Zambia

Time to move

The previous post on Lake Tanganyika was the last dealing with our first spell in Africa that, at the time, we did not know if it was the only one! The field programme I was working on came to a renewal time so it was time to leave Zambia.

As the technical officer in charge of ticks and tickborne diseases at FAO headquarters retired, I was assigned to cover that post in Rome.

From the field I saw this as a wise move in order to take a new, albeit difficult, professional challenge, particularly to follow Paul, one of my main mentors. However, that is life and someone had to do the job. I still remember his words when discussing the move: “remember that it is more important to listen than to talk!”.

So it was that we sold household items and we packed the rest for our stay in Rome that, in principle, would be for three months but that, with hard work and a bit of luck could be extended beyond that time. In restrospective, I was so excited about the move that the thought of my contract stopping after 3 months in Rome did not cross my mind!

Apart from the work aspect, it was also a good time to move to Italy for other reasons: the education of our children (then 3 and 2 years old respectively), . Our kids´education was of prime importance as well as to fulfill Mabel´s wishes to come to Italy, the country of her ancestors!

So, full of enthusiasm, we embarked in this new stage in our lives that I will be referring to in the next few posts.

Christmas at Kasaba Bay – Departure

Our plane to Lusaka was leaving at 11am so we got up early to prepare for the return journey. We needed to get back to Kasaba Bay, so we all got on the double cab, babies, toddlers, and nannies inside and adults at the back. We got there in good time and, after saying our farewells, we joined other passengers at the thatch-roofed wall-less terminal to wait for our Zambia Airways plane to arrive.

The crowd included our former companions from Ndole Bay that, I must say, looked more strained than us! We still had not forgotten that they had nicked some of our fish, so we just gave each other disdainful looks! We focused on entertaining our children during the wait.

Soon we heard the plane arriving and we got ready to board and queued with the rest, trying to get to the front of the line on account of our youngsters. While we were moving, we were approached by a visibly mortified Zambia Airways staff that informed us that there had been a problem and we were not on the flight!

The news left us shocked and speechless as we could not understand what had happened. The plane looked the same as the one that brought us seven days earlier so we did not comprehend where the ten extra people came from, unless there were members of the President´s entourage left behind? We did not enquire about their origin so we will never know what created “the problem”.

One more week at Kasaba Bay was not in our plans as we needed to go back to our project and, at the time, I was the Organization’s Representative in the country as well! We all used our strongest arguments such as “We cannot be left here with our babies” “It’s got to be a mistake” “We have confirmed flights” “We must go back to our work!” but none had the desired effect. We were grounded and told to move aside while the other passengers boarded. I thought I saw our former co-hosts at Ndole Bay board with a smirk, or perhaps I just imagined it…

The airline representative also told us that we would be accommodated at Kasaba Bay lodge with all costs met by Zambia Airways. When we asked when we would get another flight back, he said: “the next scheduled flight is next week, but please, do not worry, they are working on another plane to come to fetch you all tomorrow” and then added “keep checking with the control tower here for news”. The next thing we saw was his back while boarding the plane. The door was shut, and we were on our own! We looked around for the control tower, but we only saw a small room with a radio adjacent to the thatched terminal. Rather frustrated, we decided to tackle them later!

It was a beaten group that arrived at the lodge to spend the night. We did not know how many days we would be there! Luckily, the presidential party had vacated all the rooms and we were among the few guests present. We were taken to our chalets, settled down and, slowly, the importance of the bad experience started to fade as we realized that we were still at a nice place, we had food for our children and the lodge would provide for us free of charge. “Not too bad” I thought, trying to look at the bright side.

After a while, we decided to explore our surrounds. The lodge consisted of a large block with a reception and lobby areas and an adjacent dining area and kitchen. Guests stayed in chalets that were lined up at about fifty metres from the water edge with a view of the lake and its hazy mountainous frame. The lodge grounds were well kept, and it was clear that some work had gone into gardening. There was also a nice swimming pool and a bar was next to it. President Chiluba had chosen a nice place!

We were heading for the bar when we heard a woman shouting “go away, go away…” adorned with some other invectives that I prefer not to publish here. Then a very large elephant, tail up, was coming straight at us but luckily it veered off while we also tried to take cover. Behind the pachyderm came a tough looking stocky lady wielding a broomstick. The large bull was carrying a large chunk of a bougainvillea that it was clearly not allowed to take! It was a truly surreal and funny sight as the elephants we knew from East Africa did not interact with humans in that way.

After the elephant experience, our lunch and siesta, Bruno and I decided that it was time to tackle the radio room to find out what was taking place regarding our departure as well as to put some pressure on them so that our situation could be solved as soon as possible. The people were very polite but had no idea of the future. They knew the same things we did.

I was particularly insistent -assuming my Head of Agency status- and I mentioned that I needed to get back to Lusaka as I oversaw our organization’s main office and had diplomatic tasks to fulfil. While I was proffering my solemnest possible speech, I noticed that Bruno walked out of the room. Once I finished with my diatribe, I got the usual polite promise that they would try their best.

Rather annoyed I left the room and found Bruno outside, laughing loud. “What do you find so funny?” I asked him, rather upset at his apparent lack of solidarity. He looked at me and still laughing replied “Julio, I wish you could look at yourself in a mirror” and went on, saying: “who on earth is going to believe that you are the Head of an international agency looking like that!” Then I realized that I was rather scruffy after a week of bush life: dirty shirt and shorts, untidy beard and hair and a floppy hat. I realized that he was right, and I also burst out laughing. As often, Bruno had a good point!

After our control room futile visit, we went back to our lodge and spent the rest of the afternoon with the family. While at our bungalow, I spotted a large elephant coming towards the lodge following the lake shore. It walked a few metres from us, and I noted that it was a male with only one tusk. I brought the children to see it and told Bruno about it.

Our daughter Flori comes to know what elephant dung is!

Oblivious to our presence the elephant walked close to us and continued towards the lodge. After a while we heard a mighty noise coming from the kitchen area followed by loud shouting. The elephant re-appeared scurrying back to where it came from! We decided that it was a good time to enjoy the pool.

Before dinner it was time to get our toddlers back to our rooms for an early dinner and sleep while we got ready for a visit to the bar for a Mosi beer. The bar was a large rondavel with a thatch roof and no walls, very adequate for the place as the breeze made it very pleasant. There we joined other guests and we were enjoying the courtesy drinks from Zambia Airways when the barman announced that “One tusk” was coming for his drink!

We realized that we knew it when we saw it coming. It was huge. Immediately, a soda was poured on a rather large ashtray on the bar counter. Unaware of what was happening we waited. The elephant came very close and stuck its rather large trunk through the glassless window straight to the soda that had been poured for it. It sucked it dry in a second while we watched, rather concerned as we knew the power an elephant. As if to confirm our fears, after drinking it started waving its trunk about looking for more and forcing all patrons to congregate at the centre of the rondavel, away from the reach of its proboscis! This continued for a while until the barman -clearly used to the visitor- managed to chase him away.

The following day, a Sunday, we went back to the control room to make our case heard again to the company and continue keeping pressure up regarding our return. We were informed that two flights were expected that morning but no other details were available. We were cautiously hopeful and went back to the lodge to pass on the news and have breakfast. We decided to pack and be ready while waiting for the promised flights.

A plane arrived at about 10 am and we rushed to the airstrip only to be told that it was a flight going to Dar es Salaam and only stopping to drop some mail and food for the lodge. Our hopes dimed and we were starting to abandon the airstrip when the purr of another plane became louder and louder. It landed and out came a smiling plump pilot dressed in a tracksuit that introduced himself as Mr. Chizonda and informed us that he was there to take us all back to Lusaka on his 12-seater plane with the apologies of Zambia airways for leaving us the previous day.

We were elated and did not make him wait to get on our specially chartered plane back to Lusaka!

Christmas at Kasaba Bay – The mutiny

A great map of the area produced by Ndole Bay lodge. Nkamba Bay lodge is at the bottom left of the map. Copyright of Ndole Bay lodge (http://www.ndolebaylodge.com/)

After breakfast, we noted that the lodge employees congregated near the kitchen and that they were attentively listening to the manager. After a while, a heated discussion started. Apparently, it had something to do with the wages although we did not follow the deliberations with any attention.

We had already made up our minds to explore other accommodation located in the area and Anders had already gone to search for a better alternative. The ongoing mutiny had only reaffirmed our desire to leave. All we could do now was to wait for Anders, so we decided to spend sometime in the beach.

A couple of hours later Anders returned with good news. The Nkamba Lodge, sited about two hours from ours, at the Nkamba Bay, was a great looking place. Luckily, they had accommodation and Anders had already booked the last four rooms available, starting from that day! We quickly left the beach, packed and, after saying our farewell to the Manager and staff, we all climbed in the pick-up and departed. From now on, the other guests at the lodge would need to do their own fishing to survive!

Nkamba Lodge was built on higher ground and, at least for us at the time, it was a very beautiful and comfortable place that offered a magnificent view of the lake where we could see fishing boats moving in its clear waters.

The lodge was well run and that offered game viewing and Nile Perch fishing as its main attractions. What did we need! The lodge was in the Sumbu National Park where the rare Sitatunga and the Blue Duiker are found although we did not see them. We had spotted zebra and wildebeest from the car and we were told that lots of animals frequented the beaches, including Buffalo and, occasionally, Elephant, Lion and Leopard.

We also learnt that this side of the lake was teeming with Crocodiles –some up to six metres in length- so swimming was obviously not advisable and we tried hard to forget that we had been doing this for the last three days at the other lodge! We were also informed to “beware” of the Hippos that often emerged at night around the lodges on grass mowing duties. Birdlife was also plentiful and, apart from the spectacular Fish Eagles, we saw Skimmers and Spoonbills. We were also told that Palm Nut Vultures and Pel’s Fishing Owls were also occasionally seen but we were not lucky enough to spot either.

We decided that, apart from lounging in the pool and beach we could try our hand at fishing so the next morning, Anders, Bruno, and I departed before sunrise aiming towards the open lake where we were informed our chances were best, both of fishing and finding strong winds. Our skipper was the teenage son of the lodge Manager. The peace of the early morning was –regrettably- broken by the annoying sound of our outboard and the waves we created cut through an otherwise mirror-like lake surface.

We reached the chosen spot in a few minutes and started to fish for bait. This consisted in catching the Tanganyika Sardine (Limnothrissa miodon), locally known as kapenta. A small fish that rarely gets larger than 11 cm and that migrates vertically in the lake at different times during the day and night. It is fished by throwing a deep line with several hooks and subsequently pulling hard to foul hook them. If you are lucky –or hit a good shoal- you get several at once, if not, it can be hard work. Anders immediately became a “kapenta terminator” and supplied us with all the bait we required.

Once we had accumulated enough bait we moved to a spot where the large Nile Perch were known to live. There we baited large hooks fitted with steel trace and we threw our lines deep and waited. Not much happened and then we moved to another place where, again, our kapenta offers were ignored. Seen that we were getting rather impatient our skipper said: “I will call the fish” and without further explanation, removed his t-shirt and jumped into the lake!

Horrified, we watched him swim a few metres away from the boat while, aware of the six metre crocs that were supposed to be present, our eyes immediately started looking for water ripples that would indicate that one was coming. Our skipper stopped at about five metres from the boat and proceeded to repeatedly hit the water with both arms, splashing vigorously. He did this about ten times and then swam back very fast to the boat. Once onboard he explained that the technique worked for both Nile Perch and crocs, hence his fast swim back! It was clear that he had done this before but we declined to perform the attraction manoeuvre ourselves when he suggested it!

After a few minutes his trick seemed to work as Anders -again- got a mighty pull and our first –and only Nile perch- emerged. Not as large a monster as we expected but a rather babyish fish of about 5 kg that did not do much apart from letting itself being brought to the boat and immediately released as it was considered too small for the pot.

Soon it was lunchtime and, as we had no more bites, it was unanimously decided that it was time for a dip in the pool, a good lunch, and some resting on the beach. We agreed to return in the afternoon as both Bruno and I wanted our fish as well.

We went out again at about 16hs when the heat of the day had lessened and this time we saw a few large crocodiles so our skipper did not perform the earlier trick again! Perhaps because of that, we did not catch anything.

We started our return after sunset and then our engine stopped! All attempts at repairing it failed and we got stranded almost at the mouth of the bay. Although our skipper assured us that his father would come to our rescue, it was a weird feeling being alone in the lake with no lights and aware of being surrounded by large crocs so we kept our hands clear from the water. Luckily, Anders produced the brilliant idea of firing the flash of his camera at regular intervals and, after a while, we started hearing a boat engine that preceded the arrival of the lodge owner who towed us back to safety.

The following day we were due to catch our weekly flight back to Lusaka from Kasaba Bay while Anders and Birgit would continue with their Tanzania leg of their journey.

Christmas at Kasaba Bay – At the lodge

After our bad bar experience, we went for an early dinner of stew and rice and we went to bed thinking that the following day we would have a chance to do some sightseeing and perhaps a bit of fishing if we could rent one of the lodge´s boats, provided that these were available. Not a bad prospect considering what we had gone through. The rooms were fresh, and we slept well under our mosquito nets and, our both children and nannies were exhausted, sleep was very good.

The following morning started as a very luminous and warm day, perhaps we were well rested and very cheerful, and we headed for breakfast. The meal was served at the open-air restaurant area, and it was a simple affair: coffee or tea with toast, margarine and some kind of jam. The service was friendly but when we ordered more toast, the waiter informed us that if we get more bread now, tomorrow’s ration would be reduced! Having seen the supplies that came with us, this was not surprising but, nevertheless, the news sent strong alarm signals to our wives that had four children to look after!

The first measure that we decided to take with Bruno was a visit to the kitchen to make an evaluation of the availability of food both quantity and quality. So, led by the Manager we entered the place that looked as clean as it was empty, except for some egg crates on a bench but we did not spot or heard the chickens! Not seeing much food, we asked where it was kept, and we pointed at a freezer and fridge, but we refrained to press the cook for more details.

As we were leaving, the Manager pointed towards a mound on the table and, he said it was our dinner. Clearly it was a large chunk of beef that was being defrosted and it looked the worse for wear with some shades of green starting to appear. “Our cook will prepare a beef curry tonight,” said the Manager. We thanked him and the cook and completed our visit, more concerned than before.

Once alone we agreed that that the curry was going to be edible as, usually, it requires prolongued cooking and this, combined with the hot chilli peppers used would get rid of any possible threats to our health. However, we were both concerned about the food situation and we agreed that we needed to take some action to remedy it.

Our only available food source, apart from stealing food from the other guests, was the lake so we decided to try and harvest something from it.

Aware that the news would create unnecessary concern to our already worried family members, we decided not to mention the true result of our investigation and we focussed on booking a boat for the next day and the following so that we could go fishing. It seemed that it was either getting fish or going on a very low calory diet! So, all other recreational plans were shelved and we went straight to the jetty to find a boat that could take us to the lake the following day.

We negotiated a fee for a boat and a skipper and we agreed to an early start the following morning. Afterwards, we went back to our rooms to organize our fishing gear. We hoped to catch something but if we failed, we trusted that we could buy fish from the local fishermen so that we could have enough for the ten of us! Luckily, the chickens appeared for lunch and the curry, despite our misgivings, was rather good!

Next day, following the advice of our hosts we started our fishing trip very early. Not a ripple disturbed the lake, and it was a pity that our engine broke the magnificent silence of the dawn. It was a perfect start and, although later the wind picked up, the day continued to be nice and warm. We trolled for a few hours and, luckily, we managed to get some fish and we bought some more (the majority in fact!) from the lake fishermen that were very happy to get some cash from us! So, by lunchtime we were back, pleased and feeling like heroes. We took the fish to the kitchen and asked the cook to grill them for dinner. We could now go to the beach and relax with our families.

Dinnertime came and the fish were brought to the table. We waited for more to come as we knew what we had brought but nothing else came. Clearly, the amount on the table did not match our numbers! Then, in dismay, we noticed that our fellow Japanese guests were also served fish! A simple addition revealed that someone had decided to share our fish with our lodge companions! We knew that complaining would have been a futile exercise and quietly ate our “share”.

The following day was Christmas Eve and we expected Anders and Birgit´s arrival from Lusaka so, again, we booked another fishing trip for the morning but made sure that we would have our own fish roast at one of the BBQ places in the garden. We also hoped that Anders would bring some food and drinks to alleviate our situation.

This time we came back with enough Tanganyikan Tilapia (Oreochromis tanganicae) for all of us, including the visitors we expected. Again, I do not recall whether we fish them or we bought them from the local fishermen (as the day before) but I recall having intercepted a few local boats and negotiated for fish with them. In any case, to our survival purposes, it did not make a great difference. Once we felt “food secure”, we returned, cleaned the fish, seasoned them and took them to the kitchen ourselves to avoid any “losses”.

We heard Anders´ car a long way before it arrived, and we all went to greet our visitors. As expected, after a trip of well over one thousand kilometres in a Hilux pickup, they looked rather battered despite their young age. Birgit, still wearing her journey dress, was hardly able to walk while trying to take in the situation.

We learnt that she had come from Copenhagen to Lusaka, the pick-up and to the bush, still in her travel dress. They had spent the night somewhere on the way but the going had been tough, perhaps too much for her. Bravely, they still had plans to go on to Dar es Salaam after Lake Tanganyika… But it was Christmas Eve, and we did all we could to enjoy it.

We prepared a great BBQ and, this time, we roasted all of our fish that tasted delicious as most tilapia do in Africa. Our visitors did not disappoint us as they brought fresh provisions, both liquid and solid as well as presents for the kids. It all contributed to anice and merry atmosphere.

Over dinner we briefed our visitors on our situation the reasons about our situation and agreed that the major activity on Christmas Day would be to find out if there was room at another lodge so that we could enjoy the few days that we had left of our vacation.

Christmas in Kasaba Bay – Arrival

I am a great believer in sharing activities away from work to strengthen team spirit. I proposed to my project colleagues to take advantage of a special cheap offer of Zambia Airways (ZA) to spend the week of Christmas 1992 at on the shores of Lake Tanganyika in Northern Zambia. I had found out that there was a lodge known as Kasaba Bay that looked like a good place to stay there. I saw it as an excellent opportunity to visit this rather remote part of Zambia while doing some birdwatching, game-viewing, and fishing.

A great map of the area produced by Ndole Bay lodge. Copyright of Ndole Bay lodge (http://www.ndolebaylodge.com/). Kasaba Bay lodge is on the top right while Ndole Bay is on the top left. Nkamba Bay lodge is on the bottom of the map in the large Nkamba bay.

It was decided that a group was to travel by air: Bruno and Dominique with their two girls Fanny and Collette and their babysitter Beauty. I would go with Mabel, our children Flori and Julio and our babysitter Annie. Although Flori and Fanny and Julio and Collette were over two and one years old respectively, they were used to travelling and Zambia was, for all they knew at the time, their country as they were all brought up there.

Although Giuseppe would not join us as he was spending the holidays with his then girlfriend Lieve in Chipata, Anders, after collecting his girlfriend Birgit who was arriving from Copenhagen, would come by road to join us later their rather ambitious trip to Dar es Salaam. In retrospect Giuseppe was probably the wisest…

We booked the Kasaba Bay Lodge for the week, and it was a full ATR 42 (with about 50 passengers) that landed at Kasaba Bay after an uneventful flight of about two hours. The lodge was very close from the runway, so we got there before our plane started its journey back to Lusaka. The place looked promising with its small bungalows very near the lake shore and a rather large swimming pool with a comfortable thatched bar next to it. Although we were technically in the rainy season, the sky was clear, and it was warm, ideal conditions to enjoy swimming and fishing. We were informed that the the prevalence of bilharzia was very low as very few people lived nearby. Things were looking up and we were very happy to be out of Lusaka.

The plane passengers aimed for various destinations and about one half left by cars while a group of about twenty of us were taken to Kasaba Bay lodge where a reception committee was waiting for us. We did not need much imagination that the reception was rather more solemn than usual, and we were somehow surprised at the rather numerous security personnel stationed at the lodge. There was something amiss and this was dispelled soon with the Manager´s announcement.

“Ladies and gentlemen” he started, “welcome to Kasaba Bay lodge. We would like to inform you that His Excellency President Chiluba has honoured us with his presence at the lodge [1]. For this reason, all bookings that are not part of his entourage have been cancelled” That was all he could say before he was rudely interrupted by the waiting crowd, outraged by being “lodgeless”! This of course included us and even the so far polite Japanese visitors that lost their composure!

While the riot was taking place, the Manager tried, fruitlessly, to calm us down. Eventually, realizing that our protestations were futile, we stopped complaining and listened. “Please, do not worry” said a now dishevelled and nervous Manager, “we have made very good alternative arrangements for all of you. You will be taken to another lodge. He then proceeded to inform us that there were two boats ready at the yetty to take us to our new destination and he invited us to move there and wait for instructions.

While we were walking towards the lake, we saw our plane taking off and we realized that we would be at Lake Tanganyika for one week and that we better enjoy it. The ten of us were place in the same boat while the Japanese group and a couple of other foreigners were given the second one.

We were going to a lodge somewhere on the lake shore that I believe was an earlier version of the present Ndole Bay lodge or one sited in that general area. I regret that my memory fails me there.

By now it was near mid-day and the heat was getting intense. The boats were indeed at the jetty but far from ready and under the sun (the nearest trees were around the lodge!). We boarded and accommodated the ladies and our offspring as best as we could under a makeshift shade made of khangas while Bruno and I made sure that all our luggage was loaded on our boat. While this took place, provisions were also being loaded.

We saw rice, bread, cabbages, maize meal, and a couple of cool boxes brought to the boat. While this took place, we established communication with our skipper and learnt that we would navigate about three hours to our destination, that it was only a name to us at the time. The heat was intense, and our children were feeling hot and unhappy, so the situation was getting difficult when loaded was completed and we were ready to go.

But we did not go as we were waiting for chickens and eggs! These did not appear for another fifteen minutes. Once several birds and a few crates arrived, we started our journey and soon we forgot our past experience and got into the contemplation of a beautifully green lake in sharp contrast with the dry mountains that framed it. “Over there is Doctor Congo” joked our skipper referring to the opposite shore, the then Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The water was amazingly clean and warm, but we avoided touching it too much just in case.

It was a relief to set off and to dry our sweat with the lake breeze at last. As soon as we moved from the jetty we realized the enormity of this true land-locked sea with an area of 32,900 km² and a maximum length of 673 km. Encased by the Rift valley mountainous range, the dark green colour of the water was an indication of its depth that averages 500m but that can reach down to 1500m, one of the deepest of our planet. Apart from a large population of Crocodiles and Hippos, several fish species are found and the lake is renowned for its more than 250 species of cichlid fish, most of which are endemic.

We were not after cichlids but sport fish, mainly the Nile Perch (Lates niloticus), although we knew that there were other large game fish such as the Tiger fish (Hydrocynus vittatus) and Vundu Catfish (Heterobranchus longifilis). We were also aware of the off chance of catching a real monster, the Goliath Tiger fish (Hydrocynus goliath) that also lurked in the lake’s depths. Although unlikely, we knew that some world records for these species had been set here and came well prepared, just in case we had a chance to challenge them…

I had heard stories at Lusaka of people that had caught Nile Perch at the lake, and we had fished them in Kenya years before at Lake Victoria. Apparently, they would catch large perch by trolling at a considerable depth using a barbie doll as their lure! As my daughter did not agree with me using hers, we settled for the more conventional deep action lures! I chose the largest I had.

It was probably the usual African optimism that led the Manager of the Kasaba Bay lodge to say that the trip to Ndole would last one hour. Perhaps he did not know the place, or he travelled in faster boats. Ours, a long wooden contraption with a rather small engine, took the three hours that the skipper mentioned to get to our destination. By the time we arrived was mid-afternoon and we were low on drinking water and, except for our two younger and still suckling babies, we were all suffering from the heat and sunburns.

We disembarked, luckily before the other boat, and we walked in a single file towards the lodge. This was simple but the rooms were nicely set in the garden among rocks and nice tropical plants. There was also a shaded veranda where food would be served. A couple of good BBQ stands were also there among the boulders in the garden. There was no swimming pool but a nice sandy beach where some rather derelict but still usable straw umbrellas were placed. The lake water was amazingly clean, warm, and calm, very tempting to jump in but we decided that it was best to find our rooms first as there would be time lateer to enjoy beach life!

As we walked Bruno said: “Let’s go quickly to get our rooms before the other people pick the best” so we walked fast and got to the reception first and negotiated for our rooms. Although I am not sure that we achieved much, at least we felt satisfied! We were pleased to note that the rooms had new mosquito nets and that they were quite cool thanks to the straw roofs. So, we had a chance to relax and cool down after quite an eventful day. But the day was not yet over.

At about six in the afternoon Bruno made an appearance. “Let´s go for a beer” he said. We agreed and walked to the bar, a roomy where a barman waited for us. We asked for a couple of Mosi beers (the Zambian beer at the time) but we were informed that there was no beer in the lodge as they had not loaded any on our boats! “Maybe with luck they will bring some tomorrow” he said traying to believe his words. This was a bad start!

We spotted a fridge that was plugged in, but we were not sure that there was electricity or that anything was inside it. In any case we insisted: “So, what can we drink then?” we asked. The rather apologetic barman replied, “there are a few sodas, but they were just offloaded from the boats, and they are hot!” As we were not prepared to suffer hot Cokes, we asked what else could he offer, and the choice was whisky or green powder juice!

We did not feel like a scotch, so we settle for the green juice. This was another error. We were served glasses of room temperature green water, which tasted sweet with a weak apple after taste. It was rather undrinkable, and we baptized it “Green Mamba juice”! and we only drank it that day!

We realized that the bar situation was critical and decided to secure the bottle of whisky, so we went to our room to get money. When we returned, we learnt that our only hope for a decent drink had already been “booked” by the Japanese group. “We are in a bad condition”, Bruno said while we were leaving the bar never to return!

[1] The late Frederick Chiluba, then the leader of the Movement for Democratic Change, had beaten Kenneth Kaunda in the first democratic elections and he had probably decided that he needed a rest after the campaign. (Or maybe he shared my thoughts on team building and chose the same location!).

Winds of Change (a bit of history)

“…The wind of change is blowing through this continent. Whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact…”

The above was the most famous sentence included in the address that Prime Minister Harold MacMillan made to the Parliament of South Africa on 3 February 1960 that became known as the “Winds of Change” speech. Although the intention of these words is the focus of debate, the words carried great wisdom a few decades before real change took place in southern Africa [1].

Thirty years after, since the riots and attempted coup of July 1990 [2], Kenneth Kaunda and his United Independent Party suffered from a delayed “winds of change” and in September the President accepted the augmenting pressure from the opposition and opened the possibility of an election with more than one party. This constituted a breakthrough for Zambia’s history as it ended twenty years of one-party rule.

A pro-democracy opposition group was legalized to campaign for a vote on a multiparty system. The Movement for Multi-party Democracy (MMD) was created and, by the size of the crowds it attracted to its rallies, it looked like the winner of the elections from the onset. The new party attracted many relevant Zambians and Frederick Chiluba was chosen as their presidential candidate.

While the intense campaign of Zambia’s first multi-party elections for parliament and the presidency since the 1960s went on, there was some uncertainty about the security situation in the country. Fears increased towards the end of the process and by elections day, all personnel of the United Nations were gathered at a large hotel in Lusaka for security reasons in case of an evacuation if violence erupted.

Those of us working in the field we quite sure that nothing would happen but we still needed to follow the rules, so we had a good time getting to know each other better and playing tennis.

The elections were held on Thursday 31 October 1991 and the new party won 76% of the vote and gained an almost complete control over the Government. When this happened, we were free to return to our normal jobs and during the weekend we visited our friends Desmond and Mary.

The first Sunday of the November they organized another of their great lunch gatherings where we met several people and at that time, as they had information on the new Zambian politics, we learnt that, literally as we ate, the new President was holding meetings to form his cabinet and that there were some good people among the candidates.

When we left in 1993, things were still looking up for Zambia politics. Eventually the Government started functioning and things continued with a feeling of a greater freedom than before. Later on, through its overwhelming parliament majority, Chiluba introduced constitutional changes that blocked former President Kaunda and other prominent opposition leaders from the 1996 presidential elections so, he won a second term until 2001.

Unfortunately, the initial optimism regarding promised reforms started to fade and, towards the end of Chiluba’s first mandate in 1996, new parties started to appear. Despite this and although Chiluba was not their candidate, Levy Mwanawasa of the MMD won the elections in 2001 and after several claims for irregularities by some of the opposition parties were dismissed the party maintained a small majority in congress.

Democratic elections continue to be held in Zambia and the country has developed a great deal since the time we were there as we could see during our trip to lake Bangweulu some years back. During the most recent elections held in 2021, Hakainde Hichilema of the the United Party for National Development became the new president of the country.

[1] Reading for those interested in history:

Credit: Sussex Research Online: http://sro.sussex.ac.uk/id/eprint/19120/ Dubow, Saul (2011) Macmillan, Verwoerd, and the 1960 `wind of change’ speech. Historical Journal, 54 (4). pp. 1087-1114. ISSN 0018-246X

[2] See: https://bushsnob.com/2021/04/11/turmoil/

The day the Zambian soccer died

Eight goals to seven was the result of a nerve-raking one hundred and twenty minutes of a soccer final that defined the 2012 African Cup of Nations against Ivory Coast on 12 February 2012. Other African countries have other sports apart from soccer. Not Zambia. In this friendly central African country soccer is almost the only sport that people talk about. So, it is understandable that the whole country went into a long and wild celebration. It was in fact a national catharsis.

I was not there to see and participate in the celebrations, but I was in Lusaka almost twenty years earlier when, on 28 April 1993, Zambia woke up with the news that they no longer had a soccer team! Known as the Chipolopolo, they were a very promising Zambia national team. At the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, they had thrashed Italy 4–0!

They had departed the day before to face Senegal for an Africa Cup of Nations qualifier but never arrived. The Zambia Airforce plane the Football Association of Zambia had commissioned developed engine trouble and it crashed after taking off from Libreville, less than a kilometre from the shoreline of Gabon.

All thirty people on board perished, including eighteen players, the team coach, support staff and plane crew. Luckily, two players were spared this tragic end. They were Chipolopolo’s captain, Kalusha Bwalya (Kalusha) that was traveling directly from The Netherlands (he played for PSV) and Charles Musonda (playing for Anderlecht), injured.

Somehow, I missed the bad news until I arrived at the FAO office and found an abnormal somber atmosphere and several of the usually cheerful people crying while most had red eyes. It was Angie, a young secretary that broke the news to me “The Zambia soccer died yesterday” she said with intense sadness. I was stunned as I was following the good results of the Chipolopolo and it had become (and still is) my favourite team in Africa. I realized that this was probably the biggest tragedy that independent Zambia had suffered.

So it was that I attended a two-day funeral, the saddest job of my entire career. The ceremony took place at the soccer Independence Stadium on 2 and 3 May 1993. Below, I include the programmes of both the State Funeral and Liturgy as well as the list of the deceased.

The first day, several national and invited political and religious authorities were the main protagonists of the morning events with gloomy speeches while we waited for the arrival of the deceased. Once this took place, the coffins were lined up around the field. After that was completed, the grief-stricken relatives and friends entered in groups crying, mourning aloud, and sobbing while they slowly moved towards the coffin where their dead relative was. It was a truly emotional time, and it was difficult to stop one’s own tears. It marked the beginning of a long vigil that would continue until the following day.

The second day was another highly moving affair. We were invited to walk past the thirty coffins (already surrounded by relatives and friends) to pay our respect. After this, carrying the coffins, we all walked outside the stadium to the burial site where today a monolith commemorates this tragedy at a place known as “Heroes’ Acre”.

During the course of events, I had a chance to give my condolences to Kalusha who, not surprisingly, looked completely devastated and exhausted as he was there for the whole time of mourning.

Despite the tragedy, a new side was swiftly assembled. Led by Kalusha and with a great attacking playing managed, against all predictions, to reach the 1994 African Cup of Nations final against Nigeria but lost despite having scored first. Despite the setback, the new Zambian team returned home as national heroes.

With the passing of time Kalusha coached the Chipolopolo team in the African Cup of Nations in 2006. He resigned after the elimination of the team early in the tournament. However, he could finally lift the African Cup of Nations in 2012 when he was the President of the Football Association of Zambia, a good ending for Kalusha’s illustrious soccer career.

Diplomatic duties

As I mentioned in an earlier post, after a while of being in Zambia the FAO Representative (FAOR) left his job due to sickness and I was given the temporary task of keeping the office going until the replacement arrived. Unfortunately, the newcomer took about one year to arrive, so the additional work burden lasted longer than I anticipated. It was clear that my other colleagues (some senior than me) had skilfully avoided this added burden! Despite this, it gave me a taste of this different kind of work that would help me in the future.

Luckily, the office had very capable people able to run the show on their own. However, rules indicated that someone had to be finally responsible and needed to sign the important documents. My added duties required two visits to the FAO office, mornings, and afternoons or, if my activities kept at my own project office, the work would be brought to me. So, there was no escape.

In addition, as the name indicates, I also needed to represent the institution in various events. That was a trickier job that I was not really prepared for. Again, Mabel, the FAOR’s secretary was very experienced and helped greatly. However, when the time came, I was the one that needed to perform the work [1].

I will not describe the exciting work of signing paychecks, official documents and attending management meetings but focus on some instances that stuck in my mind for different reasons.

In the early 90s South Africa, the main commercial partner of Zambia, was moving towards the end of apartheid and there was a strong diplomatic drive with its neighbours. Mandela had been released from prison in February 1990 and so it was that I attended several political events when President Kaunda and later Chiluba hosted famous personalities such as de Frederick de Klerk, Winnie Mandela and others, a new experience for me to see politics firsthand by participation rather than reading the papers. I can assure you -as you probably guessed- that my presence there had no impact on the on-going negotiations!

Support to Zambia and the region through projects was one of the important activities of FAO in Zambia. One of these was the launching of some support to COMESA. I was told that I would meet its Secretary General (SG) thirty minutes prior to the meeting so I had no time to prepare my speech! I had a mild panic as I was not familiar with the project.

When I asked for my speech to one of the FAO officers assisting me, she replied jokingly “a good FAOR always has a speech ready for any occasion!” As I did not belong to that selected group my shaky participation was nothing compared with the relaxed approach that the SG had. The latter was Dr Bingu wa Mutharika, later to become the President of Malawi.

I attended many functions and received many visitors during that year but only two of these activities still occupy a place in my mind. The first one was on the occasion of FAO’s donation of motorboats to the Fisheries Department. As usual, the ceremony involved me speaking first according to the protocol followed by the key speech by the Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries.

My speech was as usual a mediocre one and then, to my relief, I could sit, relax and listen to the Minister’s response. Then, I noted that there was something wrong. The Minister handed some papers to one of his aids and, by the way he spoke, it was apparent that he was not happy. Nevertheless, he gave his improvised speech, still better than mine. Later on, I learnt that his earlier displeasure followed the receipt of a speech for another event but, being a politician he pulled it through!

The second meeting involved the visit to the FAO Office of an Ambassador from one of FAO’s donor countries. Already before the meeting I knew that something was wrong just by hearing loud voices an afterwards looking at the face of my secretary!

The Ambassador marched into my office, hardly greeted me, sat down and without any introduction said “I can accept that a project manager gets involved in some additional activities but that he runs a petrol station is too much!” he uttered, clearly and justifiably angry, I thought.

Completely taken aback I asked him to give me more information so that we could deal with the situation. He mentioned a name that I did not know located at a city we had no activities! So, I explained this to him.

The Ambassador looked at me in shock, perhaps thinking that I was covering up the issue he was reporting! He then hesitated and asked me if he was in another UN agency office. When I explained that he was at FAO, without further ado, he stood up, muttered an almost inaudible apology, and marched off as brusquely as he had come! A few days later he rang me to formally apologize and to tell me that the issue had been solved.

There was still one final sad function I attended but I will tell you about it in a future post.

[1] In these instances I always remembered the phrase that Oscar Bonavena, a heavyweight Argentinian boxer once said: “You have a manager, a masseur who softens your body, you even get advice from the promoter, some of them take more money than the boxer himself; but the truth is that when the bell rings, they take away your stool and you’re on your own.”

Marriage agency

The origin of HIV/AIDS and what led to its emergence remain largely without a clear answer although it believed to have originated in West-central Africa from where it spread to the rest of the continent following the various rivers that feed the Congo River that flows past Kinshasha in the now Democratic Republic of the Congo. From there the disease spread and, by the time we got to Zambia it was a fully blown pandemic made worse by the prevailing poor living conditions and precarious health care.

While we were in Kenya and Ethiopia, we had only heard of HIV/AIDS, mainly as a disease of West Africa. So, it was with some surprise that we learnt that the disease was very serious in Zambia, and we were warned about it by almost everyone we talked to. Our main concern at the time was the need of a blood transfusion that was believed to be extremely risky.

HIV/AIDS was already prevalent throughout the country and the situation in Lusaka was bad. It was enough to drive past the cemetery to see that it had expanded several-fold with mainly shallow graves. Sadly, many of the Zambians working for the Government with the project were among those that suffered the disease and died while we were there while others passed away after we left.

The epidemiology of the disease was not yet fully understood at the time, or at least I was not aware of some details. In particular, there was a debate about the possible role of biting insects in its transmission. For this reason, Bruno and I were quite concerned while counting ticks on cattle being bitten by flies that would move among the people working with us! Luckily, later it was confirmed that insects were not involved in its transmission.

Planning for the imminent arrival of our children and following the advice of our doctor, we started searching for a nanny. Understandably, the number one consideration at the time was that she was negative for HIV/AIDS. Luckily this happened with the first one we found and that was how Annie came to our lives.

Annie with Flori.

She lived outside our house for a while until we decided that it was safer for her to stay with us. The arrangement worked well for a few months, but, as anything you do, it can have unexpected and even surprising consequences.

One morning, we saw the wife of Emmanuel (our cook) to walk towards the gate loaded with bags and personal effects. Aware that this was not normal, we called Emmanuel to ask if there was anything wrong. At first, he evaded our questions but eventually he admitted that he was having an affair with Annie and that his wife learnt about it and decided to leave.

Emmanuel teaching our son Julio to “drive” the vacuum cleaner.

We were quite upset about the whole thing as our well-intentioned keeping of Annie had broken an on-going partnership. On the positive side, though, it was the absence of children. The situation was made more worrisome as Annie seemed to be very young although that did not seem to be a concern among Zambians at the time.

So, feeling like marriage agents we agreed to the situation to continue as we truly needed both! This was, as far as we know, a good move. They were still together when we got in touch with them several years back and Emmanuel was working as a photographer in Lusaka. They had married and had several children. The first born was a girl called Mabel and one of the boys was known as Julio. So, we are still remembered in Lusaka!

Lutale scraps

Bruno invited me to eat at Lutale a few times but there are two that were rather unforgettable. As a necessary background to the story, he had taught his cook Mr. Tembo the art of preparing Belgian fries and, I must say, the cook knew what he was doing. For those of you willing to try them, the perfect fries are made by double frying the potatoes. First, they are cooked at lower heat, then left to cool down, and, just before serving, they are fried again at a much higher temperature. The resulting potatoes are perfect: golden brown, dry and crispy outside and soft inside.

Giuseppe and I happened to be at Lutale together and Bruno invited us to have roasted chicken for lunch, so we obliged, and we were at the table without a minute wasted. Bruno started our get together by announcing that there had been a delay obtaining the chicken! He had “ordered” one from the village, but it had not arrived yet.

However, he added that Mr. Tembo would be bringing fried potatoes and mayonnaise for us to start eating. When they came, the fries were truly delicious and being hungry, the first instalment did not last very long. Luckily Mr. Tembo soon brought more. After the third potato delivery, the chicken was still absent and probably some boys were running after it in the bush! Luckily, the chips kept arriving so we kept ging for them.

After about an hour waiting we were full of chips, and then we heard a loud squawk that announced the arrival of our future lunch, still alive and well! At that time, we unanimously decided that our intended victim could live another day and we re-focused on the delicious fries. I cannot guess the amount of potatoes Mr. Tembo processed but I am sure that we went through a few kilogrammes. As protein-free diets go, it was a great success!

Another time Bruno invited me for dinner at a time when I was helping him with some of the work. I went to his house eager to try the fries again and this time Bruno was keen to announce that the menu was complete and almost ready.

Soon a smiling Mr. Tembo appeared with a large smoking tray that he placed on the table. My eyes immediately focused on the fries and my mouth watered when I confirmed that they looked as well as before! However, it immediately dried up when I saw the protein part of the dish. It had four legs and the size of a small rabbit! “We are having a cane rat for lunch” Bruno announced proudly although I could sense a touch of sarcasm in the tone of his voice.

I had eaten different animals in Latin America and in Africa before but never a large rat! However, I immediately recalled that our Zambian workers could jump out of a moving car whenever they saw one of these beasts on the road so I thought that it should be good and that was what Bruno was saying when I refocused on our meal.

The meat was white with a taste close to a roasted piglet, and I must say that its combination with the fries made it one of the best bush meals I have had. Mr. Tembo brought back a tray where only bones remained!

Traveling to Lutale had its moments too. Of the two drivers, I preferred Mr. Chewe for the bush as he knew the area and had good mechanical knowledge. The problem was that he drove with his eyes squinting and I usually joked with visitors that he knew the place so well that he could drive with his eyes closed! Mr. Chewe liked to hear this but always tokd me that it was not true.

He had them well open a day when, in the dirt road getting close to Lutale, a snake started to cross the road in front of the car. It moved extremely fast but not fast enough. By the time we got to it, it occupied the whole width of the road! The snake, that I am sure was a black mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis) was moving from right to left and when we run over it, almost all of it had moved across. However, when it felt the wheels, it rose high, almost vertically.

A black mamba is really grey. Its name is due to the dark blue/black colour insde its mouth. Credit:TimVickers, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

I saw the head coming towards us but the speed of the events was such that I could not react fast enough and only watched it striking the outside mirror, a few centimetres from my arm. A lucky scape that enabled me to continue with my life! I was so shaken that I did not even feel sorry for the snake that, after the incident, we saw continuing its trip through the dry thicket. It was the only black mamba I saw in Zambia.

The dam at Lutale was an important feature for the village life as it offered permanent water as well as relief from the heat. Somehow Bruno had acquired a “banana” boat (dugout) that he kept moored near his house. I am sure he kept for a reason that was not solely to enjoy himself by inviting guests to climb on it and then pushing them gently into the dam while they desperately tried to keep the boat from tipping over!

There were large catfish in the dam and the locals were after them. A fisherman myself, I spent some time watching them. The technique they used was as simple as effective. It consisted of a 5-litre can from which a line and a large hook would be tied and baited with a chunk of chicken or any other animal protein available.

The cans were thrown into the dam and then followed in their floating across the dam until they started to bobble, indicating that a fish was feeding. When it got hooked, the can would start to travel and that was the time when the fishermen would go either on foot or in their dugout canoes to pick up their prey. A very ingenious way of fishing in closed water areas.