Zambia

The family grows

The arrival of our daughter and of our son fourteen months later, after eleven years of marriage, changed our lives as it happens with parents all over. I will describe what happened during this period that spanned between mid 1990 and mid 1992 in two posts.

From the moment we knew they were coming, we agreed that within reason, our kids would adjust to our way of living and not the other way round as we saw many parents doing. We also decided that they would be born in African soil. Unfortunately, Zambia was out of bounds for our insurance, so we needed to go outside the country.

Many mothers to be travelled back to Europe or America to have their babies, but several were also going to Zimbabwe. We chose the latter. Harare was about five hundred kilometres away or an eight-hour journey but the facilities there were excellent and recommended by our doctor in Lusaka.

So, after her trip to the UK, Mabel, talking to mothers with young babies, got to know how to handle the situation in Harare and she got convinced to have the children there. A gynecologist called John was recommended and it was explained that the birth would take place at the Avenues Clinic. Of course, there were a few risks involved as we needed to travel to Harare for check-ups and also to go there a few days prior to the birth. The latter period we would spend at the Bronte Hotel, located a few blocks away from the clinic.

So, following the instructions of Dr. John, we travelled to Zimbabwe via Chirundu for the first time, a few months before the calculated birth date. Unlike the Zambian side of the border, the Zimbabweans appeared very strict and punctilious with the regulations. I must confess that I instantly preferred the Zambia side that even had a drink vending machine but, with time, I started to understand and to like the Zimbabweans as well.

Crossing the border included crossing the Zambezi River. At the time there was only one single lane bridge across, the Otto Beit [1] bridge and it had its history that we ignored then but that now with the internet it is easy to research.

It had been built just before WWII with funds from the Beit Trust [2] that funded also the Beit bridge over the Limpopo River linking Zimbabwe and South Africa as well as the Kafue and Luangwa bridges in Zambia. The Otto Beit bridge was very advanced for its time: the 380-metre bridge was suspended with parallel wire cables being the first one of its kind built outside the US, following the approach of the Golden Gate and Brooklyn bridges among others.

After waiting for a while for the incoming traffic to pass, we crossed and arrived in Zimbabwe. We needed to re-fuel so we stopped at the first petrol station that we found. As we entered it, we were very surprised to find that there were more elephants than attendants! We feared for our lives and remained in the car waiting for the pachyderms to move away. They did not.

When we asked the petrol attendant about the elephants that he seemed to ignore, he explained that they were always there but that they did not bother anyone, feeding on the surrounding trees although they would cross the petrol station to move among the trees! Frankly, while our petrol tank was being filled, I expected an elephant to come and wash our windscreen!

It was the first time that we experienced such “closeness” with elephants but we soon realized that this was not uncommon in Zambia and Zimbabwe, something unthinkable in other countries we knew.

After the novel experience of “fuel with elephants” we carried on. The good road decorated with abundant elephant dung, traversed dry country but soon the hot valley ended, and we started climbing the Zambezi escarpment where we found lots of slow heavy-loaded lorries that slowed us down. Many of the trucks were carrying copper but there were lots of different goods being taken to Zimbabwe as well as to be shipped at the various ports in the East coast of Africa.

At the top of the escarpment, we stopped at the veterinary cordon fence that blocked wild animals from going beyond and into land destined for cultivation. Apart from elephants that would create havoc when raiding crops, buffalo (a foot and mouth disease reservoir) were the ones being stopped as they could pass the disease to the commercial cattle industry of Zimbabwe.

The post also checked that we were not taking tsetse flies with us. The procedure consisted of a control officer armed with a small net walking around the car catching any flies that may have been in the outside of the car. After that we were also sprayed inside to kill any flies that had decided to travel more comfortably!

After the control gate we drove through Morongora first and then Makuti. At Karoi, 86 kilometres further, we decided to stop for lunch. The Twin Rivers lodge looked nice and clean from the road and we decided to try it. It did not disappoint us. While waiting for lunch I ordered a ginger beer, a non-alcoholic drink new to me. I was pleasantly surprised by its piquant taste and became a fan of this drink from then on!

Beyond Karoi, agricultural land dominated and we saw numerous irrigation systems and dams from where water was taken to transform the dry land into crops of various kinds, mainly wheat and maize. The road was excellent and there were many well sign-posted secondary roads that reached other localities inland. There were good road signs and grass-cutting tractors were working at several places to keep the grass on the side of the roads, short. Zimbabwe looked like a more developed country than Zambia.

The large silos plants were an additional proof of the grain production of the country that was considered at the time the “Granary of Africa”. We reached Chinhoyi, a busy town where lots of people were moving about, including many “white farmers”. After passing Banket we finally got to Harare, still admiring the beautiful land we were travelling through.

We had no difficulty to find the Bronte Hotel and Harare still maintained the aspect I remembered from my earlier visit in 1985. However, we realized that requirements for tourists had relaxed and we were not “inspected” before we were allowed to enter our hotel!

The memory of my 1985 experience with my Swiss friend François (a tick ecologist) still fresh in my mind. We were staying in the Monomotapa Hotel in Harare, prior to our trip to Nyanga to attend a tick meeting, when we decided to have our dinner outside the hotel only to find that we were denied entrance as we were not dressed properly!

Although we were offered ties to be allowed in, we refused to wear them and left. Walking a few more blocks we came to a North American-style restaurant that did not care about ties so we ended up enjoying a few pounds of the excellent Zimbabwean beef. Dinner over, we walked back to our hotel only to be stopped at the entrance by the conciérge, for not being dressed well!

We were still in a heated argument with the man that was very stubborn and refused to understand that we were guests in the hotel when, luckily, one of the meeting organizers happened to come and talked to the doorman that finally gave in, but he still looked down on us whenever he spotted us in the lobby!

The Bronte Hotel boasted about its garden and it was right as it was well kept and large. Although Harare was much cooler than Lusaka the rooms were comfortable although the corridors and garden were quite chilly so we did not spend much time outside as we were not prepared for the cooler weather. Dinner was simple, good and trouble-free, apart from the issue of two bills, one for the food and another one for the drinks with the consequence that you paid one and started to move off only to be interrupted by an embarrased waiter bringing you another bill!

Breakfast was included in the price, but we also had difficulties understanding the serving system. The waiters worn bands of different colours across their chests and each colour fulfilled only one function and there was no flexibility between them. I do not recall what each colour did but let’s say the green was for drinks, the red for food and the blue for paying. After a few futile attempts asking a “green” or “blue” waiter for food, etc.  I adjusted to it after a couple of days, but still found it weird and somehow irritating.

Dr. John was good and all was well with Mabel’s situation. He recommended another visit after two months. The Avenues Clinic looked very nice from the outside, so we were satisfied. The return journey was uneventful and so were the next journeys required for the various check-ups that also went well.

About a week before the estimated time of birth we travelled again to Harare and we settled down at the Bronte Hotel to wait for the first signs of birth to appear but, after a few days, although there were some false alarms, nothing happened. We decided that I would go back to Lusaka after having spent seven days waiting. Paternity leave did not exist in those days and the work needed to continue.

I believe that Murphy’s Law applies in all situations and the birth of our daughter was no exception. As soon as i got to Lusaka I phoned the hotel to talk to Mabel and they told me that she had gone to the hospital! I could not locate her so I decided to refill the car with diesel from our fuel reserve [3] during the night and return as soon as I had a few hours rest as the border would only open at 06:00hs.

Before leaving I informed Bruno, who stayed in charge of the project in my absence, that he should not worry about us and continue with his work at Lutale. “Do not phone me unless the project burns down” I told him trying to make the point! I left early and, not having had any news about Mabel, it was an anxious journey and I made an effort not to drive too fast.

I went straight to the Avenues Clinic and, fortunately, I found her in good health and very cheerful as she had gone through the birth process and our daughter Florencia (Flori) was also well. She had been “deposited” in another room, together with other babies. I looked at her through a glass and hoped that they would not swap her for another baby but then I convinced myself that it would be unlikely as she had an identification bracelet and it was clearly different from the other babies with her dark hair and eyes!. I was relieved to see them both well and immensely happy!

A laughing Flori.

The following day we moved to the hotel and settled down to wait for a day to start the journey back with our newcomer. Then, in the evening the phone rang. It was Bruno and, before he could say anything I reminded him of my parting words about not phoning me. He let me rant for a while and then said: “the project office burnt down!”. “It is a joke, right?” was my reply but he repeated the news and I believed him.

The project offices were local huts with straw roofs, and it was October, the end of the dry season and the dry straw had caught fire. We lost important records but, luckily, we had duplicates of everything, except the latest records that were lost forever and a gap can be seen in all our publication graphs that remind us of the fire and the birth of my daughter! Before he hanged up, Bruno did congratulate me about the birth! He calmed me down telling me that the burnt office was being re-built and I forgave him instantly for calling!

The following morning, we needed to take Flori to the pediatrician, a very young and nice doctor. He saw that Flori was rather yellow and told us that she was suffering from infant jaundice, a common problem that required a couple of days to improve and no treatment. The following day she turned very yellow but afterwards the problem cleared, and we got the green light to travel.

Although we had a birth certificate, we still needed a travel document to enable us to cross the border. So, after taking Flori’s photograph, we went to immigration and got the needed document that even included her thumb print with no pattern, just a black stain! Armed with this new document, we travelled back to Lusaka with our new arrival and started our new family life.

The bushsnob learning to be a father!

[1] Sir Otto John Beit, 1st Baronet, KCMG, FRS was a German-born British financier, philanthropist and art connoisseur. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Otto_Beit

[2] The Beit Trust was created with funds left in his Will by Sir Otto’s older brother Alfred for infrastructure development in the former Northern (Zambia) and Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alfred_Beit

[3] At the time we were going through a fuel shortage and I kept fuel at home.

The Chongwe confluence

After the traumatic experience of the riots, things calmed down for a while. Mabel came back with the news that her pregnancy was going well and she was happy that we were going to have a baby girl. We decided to start exploring Zambia, starting from places relatively near Lusaka, before the pregnancy advanced and our travel got reduced.

Among the items we “inherited” from the earlier project was a mechanic to maintain the vehicles called Des. It was through bringing the cars to him in the outskirts of Lusaka that we got to know him and his wife Mary very well. We spent a few Sunday lunches together with a number of their friends, including businesspeople and hunters, among others.

Amid their close friends was Chris, a son of a Scottish father and a Zambian mother that was a very prosperous businessman, owner of the largest petrol station and spares shop in Lusaka. From the start we realized that we got on well and it did not take too long to discover that we shared the passion for fishing and we became friends.

He was a very kind man, very supportive of our efforts to enjoy Zambia and it was him that arranged for our rubber dinghy maiden voyage at the Kafue Marina and participated from the exercise with great enthusiasm.

Assembling the rubber dinghy for the first time at the Kafue Marina. The Kafue River is in the background.
Testing our new rubber dinghy.

Chris knew every fishing spot in Zambia, and he kept boats in several of them so that he did not need to tow a boat whenever he wished to go fishing! Apart from Kafue, he had boats in Kariba and lake Tanganyika, to name what I recall now. One day, he invited us to join him at a place known as the Chongwe confluence. We happily agreed to meet him there travelling by land in our now repaired Land Cruiser while he would get there from the Kafue Marina.

So, we left early on a Saturday and followed his travel instructions taking the road to Chirundu (the border with Zimbabwe) and turning left a few kilometres before to enter on a dirt road (now the RD491) towards Chiawa. We drove on and we came to the Kafue River where we waited for the pontoon to arrive as it happened to be going towards the opposite shore. We joined the other cars in the queue and had a few “mates” [1] while we waited.

When the pontoon arrived we paid our fee and boarded it, together with the other cars. The crossing was quite picturesque as the pontoon was operated by a couple of guys that would pull from a rope and move it across. Of course, the passengers were free to join in the effort to make the trip faster! Luckily, there was not much of a current and the operaton was successfully completed after about thirty minutes.

The human-powered pontoon.
Mabel pouring hot water to our mate during the crossing.

Leaving the Kafue River behind we drove through a narrow dirt road for a while until we came to the Zambezi river where the road turned left and from then on we drove along the river following its current. After a while we passed what looked like a derelict farm with a number of windmills in the water. Apart from pumping water from the river, we could not think of anty other reason for their existence but we did not stop to investigate as we were anxious to get to our destination.

After a long but beautiful drive along the river where we saw planty of game, including many elephants, we go to the confluence and found Chris. He was already fishing while two of his employees were busy cutting the very tall grass and collecting the rubbish left there by other careless campers to enable us to camp in comfort. Although we were meant to be at the Lower Zambezi National Park, its existence was still in its infancy.

We were on the Zambezi river shore at the point the Chongwe River entered it, a place renown for its good fishing. I believe that there is a luxury camp there nowadays [2]

Chris loved fish and he knew a place where Tilapia [3] were abundant. He told us that the fish congregated at a particular spot where tree branches came down to the river offering shelter to the fish that stayed there, probably feeding on the muddy bank. He explained to us that the river there formed a “gwabi”, a place where the water turned against the main current and fish liked.

He sat on a canvas chair with his rods pulling fish out. He had the system well oiled: another of his sidekicks was gutting them and dropping them in a frying pan without delay! We could see that there was already a good pile of freshly fried fish. I realized that Chris loved fishing more than I did and that he not only enjoyed the actual fishing but loved to eat his catch as well.

We left Chris to continue getting our lunch and went to a place where the grass had been cut to set up our camp. A number of large trees offered good shade in the campsite and we were the only occupants, apart from a few elephants busy pulling tree branches that largely ignored us. We joined Chris and his men for a purely Tilapia lunch that, even to me that I am not fond on fish, tasted delicious, probably because they were fried as soon as they came out.

After a good siesta we took off on his boat after tiger fish (Hydrocynus vittatus). We trolled along the banks with a couple of rods with shiny lures traying to get the attention of this carnivorous fish. Tigers are fast and ferocious predators that would attack the lures violently and eject them when jumping outside of the water. We had a few strikes that we missed but still we enjoyed the action. Luckily, by sunset I hooked one that I managed to land. It was my first tiger fish, and a reasonable one as well so I was extremely pleased and so was Chris that had skipped the boat for me to get it!

My first tiger fish.

In twilight we returned to camp, guided by the fire and our lights, had another Tilapia dinner and, as usual in Africa, we went to bed early for a well deserved rest after a long drive an a very exciting fishing day.

As it often happens, things did not work out as planned.

A couple of hours later we were woken by a leopard started calling very close from our tents and, although it was not a threat for us, it was a rather loud leopard! As the calls continued, we decided to find it. So, Chris and us got in our car and started to drive around trying to reach the place of the calls that now, as usual, stopped! We drove for a while but nothing appeared in our headlights.

We were about to turn around when we caught a glimpse of a spotted hyena running through the thicket and we followed it through the bushes until we came to an area next to the river (about a couple of hundred metres from our camp) where there were a number of racks made with sticks that had been recently used to dry meat and, before we could think what meat it was, we bumped on a large hippo head lying on the ground.

The hyena was after the meat that was left on the head and the leopard was also part of the action but we were not sure on what capacity. We knew that we would not spot it after our drive with headlamps and spotlight and we returned to our camp. Fortunately, our sleep was not interrupted again.

The following morning, we were up early for a sightseeing tour of the Zambezi. It was the first time that we had a chance to appreciate the unmatched beauty of this “mighty” river that traversed very dry country and it was its lifeline. The water was unbelievably clean (at least for our standards) and it contained bright specs that we learnt to be suspended mica particles.

Zambezi River view.

The deep parts of the river showed a dark green hue while the many sand banks were brownish and carefully avoided by our skipper. There were a number of islands between us and the opposite bank that was Zimbabwe, where no motor boats were allowed as the area was protected and it included the Mana Pools National Park, a place we would come to know in the future.

Seeing the windmills, now from the river, we express our perplexity about them to Chris. He was quite amused while hetold us that this had been the farm of someone called Winston that, in the mid 80’s, had convinced President Kaunda that he could make oil from grass! The machines -probably operated by the windmills? – were crushing grass at one end while oil was coming out of the other! The President, convinced by the project manager, had travelled by helicopter to visit the farm and even gave Mr. Winston a Zambian diplomatic passport! The latter was probably deported once it was discovered that the oil was coming from a jerrycan! [4]

We saw lots of game. While the groups of hippo were rather abundant and often loud, there was also game along the river banks where the ocassional crocodile could be seen basking. Apart from the large numbers of elephants, we also spotted many impala and buffalo as well as several troops of baboons. There were also many interesting birds in addition to the expected fish eagles that dotted the shore perched on top of their favourite trees. The African skimmers (Rynchops flavirostris) were great fun to watch while flying a few centimetres above the water with their longer lower mandibule -extremely sensible to the touch- in the water. The moment it encountered a surface fish, its beak would snap shut and fly off to process its prey.

The morning passed very fast and it was soon time to return to camp, pack and start the return journey. Chris would stay longer for an afternoon fishing as his return by boat was much shorter and he wished to store a few more fish to take home.

We had gone through a great experience and we decided that the place was worth another visit.

[1] Mate is a traditional South American drink made by soaking dried leaves of the “yerba” plant (Ilex paraguariensis) in hot water and sucked through a metal straw from a container typically made from a calabash gourd.

[2] See: https://timeandtideafrica.com/time-tide-chongwe-camp/

[3] Several Tilapia species occur in the Zambezi River. For details see: https://zimninja.org/zambezi-river-fishing/

[4] See https://zambiareports.com/2015/03/26/chama-oil-if-only-it-had-become-reality/

Turmoil

Following the recommendation of her doctor, Mabel traveled abroad to get checked on her pregnancy. As the work was rather pressing, I did not go with her but remained in Lusaka, still moving daily to and from Chilanga.

One day, while returning from Chilanga with a colleague from Tanzania called John, a few kilometres before getting to the Kafue roundabout (the entrance to Lusaka city at that time), we started seeing a few cars doing U-turns in total disregard of the traffic. I was still surprised when we also noted a lot of cars with their windscreens smashed and waving their arms at us, and the cars before and after us, to stop and turn back. Then we heard explosions. It took us a few seconds to realize that there were gunshots! Something very odd was happening but we could not know what!

Without a second of hesitation, I turned the pick-up around and started to retreat back to where we were coming from. It was then that we saw a large of crowd of people blocking the road ahead of us and throwing stones at the cars that tried to break through. Clearly, we were trapped between rioters. The area we were in was quarried for stones and there were usually many piles of rocks while people waited to sell them. We knew that there was plenty of ammo to smash our car so, unable to move through the road, I engaged 4WD and headed for the bush, hoping to be able to avoid the trouble and rejoin the road further on. It was not to be so we decided to abandone the car somehow hidden, hoping that the rioters would ignore it, being stationary and unoccupied.

We hatched a plan B that was to walk through the bush, attempting to get to the house of Des, my mechanic that was a few kilometres away. However, we had not yet walked more than a dozen paces when we heard a voice that, through a megaphone, asked the rioters to stop. We saw a couple of pick-ups loaded with soldiers and a convoy that was forming behind them. Without thinking twice, we run back to our pick-up, did another turn to now face Lusaka again and joined the convoy. Clearly, the intention was to attempt reaching Lusaka and we were prepared to take the risk rather than to remain where we were.

Soon the convoy started to move towards the city while the megaphone continously asked the rioters to clear the road. Many did but others would continue to attempt to block the road while still throwing stones to them. Then the soldiers replied by shooting above their heads and a stampede of riotrs ensued and, in a few seconds, the way was cleared!

We had a window of opportunity and we took it without thinking. I drove fast with my adrenline flowing, trying not to lose contact with our “protectors” regardless of the serious rock piles that were placed to block the traffic. It was a bumpy ride, but I managed to keep up while John held on to any available handle inside the car to avoid being knocked about by my rough driving. Luckily, we avoided injuries and damage to the car.

Once we entered the city, the soldiers continued through the main road while we deviated towards the East as I took John to his house. The air was heavy with tear gas and helicopters were flying above our heads when I dropped John and finally headed for home.

I got to our house and when I stopped the car I could still hear shooting and a far off murmur that clearly indicated that people were still revolting, despite the Government attempting to control the situation. The minute or so that Lemek, our gardener, took to open the gate felt like an hour and, as soon as the gate was opened, I rushed in and parked the car. I stayed a while re-gaining some degree of calm after what we had gone through. I felt as exhausted as if I would have driven hundreds of kilometres! I then made sure that the front gate was securely locked and told our employees to stay inside as I was not sure of the extent of the revolt and how it would end!

I then went inside and phoned Mabel to tell her that I was well so for her not to worry as I was sure that the BBC would be reporting on the events already. I got in touch with the project personnel and told them not to move from their houses until further notice. Luckily, Bruno was in Lutale, far away from the problems.

I locked the house and switched on the SW radio tuned to the BBC as the local radio was of not much use and got the UN VHF radio to participate in any security checks that they may do as well as getting information on the situation in the different areas of the city. What I heard was quite worrying as it seemed that the riots were spreading and luting was rampant.

It was Monday the 26th. of June 1990. Earlier, President Kaunda had announced an increase of more than double in the price of maize meal, the staple food of the country. The people were answering to these measures.

The night was reasonably quiet although sporadic shooting was heard. The following day we heard shouting outside the house. It was our turn for the rioters to visit us, probably on their way to the nearby shops and the supermarkets. Quite a few stones were thrown towards the house, but the house was quite far from the road and nothing was broken. To my relief, the crowd continued moving along.

The riots intensified over the next three days. A curfew was imposed, and I stayed home. Luckily, we had sufficient food in the house to last me for a few days. To my relief, on the 28th., the UN VHF radio announced that calm had been restored and essential personnel could go back to work.

The central and some of the commercial areas of Lusaka were severely damaged and most shops showed signs of having suffered a total loss. An estimated twenty-four people died and about one hundred and fifty were injured, many by gunfire. It was the most severe crisis that President Kaunda had suffered during his twenty-six-year rule and his power was severely weakened. When he addressed the Nation later, he repeated his offer of holding a referendum on the introduction of multi-party rule that he had mentioned the previous May.

A charged calm was restored but another surprise laid in waiting. On Sunday 1 July Lieutenant Mwamba Luchembe of the Zambian Army staged a coup d’état attempt [1]. At 3 am the coup’s leader announced via the Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation that the military had taken over the government and he cited riots of the previous week as reasons for his action.

The move only lasted about six hours. However, when people learnt that the military had overthrown Kaunda, hundreds of people demonstrated celebrating the event and, in the confusion that followed, there were rumours of some other military joining the coup.

At 9am, the Army loyal to Kaunda crashed his attempt and Luchembe was arrested although I do not recall that he was put on trial. The coup attempt added to the increasingly fragile situation of the President who, a week later, announced that a national referendum on whether to restore multi-party government would be held on 17 October 1990. We will go through these events later on.

[1] See: https://www.zambianobserver.com/mwamba-luchembe-and-his-failed-coup-of-1990-on-kenneth-kaunda/

Bad motoring start…

We settled down in our house and gradually started to discover Lusaka and its ways. Of course, walking in the city was not advised as there was a high risk of getting mugged. In view of the situation, a car was a must and we needed it fast. Renting a car was not common those days so we relied on “borrowing” a small project vehicle to do our necessary errands.

Northmead, a small shopping centre was quite close to our house and there we did most of our shopping at first. Although safe, we learnt to be very alert of our surroundings while parking at shopping malls as we heard a lot of stories about robbers lurking about. Soon, Mabel discovered other shopping options in both Woodlands and Kabulonga that we started to frequent as well.

At first, goods supply was erratic and poor. Although amusing in retrospect, it was not so when you faced it. A supermarket would have half of its shelves full of one make of toilet paper and the other half with rice while another one will be full of salt, toothpaste and cooking fat and so on. Sugar was impossible to get and people would drive to Mazabuka (Southern Province) to buy it in bulk from the sugar factory located there and then sell it at a high price in the open market or pass it on to friends.  

Because of the situation people were organized in groups whose members placed orders and took turns to do the shopping for the various items and then they would meet at a house and distributed the shopping. A cumbersome but effective system that also worked for meat and its sub-products such as ham and bacon that were obtained at a farm in Chilanga.

Fruits and vegetables were on offer at markets where people from different farms would be offering all sorts of produce, including milk and eggs that complemented the production from the small livestock kept in the houses. These markets were mostly operating on Saturdays and they were a great source of information about what was going on in the city.

So, although with more difficulties than usual, we managed to get by and, luckily, the situation started to get more normal after a few months of being in the country.

Clearly, a car was essential. After having a Land Cruiser in Ethiopia, we decided to go for a larger version: a long-wheel base hardtop, economic and resilient as well as roomy to carry our rubber dinghy, its engine and other needed items for our planned camping and fishing. A large car was a great decision as our family would start growing that same year and we planned to take our children with us at all times, regardless of their age.

Our new car on safari. Mabel and Florencia riding on the roofrack and Annie (our nanny) inside the car while Giuseppe looks on.

Buying a car in Zambia was not as simple as you may think. There was no internet and faxes were the new thing at the time, so you did not have the present-day advantage of buying online! At the time, although there were a few places that offered cars to be delivered fast, these were either of the wrong make or very expensive, so we did not pursue these options.

As in Ethiopia, we decided to place an order through the United Nations (UN) goods procurement agency. This process had advantages and disadvantages. Drawbacks included a three-month waiting time and the limited model choice together with the rather austere specifications of the UN vehicles [1]. This did not bother us but the low price that the UN was able to negotiate was too good to be ignored.

Zambia was still not trading with South Africa, so Durban was out of bounds. The same applied to Walvis Bay as negotiations for the independence of Namibia, that finally got its independence in March 1990, were not yet completed. Mozambique was still undergoing its civil war so both Maputo and Beira were not available! So, the car would arrive in Dar es Salaam, over 1,900 km North-east, a journey of about three days. Luckily, the system for such purchases was already in place as most vehicles imported into Lusaka (both official and private) would come through there.

After the three long months had passed, I got a fax announcing the date the car was due in Dar and from that time things started to move fast. I contacted the FAO Office where I was put in contact with Mr. Victor, the Senior driver, who would be in charge of bringing our car to Lusaka. He would fly to Dar with all the necessary documents, the needed cash and a hotel booking to be able to clear the car and drive it all the way back. Of course, I was to meet all expenses.

I took Victor to the airport and we agreed that he would let me know his arrival time in Lusaka so that I could meet him at home without stopping in Lusaka. This was an added precaution in view of the recent disappearance of a number of new vehicles from various international agencies.

The vehicles were somehow placed in containers and shipped by road to South Africa through what was some organized system that the Zambian authorities of the time could not (or wish not) stop. Interestingly, periodically, the South African police would recover some vehicles and the lists would be distributed among the various international agencies based in Lusaka, but I do not remember of any vehicle listed in them ever returned!

The day of the arrival of the car I stayed home to meet Victor, excited to be getting a new car. I heard the hooting at the entrance, and I was at the gate before Mr. Lemek (the gardener) could open it! It looked like a great car, so I followed it to the house parking area where I met a tired looking Victor and saw that the windscreen was cracked!

Trying to dissimulate my disappointment, I greeted him warmly but I could see that he was very worried and immediately started to apologize. I cut him short and told him that the journey had been very long, and he could not control where the loose stones present on the road would hit the car. Despite my remarks, he still looked very worried. It was then that I heard Mr. Victor saying “Sir, it also has a knock in the engine”. “What?”, I muttered, as if hit on the head with a hammer! He explained that he heard the noise from the first time that the engine started but he did not know what caused it. Again, aware that it was not his fault, I tried to minimize the problem while helping him to collect his belongings. I took Victor home and, honestly, my mind was racing on what to do next!

As soon as I came back, I started the car but I could not hear anything, so I tried to convince myself that it was not a serious issue. However, I phoned Toyota Zambia and they told me to bring it the following morning for them to inspect it. They also warned me that it would be difficult that they would accept liability for the problem as it had happened to a car that was not purchased through them. Additionally, they stated that the issue started in another country! A guarded reply that left me quite worried!

The following day I was at Toyota Zambia before it opened! Eventually I met Phillip (Phil), the Workshop Manager to who I explained my predicament. Luckily, he was a very reasonable man, so I started to feel better. He immediately brought the car to the workshop and tested the engine confirming that there was some abnormal engine noise. More checks made him suspicious of piston damage that would require opening the engine. My mood was somber again.

He must have seen my disappointment as he was quick to add that, after repairs the engine would still be as good as new adding that that engine was among the best engines Toyota ever made. He added that, before opening it, he would report the issue to his boss, the Toyota representative, and hoped that he would agree to do the work under the guarantee. However, Phil could not give me a positive answer until then.

I left the car at the workshop and waited for news while continuing with my project activities but still worried about the car. I waited for two days before Phil called and said that he had bad and good news. The latter was that the representative had agreed to cover all needed repairs under the guarantee. The bad news were that he had already opened the engine and the repair involved replacing a piston and other parts that I did not get. He also asked me to go to the workshop when I had time.

I dropped everything and went straight there. Phil showed me and explained what had happened. Trying to simplify things, the top ring in one of the pistons was “gapped too small”. Then, the heat of the engine caused its expansion and its ends run into each other. The ring pressure became too much for the cylinder and, with more heat, cooling was not sufficient and the piston head broke! Luckily, Phil said, he could find no damage to the inside of the cylinder. It was, he said, “a clear manufacturer error”.

The needed cylinders, valves and other smaller bits and pieces were ordered that same day and, amazingly, these were in Lusaka a few days later and the car was soon repaired and it run well for as long as we had it.

The phrase “every cloud has a silver lining” was true in this occasion as in many others. I got to know Phil and, later on, his wife Rosemary.  Phil retired a few months after I got my car back, but we kept our friendship alive until we left Zambia in 1993.

They lived in a lovely house in Woodlands extension, a leafy suburb a few kilometres from us where we spent a couple of afternoons watching his lovely fishpond that snaked through the garden adding a touch of colour from the koi and gold fish it had, an attractive feature for humans and cats alike. Rosemary and Phil kept several cats that were the children they did not have.

Depending on the weather we would sit in the verandah or on the lawn having a cup of tea with the traditional British scones. Rosemary served the tea and then sat at the piano to play classical music in a very British setting. The only difference was the good weather of Lusaka that, for me, made all the difference.

During his spare time with Toyota and more fully after retiring Phil repaired firearms, mainly from hunter friends and he had a well-equipped workshop. While visiting it Phil proudly showed me his patented invention: an ingenious adjustable chain wrench to remove any kind of oil and diesel filters. He was pleased that these were selling well.

He had also fitted his “bakkie” (pick-up) with another of his creations, a strong metal plate that would lock over the three pedals covering them completely making driving the vehicle impossible without removing it. I found the contraption an overkill and I teased him about it but he swore by it so, still learning about security in Zambia my jokes stopped!

Their kindness to cats was such that they were delighted to accept our offer of leaving the now quite elderlyTigger with them when we we left our elderly Tigger with them when we departed from Zambia [2]. We got frequent updates of our cat’s life until it died a couple of years later.

Rosemary and Phil moved back to the UK a few years after our own departure. Sadly, Rosemary passed away soon afterwards, but Phil managed to somehow adjust to the loss and to England. We kept in touch and we had the great pleasure of hosting him a few years later while we were living in Rome when we reminisced of our time in Zambia like two members of the “Whenwe” ethnic group [3].

[1] As an example, to get an air-conditioned car you required a strong justification endorsed by your country representative!

[2] Inky, our Siamese, had died earlier of kidney failure despite my efforts to keep her alive.

[3] People often start talking saying “When we were in Africa…” so, jokingly they (us included) are referred as “Whenwes”.

Reinforcements arrive

I do not recall the date, but it must have been March or April 1990 when I got up very early to go to the Lusaka airport for an important mission: to meet the first of the colleagues that would join the project. He was an Associate Professional Officer (APO) [1], called Bruno, a Belgian. He was arriving from his country on a Union de Transports Aériens (UTA) flight with a morning arrival time.

The day before I had managed to borrow one of the airport’s passes from FAO to enter into the luggage handling area, before the passengers entered Zambia. I also borrowed one of the FAO arrival signs, normally used by the drivers to collect visitors. I wanted to be absolutely sure to meet him, remembering my early Kenya arrival experience [2].

I was rather anxious because I was meeting a newcomer that would be critical for the project work and I did not know how we would get on. It would also be the first time in my career that I would have someone working with me in a project. He would also be bringing news from the FAO Headquarters, always useful information to get.

I arrived at the airport about one hour before the estimated arrival time, the pass worked and I went through security and stationed myself in what I thought was the most strategic place and I was sure not to be missed and I prepared to wait. The loud noise the “Jumbo” (Boeing 747) made landing at a relatively small airport clearly announced the arrival of the flight and soon the passengers started trickling in until the place was crowded as usual with people looking tired around the conveyor belt that, after a few minutes, jolted into life.

As usual, people started to get their suitcases and bags and walking towards the customs and exit. I waited, watching the flow while trying to spot my visitor before he spotted me! I had a few candidates in mind, and I kept watching. Conveyor belts are monotonous and often frustrating. This was the situation that day until two truly fluorescent bags, one rabid pink and another lemon yellow appeared and, for a while, distracted me but soon they were collected and it was back to the usual boring suitcase parade.

After about forty minutes the crowd thinned and, a few minutes later the hall was empty, the belt stopped, and the airport luggage handlers picked up the few suitcases that remained on the belt and took them away. No Bruno!

I had a good look around before leaving and confirmed that I was alone. Rather baffled I walked out, thinking what could have happened for him not to arrive. I walked outside the terminal heading for the car when I heard a voice behind me saying “ah, FAO!” Taken by surprise, I looked and saw a tall guy with a luggage trolley with the two fluorescent bags I had seen before: Bruno had spotted my FAO arrival sign. He was there after all and I was relieved!

He was not expecting me in the luggage hall but in the arrival hall, he explained and, not finding anyone in the latter, he thought that no one was meeting him and he was looking for a taxi to get to town. I took him to his hotel while talking about the country and the work that was expected from the project and from him as he would be in charge of the tick trial in Lutale, but more about that later.

Aware of the existence of the Zambezi River (although I had not seen it) I had purchased a Zodiac rubber dinghy (a very safe boat I was told) to be able to enjoy some river exploring and fishing. Convinced already that Bruno and us would get on, I invited him to go fishing in the Kafue river, close to Lusaka, the following day that happened to be a Sunday. Although it was not a good fishing day the outing was a good way to strengthen our connection, a very useful thing.

With Mabel, testing our new rubber dinghy at the Kafue Marina.

While Bruno was overlooking the trial in Lutale and settling in, I was devoting most of my efforts to keep the immunization work going in Southern Province, working with the Government personnel. I was rather stretched and trying to “push” FAO to recruit a Protozoologist that would take care of this work so that I could supervise the whole project. A month later FAO informed me of the candidate selected for the job and I agreed. Giuseppe, an Italian I knew briefly from Ethiopia was confirmed.

I also went to the airport when he arrived. This time, as we knew each other, the welcoming was easier and my confidence on the project success was boosted! I knew that Giuseppe was hard working and practical and capable of doing the job that he would in charge of. In addition, he brought more good news: another APO was being selected to work with him on the immunization against theileriosis.

Giuseppe got himself to Monze in Southern Province after a few days and stayed at the New Monze hotel for a few days until his personal effects arrived and he was able to rent one of the few houses available there.

The last member of the project arrived about a month afterwards. It was Anders, a young Danish veterinarian that went straight to Monze to join Giuseppe. The latter hosted him until he found his own place, something easier said than done. After a few weeks, he was lucky to find a house in the outskirts of the city. There we enjoyed the rural setting and having a few domestic animals around. I recall that he missed having fresh milk in the mornings and that he would get up very early to go to the local market to get it!

Bruno started his Lutale tour of duty staying at a small Government guest house used by visiting Government officials. So, he could only stay there for a short while. It had been agreed in his FAO briefing that, with project funding, he would build his own house and, after the work was completed, the future of the building would be decided with the Government. Chief Chibuluma, our host had agreed to this rather unusual solution so he started the building work.

In record time he had built a rather comfortable thatched-roofed house close to the village’s dam. The house had two bedrooms, an office and a comfortable sitting room. Electricity was provided by a generator until 22hs and he built a “Tanganyika boiler” that supplied ample hot water. He then announced that he was ready to bring his wife Dominique.

Tanganyika, Donkey or Rhodesian boiler. Credit to Kim Hannah Pearse, downloaded from Pinterest.

Very soon with Giuseppe and Anders we negotiated with George, the Director of Veterinary Services, that the expansion of the immunization programme would take place at an area known as Hufwa. Farmers there were requesting for assistance as they almost did not have calves surviving because of the heavy mortality due to theileriosis. They welcomed our proposal with open arms and the various villages agreed to build cattle holding facilities for the project to do its work. Soon we were flooded us with cattle beyond our capacity to immunize so we needed to improve our vaccine supply to cope with the demand!

The project had two drivers, Mr. Mutale and Mr. Chewe (not their real names) from the earlier project. The former was a city driver, used to move people within Lusaka. Although not noted for his fast thinking, he was an extremely careful driver that I enjoyed being driven by. Mr. Chewe, conversely, was very sharp and a true bush driver. He would not mind sleeping in the car if necessary and was able to make common repairs naturally. Eventually he was posted to Monze to help Giuseppe and Anders while Mr. Mutale remained in Lusaka supporting the project administration with limited field work.

Unlike the drivers, the former project secretary, seeing that no one was coming to continue the work, had moved to another FAO project. We needed to recruit a Secretary and we found Euphemia. She had experience working in a sister tsetse and trypanosomiasis project as the “second” secretary and immediately got going. Apart from efficient, she was also a very kind and good-natured person that brought her cheerfulness to our activities.

To me, she became invaluable as, not being maths person, I had difficulties closing the project accounts every quarter. I always had a difference that resisted my efforts to balance them for many hours and a couple of times, fed-up of fruitlessly looking for my error, I decided to send a driver to fill the tank with (for example) Kwacha 25.45 of diesel so as to get things right, something that the accountants in FAO kindly overlooked!

Seeing me struggling with the accounts Euphemia volunteered and immediately got the hand to it and at the right time she presented me with the draft accounts that, for some miracle, matched perfectly, a great help at the time! She got herself a new line in her terms of reference!

After a while traveling to and from Lusaka to the Veterinary laboratory in Chilanga, it became clear that there was no added advantage for the project to be there as we were occupying a driver and punishing a vehicle to get to a place that was difficult to reach and to communicate with. I talked to John, the manager of our sister project working on tsetse and trypanosomiasis that were also responsible for the Lutale training camp next to our project and he kindly agreed to also share his offices in town with us. This was a great move that facilitated the work and brought us close to colleagues that were also commuting to Lutale.

In the new office we had many project meetings and usually at lunch time we would order pizzas. Although these were acceptable to us, Giuseppe refused to eat them and always chose something else. The situation became untenable for him the day Euphemia ordered a “Tropical” pizza. When it came, the chunks of pinneaple were almost offensive for Giuseppe that made a great (good humoured) fuss and even moved to a different table to have his lunch! Aware of this, we sometimes ordered such a pizza just to watch his reaction! [3]

During the more than two years the project lasted, we also held periodic meetings outside Lusaka, close to the work areas of Lutale and Monze. As we had a good relationship, sometimes we chose a place at a nearby National Park at our expense to make the work more amenable by doing a bit of game viewing. During the meetings we would review progress, discuss options to solve difficulties and plan for the future activities. Our favourite places were Kafue National Park (close to Lutale) and Lochinvar National Park (close to Monze).

With Bruno (left) and Anders (right) at Lochinvar National Park.

As a neutral participant, I tried to moderate, often with little impact, the discussions between the three Europeans on European Union policies. However, the differences of approach between the Italians, Belgium and Denmark were such that it was difficult to find an agreement!

The game of French boules (Petanque) [4], promoted by Bruno, became the highlight of the meetings.The teams were the “Old” (Giuseppe and me) and the “Young” (Anders and Bruno). The game’s popularity was not because it was very exciting but because the reward for the winners of each round was a sip of a rather good Italian grappa, courtesy of Giuseppe. Of course, this was a double-edged sword as the more you won, the more you drank and the worse you played, making the game evenly matched at the end! DEspite this, the youngsters beat us at both the game and the grappa resilience!

While in Monze, we used the Monze Hotel as our base. Although it was clean, it had no water during the day and very often, no electricity. The water shortage was such that I would leave the tap open when I left in the morning and by the end of the day there was probably 15 cm of water for my daily wash! It had a restaurant that offered a choice of grilled t-bone steak or chicken and, frankly, I do not recall what dessert there was if any!

Monze Hotel. Credit John Y. Mvula. Screenshot from Google maps.

Zambia had a lager beer called Mosi and it is interesting that the manufactureer defines it as “Named after the mighty Mosi oa Tunya (Victoria Falls) Mosi Lager is the iconic Zambian beer. Brewed for over 30 years it’s Zambia’s number one thirst quencher. Mosi is a clean, crisp and refreshing lager with a characteristic pleasant bitterness, and a delicate hop aroma”. What they do not say is that in the days we were in Zambia there was a joke going round that spoke about its poor quality control. The story went like this:

A customer asked for a beer at a bar and finds a fly inside the bottle. He calls the waiter, complains, and gets another bottle. As he keeps finding flies, eventually the fly is removed and the beer drunk to avoid time wasting. One day, a flyless beer is delivered and the customer calls the waiter and asks “where is my fly?”.

This well known joke did not deter the Zambian customers at the Monze hotel that, on weekends, would sit outside and buy a whole crate of twelve bottles that they would place under their chairs and drink away the whole night! Of, course, they could not see the flies as it was dark and they drank from the bottles!

Sometimes we would dine at the New Monze, usually grilled chicken with rice or chips. As Giuseppe with the tropical pizza, Bruno would not touch the local fries, used to the amazing double-fried Belgian chips!

One of these occasions was rather memorable.

While having a forced candle lit dinner, we decided to risk the flies and ordered four Mosi, aware that they would be rather warm as fridges did not like the electricity interruptions and mostly died of a power surge. Although we were talking away, after waiting an inordinate amount of time, one of us went to the bar to remind the waiter about our drinks order.

Eventually the waiter, who was also the barman and cashier, came and brought eight beers and not the four we had ordered. We looked at each other in surprise and asked him for the reason why he had brought double the amount we had asked. Looking rather confused he said “sorry” and took the four extra away.

While eating, we noted that the waiter was really accelerated and that other customers (that we could not see but heard) were complaining about the service. As this was not unusual, we finished our meal and asked for the bill. Again we waited a very long time and, as it did not come, rather fed-up, we all got up and walked to the small table where the waiter sat calculating the bills.

When he saw us, clearly absent-minded he started to add up our consumption when we noted that the candle fell over and a stream of burning wax spread over the table. Oblivious to this, the waiter continued writing while the tablecloth caught fire and surrounded a paraffin lamp that was also on the table.

Seeing that a conflagration that could destroy the hotel was likely, we took action while the waiter still did not seem to be aware of his surroundings! As no fire extinguishers were at hand we grabbed another table cloth and tried to suffocate the fire while removing the lamp. Water was brought up from the kitchen and poured on the table. It was only when splashed by the water that the waiter oake up from his trance and reacted to join us (and other customers) in our fire control efforts.

The smoke attracted the Manager who got furious with the waiter and strongly reprimanded him. We learnt that he had indulged in the rather common practice of smoking “uluwangula”, known to us as marijuana! [5] Luckily for him, he was not sacked although after that night he behaved like a normal waiter!

[1] The Associate Professional Officer’s programme would fund young graduates through FAO with funds from a number of European countries such as The Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium, Italy, etc.

[2] See: https://bushsnob.com/2014/09/30/africa

[3] Afterwards, after eating in Italy for a few years, I understood his views fully!

[4] The idea of French boules is to throw a metal ball close to a smaller one called “cochonnet” in French and you score by the number you get closer to it. When two vs. two play you get three balls each and one member of a team throws first, then a member of the other team throws, etc. until all twelve balls are played and the round ends. Then you count how many points you scored and add to the tally of each team. The first team reaching thirteen points after as many rounds as necessary wins the game. More details: https://frenchyourway.com.au/how-to-play-petanque-rules-of-petanque

[5] Also known as “dobo”, the local weed strain is considered of very poor quality and although illegal at the time, it was very common in the local markets. Zambians preferred to smoke marijuana imported from the Democratic Republic of Congo that they called “Congo poison”.

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.

pic

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.

Zambia. The real Africa [1]

Victoria Falls. Eastern cataract and rainbows.

Luckily for me after Ethiopia FAO had a vacancy in a regional tick and tickborne disease control programme in Zambia as the former Project Manager became the coordinator of the whole programme and was moving off to Harare.

I had visited the country in the early eighties to see the work that the tick component of the FAO programme in Zambia was doing as it was similar to what I was starting in Kenya. So, I knew one of the areas where I was going to work. Luckily, I also knew George, the Director of Veterinary Services and I was aware that he was a good man and committed to the work that FAO was doing in the country. So, I did not expect a difficult start.

I would be in charge of two earlier projects that were now combined into one. These had been part of a rather large programme that, for several years, had supported the veterinary department in several aspects of animal disease control. One component was the study of the impact of tick infestation on cattle in Central Province, both weight gain and milk production while the other involved the immunization of cattle against theileriosis in Southern Province.

The tick project was based at Lutale, a locality near Mumbwa, a town 160 km from Lusaka, in the Central Province of Zambia, on the Great West Road that runs 590 km from Lusaka to Mongu, capital of Western Province. Originally the place was devoted to research and training on the control tsetse and trypanosomiasis but activities, although still going, had shrunk to training of medium level technical personnel, also run by FAO.

At Lutale we had an agreement with Chief Chibuluma to have our own herd of native Sanga (Bos taurus africanus) cattle that were the subjects of the study. Our job was to continue the work for about two additional years, introducing a new group of cattle to which a new “strategic” [2] tick control method would be applied, and their performance compared with undipped and dipped cattle to obtain figures on the economics of tick control under the conditions of the trial.

The project office at Lutale.

Theileriosis was endemic in Southern Province and successful immunization against this disease had been going on for several years by the earlier programme, on the lines developed by FAO in Muguga (under the leadership of my ex boss Matt). By request of the Government, FAO was tasked with the expansion of this procedure to a larger number of animals in an effort to reduce the heavy losses that were being experienced there.

Gathering cattle for immunization against theileriosis.

As I needed to commute between Lutale and Monze, a town located 196 km south from Lusaka (in Southern Province) and in the direction of Livingstone and the Victoria Falls [3], I would be based in Lusaka, more exactly at the Central Veterinary Research Institute (CVRI) located in Chilanga District, 25km southwest of Lusaka, off the Kafue road in an area known as Balmoral. As we would reside in Lusaka, that meant a daily drive through a rather rough road. I realized that it was not the ideal place to be but I was in no condition to change anythingat the timeapart from getting on with the work.

It was an ambitious project that gave me the responsibility for work that had been done earlier by two specialists and I was stretched to the limit. Luckily, after discussions with FAO and the Government, I managed to persuade them that I needed help, particularly with the immunization part of the project and the post of Protozoologist was created for Southern Province. This was a relief but it would still take some time to find and recruit a suitable candidate. In addition, I applied to FAO to be allocated a couple of Associate Professional Officers [4], one for each component of the project. In the meantime and for a few months I was alone to do and/or supervise all the work.

Mabel and I arrived at Lusaka via Nairobi and stayed at Andrews Motel for a few days until we managed to find a suitable house in town. We moved there as soon as our first shipment with essential household stuff arrived, hoping that the rest of our personal effects would come from Ethiopia in a couple of weeks. So we camped at another house, again.

A view of our Lusaka house and Emmanuel, our cook,unblocking the gutters.

As usual, we were wrong estimating that our belongings would arrive soon. Well, some of them did but they were not very useful as, for example, the bed boards arrived but not the rest of the bed or the top of my desk came but not its drawers or legs! When we complained to the shipping agency they apologized profusely and promised to follow up the issue. In the meantime, we needed to buy a number of items for the house that we already had but we had no other choice.

Our first consignment of personal effects.

A couple of weeks later the shipping agency informed us that there was a problem with our shipment (oh surprise!): it had been crated in boxes larger than the door of the plane that flew between Addis and Lusaka! But they told us that they would be a larger plane coming soon and that they would place the remaining of our items on it. So it was that another part of our consignment came two weeks later and we waited for about a month for the final third with which we could finally assemble all our furniture and appliances! By that time we had succeeded in buying almost everything again!

It was during that agitated time that Mabel got pregnant so our life changed as we went through gestation to the birth of our children. As medical facilities were very basic in Lusaka, we needed to travel to Harare for periodic check-ups and the eventual birth of our first child: Florencia. Our son Julio Junior followed 15 months later so we had little time for safaris, apart from those we could accommodate with the on going work.

Searching for pictures to illustrate the Zambia posts I found that most of the ones I could find include our children so my Zambia posts would be rather poor in that respect, made even worse by not being able to move towards my picture “bank” in Harare because of the Covid 19 pandemic! So I will do with what I have and prepare a picture library for the various posts later if I find the relevant pictures. I hope that you still enjoy reading them!

[1] This was Zambia’s motto at the time to promote tourism.

[2] The application of acaricides was done according to tick infestation levels and seasonality to reduce its cost without losses.

[3] At the time, different donors operated in different areas of Zambia, the Dutch in Western Province, the Belgians in Eastern Province, etc.

[4] The Associate Professional Officer’s programme would fund young graduates through FAO with funds from a number of European countries such as The Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium, Italy, etc

The wild Shoebill stork chase – The videos

As there was some technical issue with the videos that illustrated the earlier post, I attach them here with a short explanation about each one.

 

This video shows how the going was when things were relatively easy. Nevertheless, my admiration goes to Lola that managed to record the moment while she kept walking!

 

While she filmed her steps, that is how the rest of us were doing!

 

Walking on floating vegetation. A view of the situation when the going got tough.

 

Finally observing the nest!

 

Preparations for the Bushsnob to jump a ditch on the way back and his great jump!

The wild Shoebill stork chase

“… I dreamed of seeing a Shoebill. … a unique bird in Africa … It is a trophy bird for birdwatchers, and seeing it had been a dream since my youth. … With a guide who knew the Shoebill and a driver who knew the mud, we set out in an open-topped vehicle to the limit of where the swamp tolerated cars. There we searched out and watched a Shoebill. And what a show bill!  Vernon R.L. Head (2015). The Search for the Rarest Bird in the World. Signal Books Ltd.

The second part of our Zambian safari was the Bangweulu Wetlands where we would attempt to find the mythical Shoebill storks (Balaeniceps rex). So, after deciding to return to Kasanka to see the bats again [1] we moved north.

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The red dots show Nkondo and Nsobe further north. The brown area is the Bangweulu wetlands management area.

We had a hint of what expected us: our navigators showed a journey of 120km to Nsobe to take 7.5 hours! The going will be slow so again so, on 8 October, we left early again. After only a few kilometres of asphalt we took the turning for the Bangweulu Wetlands at Chitambo. This dirt track, surprisingly for me, traversed well-populated areas. However, judging by the enthusiasm with which the children in particular greeted us and by the rather dangerous evasive maneuvers taken by cyclists at our approach, cars with tourists were not common. In fact we only met two of them returning from the wetlands.

While at Kasanka we had learnt that -as we suspected- we were too late to have a real chance of finding Shoebill storks as the water was low and the birds had moved north where there was still water and food. Nests would now be empty as most fledglings had matured and moved off. So, I thought, “finding our trophy bird would be rather impossible” but kept these negative thoughts to myself while trying to find a Plan B such as visiting a new area, watching other water birds and the herds of Black Lechwe that inhabit the wetlands.

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A more detailed map. I added a black dot where we left the car and a star where the nest was expected to be.

While planning this leg of the journey we learnt that camping on Shoebill Island was not possible so we had booked the Nsobe Campsite, a community-managed camp that we considered adequate for our purposes. The drive (see map above) took us past Lake Waka Waka and Nakapalayo until we eventually got to the Nkondo Headquarters and entrance gate. From there we continued in a northwesterly direction through Mwelushi and Muwele until we got to Nsobe.

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The Nsobe campsite was quite basic. However, soon after arriving, the camp attendants brought us water and firewood and indicated to us that there was a flush toilet and shower nearby. The latter was to be shared among the various campers. This would have been a challenge if there would have been other campers but, luckily, we were alone. The latter also enabled us to pick what we thought was the best site and there we gladly assembled our camp under the shade.

The campsite was located in the area where the tree islands ended and the vast flat and endless expanse of dry wetlands, crisscrossed by dykes and channels started.

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Very soon after setting up camp we rushed off to the Chikuni Visitors Centre, a further five kilometres north where we were to meet Brighton, our own Shoebill guide that Frank had contacted earlier. Being on the ground he would know whether we had chances of finding Shoebills.

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Meeting with Brighton and planning our next move.

Luckily the bush mail system had worked and not only he was there, waiting for us, but there was also a photocopy of our booking indicating that we had paid in advance to avoid any possible problems!

We learnt that our information from Kasanka was true: most Shoebills had indeed moved north and it would be difficult to see them. Our hearts sunk. However, he knew of one nest that still had a young stork. Our hearts leaped. But this was in a hunting area that we could not enter! The sinking feeling again!

Clearly, our situation was not good. However, as usual, Brighton would try to arrange a car to pick us up and take us to the area the following day. This required a walk across the river from Shoebill Island to meet the car. He sent cellphone and written messages to Nkondo Headquarters hoping to get the necessary authorization for both the proposed journey and the car we needed. He hoped that we would have an answer that same afternoon and he will contact us.

In the meantime we decided that an exploratory visit to Shoebill Island was in order. We drove through the airstrip on a very dusty road. At the island we found a large lodge overlooking a swampy area that still had water. The lodge was about to re-open and the prices we were given made us lose interest rather rapidly!

We then focused on the swamp and spotted a good flock of Large white pelicans, Knob bill ducks and Woolly neck storks parked on the opposite shore. Beyond them the Black lechwe were there in numbers and they seemed to be quite used to being watched. We saw a few herds grazing about and my mind started thinking about predators. Later I learnt that hyenas and jackals were the main carnivores in the area and we saw a couple of side striped jackals near our camp and the typical white hyena dung at several locations but they remained hidden.

Back at camp we fruitlessly waited for Brighton’s arrival so, before nightfall, we drove back to Chikuni to learn that the trip was off, as Brighton had not had any news from Nkondo. While Lola and Frank arranged to go for a walk with Brighton early the following morning, we decided to stay at camp and, later, drive around exploring the area.

After all activities were completed, at the end of the day it was time for our final and crucial encounter with Brighton to decide the fate of our Shoebill adventure as we were departing the day after. The news he had was somehow promising. The hunters were lifting their camp the following day and there was a chance -albeit slim- for us. It all depended on obtaining the agreement of the Management Area authorities at Nkondo and to get a vehicle to take us to the area.

Forever hopeful, we agreed to shorten our stay at Nsobe and departed very early the morning of the 10 October to reach Nkondo in time to get permission to go to the hunting area, book the car and obtain permission to camp near Nkondo once our Shoebill trip was completed. It was a very tight programme but still feasible, just!

We arrived at Nkondo at about 08:30hs and Brighton’s plan met with an initial “nyet”. However, the female contingent of the team somehow managed to twist the arm of management (all male) and, after a radio call to confirm that the hunters were leaving and no shooting was taking place, we were given the green light.

The ladies also negotiated for a car to take us there and a place to spend the night! I do not know how they managed this as I stayed away from the “talks”.

So, we now had a guide who knew where the Shoebill was and a driver who knew the mud! However, the details of what was in front of us had not been revealed and were still sketchy.

I was not at all aware about the number of hours drive to get to the place where the car would be “abandoned” and our walking would start. I did not know the distance to be walked and when I asked Peter (our driver) how long we needed to drive to get to the start of the walk he told me “three hours” and later on told Lola that it would be “five hours”.

Although I was uneasy, I decided to trust Brighton’s judgment and come to conclusions later.

We left our cars at Nkondo where we would camp for that night after our return and climbed on a rather new open vehicle. As soon as we could (09:00hs) we were on the road and took the turning to the Makanga Hunting Camp (see map above). The drive took us through some villages,  then across woodlands,  areas of dried up wetlands with interesting termite mound formations and finally to the endless dry plains. We did not see anything much during the five hours it took us to get to the end of the car ride.

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After driving for about four hours we left our track to cut across the plains. Brighton wisely decided to enter this point in his GPS as the Black Lechwe skull that indicated the “junction” could be overlooked on the way back. Luckily Frank knew how to manage the GPS as none of the others -including Brighton- knew!

The final few kilometres were driven across the plains and, every now and then we needed to cross the dikes that the fishing communities had built over generations. It was not possible to cross them as they were too high and were adjacent to water-filled channels. Luckily Peter knew a trick or two and looked for a termite mound, included in the dyke, and we used its smoother surface to climb over and across!

Thus, after crossing at least half a dozen dykes (and ditches), the ground became too soft for the car and at about 14:00hs we stopped (see grey circle in the map above) and got ready to walk the rest of the way.

What follows now is an account of our “walk”. The narrative has benefitted from contributions from the three other team members although the final responsibility for what I say is mine. Lola -the only one in a condition to do so at the time- illustrated the walk and, in addition, she managed to exasperate me as you will see!

Before going on, however, I must warn you that SOME OF THE PICTURES AND OR VIDEOS THAT YOU WILL SEE BELOW MAY NOT BE FOR SENSITIVE READERS…

Before I go fully into the march, the Bangweulu wetlands project is working hard to protect the Shoebills from predation [1]. The idea is that when members of the fishing community find a nest they report it to the Management Area and they are given the responsibility of “looking after their nest” for 120 days in exchange for a stipend. In this case, the nest had been found on 23 September.

We then learnt that we were going to meet Emmanuel, the fisherman responsible for that nest and he would come with us. So, we did our final checks on hats, water, cameras, etc., leaving unnecessary items with Peter in the car.

We started well enough, walking over grassy but dry terrain. This lasted for a few hundred metres and then for the next kilometre we traversed a swamp that soon became wet and then our feet were inside water basically for the rest of the walk. As we were not able to walk barefoot like Brighton and the fishermen, our shoes became the key tools for the job.

Fortunately my wife Mabel and I were wearing walking sneakers rather than heavy boots. However, soon my feet started to slip inside the shoes and this did not help my normally poor equilibrium so I announced that I planned to fall repeatedly while trying to remember to tighten the shoestrings as soon as we stopped.

After a while we entered an area where the water increased and the mud became softer and deeper. We were in fact walking over floating vegetation! As the going deteriorated Brighton, trying to keep us cheerful, pointed at a mound in front of us saying that it was the island where we would meet Emmanuel! All I could see was more swamp…  I pushed on.

Eventually, after about five hundred metres, we reached Emmanuel’s island where he lived with his family. “Terra firme at last” I thought while using the short respite to wash my hands, drink water and adjust my shoes. At that time I heard Brighton announced that from there on we would follow a river. We set off again and two more fishermen joined us soon. One of them offered me a rather heavy stick that I accepted gladly as I usually carry one in my walks.

This one resembled a primitive crozier that I found useless and continued to blunder for a few more steps until one of the fishermen told me to place the forked end down to avoid it sinking! Lola later confessed that I reminded her of Moses dividing the mud! I did not feel like that at all.

Watching the fishermen (always in front of me of course) I had plenty of time to realize that the trick was both not to wear shoes and to walk fast stepping on firm mud clumps before starting to sink. Regrettably, imitating their gait was not on as I weighed twice as much (and was already sinking the moment I stepped on the clumps) and I was wearing shoes so I could only admire their ability!

Not all of us had the same degree of difficulty as we had different ages, weights and physical (and mental?) conditions. Apart from Mabel, even Frank (coming from a dyke country) also had problems. Conversely, Lola could follow the fishermen successfully and then became almost as annoying as the biting flies! She would go in the front of the file with the fishermen and then wait for us to catch us in all sorts of miserable conditions. Not happy with that she would loudly claim to be a Jacana and be able to walk over the mud rather than into it like the rest of us!

I will give you some details of my mud (mad?) walking if what I was doing can be called that. The routine was that I took a few good steps and, when all seemed to be going great, one of my feet would find a soft spot and start sinking. Instinctively I attempted to keep the vertical by moving the other foot, while trying to raise the stuck one. Unfortunately, the second foot would also sink triggering a weird sideways dance that often ended with a soft landing on the mud or water!

If I would not had been tired and suffering from severe tachycardia, I would have laughed at my situation as each misstep was accompanied by gallant attempts by the fishermen to grab me and lift me up, an impossible task for people weighing half my weight! Declining their kind offers I gradually managed to remove my buried limbs and stood up to resume my endless stagger.

After a while, we were too worn-out even to talk and all our energies were focused on removing our legs from deep mud and sinking holes, apparently made by water mongooses. On occasions you would step on a harmless looking puddle and you would go down to your groin in watery mud.

 

As we moved on, resting stoppages became more and more frequent. I took these pauses not only to recover my breath but also to give a few minutes to my muscles (and battered feet) to regain their shapes and tone while waiting for my racing heart to regain the usual rhythm of a retiree!

As we progressed towards our feathered objective my thoughts were not cheerful. They focused on the walk back (as we could not afford to book a helicopter to lift us all to safety!), negotiating the liquid mud and dykes in twilight, the five-hour drive back to Nkondo and the setting up the tent in the dark.

Before I could find more negative thoughts, Brighton’s voice brought me back to the bleak reality “the nest is near that clump of reeds” and that seemed like a good excuse to stop! I looked in the direction that he indicated and I thought I could just make up some taller reeds. I continued walking, now almost on auto pilot: four steps, right leg sinking, pulling right leg up, left leg thinking, falling, fell, start removing right leg, then left leg, stand up, re-start and I was moving again through the deep limb-sucking quagmire!

We were not yet there though as -unknown to us- the fishing channels lurked ahead. These were not very wide and, under normal circumstances, they would have demanded a small jump to clear them. However, when you are not able to start your jump from a firm surface but from a floating island, the exercise becomes a new challenge. At that time it became clear why we had three fishermen with us. They needed to fill the channels with chunks of mud so that we could negotiate them. I did not manage too well…

Eventually we reached our almost impossible target. Suddenly we saw two large storks take off and a few minutes later we arrived at an area of floating vegetation where there was a clearing, lots of dry straw and, in the middle of it there was a motionless grey object: a fledgling Shoebill stork laid on its nest! It was still small, except for its rather oversized bill and its only movement was the blinking of its yellow eye. It was quite sweet in an ugly sort of way!

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As we did not wish to disturb the motionless bird and time was going fast, we started our return after a few minutes contemplation and picture taking (to prove that we had seen it!).

The time was 16:00 hours when we turned around and the same muddy way waited for us…

I will not waste your valuable time describing the return walk. I will just say that -as expected- it was worse: we were more tired, visibility deteriorated gradually and the pulling out of stuck limbs was now accompanied by cramps that locked feet in positions that made their removal from the mud difficult. The stick helped as a support when jumping channels and also to bite it when the cramps set in!

About half an hour too early Brighton started to “see” the car near some palm trees ahead of us. As much as I strained my eyes, I saw nothing! All in all we returned in two hours and, by 18:00hs, we were back on the car after saying farewell to the three fishermen that helped us so much. Our smartphones indicated that we had covered 11.4km of which I reckon ten percent we “walked” and the rest we jumbled through various kinds of mud and holes full of water!

The GPS point taken earlier proved to be invaluable (I am sure Brighton knew this but kept quiet to avoid demoralizing us before the walk!) as it enabled us to find our almost invisible track in the dark. Luckily, having experience on driving in open vehicles we had taken the warmest clothing available and, despite our wet shoes and trousers, we did not feel cold during the seemingly endless return journey.

The rest is not important. We got back at 23:30hs, assembled our tents in the HQs grounds, took a quick shower to remove a small fraction of the sticky mud, grabbed whatever food we could find and I promise you that I was sleep even before my head landed on my pillow!

Unfortunately I woke up sweaty and panicky a few hours later. I have had a nightmare! I was walking in the Bangweulu wetlands with a Jacana in pursuit of a young Shoebill stork! “What a ridiculous dream” I thought and, very relieved; I went back to sleep knowing that often dreams are crazy!

 

[1] We learnt that thwarted attempts at stealing chicks had taken place in the past!