Leaving Zambia

This is the blog post I’ve been avoiding for about a month now. Or, rather, it’s been avoiding me. Even now, it still is. I wanted to write something reflective, perhaps draw some conclusions, but it seems it’s still too soon for me to do that. Perhaps for now I’ll simply start with leaving Zambia.

The last time I wrote I was staying in Livingstone, alone for a few days in a backpackers’. Being alone had its limits: you can’t walk anywhere alone after dark, meaning I took one taxi journey that was quite literally three minutes long. Taxi fares are all set rate, no meters – I wonder if taxi drivers are behind this whole not walking alone after dark thing? I paid 10,000 kwacha for the 3-minute ride, and would have paid exactly the same for a 10-minute ride. But I’m being unfair – back in Lusaka one taxi driver insisted on waiting for me while I ran around the office looking for change of a 10,000K note so that I didn’t have to overpay him by 5,000K – about 66p. However, I didn’t personally experience any crime, other than the kind of anxieties I had in some of the rougher parts of town, and I would have had in any city anywhere in the world. The most unpleasant experience I had crime-wise was in Livingstone, when I witnessed an enormous white South African beat seven shades of s**t out of a black Zambian he thought was trying to steal from his car. It lasted less than a minute, and people watched unsurely as the Zambian managed to stagger away.

But being alone also had good points: it was the first time I’d had in a month and a half to look around somewhere completely of my own accord, with no timetable or schedule. After wandering off the beaten track a bit, away from the main tourist drag, I found a recommended restaraunt with good food, locally made jewellery for sale and football on the telly – bliss. But then of course came the ridiculously short taxi ride back to the backpackers’.

Then back to Lusaka on Wednesday. I’d already bought my ticket for the ’13 hours’ (1pm – everybody uses 24-hour clock) Livingstone-Lusaka coach with Livingstone’s main (only?) bus company, which is luxury compared to previous journeys I’d experienced. We left bang on time, the driver drove scarily fast and we were all given a small cake and a plastic bottle of very cheap pop to keep us going on the 6-hour journey. Marijke and Cosmas had very kindly offered to meet me off the bus, and, with my previous experience of the Intercity bus station still vivid, I had very gratefully accepted. As the coach entered the station there were already young men knocking on the windows and running alongside, all insisting they would be taking me home. The insistence continued, inches from my face now, when we were off the bus, waiting in a jostling, pressing crowd for the luggage to be unpacked. I tried to stand my ground, watch out for my luggage and avoid eye contact while also desperatley looking around for Cosmas to come and rescue me. When he found me, he looked to me like an angel floating towards me through the madness. I also felt less guilty, sort of justified and a bit smug having told about twenty different taxi drivers, dozens of times, that no thank you I was waiting for someone to pick me up thank you very much so no thank you, no, really – NO THANK YOU!

The next day I went to Immigration for the fifth time, and was finally able to pick up my permit extension. As the third person I dealt with muttered that they were nearly out of permits I very nearly said why don’t you save one as I’m leaving the country in 36 hours anyway but I was too scared to risk doing anything, I mean anything, to cause any more delays to the bureaucratic hell that is Zambian immigation.

Then Friday, my very last day in Zambia. I intended to spend at least half the day in  Lusaka National Museum, but to be honest I did both floors in about an hour. I’m not entirely sure it was even open. So, my last hours in Zambia were free. It was the most time I’d spent on foot during my whole stay, and a genuinely liberating time. I found myself on a couple of familiar streets but mostly wandered around new, unfamiliar parts of Lusaka. Lusaka is a bustling, busy, friendly, sometimes scary and incredibly badly designed city.

I went to meet Edwin and some other colleagues at 6pm in Arcades, a mid-size shopping/eating area. I’d had a feeling this was going to be a bit of a farewell get-together drink. Actually, there were some unexpected faces and we all went for a meal together complete with speeches, photos and gifts – all really touching, highly embarrassing but luckily too much fun for me to get too sad. For all the challenges, stress and bouts of homesickness, I think I laughed with my colleagues and friends in Zambia more than anywhere in my life before.

The tears came the next morning. Up at 5am, goodbye to Cosmas and the baby. She’d already grown and changed so much just during the 7 weeks I’d known her, and she seemed to find me a perfectly usual part of her little life. Marijke drove me to the airport and it felt like going full circle: from that day when we flew in at 6am and I had such a heavy heart, now we arrived at the airport again at 6am, and my heart was just as heavy but for such different reasons. I got straight through check-in with no problems whatsoever – probably the smoothest process of my time in Zambia ironically – and onto the plane fairly quickly. Climbing up the steps, I stopped to take a last look at Zambia: flat, hot, shimmering in the early morning heat, all green and gold. Frantic, rude, friendly, beautiful, dirty, poor, generous, utterly and overwhelmingly welcoming.

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And back in time again a bit

Just wanted to share more pics of our wildlife weekend. The best bit without a doubt was kayaking on the river at 6am – sooo peaceful. The only sounds were the crickets and the odd plop or splash in the water, as birds caught fish, fish caught insects and hippos popped up for a look. All this, and the delicate fragrance of fresh elephant poo. Heaven.

But, the evening had its own special qualities, not least the stunning sunsets, each one perfect in its own way.

Fishermen working the edge of the river, with elephants grazing in the background

That's Zimbabwe in the background, those are hippos in the water.

young croc

This one was just a junior, but once you've seen those teeth, that's quite big enough thank you!

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Back a bit…

I’m doing this the wrong way round, as these pics are from the fantastic weekend a friend and I spent staying in a lodge on the banks of the Zambezi River a few weeks ago. This was our reward for the ‘big bus, little bus’ journey, and was more than worth it.

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Final countdown.

Had very eventful couple of weeks. Starting with the bad news – Marijke and the baby and three colleagues were in horrendous car crash last weekend, driving down to Livingstone for work. The car slipped off the road in heavy rain, flipped over, and the baby was thrown out of the window. They all came out alive, somehow, but I don’t they’ll get over the shock any time soon. I’ve seen what’s left of the car, it’s just a crumpled bit of metal. All very scary.

I had my last week in the office, but Edwin my colleague wasn’t around as he was on a course all week (NGO life is full of workshops, courses and ‘trainings’), so all felt a bit odd. I gave my presentation to the members, which I think went ok. I was ever so nervous, and it felt like a bit of an anti climax afterwards. Got one txt next morning to say that the presentaion was ‘magnificent and monumental’! Still more work to do though – work just never ends over here.

No complaints though – I’m in Livingstone (my god, did we drive carefully!), and have swam in the Zambezi River, right on the edge of the Victoria Falls. Awesome!

I’m staying in a backpackers, and feel like one of those aged, lone white female travellers. Most of the others here are like something from that film ‘The Beach’, loads of young, wealthy white kids bumming around. (Bitter? Moi?) Anyway, the good thing about being an aged, lone white female traveller is that we don’t give a shit. In fact, I’m about to go and order myself a bracing cup of tea – the proper stuff please, young man…


After delivering my presentation to a packed boardroom!

Me in front of Vic Falls

Standing in front of Vic Falls. Partly thinking, o my god this is awesome, but a little bit thinking o my god don't slip...

Gorge, Vic Falls

Believe it or not, this is a dead croc at the bottom of the gorge, what a way to go!

Vic Falls

Think this one speaks for itself...

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Travel in hope – well, in a bus. And a boat.

This weekend I’d arranged to go and stay with a friend who’s based in Chongwe, a village on the outskirts of Lusaka, as it’s pretty quiet there and I think she was getting a bit bored. However, as she pointed out, it’s pretty quiet there and …anyway we decided to get away completely. As we have no transport of our own, I found a lodge that would pick us up from their nearest bus station. So, off to Chirundu, on the border with Zimbabwe. The first decision is ‘big bus’ or ‘little bus’. The latter are blue and white mini buses that most Zambians use to travel anywhere and everywhere. They’re usually in pretty ropey condition, they’re driven according to completely different road rules, and you often see them broken down at the side of the road. They’re always full, as they won’t go anywhere unless they’re packed to capacity. You just get on one that’s going roughly in your direction and wait until it’s full up. So the pro was that they’re cheap, and the con was, well, everything you’ve just read. A ‘big bus’ is anything that’s not a ‘little bus’. The main pro as far as I was concerned was that they’d most likely have air con and therefore I wouldn’t be found dead in a pool of my own sweat in Zimbabwe or Cape Town, the con was that they go less often and cost more. We decided to try for a big one, so the first leg of the journey was a taxi to the Inter City bus depot. We travelled there together as it’s no place to be a lone white woman, and asked Stanley our taxi driver to help us get on the right bus. As soon as we arrived – and I mean with the taxi still moving – there were faces at every window calling ‘Harare?’, ‘South Africa?’, ‘Zimbabwe?’. Chirundu is actually on the way to all those places, but we had no idea which would be the best bus to catch. Stanley parked up and as soon as we were out of the vehicle we had a self-appointed travel advisor. He tried to take my luggage from me, ignoring my protestations that I could manage fine thank you, until in the end Stanley took it instead. The depot also contains a covered market, which is surrounded by buses and coaches of all shapes and sizes, with no indication whatsoever of their destination. There’s no ticket office, and no timetables, and in the meantime we’re still being approached by dozens of young men trying to steer us towards their own bus. It’s bedlam. I noticed that we’d walked full circle around the depot and realised our ‘guide’ had no more idea than we did. He’d also tried to charge us a ridiculous price for our tickets, so we decided to head back to the taxi and ditch him, at which point he climbed in the back next to me, which involved another tussle with my luggage. Having physically ejected him we escaped the depot to look at the slightly calmer area outside, where there were also numerous coaches, although with just as little information. We finally picked a coach with a handwritten piece of paper in the window listing Chirundu as a stop, and asked the ticket price. We were told 40 pin (40,000 kwacha) which sounded fine but having queued on the bus were told it was 50 pin. I tried to say no, that guy over there… but he was long gone. We were allocated seats and then waited while other passengers passed several tons of luggage over our heads, and hawkers got on selling everything from frozen water to baseball caps. Then, the driver stood up and told everyone to get off. Apparently he had to take the bus into the depot but wouldn’t be allowed to if it was full. We told him that we felt that if we got off now we’d never find him again, at which point he seemed to sympathise, and said we could stay on the us but had to ‘go to bed’ – he needed us to lie down so that the bus looked empty! Lying on my side, I felt I was either having a surreal dream or was part of an elaborate abduction scam. However, a few minutes later we were back inside bedlam, and all the passengers climbed back on board. They were almost all Zimbabweans who’d come to Lusaka to buy goods as the shops in Zimbabwe are empty. I saw shopping lists for 12 pairs of shoes, 20 pairs of trousers (mens), 12 shirts… The goods were then evenly distributed amongst the passengers, so that nobody had to declare anything at the border. One man looked particularly crestfallen when we explained that we couldn’t help, sorry, as we weren’t even going to Zimbabwe (if we could help it).

Anyway, the bus journey was hot (no air con after all, just an open window) but scenery along the way stunning; heading south we slowly climbed the Zambezi Escarpment and then dropped away from the hills towards the border, which is formed by the Zambezi river itself. The very last leg of the journey made up for everything twice over: standing outside a run-down petrol station in indescribable heat, clutching our luggage, we were greeted by a friendly guide from the lodge with the words ‘hello ladies, the boat is down here…’. To our delight – especially my friend’s as she’s a sailor – we made the final few kms by boat, sailing east, downstream, with the sun behind us and a very welcome stiff river breeze in our faces.

blue buses

These are the blue buses; they're incredibly cheap, always packed, and very fast


After a hot and eventful bus journey, we zoomed up the Zambezi River to the lodge. River travel is faster, safer - and cooler.

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George compound, Lusaka

Joyce and Veronica from the Residents’ Development Committee of George compound. Just two of many utterly inspirational women.

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Kawama Compound in Kitwe, Copperbelt Province

We drove about 400km north to Kitwe, Zambia’s second largest city, in the Copperbelt Province. We interviewed the Residents’ Development Committee at Kawama Compound, who are members of the Homeless and Poor People’s Federation.

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