Notes on Zambia – Is this really Africa?

Sometimes when you cross a border, you instantly know you’re in a different country. Perhaps a new language, a new uniform, now driving on the other side of the road. Sometimes, you would never know. Same scenery, same rough roads, same smiles, same stern officers. Crossing into Zambia, I instantly knew I was in a new country. But this time, it was the birds. Sweet happy chirps and deep soulful calls. Zambia was alive with wildlife.

Riding through Zambia was long days cycling and sleeping by the roadside. I’d missed the stars and the moon. I’d missed those African nights. Peaceful, but never quiet. I used to wake up when I heard unusual noises. No longer. Unusual noises are normal. Now I’d only wake up if there is silence. That would be unusual. Silence. Or rain. But the rain came later. For now, it was bright, blinding light. Blues skies and a burning sun. I like the sun though. It energizes me. The quiet old man, who I sat with while his son filled my water bottles, likes the sun too. It helps his maize grow. Too much rain and I get very wet. Too much rain ruins his crop and he has nothing to feed his family. I hoped the sun stayed out. For him, not me. It’s easy for me to dry out. Not so easy to replant a crop. Put into that perspective, I really have no reason to complain about the weather. I suppose I have my English heritage to blame for that though.

But first, Kitwe. A town in Zambia. There were traffic lights and pedestrian crossings. I was shouted at for going through a red light. Hang on – I thought I was in Africa. No-one cares about traffic signals. But now I’m in southern Africa. And that, apparently, makes a big difference.

It also mean supermarkets. Huge, air-conditioned rooms with aisle upon aisle of imported goods. Choose fresh foods. Choose tinned foods. Choose cold drinks and hot meals. Choose kitchen wares or toilet products… Shopping is much simpler when you can only buy spaghetti and sardines from a wooden shack. Me, I choose chocolate. And crisps and cheese and meat and yoghurt and fresh milk and very tasty pastries. One problem. Where to put it all? No problem. Just eat it. Soon I was fully loaded. My panniers were overflowing too.

I left Kitwe after a near collision with a fat white man on the pedestrian crossing. Is this really Africa?

The copper belt with it’s big mines and dusty tracks eventually gave way to huge tracts of farmland. The savannah fenced and flattened. Farming on a huge, industrial scale. With huge machinery and massive irrigation systems. Farms mostly white-owned. The poorer blacks make do with the wide road-side verge and simple hoes. This, according to the signs, is community farming and conservation in action. Looked like making a living on the leftovers to me.

In Lusaka I found a backpackers hostel. My first dorm bed in a hostel since Spain. First things first – after four days in the bush, I needed to wash. Directed to the shower block I was perplexed. Where’s the bucket? Where’s the water? Instead, I was confronted with two taps. Confused, I turned one of them. Good God! Running water. Ouch! Hot running water. Is this really Africa?

After the running water shock I seated myself on a stool at the bar (having washed and got dressed!). A Mosi beer please. Soon the other barstools were occupied too. It was Friday afternoon. Guys in shirts and smart shoes ordered drinks. End of the week. Finished in the office. Time to get pissed. I vaguely remembered that’s what you do when you have a regular 9-5 job. When you always know what the time is. And the day. This is normal for many people in Europe. But is this really Africa?

Well, I didn’t concern myself with the details for long. Might as well join in the fun. I’ve had a fairly tough week too. Just 500km rather than 500 emails. And so the weekend was an alcohol-fuelled haze and come Monday morning I was back to the job. On the bike.

Lusaka to Livingstone was a four-day working week. And then I had a week’s holiday. A lazy week doing almost nothing. Most people arrive in Livingstone and go white-water rafting and bungee-jumping, river cruising and safari-ing. I did almost nothing. It was great. I did at least see Victoria Falls though.

Victoria Falls

Victoria Falls

From Livingstone to the Botswana border was just half a day’s cycle. The border formalities were simple. Hand over the passport. Stamp. Not even a visa needed. Is this really Africa?

Waiting by the river for the boat to return and take me to Botswana. Leaning against my bike. A young man comes and starts talking to me. The usual questions. ‘Where have you come from?’ – England. ‘On the bicycle?’ – Yes. ‘But aren’t you scared?’ – No. And then, ‘But aren’t you scared of the wild animals?’ – Not too much. ‘You must pray to God every night’ – No. ‘No! But you do believe in God?’ – No. The young man is silent. A deep, thoughtful silence. Then, ‘Hmm, you really don’t believe in God? And you‘re still alive?!’ – It certainly looks that way. Silence again. ‘I will pray for you tonight… I’m surprised you’re still living. Because this is Africa.’

6 Responses to “ Notes on Zambia – Is this really Africa? ”

  1. Hi Helen,
    Loved the story about Zambia, just as I remember it! Hope you liked Kitwe, my birthplace.
    Dont forget to visit the dunes at Soussusvlei!

  2. Great story! And don’t forget to eat applecake at Percy’s bakery in Solitaire.

  3. Hey Helen .What’s with the cynicism? Man started in Africa and then spread. But you are now getting some enjoyment. Girl on a bike again.We all wonder at your courage and bravery. Yes it’s Africa and full of wonder. How nice of the young man to offer to pray for you. I do the same. I want to see you arrive safely in South Africa.
    with regards and best wishes.

  4. And I pray for you too, Helen, even if I don´t know exactly to Whom. Please, keep cycling. And writing. María

  5. And I pray for you too . Thinking of you , your achievements , sharing your news – life is good .
    Can’t grasp how close you are to CT. loads of love mum xxx

  6. Right, Im copying and pasting your blogs onto a word doc, so I can read them on the plane I need to run at catch!!! It’s the only time I think I’ve time to catch up with stuff.

    Looking forward to the read.

    FRWL. Xx

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