Zambia, A Nation in Celebratory Mourning

Words by Simeon Gready - November 2014

It was an interesting time to be in Zambia: President Michael Sata had just passed away (in London), and his burial was to take place in the week of our being there. For many, then, it was a time of mourning, but, in a manner typical of Africa, it was also a time of celebration for those wishing to reflect on the legacy that Sata left behind.

As such, it was difficult to know what to expect upon arrival in the Southern African country. I had only heard good things previously, most notably about the people, their inherent friendliness and acceptance of outsiders. I immediately noted a different feel to the country than that of Namibia upon entry via bus in Kazungula, the border town: the air was heavier, muskier, the road was bumpier, rockier and filled with more pot hills, and we passed not through well-established small towns but through mismatched clusters of huts and shacks with makeshift fences and small spaza shops; I sensed, perhaps in a somewhat subjective manner, that Zambia had more of a purpose than Namibia, more of a sense of being and of itself.

The undergrowth around which these village clusters formed was fuller, thicker, and, at first, greener. It was warmer, both in humidity and also in the people that we passed, given that the bus driver had taken to merrily hooting at men, women and especially children that we rattled around. I felt like I’d seen more wide-toothed smiles in the first 10 minutes of being in Zambia than I had in my whole time in Namibia. It was also a slightly more entertaining drive given that the driver was having to swerve skilfully around deep potholes and the occasional scattering of goats, cows and chickens.

The landscape was capable of sudden and drastic change: it went from thick, full, and tall to barren, black and bleak, both the ground and what few trees there were. Only the tops of trees boasted leaves that held an almost florescent green set against the black of the backdrop. This was caused by intentional fires, common practice in these types of regions, designed to better enable nutrient-rich farming. In places, new green plants sprouted hopefully through the blackened turf, representing new life and reflecting the fluorescent manner of the leaves that clung onto the uppermost branches.

As we neared Livingstone, 70km from the border, the roads improved and the grass returned to its dirty yellow colour, yearning for the inordinately late rains. We passed a few checkpoints, guarded by bored-looking men in heavy-set camouflage attire, and what looked like a funeral, as solemn cars and even buses led out from the middle of a cemetery. Thereafter, the signs of the approaching town became more and more apparent: we passed an international school fronted by a rugby pitch with one set of poles, a petrol station, a pub & grill, more schools, more churches, workings traffic lights, another cemetery, a city council, restaurants, broken traffic lights, big board advertisements, lodge houses and camps. Suddenly, a short two minutes later, we parked in at Livingstone bus centre.

I looked out the window as the bus parked only to see it full of peering faces which narrowed in on the scruffy white boy with half a ginger beard and his pony-tailed friend. The peering faces and their eyes brightened as their smiles widened, furiously trying to gain our complete attention while making the driving sign with their hands. Of course – the taxi drivers. I smiled continuously and shook my head, having been told that our camp was just 400m from the bus station. Walking out the bus, more men filled the doorway, seemingly indicating that I was not allowed to disembark until I had booked someone for a taxi. I continued to put on my best smile, “no need, no need,” and almost had to physically push past them to get around the side of the bus so we could retrieve our bags. It was to be our first truly African lesson: there will always be a taxi available, even at the times when you don’t need one and especially at the times when you don’t want one.

As we got our bags, I made a point of firmly stating, “we are going to Jollyboys Backpackers, we can walk there,” at which point a few of the taxi drivers encircled me once more: “the bus station had moved, it has moved, you cannot walk, it is 3 or 4 kilometres away, you must take a taxi, take me, take me!” Suddenly, a finger tapped my shoulder – I turned, and saw a man with a kind face wearing a Jollyboys t-shirt: “you can walk with me, I know the way.” More than slightly relieved, and at this point exhausted of fake-smiling, the man, named Francis, grabbed Benny’s spare bag and led the way to the backpackers, while giving us a walking tour of sorts around Livingstone.

After our Jollyboys adventures and Victoria Falls exploits, we made a plan to leave early on the Monday morning to Lusaka, the capital of Zambia, this time with our extra travelling partner in the form of Adi. Upon leave of Livingstone on the fairly comfortable and wonderfully air-conditioned Mazhunda family bus service (who said public transport in Africa was hard?!), I took once more to observing the passing scenery out the window.

The small market places outside village clusters were permanent fixtures across Zambia and indeed beyond. Makeshift trestle tables with small but impeccably-stacked pyramids of fruit stood on the baked ground, hardened by the unforgiving African heat and littered with crushed water bottles. As the bus trundled to a stop, so as to drop or pick up passengers, ladies would amble up to the windows holding bowls of whatever their stall sold, from apples to bananas to tomatoes to green beans. They were resplendent in colourful clothing, most of them with babies strapped to their backs probably out of necessity as opposed to a tactic through which to make us feel obliged to buy. Behind the stalls, men drifted by on bicycles, while some in suits strode confidently in an apparent effort to match the important status their dress implied.

The landscape in between these small market towns was much the same: scattered trees on tough ground, ranging from a dirty yellow grass to a blackened and smoking blemish. The road, for the most part, was good, consistent, and busy with buses, taxis, and the odd speeding car. The bus itself was reckless in its overtaking, another lesson that we’d have to get used to, once or twice having to check back behind whatever it was attempting to overtake as oncoming traffic threatened to halt its progress.

While the Livingstone-Lusaka leg of the tour was a breeze, what was to follow was anything but. Our arrival the Lusaka inter-city bus station was met with much the same fanfare as Livingstone: we were accosted as we disembarked the bus as throngs of taxi drivers and bus service representatives attempted to take advantage of our unfamiliarity with the area. “Where to, my friend, where to??” much of which was shouted in an effort to drown out the others. Once we’d managed to make it clear that we were heading for the Malawi border through the Zambian town of Chipata, a particular persistent young man led us off to Ronzil bus service ticket stall; it was there that we were told that they were the only bus service going to Chipata that next morning. They also said the bus was to leave at 12:30am, meaning that, as it was around 4pm, we had a few hours to kill.

To pass the time, we went to a local pub & grill across the road from the bus station, called Zee’s, which was quiet bar a couple of customers and a full complement of smiling waiting staff, with air con that didn’t work, a leeringly yellow paint job and plastic covering above the outward-facing window that only seemed to stifle the heat. We ate small, cheap, adequate meals after which Adi taught us an Israeli traveller’s card game called Yaniv.

It was here that we really gathered the full significance of the President Michael Sata’s death. We managed to get hold of a local newspaper on the earlier bus, which was adorned with pictures of Sata and articles about his legacy; almost everyone we talked to said, “do you know that our President has just died?” followed by a sad sigh and a shake of the head. His Zambian burial was, in fact, the next day, such that it was a national holiday; this meant, of course, that things were in the process of getting quite festive through those intent on celebrating Sata’s popular tenure: there was singing and dancing and the beating of drums outside Zee’s and the beers were flowing in the grimy bar behind the establishment.

Benny happened to meet one of the more boozed residents of the bar in the toilet, who drunkenly came to talk to us: he was a handsome man, well-dressed in a scruffy way, wearing a black button-up shirt and jeans, swaying slightly even as he stood above us, partly due to the fact that his left hand continuously gripped two black label beers. His name was Keith and, by his own account, he claimed that he was a ‘secret agent.’ After that, it was difficult to take anything he had to say seriously, but when we got onto the topic of Sata and his legacy and Zambians and their culture, he had some interesting things to say: “Zambians are passive. You are safe here. We don’t care if you are black or white or … green! – at the end of the day you are human beings and that is what matters.” I couldn’t agree more. “We love everyone here. If somebody tells you that Zambia is dangerous, then they are not Zambians.” On Sata: “tomorrow will be a celebration. Sata was a good, intelligent man. Do you know we have 72 different tribal groups? And no trouble between them. He also integrated black and white. See, he put a white man as his vice who is now acting President!” After the rather one-sided and slurred conversation, half of which is not worth printing here, Keith insisted on giving us his phone number, in case we did find trouble, lest we forget that he was a secret agent.

We moved back over to the bus station at 7pm, as that was when the bus was opened to embark. It was at this point that we found out two things: first, two other bus services were running buses to Chipata that next morning, both of which were much nicer that Ronzil, and, second, our bus would not leave at 12:30am but at 3am. This meant we had 8 hours to wait on the bus before it actually left. Public transport in Africa, it seemed, was about to get a whole lot harder.

I decided to walk around a little bit instead of sitting for so long on the bus. It was interesting, firstly, to note the amount of support being shown to Sata: Patriotic front shirts, badges, other shirts saying ‘Protect Sata’s legacy,’ Zambian football shirts with Sata’s face stitched on. Not everyone seemed to support his supposedly integrated legacy, however: “We need a President with black skin,” said Robert, a luggage handler for one of the bus services, somewhat refuting Keith’s earlier claims of a Zambian’s dismissal of racial divides.

The bus, once I was back on, was stinking hot and cramped, with narrow seats and no leg space, the aisle packed with luggage, and full of incredibly loud locals with no concept of personal space. We finally got going at 3:30am after a couple of false starts and some failed attempts at decent sleep. They turned the lights off as we got going, but then put on Christian gospel full blast, such that further attempts at sleep were nigh on impossible. The bus, as we had come to expect, was also driving fast and recklessly, haring around corners as if on a rally course.

The landscape, which we had plenty time to admire after the sun rose, was more mountainous as we headed east: rockier, less undergrowth, while on wide decent roads. Village clusters of huts and shacks were further apart and smaller by this point.

The ride was uncomfortable and long, and we were desperate to get to Chipata. Suddenly (predictably?), at about 10am, an hour from our destination, a bang resounded from the left hand side of the bus – a tyre had burst, cue ooh’s and ahh’s from the passengers and bemoaned sighs of resignation from us. We all clambered out, cameras at the ready, our worst fears realised by the sight of the shredded wheel. The heat was rising, shade was hard to come by, and we hadn’t eaten since Zee’s at 5pm the previous day. Men on bicycles coasted past, bemused looks on their faces, the only respite being the cool breeze that picked up to run through our muddled camp. Mothers took the opportunity to change their baby’s diapers and men pissed in the bushes, while others sought the shade of the sparse trees. Amusingly, a peanut gallery had formed around those attempting to deal with the tyre problem. The decision to take Ronzil without looking into other options seemed less and less clever with each passing minute.

To their credit, they took off the shredded tyre and rolled out a spare (something we thought they might not have) in a thoroughly speedy manner. Ominously, though, Benny noted that “that tyre looks as bald as a 100-year-old man.” 20 minutes later – BANG – the replacement popped. The driver kept going a little, threatening to try make it all the way with a flat tyre, but gave up quite quickly and pulled off to the side of the road again. Once again we all clambered out, this time keeping the cameras in our pocket, directly beside a village cluster of huts and a couple of brick buildings. Small kids ran out to explore the scene, as mothers stood watching from their huts. The cool breeze continued to diminish the worst of the heat.

I chatted to some of the other passengers as we waited once more: I met Albert Phirre, a 30-year-old pre school teacher in Lundazi, who teaches a range of subjects with 40 kids in a class, and has been doing so for 3 years. He became a teacher because “education is important,” and told me a bit about the resources available: “sometimes the school gets funds and we can buy materials, but sometimes we have to use our own money to buy them. It is part of the sacrifice that we have to make for progression.”

I also met Suleiman, who was travelling to a funeral: “my friend, a fellow student, was hit by a car at night. He was studying maths and civic education to become a teacher, and he just had three courses left to complete so he could graduate. I will also become a teacher – I am studying history and civic education, and I will graduate next May.”

Thankfully, we were back on the road 40 minutes later again, with a particularly precarious set of wheels. The driver, against all common sense, decided to drive even faster and more recklessly than he had been – we winced at every bump and bruise on the dusty road, convinced we’d blow a third wheel. Finally, however, we made it to Chipata. By this point, we were on a bit of a time limit – we had to make it across the border and to Lilongwe in Malawi to catch a 5pm bus to Mzuzu. At 1:30pm we jumped in a quick taxi to the border, which included a dodgy exchange of money from Zambian Kwatcha to Malawian Kwatcha, and raced through the Zambian side of the border, into no mans land and towards the warm heart of Africa: Malawi.

Zambia set the precedent for our trip in many ways: it felt, largely, as the first truly ‘African’ place we’d been to, and this reflected in both good and bad ways. While there is never a shortage of taxis, there is also never a place where they do not hound you; there is also the problem of misinformation and deceitfulness, as at the Lusaka inter-city bus station. However, in all, the people of Zambia are hugely friendly, welcoming and caring people, always eager to share a smile and a conversation, while mourning through celebration of the short but popular rule of an influential President and one of their own.