Our joy at making it to Livingstone, named after the famous Dr Livingstone, the first European explorer of this region of Africa, was palpable as we pulled in to town. Finally, we had made it to the halfway-point, from here we were headed south to countries which would be distinct from those we had seen in East Africa. From Livingstone onwards, wealthy tourists from Europe and America would become a more familiar sight: people flying in to luxury lodges in Cessnas, elderly tourists trying to check off some of the more adventurous spots on the globe before they get too old. We would soon be trading the bush and hills for the immense flatness of Botswana and the monumental sand dunes of Namibia. But first it was time to see one of the great natural wonders of the world, Victoria Falls.
Even the most casual observer could see that life was tough for the average Zambian. Although the deceptively neat uniform of hand-me-downs, which the First World continues to clothe Africans in, makes Zambians (and most of the Africans we have encountered so far) seem wealthier than they are, you don’t need to look far to find evidence that many of those who live outside the capital, Lusaka, or the tourist magnet of Livingstone are struggling.
Like Malawi, Zambia seemed to be suffering from runaway inflation in food prices. Going to thesupermarket in Lusaka or Livingstone is enough to give you a heart attack as you try to make sense of the number of zeros forming the suffix to every price. It gave us pause when we saw sausages at $7 for a pack of 6, minced beef at $18 per kg and apples at $4.5 per kg. Cleary many of these prices were out of the reach of the average Lusakan or Livingstonian, and even if they were in reach, they were likely to be an occasional treat. No wonder our driver, Henry, was so convinced meat must be the essential component of every meal. As a Kenyan with first hand experience, he knew that if you are at the wrong end of the social spectrum, procuring meat in any decent quantity was almost impossible. Conversely, if you wanted anything imported with little or no nutritional value (and immense tooth decay potential) like Milo, chocolate bars or crisps (potato chips), you virtually needed to come up with the equivalent of the GDP of a small banana republic in Kwacha, the national currency.
Anyway, I have digressed enough, so before this turns into an economic thesis on Zambia, I should get back to the place in the title which probably drew you to this post: Victoria Falls. It probably sounds clichéd, but nothing can prepare you for your first glimpse of the mighty ‘Smoke that Thunders’, as it is known to locals.
At 1.7 km wide and plunging 107 m into the Zambezi Gorge, the 545 million litres of water which fall each minute create a truly thunderous sound and send a fine spray into the air which can be felt whenever the wind blows the wrong way. Providing succour to the surrounding rainforest which grows around the falls, the spray can suddenly, and without warning, give you the impression that you are caught in an intense rain shower.
There are a huge number of activities to engage in at Victoria Falls including bungee jumping, booze cruises, scenic flights and lion walks. On our first night in Livingstone we went on a wonderful sunset cruise during which we saw a hippo or two and tried and failed to drink the bar dry while devouring plates of barbecued meat. The drunken inclination to swim in the river was quickly scotched by the knowledge that crocodiles were abundant.
Martin wanted to get a bit more adventurous, so he decided to do his 5th bungee jump. Although we saw a married couple who must have been in their 60s doing a joint gorge swing and twin sisters who might have been pushing 70 doing a tandem swing, I was not going to be induced, for love or money, to jump off the bridge which connects Zambia and Zimbabwe!
As you can see from the photo below, he did a great job of launching himself into the air like a bird, swooping down into the gorge with its beautiful double rainbow below. Unfortunately, he came away with a souvenir rope burn which is still not completely healed a fortnight later!
Nestled between the two neighbouring ‘Z’ countries in south-central Africa, Zambia miraculously manages to avoid the international pariah status of Zimbabwe and the basket case label routinely applied to the failed state north of it, formerly known as Zaïre (the Democratic Republic of Congo). Most people we have told about our plans to visit Zambia have responded with blank looks as they hurriedly search their mental world maps, desperately trying to locate the country. Now that we are here it is easy to see why.
Zambia does not feature among the top destinations for Europeans wishing to take a holiday. Were it not for the instability in Zimbabwe, with which Zambia shares a crucial border at Victoria Falls, it is questionable whether as many tourists would make it here at all. Prior to arriving, we had no inkling of what to expect: unlike Kenya with its wildlife; Tanzania with Ngorongoro, the Serengeti and Zanzibar; or Malawi with its lake and famously friendly people Zambia truly is terra incognita.
So far on our trip, we have found border crossings and dealings with Immigration officers to be a good barometer of the service level and warmth to be expected in a country. Zambia was no different. As we entered Immigration, we found ourselves in a cramped office shared by nine staff, busy sipping coca-cola from bottles as they devoured BBC World News from a flat-screen TV and gossiped among themselves. They carefully avoided all eye contact with the rapidly growing crowd of visa applicants – we were invisible and inaudible until they chose to recognise us.
Nevertheless, having heard complaints from another group of travellers who had been waiting for over 45 minutes, we decided to try to alert a pretty young officer to our presence (we were after all paying $50 each). She immediately waved us off with a flick of the hand as she set about trying to crack open a bottle of coke with her molars, kicked back in her chair and proceeded to devote her attention to watching the news. Just one of the nine officers on duty was actually processing visas. There was little we could do but wait.
Scanning the room we noticed a large, prominently placed box of lubricated condoms, which were presumably provided to reduce the likelihood that tourists left the country with more than they bargained for or that any STIs were left behind by visitors. Nearby a large poster proudly proclaimed “A real woman waits.” Several of us wondered whether this was supposed to be a not so subtle reminder that using the services of prostitutes is inadvisable (the proximity of the condom box seemed to be confusing the message, though); perhaps it was intended to inspire guilt in women who were considering pre-marital sexual liaisons? Whatever the intentions of the poster, several of us wondered why a real man could not also wait, especially given that one in every seven Zambians is HIV positive; 79,000 new infections were recorded in the country in 2009 (an average of 200 per day); the current life expectancy is around 39 years.
After watching the BBC report on the earthquakes in Spain and bombings in Pakistan, our visas were processed. We were finally free to roll over the border and into the dry grassy landscape of northern Zambia. Travelling along potholed roads we trundled towards Chipata to camp for the night.
Finally we have made it to Malawi, a country which is two-thirds lake, famed for the friendliness of its people and known as one of the poorest countries in Africa we cannot wait to discover what it has to offer.
Ever since reading The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, by William Kamkwamba, we have both wanted to come to Malawi. The book tells the story of a young Malawian boy (Kamkwamba) whose parents have to pull him out of school when a famine hits the country, because they barely have enough money to feed the family. Despite this, his interest in school is irrepressible (he even tries to gatecrash classes in secondary school until he is kicked out by a teacher who discovers that his parents have not paid the fees!). One day he is captivated by a picture of a windmill in a science textbook, thus begins his unrelenting quest to build a replica from scrap.
Ignoring the relentless ridicule of his neighbours which lasts for months on end, he succeeds in erecting a windmill which brings electricity to the village for the first time, earning the respect of the naysayers and piquing the interest of a journalist who stumbles upon the wacky contraption. Once his story makes it to the wider world, the boy’s life is turned upside down; he receives a scholarship to a university in South Africa, gives a lecture on TED and travels the world telling his story.
Fast forward to our visit to a village near Kande Beach, Lake Malawi, on 11th May. We are seated in a small classroom with an alphabetic rainbow running along the wall, maps of Malawi hang near the blackboard; the obligatory picture of the president glares down at us. The Head Teacher, the vocal incarnation of Louis Armstrong (no, he did not sing!), introduces us to the school in his husky baritone. Serving 1500 primary school children in the area, each of its 10 classrooms holds an average of 150 pupils in a space which would be deemed fit for 30 students in the West.
Primary education is free, but not compulsory in Malawi. Secondary school costs $150 per year, yet the average income in the village is approximately $600 per annum. Consequently, most families struggle to send a single child to secondary school.
Before we leave, we meet a young trainee teacher finishing up for the day, her final task for the day is to finish a poster with some example sentences in English. She explains that her only felt-tip pen has dried out; she is waiting for the ink to drip down to the tip so she can finish the sentence. A feeling of indignation and pity overwhelm us as we listen to this smiling woman, resigned to her fate. Defeated before she has even begun, she is trying to do her job without the tools of her trade. This is one of the better schools in the district, but it is a wonder that any pupil ever makes it into the top 10%, the essential requirement for admission to university.
The village clinic is an austere place, sporting a few sun-bleached posters warning of the risks of HIV/ AIDS infection, one of the primary killers in Malawi. A gaggle of pregnant women wait on wooden benches outside the nurse’s office, toddlers crawl beneath their feet, babies are strapped to their backs; distended bellies protrude from their bright kikoys.
The nurse greets us in slurring English, firing off statistics about the clinic: it serves 25,000 people (an average of 300 per day); most of the patients are pregnant women and people with malaria (sometimes referred to as Malawi’s number one export); few patients are ever admitted to the clinic as there is a shortage of beds; serious cases are referred to the main hospital an hour or so away. Given that she only has one colleague to help her attend to the 300 or so patients per day (a doctor visits once a month), she has mastered the art of cutting consultations short. She ends abruptly with a request for donations to be placed in the wooden box on her desk.
The sun fades quickly as we make our way with William, the chief’s son, to the chief’s house. Everywhere we go, a gaggle of children grip our hands, beg us to swing them high into the air and beseech us for pens (why is it that nobody ever asks for paper?) and empty pet bottles (William explains that they are the latest status symbol at school).
Teenaged boys dressed in the ubiquitous hand-me-downs donated to charity by well wishers from distant shores. To the newcomer they appear wealthy, but that is a deception; these boys in football shirts and Adidas tracksuit bottoms reside in the basic mud huts scattered about the village. Their staple food is cassava; meat is a rare treat (once yearly or reserved for weddings and visitors like us). Many have no formal work earning just a few hundred Kwatcha here and there by carving souvenirs for tourists. The women are largely silent as they encounter us at the water pump or heaving heavy loads in the dying embers of the scorching day.
Soon dinner is served on the floor of the courtyard, the children are brought in to perform some rousing songs which echo through the inky night, perforated by the scant sliver of a developing crescent moon, which envelopes us here in the middle of nowhere.