So, in early June we set out from Kasama to make our way south, heading through Lusaka and Livingstone (Victoria Falls) to the Namibian border and the Caprivi Strip. In total, it was about 1500 kilometers of riding through some of the dullest terrain imaginable…
But no, it wasn’t all that bad. Part of the problem I think is just that when we imagine biking in Africa while we’re sitting in an office in Europe or the US and we haven’t seen the sun for three days, we imagine it as jungles and savannahs and constant excitement and adventure. In reality though, there are long long stretches like northern Zambia, where the terrain is flat, the road is straight and well-paved, the traffic is light, and the villages or towns which might break the monotony are hours of riding apart. I picture it as something like biking across Nebraska maybe, or North Dakota – not something to rush out and do right away…
Though that is just the biking, and if we have had to focus and push ourselves to make it through our five hours in the saddle, it has been all the easier since where we end the day has been all the adventure we could hope for.
There was the night early on, for instance, spent in a small village near the Tanzanian border. Francis, who cycled along next to us at the end of the day and invited us to his home, set us out on a mat before his house after dinner and then essentially played the role of MC for two hours as all the children of the village huddled around us to ask questions about our trip, to learn more about the first whites to have visited their village in two years – for many of the children the first they had ever seen.
And yet their questions were the same as anywhere else – How far do you bike a day? What do you do about wild animals? Where do you sleep at the end of the day?
In the end, after establishing that Anna is Catholic and Dave a Protestant (it’s easiest this way), the whole village announced that they approved greatly of our mixed marriage, and set out to sing hymns, taking turns between the Catholics, the Protestants, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, though in reality everyone seemed to know the words to all the songs.
“Will you sing for us now?” Francis asked then – a rare request for any member of the Meyer family to hear.
We paused, thought it over, debated any songs we might know in French and English, preferably religious of course lest we blow our cover… We settled on ‘Silent Night’ – not the best choice evidently since after the first syllable the entire village burst out laughing and didn’t stop for at least ten minutes. We laughed along with them though, it’s just how things work here sometimes: if you can’t laugh at yourself, you won’t last long.
And there were plenty of other notable nights as well: the night spent camped in the front yard of the local witch doctor’s house (the first thing she said to us was: “Do you have pills for my knees?” – as her son explained to us, “She isn’t that kind of doctor…”), visiting the local chief the next morning for a royal audience (he gave us a bag of peanuts); the night spent watching WWF Wresting DVD’s in Paul’s jam-packed home, his baby melting into tears every time he looked at us, the ghosts sitting in his living room; the night spent camped at the base of a cell phone tower, guarded by a team of men who assured us every few minutes that we were perfectly safe there; the night on the crocodile farm; the night treated to a massive feast by two development volunteers in Mpika; or even just the numerous nights spent camping in the endless Zambian bush wherever our five hours of cycling happened to leave us – even if it was just the tall grass on a hilltop not ten meters from the passing trucks..
The biggest challenge – other than biking five hours through terrain so exciting that you could mistakenly think you were just passing the same tree over and over, though the arrow-straight road would cure you of that notion soon enough – has been the lack of restaurants In East Africa, the short break for tea and chapati, or beans and rice, came to be our lifeblood – a great way to meet people and to see local villages. Zambians haven’t quite taken the tea culture of their eastern neighbors though (the lack of a Swahili influence maybe?) and so the tea and lunch breaks have been replaced by cans of beans and water along the side of the road.
Another change has been in the reception we get as whites – never an easy question in Africa. In the east, everyone assumed we were rich of course, the same seems to be true everywhere we go. At the same time though, people didn’t seem to care that we were white really, or if they did it was more because it was a funny and curious thing, and people would often approach us to talk and find out more about where we were from.
In Zambia though, the further south we went, the more we started feeling suspicion, initial coldness from people. Though of course once you break the ice they are as warm and welcoming as anywhere else – at first though…
It is a different history down here. Zambia, formerly the colony of Northern Rhodesia, was exploited by the British essentially as a mining enterprise (copper primarily, though as a couple of geologists we met in Livingstone told us, there may be a whole lot more than that in Zambian soils), with the proceeds being heavily invested in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) where there was a more substantial white population. It was only through great efforts on the part of Zambian (and Malawian) exiles at the time that the colony (along with Nyasaland – Malawi) was not simply combined with its southern neighbors in fact, and thus subsumed by their racist governments.
Even after independence, the presence of the racist governments of Namibia (part of South Africa at the time) and Rhodesia on Zambia’s borders remained a menace – combining with Angola and the DRC to make for as difficult a regional situation as any African country can claim to have faced, with the exception maybe of another of Zambia’s neighbors, Botswana.
Today things are even more complex: many of the white Zimbabweans who have fled the catastrophe Mugabe created in Zimbabwe have come to settle in Zambia, often at the invitation of the Zambian government. We were surprised often as we biked along roads lined with enormous conventional farms (again, picture Nebraska) to see pick-up trucks driven with one white man (invariably overweight) in the front and several blacks (invariably thin) in the back. It felt almost like biking through the Jim Crow south sometimes…
One night for instance, a local white farmer offered to let us pitch our tent on his land, even letting us load our bikes and bags into his pickup truck for the 2km backtrack to his drive-way. We lifted them in with the help of the black farm manager who was also there. When we made to ride in the back though, we were invited up front – the farm manager can ride in the bed with the bikes of course.
After dropping us off, our host set off again into the cold dusk – alone in the cab now, shouting orders all the while out the window to the manager, still holding on the roof and riding in the bed…
When people twice my age start calling me “Boss” at every introduction, I start feeling a little weird.
This is a sign we are getting farther south though, closer to the Republic of South Africa, the “Rainbow Nation,” and we are excited to feel like we are moving along, curious to see what lies ahead. For all the long stretches of open road, Zambia is a beautiful country with wonderful people, and it was not without some sadness that we crossed the border into Namibia at the end of the month…
Otherwise, all is well, thank you as always for your comments and messages of encouragement, they brighten our days to say the least! Our apologies also for the sporadic nature of our updates, but good internet can be hard to come by. If you would like an e-mail notification every time we add a post, don’t hesitate to sign up for our Google Group! Thanks!