There were a couple of heavy rain showers, just enough to get the rainproofs on, a
laborious process, almost in time to take them off again. Then it got hot as I entered Lusaka in the afternoon, riding through the busy, but quite small capital, a place of commerce and little attractiveness.
Rosie and I worked together in 2007 on a project in Norway and quite recently I found she was working with VSO in eastern Zambia. I’d hoped to meet her there but she has to be in Lusaka for a conference of volunteers next week, arriving in town today. She would probably be, she told me in an email last week, at the Lusaka Backpackers Lodge watching rugby in the bar if I managed to arrive on saturday! I found my way, by asking in a big expensive hotel, to the bar and was recognised and redirected by one of her fellow volunteers. A few moments later I met Rosie in the street nearby.
We spent the evening catching up – and watching rugby – not a game for which I have much enthusiasm, but at the international level even I can appreciate the astonishing skills of the players, even if I have little memory (thank god) of the rules and mechanics of the game.
Rosie is of my sort of age and first volunteered five years ago when she saw the work situation drying up in Britain. She was posted to Zambia, about which she admits she knew next to nothing. Since then five years have passed with her advising a farming business engaged in groundnut production, and in that time she has obviously come o love this country and this part of Africa. She is one of the older volunteers – about thirty British VSOs are in the country – and really hopes to have her contract extended for at least another year. It’s inspiring to see her thriving in such a different environment, another of our Peter Pan generation, refusing to contemplate growing old. Volunteering in Africa is a similar denial of advancing years to riding a motorbike about and being called ‘Baba’ or ‘Daddy’. She gets ‘granny’! So for the next couple of days I shall be hanging out with a bunch of expat volunteers. The rich diversity of life!
But I still avoid the backpackers’ lodges. I come to Africa to mix with Africans and was never much attracted to this life in exclusive little ghettoes, eating ersatz Western food and being amongst other young Europeans, most of them on Facebook or reading the latest pulp fiction by a pool while Africa goes by outside. I never really subscribed to that, even on my early travels – mind you, the ‘backpacker’ circuit and the ubiquitous Lonely Planet guides that cause everyone to see the same things the same way didn’t really exist then: they came with the concept of Gap Years and bungee jumping, parascending, and packaged ‘adventures’ that isolated you as much as possible from the indigenous population.
Rosie has volunteer colleagues with spare rooms that they swap with one another so I went off to look for a place for myself and found a basic but adequate place a couple of blocks distant where I have a clean, faded twin room – without bath – for about half what I would have to pay even at the backpackers’ lodge! It is occupied by Zambians, a number of young student-ish types. It will do for me for £15 in the capital city. There’s even a big garden outside my window. Mosquito net tonight; on monday I must get some malaria prophylactics. Having had falciparum malaria in1992 and been saved from death by the fact that I had taken 16 pills a week I don’t mess with the world’s biggest killer disease.
Right, always a test: putting out the light and then getting back under the bed net!
DAY 27. SUNDAY MARCH 16th 2014. LUSAKA, ZAMBIA.
Resting on the seventh day… A relaxing day with good conversation mainly amongst my own country people (with a cheerful Irish contingent). It always feels a little disconcerting to suddenly be pitched amongst one’s own. It reminded me of a party I once joined of junior embassy workers in Bogota, Columbia where, in the midst of my first extraordinarily impecunious journey I ate shepherd’s pie and drank an immoderate amount of rum at the high altitude and on a stomach that had not afforded alcohol for months on the road.
These days my travels allow a lot more beer drinking! And this was a braai of southern African proportions with twenty or so people, the majority of them VSO workers from around the country, gathered for a conference next week. It enabled me to get some ideas for a rough itinerary for my rather brief tour of Zambia and to have interesting conversations on the culture and life of both being a volunteer and some insight into local life too. One guest is engaged in a thesis on mental health, HIV and TB. She is gathering research on the effects of the diseases, both surrounded by a lot of misinformation and ignorance that often exacerbates conflict and problems within families. It was interesting to hear the continued strength of superstition and folklore, even in tandem with contemporary health work. These things are very slow to dissipate in Africa, even in relatively developed nations, and Zambia has to be seen as quite rational and developed in many ways. Interesting too to hear of the severe alcoholism in rural areas, often linked with unemployment, for this is something that I find so distressing in Ghana. It usually leads western visitors to the conclusion that if women were empowered on this continent, life would change so much. One of the NGOs is studying gender equality, a facet of African life that changes, but at a snail’s pace. Give the majority of rural African men money and they turn immediately to drink; give it to the women and they first feed their children and usually pay for their education.
These volunteers – (well, NGO workers is a better description since there is a modest pay for most) come from a wide variety of backgrounds and skills. Not always are they employed within their direct skill-base and several people admitted their work here had involved step learning curves. For some it is a break from a professional career that was failing to offer enough challenge or satisfaction, for others a desire to work in different and interesting circumstances. Some come to it later in life – you can work with VSO up to the age of 70 – although the majority appear to be in their late 20s and 30s. For them all it is an intense experience in often challenging circumstances, living intimately with different cultures. Interesting people with an obvious sense of fulfilment that has led to some extended stays abroad and lasting love of the countries in which they find themselves. Rosie, for instance, is seriously considering building her own small house in her distant eastern town and spending winters out here volunteering, in the unpaid sense of the word, in local education, and summers back in England where her grown family is. She has found her vocation and is thriving on it, far from the commercial world in which she worked at home.
On my way to the barbecue I visited a local shopping mall to buy some beer and wine. It was a centre the like of which I have not seen since I was in America recently. Even South African malls don’t look quite so plush as this one, filled with well dressed local shoppers. These countries are full of contrasts, from the mud and thatch of villages only twenty miles away, scratching a subsistence living or producing dirty charcoal to the glitz and commercialism of rampant materialism here in the capital city. These contrasts are so stark in Africa.