bowtie

The bowtie country

Landlocked Zambia got its independence from the UK in 1964 and for a number of reasons it got its shape that reminds me of a bowtie (a “Club round” type one for the specialists!). The knot squeezes and splits the Lusaka and Central Provinces while the left bow (Northern, Eastern, Luapula and Muchinga Provinces with small parts of Central and Lusaka Provinces) slightly smaller than the right one (Southern, Copperbelt, North-western, and Western with the largest portions of Central and Lusaka Provinces).

This rather special shape means that it is much closer to travel from Mansa, the capital of the Luapula Province to Kitwe in the Copperbelt through the Democratic Republic of the Congo, if that trip would be possible!

Although, if interested, you can search for Zambia in the internet and find lots of information, I will give you a few facts that should help to put our life there in context.

Among the twenty largest countries in Africa with 752,618 km2, Zambia has borders with eight other countries, quite a record! To the north there is the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tanzania to the north-east, Malawi to the east, Mozambique to the southeast, Zimbabwe and Botswana to the south, Namibia to the southwest, and Angola to the west. It is truly at the junction of Central, Southern and Eastern Africa.

In 1953, the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland that grouped together Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and Nyasaland (now Malawi) was created despite a large majority of the population opposing it. Kenneth Kaunda led this opposition that ended in its dissolution in December 1963. Zambia was born and Kaunda became its first President.

Kaunda was still there when we arrived, after 26 years. He did not have long to go but more about that in future posts. His party, the United National Independence Party (UNIP) ruled the country as a one-party state with the motto “One Zambia, One Nation”. Although there were about 73 ethnic groups, most of which Bantu-speaking, nine were the main ones, the Nyanja-Chewa, Bemba, Tonga, Tumbuka, Lunda, Luvale, Kaonde, Nkoya and Lozi. Although the tribal groups were important, rivalries as we had seen in both Kenya and Ethiopia were not evident, something I attributed to Kaunda’s “humanistic” ideas.

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Tribal and linguistic map of Zambia. Credit: Collection African Studies Centre, Leiden (The Netherlands). Author Unknown. Public domain. Via Wikimedia Commons.

My first blunder seeing many vehicles with the UNIP logo was that I thought that they belonged to one of the United Nations peace keeping organizations operating in the country. Luckily, after a couple of days of living in Lusaka, someone corrected me, not without some amusement.

Agriculture was important for the rather underpopulated country of 8 million (now 18 million) but mining, particularly copper extraction was the overwhelming driver of the economy and that was evident seeing the hundreds of lorries loaded with copper ingots moving through the country aiming for the ports in Mozambique and Tanzania.

Zambia had a difficult start as an independent country as, naturally, Kaunda supported the guerrilla war against the white-ruled Southern Rhodesia. This led to the militarization of the country and the closure of their border in 1973. The war escalated and in 1978 it reached Zambia’s territory when, after the shooting down of an Air Rhodesia passenger plane by the guerrilla, Southern Rhodesia retaliated with an attack to their enclaves throughout the country, including their military headquarters outside Lusaka.

Later, Kaunda played a key role in the resolution not only the conflict in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) but also in Angola, and Namibia and, while we were there, supported the anti-apartheid movements in South Africa that culminated in the liberation of Nelson Mandela in February 1990 and the restoration of black rule in the country.

In 1990, there was still tension, not with Southern Rhodesia that was already Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe but with South Africa. Zambia was supporting the various organizations fighting against apartheid and South Africa retaliated striking at dissident targets so, there were strict restrictions on taking pictures not only of the airport or any military facilities but also of bridges that were guarded by camouflaged anti-aircraft guns and controlled by army roadblocks.

Apart from the developments with South Africa, to make matters worse, the security situation was also bad and armed robberies were very common, particularly in Lusaka.

And then we arrived! It was late January 1990 during the rainy season to a rather steamy Lusaka. We stayed at the Andrews Motel, located a few kilometres beyond the “Kafue roundabout”, then the end of the city while we searched for a house. I do not recall much of the place as I was out most of the time but Mabel had to put up with it for a couple of months until we found a house.

While looking for a house we received lots of advice on where to live and what kind of house would be safe. “Get large dogs”, “it should have a good wall with razor wire”, “you must get a gun”, “do not rent a house without bars in all openings” and “your house must have an inner protected area” were some of the phrases we heard repeatedly, apart from recommendations on which suburb to pick!

Rather edgy we embarked in house-hunting and looked at a few houses within our rent bracket and settled for one in the Roma suburb, close to the city showgrounds (where the Annual Agricultural Show was held). More exactly we were at Nyoka road. Njoka meant Snake in Nyanja [1] and we hoped that it was only the name! This was confirmed a few months later when we became aware of the abundant rat population in the area as observed feeding on the fruits of the guava trees.

Although Mabel disagreed, I wished that a njoka would appear to take care of a few! Although Inky, our Siamese cat, caught some, Tigger, the marmalade was utterly useless, so we resorted to traps and shooting them with the pellet gun while feeding on the guavas!

The house fulfilled all the necessary security features that were apparently needed, particularly that, as a project manager, all project cars would be parked at my house every night as the stealing of cars was almost as frequent as the house robberies.

A poor picture showing the garden and the perimetral wall from one of the windows.

The house’s bedrooms were higher than the rest of the house and their windows looked down on the garden, a good vantage position to be. It also had, as repeatedly recommended, a strong “rape gate” (a rather straight but commonly used terminology to indicate the gate that isolates you and your family in the bedrooms while thieves steal your electronic stuff) fitted with two enormous padlocks housed inside steel tubing, very difficult to reach from the outside of the gate.

The house came with a caretaker called Mr. Phiri (not his real name) [2], highly recommended by Mrs. Wilson (not her real name), a former stewardess of the Union de Transports Aériens (UTA) [3], and the owner of the house.

As it was common those days, the house had a good vegetable garden that also came with a gardener called Mr. Lemek as well as an ample enclosure where we found a few hens and ducks as well as a number of rabbits housed in cages. Luckily, Mr. Lemek took care of both vegetables and animals and soon we added four Rhode Island Reds that produced lots of eggs all over our stay while the rabbit meat was mainly consumed by our house staff.

We installed “panic buttons” that, if pressed, would bring a contingent of guards that would enter the property to deal with the problem. We also recruited our own security guard, Mr. Nelson, an elderly gentleman that mostly sat in his guard house reading the Bible from his arrival at 18hs until he fell sleep, as most security guards do, until his shift was over at 6hs. There were also two resident dogs, Nero and Ginger, that we decided to keep as we were told that they were good guard dogs and they got on well with Mr. Nelson. In addition, we also were provided with a United Nations VHF radio to be used in emergencies.

Aware that security guards were usually the ones suffering injuries during armed robberies in Lusaka, we gave Mr. Nelson a whistle and instructed him to blow it if he saw something unusual and to run towards the staff houses at the back where he could seek refuge among the other people staying there, our gardener and the caretaker. Despite my objections, he insisted on keeping his catapult for which he made perfectly rounded clay balls to use as ammo.

The recommendation of getting a fire arm seemed very reasonable to us hearing of all incidents that were taking place in the city so I got a shotgun and a few cartridges that I was meant to use as a final line of defense in case the robbers attempted to break our final gate. Although I had shot partridge and hares in Uruguay during my youth, I am not a fan of firearms so, I disassembled, packed it carefully and hid it inside a trapdoor in the ceiling of our bedroom where I expected it to be for all the time we would be there.

So, we moved in although we only had very few personal effects for the reasons named in my earlier post and that took five months in arriving! It soon became clear that all we had been told about the insecurity was true and shooting was heard almost every night and we knew of several neighbours that would come out at night and shoot in the air in an effort to deter would be robbers! In addition, there was a “neighbourhood watch” formed by some neighbours accompanied by the police that would patrol the various neighbourhoods. I declined the invitation to join but, for a while, contributed financially to its operation.

Clearly Zambia was wild, and we had not yet seen the bush!

[1] Nyanja or Chewa is a Bantu language spoken in Malawi and Zambia, where it is an official language.

[2] People in Zambia were always referred as Mr. or Mrs., I believe this was due to Kaunda’s humanism emphasis on respect.

[3] UTA flew weekly to Lusaka until 1992 when it was taken over by Air France.