Police checkpoints and the dangers of driving
I grew up knowing Zambia as Northern Rhodesia, named after the empire builder, Cecil Rhodes. Towards the end of the nineteenth century it became a British protectorate, but its days as a colony ended in October 1964 when it gained independence. Kenneth Kaunda became president, ruling until 1991 under a one-party government. KK is still around. As we drive through the capital, Lusaka, we see signs wishing him a happy 90th birthday, so he obviously still has favour. Four other presidents followed him, with increasing multi-party participation and economic development. However Zambia grapples with major problems of poverty, corruption, HIV and Aids, maternal and infant deaths, economic dependence on copper and high urban population densities.
We spend a week in Zambia, crossing the south in a north easterly direction from Livingstone to the border with Malawi near Lilongwe, detouring to South Luangwa National Park near Chipata. The first two days beyond Livingstone comprise many hours of long distance driving - 480kms from Livingstone to Lusaka and 590kms from Lusaka to Chipata. But I do not find it dull. The scenery is varied; rural subsistence farming with crops of maize, millet and sugar cane; pretty wooded grasslands with the mountains blue in the distance; excellent wide roads with well-kept surfaces near Livingstone, deteriorating to pot holes, uneven tar seal and road works further on; thin winding roads through the hills, with grass as high as the land rovers; narrow unstable looking bridges across swampy rivers, and other bridges considered so grand and strategic that they are guarded by police and no photography is permitted. On the second day, we pass fields of tall bright yellow sunflowers, ready for harvest.
But it is the people, the people, the people who create the main interest. The roads are highways of people. They carry on their lives and their businesses on the roads of Africa – walking, talking, buying and selling, going to school, cycling, crowded in minibuses, standing in the gravel trays of large trucks, or driving their herds of cattle or goats. A large bag of maize has fallen off a vehicle and lies spilt on the side of the road, free food for those who quickly collect it into containers of all shapes. We pass a small truck with its tray full of young women going to work, and every one has a baby on her back or in her arms. Other women walk, heavy objects on their heads, like buckets of water, bags of corn, cast iron saucepans with handles, firewood in bundles, and baskets of produce. Their little ones walk beside them, doing their share of bearing burdens, objects on their heads.
The towns are crowded with people especially if there is a market on. If I hadn’t been to Kampala, Uganda, in 2010 (to help build a house for Watoto) and experienced the shock of ‘wall to wall’ people in the streets of that city, I would have struggled when we reached Zambia. As it is, I take it in my stride and seek to capture the life of the road on my camera. Photos through a land rover front window screen, often dirty and smeared with dust, are a hit and miss affair. But every so often, one is reasonable, catching an aspect of African life that pleases me.
The signage is always worth reading: Aids is avoidable and preventable - abstain or practice safe sex; Ever Joy Restaurant; Faith Kills Fear Shopping Centre; Divine Blessing Boutique. A sign outside a quarry is written in Chinese as well as English. I assume Chinese finance and labour are involved, and wonder if it is connected to roading or copper mining. There are so many notices announcing schools and churches, or aid agencies –World Vision, Child Fund, US Aid. We begin to think through the issues of aid. There are so many organisations at work. Our guides make a few sardonic comments which we ponder. In a supermarket in Chipata, there is a large poster at the door portraying Jesus, in honour of the Easter celebrations.
‘Yes, they got that one right.’ I think to myself. ‘At home in the supermarkets it's all about marshmallow eggs and chocolate bunnies.’
We camp the night outside Lusaka, too late in the day to attempt entering the busy city traffic. An overlander truck comes in late about 8.30pm with its usual round of noise; they are up about 4.30am and away by 5.30am, making me so glad that I am travelling by land rover and not in an overlander. But this morning we are also up early. Eddie wants us through the city before the heavy traffic begins, so we are up at 5.15am and away by 6.30am. He and Jan give us plenty of instructions: forget your good manners, stick together and don’t get separated, lock all your doors including the back one, and if the light turns red ignore it and drive on. In fact, our dash through the city proves smooth and free from problems.
But some travellers are not so fortunate. Around a corner, the road is strewn with warning branches, and we find two smashed vehicles, a light truck and a van bus stationary near the centre line; as we slow down, we see the van is badly damaged on the front right, indicating that the driver may have been seriously injured or died. People are lying on the grass and there is a large pot hole in the road which perhaps contributed to the accident. I am silent in my own thoughts, as are all our team. Twenty minutes later we pass an ambulance presumably on its way to the accident. Later in the same day we overtake another accident.
Later I learn that over 1000 people every year in Zambia die on their roads and traffic accidents rank the third highest cause of death after HIV/AIDS and malaria. Is it dangerous to travel in Africa? Yes, but not so much because of political instability or crime, the things in people’s minds at home when they ask such questions. The roads can be hazardous and great care is needed.
Police check points are common now that we are in Zambia. We are having lunch on the side of the road near the town of Mazabuka, when several uniformed ladies arrive, set up their check point and begin to inspect drivers’ licenses. The first time we are stopped, I am not sure what documents to present.
‘Mamma has her passport out,’ the policeman says. ‘I don’t need that. Just Poppa’s driver’s license.’ As well as police check points, most villages have speed bumps in the tar seal at the entrance and exit. Not just ordinary ones such as you find in suburban New Zealand, designed to slow you down, but lethal judder bars, calculated to vibrate and shudder every loose item of your vehicle and in your body.
‘Watch the judder bars,’ calls out someone in the leading land rover, warning the others.
On the road up to the South Luangwa National Park, we stop at Tribal Textiles. It is Good Friday, a public holiday, and the factory is closed but we see enough to understand that all the brightly coloured textiles are handmade, including the clothe itself and the art work. The shop is open, displaying the beautiful finished products. It is Graham’s birthday and he buys Judy an attractive red leather hand bag. I buy a wall hanging with giraffe motifs to take home, and also a key ring at a stall in the factory grounds to give to Graham later. Alison from Tribal Textiles and a friend of Jan, joins us at the camping ground on the banks of the Luangwa River for a great dinner of steak, egg salad and tomato salsa, followed by fruit and birthday cake in Graham’s honour. We give him the key ring and Martin makes a speech. In reply Graham mentions that we have now travelled 5923 kilometres on our journey from Cape Town to Nairobi - just over half way.