Reading the road from Lusaka to Livingstone, Zambia

When we drive we see a way ahead but rarely observe the life that is going on about us. Last week, I travelled by car from Lusaka to Victoria Falls near Livingstone in Zambia; a distance of 6 hours – give or take the punctured tyre and the chat at the side of the road with the herdsmen who helped us change the wheel.  All along the journey there was something going on. You could read the road like a book.

Leaving Lusaka the roadside was full of groups selling concrete blocks and gates. Many will build their home room by room. I smiled at the rows of Corinthian pillars that seemed to go on for an age – they crop up on all sorts of buildings big and small. Then, bundles of charcoal for the fire at home; newspapers at traffic lights – with recipes for gas; electric and charcoal ovens.

On the road to Livingstone, Zambia

Beyond the city; tomatoes and pumpkins started to appear. Sweet potatoes and onions followed with fish from the Kafue river close by or, the ponds along the Zimbabwe closer to the Falls. We slowed down at a village and out came the girls with their apples and bananas – pouring water on them as I wound down the windscreen asking for the price. I glanced behind them and there were five women having a kerbside chat with firewood; water jugs and produce all balancing on their heads – pilates while you work. One of them was carrying ground nuts – great for all sorts of food.

Off again, passing through the sweet town of Mazabuka – home of sugar cane.  A few kilometres further and thousands of white sacks and weighing machines were the centre of attention – this stretch was all about maize. I had seen no one with bread and asked Peter why – “That’s for the towns. They don’t grow wheat here and if they did, they’d sell it for them to eat!”

On we went through poultry sellers one after another – women selling live chickens in makeshift cages. In the fields, there were herds of cattle on commercial farms or a handful wandering around the villages as part of the family. As the driver told me – this is the Tonga Region and they are a tribe known as herdsmen. They are tight with their money and they used to have lots of wives. “One wife is like seeing with one eye. You need four!” he explained. “More hands to do the farming. And a good worker will fetch a good dowry – maybe 10 cattle”. This was the place where I saw kid goats loaded up into the boot of a minibus – off to market.

What you sell says a lot about you. Anyone can sell vegetables and chickens but cattle are all about prestige; a social asset rather than something you sell on – though the best funerals are those when the cattle have been slaughtered to be cooked. Often, the cattle are used for school fees – when the children and the livestock are ready.

And then there’s the seasons. What we were seeing was produce from the middle of winter; come November there would be mangoes all along the road. Each of the seasons means something here: you don’t have a 9 to 5 job so much as a bunch of daily and seasonal tasks that change with the weather.

Zambia has a population of 14 million – though more than 72 different languages and dialects are spoken and there are 16 major cultural groupings. The Lozi come up from the border lands near the Zambezi to work the fields during the sugar cane harvest. They are well suited to the task; big guys, have legs like pagonias, don’t bother with shoes and, have the herbal medicines to repel snakes.

Then, what sounded like a drum beat took over. We had arrived at “the pestle of the Gods” and the pounding sound of Victoria Falls – Mosi Oa Tunya, the smoke that thunders. This is where the 2 kilometre wide, placid, slow moving Zambezi River is transformed into a raging, angry torrent as over 500 million litres of water per minute fall over 100 metres and spray bounces back up to 1.2 kilometres into the sky. You walk away from the sight and the sound roars within you.

We had read the road from Lusaka to the Falls and I was ready to read another – the road north, the Copperbelt  and the Region of the Bemba tribe – Bangilila, mulamba talaatula (Start early before the floods come) in a few days time. But that can wait. A Mosi beer on the platform at the Royal Livingstone looking down on the Zambezi just before the Falls is not to be rushed.

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