Warm, friendly Zambia should be on foreign tourism radar

Almost suddenly, the savannah landscape, with countless baobab trees, yields to the land of valleys. Three hours ago, a perfect orange sun emerged while our bus was somewhere on the A1 route, traversing Mashonaland West, Zimbabwe’s northwestern province.

Dry rivers, malnourished cows and goats, parched grass and yellow trees speak of woeful drought in these climes. It’s hardly 9.30am yet the mercury is already racing north. Thankfully, the aircon – despite the constant whine owing to an impaired cover – intervenes. By now the bus is almost crawling as it snakes through a forest, to head towards the mighty Lake Kariba at the bottom.

Houses, big and small, pop up after kilometres of monotonous bush. It’s a sign of human life. Undeterred by the swelter this Sunday morning, members of a church, in white robes, congregate under a tree not too far from the road.

Only minutes after the scientist on my right, across the aisle, said something about cheeky apes that inhabit these forests, does a troop of monkeys gingerly fill the frame as our Lusaka-bound bus continues its downward crawl.

To the far west, tourists picnic and gambol while others cruise on leisure boats. Elsewhere at Kariba Dam, construction workers slog in the blaze as our bus enters Zambia, where short-staffed immigration officers serve with speed, courtesy and a smile. Just outside the customs office, a tall currency trader – who turns my R200 note into 140 kwacha – welcomes me to “Zambia, the sweetest country”.

The people are warm, alright. “We grow cane,” he says, by way of a rejoinder that must have been elicited by my probably confused smile. Indeed, Illovo Sugar is one of several JSE-listed firms that have struck it sweet in Zambia. Besides business travellers, Zambia scrapes the tourism market. It’s difficult to dismiss Economist writer John Grimond’s observation that “God must have been working to a budget when He came to make Zambia”.

Beyond the aphorism lies the real problem: successive governments have done poorly in tourism, failing to convert the country’s charm. Not many foreign travellers come to see wildlife or visit other destinations mainly because Zambia, home to friendly and warm people, is not on their radar.

Its welcoming nature, political stability and physical (and cultural) proximity to South Africa, a market viewed as a gateway, count for little. All of this leaves the world-famous Mosi-oa-Tunya Falls, also known as the Victoria Falls, to almost single-handedly drive all of the tourist traffic to the country. That’s if you accept the business types.

But being on Zambian soil triggers something deeper than monetary or literal sweetness. It probably has to do with the selflessness this nation displayed in its support for the fight against colonialism and apartheid, even if that cost it by way of economics.

That Zambia had a minister dedicated to Southern Africa’s liberation project, as Hugh Macmillan reflects in The Lusaka Years: The ANC in Exile in Zambia, 1963 to 1994 is an example. Freedom fighters stationed here hailed from five countries that were yet to shrug off oppression. Those included Mozambique’s Frelimo and Angola’s MPLA, now ruling parties.

Closer to home, the Pan Africanist Congress, now-defunct Unity Movement and, for three decades until the demise of apartheid, the ANC had offices in Lusaka.

“The name of Zambia’s capital became a shorthand identifier for the ANC in exile, as the ‘pilgrimage’ to Lusaka became a feature of internal politics for supporters, critics and even opponents of the ANC in the late 1980s,” Macmillan writes. The pilgrimage has continued post-1994 but players have changed.

Now, executives of South African-based blue chips – Edgars, FNB, MTN, Pep, Pick n Pay, Shoprite and Woolworths – pursue fortunes.

Lusaka might lie 200km from the border post, but it takes us no less than four hours to get there owing to roadworks. Baobab trees, trucks, men cycling, livestock, Zamtel outlets painted all-green, pastures and other aspects of the countryside pass by. Along Kafue Road, or T2, to Lusaka, I’m taken aback to see a sprinkler showering Baobab College’s lawn in broad daylight.

Two points: evaporation and drought (that’s threatening power supply and water rationing). Emaciated livestock in the countryside bear testimony.

Despite drought, Lusaka is blanketed in green and purple jacaranda trees and its women add more colour with their multipurpose chitenges (cousins to the kangas, more common in South Africa).

Trucks, 4x4s (which stand out for their numeric significance), buses and other vehicles hurtle up and down the road. Lusaka is notorious for awful traffic jams on weekdays, from downtown to suburbs such as Manda Hill.

That’s home to the country’s largest mall and the well-heeled. Maybe heavy traffic has something to do with most motorists choosing R&B music. Not to miss out are four-four style Toyota minibus taxis where you can, surprisingly, negotiate the fare.

On a journey from a township named Chilenje, where some visit a house that used to be home to Kenneth Kaunda pre-independence, a taxi keeps veering off the road whenever the driver spots a gravel shoulder. Deborah Fraser, AKA and lots of JK, hitherto unknown musicians to me, keep commuters company.

In July, at a hip-hop festival at Lusaka’s Woodlands Stadium “all hell broke loose, but in a positive way” when Cassper Nyovest took to the stage after midnight, reported the Daily Mail. It was DJ Black Coffee’s turn in September. The music of local acts such as JK, of Dununa Reverse fame, and Slap D is as pervasive.

Obert, a local I meet through my hosts during my week-long visit to the city, returns me to the 1980s with his rendition of Juluka’s Woza Friday as he downs Mosi during a braai. Mosi is Zambia’s beer of choice.

Well-heeled locals and discerning expatriates prefer spots that include News Café and Rhapsody’s, both in Arcades Mall, on Thabo Mbeki Road. Both exude a different kind of energy. An odd giggle ripples from some table while not-too-loud music plays on. The staple is a predictable trio: drinks (and, sometimes, grub), politics and economics.

The economy, dominated by what economist types categorise as “$1 a day”, is doing poorly and the country has just been through a widely disputed election that claimed lives in its aftermath.

Chaos hasn’t dimmed the hospitality synonymous with Zambia. Ever-flowing invitations to tea and lunch hit me. An old colleague, Ken Bbandika, takes me to Kumushi. Located some distance from Arcades, the eatery serving soulful indigenous meals is a winner. Next up, with Bbandika somehow managing to dodge Lusaka’s traffic, Toya Delazy on the car stereo urges us to “pump it on” and we’re at the Lusaka National Museum.

It’s located inside a government complex, opposite a pink mosque and a beige church which define the skyline on this part of Independence Road.

For a country that has an unmistakable conservative streak, Charles Chambata’s Twin Peaks sculpture comes as a surprise for it depicts a half-naked woman. A life-sized buffalo, a miniature of the Freedom Statue and a 1931-model Fiat Topolino join a giant guitar on the lower level of this two-storey museum. Walls are lined with exceptional paintings. One, by Chasoba Chima, brings to life serenity and Eden.

Although tiny, at about 500m squared, it has some gems on offer. The upper level has a section dedicated to evolution, Stone Age, slavery and its oft-underplayed junction with capitalism.

When the abolition of slavery reached Britain, ship owners were livid. “[It would] put us out of work,” they objected. Among the images featuring in the liberation project, including those of a fresh-faced and black-haired Kaunda, are pictures of bare-breasted female marchers protesting for “one man, one vote”. It’s an ironic victim of patriarchy.

Alongside Kaunda and a list of Zambian politicians, Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama find their place on the wall of this museum. Bob Marley is a surprise. You wouldn’t expect to see images of Brenda Fassie and Lucky Dube adorning a national museum in Lusaka.

South Africa has, for decades, relished one particular Zambian art form: footwork. Prolific football goal-scorers such as Collins “Ntofontofo” Mbesuma, Kennedy Mweene and Mwape Musonda continue where Kaizer Chiefs’ legendary striker Albert Bwalya left off eons ago.

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories


press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday