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Letter From Africa
Text and Photographs by Dhun Davar
Published: Volume 17, Issue 5, May, 2009

Despite its struggle with HIV/AIDS, landlocked Zambia is a backpackers’ paradise, with exotic delicacies verging on the bizarre, lush nature reserves and the breathtaking Victoria Falls. Monze-based NGO worker DHUN DAVAR recounts her extraordinary experiences in the verdant paradise

PROVINCIAL MONZE IN SOUTHERN Zambia is a far cry from the metros we’re used to. On its endless dirt roads you tend to be more wary of green mambas, hurtling cattle and the African bush than of speeding cars. Here, I walk to work and am greeted by name, along the way, speak some Tonga and am propositioned by locals on an almost daily basis.

Helping combat HIV/AIDS in Monze, I was surprised to find that awareness about the disease is surprisingly high. This is possibly because of their manner of disseminating information. Zambians love music, have rhythm in their veins and sing their hearts out at any opportunity they get. With their love of music in mind, peer educators from Monze Mission Hospital where I work, routinely board trucks, play drums and sing along the dusty and endless roads. Their performances about pressing issues like widow cleansing, transmission of HIV, reinfection, the need to get tested and adherence to Anti-Retro Viral Treatment attract the attention of people along the way.

The Zambian way of life is radically different – for instance, their idea of a delicacy is the Inswa, a seasonal termite, which is literally swatted out of the air and cooked. The wings are usually plucked off and what you’re left with is a crunchy treat. Rich in protein and fat, I get a nutty and eggy taste, a bit like a prickly walnut brownie! Another endearing aspect of their culture is the way they name their children. While most couples pore over books and consult pundits, numerologists and soothsayers, Zambians are rather practical. If a child is born on a Friday or a Sunday that could well be his name. A first born could be christened First and I’ve even encountered names like Loveness, Stone and even Exnobert.

Affectionately dubbed the butterfly in the heart of Africa because of the unconventional shape of its border and the spirit of the people, Zambia is an untapped visitors’ paradise. While it might not feature on your countries-to-visit-before-I-die list, I’d recommend scratching something else off and penciling Zambia in. The Zambian bush is stunning for flora and fauna junkies. It goes on for miles and miles and is so full of game that you can’t help but stumble upon the most beautiful bugs, birds and creatures. In fact, my first encounter of the elephant kind occurred when you stroll across the highway in front of my coach when I was en route to Livingstone.

An oft-captured shot of Zambia reveals a mossy green unkempt carpet of vegetation and cascading falls. These are the Victoria Falls fed by the Zambezi river which plummet into the jaw-dropping Batoka cataract. A visit to Zambia, and I cannot stress this emphatically enough, must include a stopover at Livingstone to see the falls locally called Mosi-Oa-Tunya meaning ‘the smoke that thunders’ (which also happens to be my favourite Zambian beer). Both popular and cheap, a pint of Mosi costs under one USD, about 5000 Zambian Kwacha, and a litre of Shake Shake is even lighter on the pocket. True to its name you really need to give this cloudy beer a good shake before chugging it.

Gazing at the longest curtain of water in the world got my heart pounding but I was tempted to get it racing just a little more and decided to go with the most unique experience the falls have to offer – a swim in the Devil’s Pool. I could have gone white-water rafting with the falls in the background, bungee jumping, gorge swinging off the bridge that connects Zambia and Zimbabwe or flying over the falls in a microlight or helicopter. Having no desire to hurl myself off a bridge and then dangle around mid-air or to get thrown out of a raft into choppy water however, I took a leap of faith into the gurgling pool.

The Devil’s Pool is a naturally formed rock pool at the top of the falls just a couple of slippery feet from where the Zambezi River gushes over the edge. Jumping into the pool feels like you’re jumping off the edge of the falls, and for a second before I did, I could hardly believe I was there. I experienced a moment of utter panic before the beauty of my surroundings, peer pressure and adrenaline took over and I jumped! It was only after I bobbed back up to the surface that I was truly convinced that there was little danger in what I had just done.

Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) Youth for Development programme brought me to this beautiful country. It’s a bundle of contradictions but the experience is unlike anywhere else. Africa is fraught with issues of poverty, widespread hunger and HIV/AIDS but its people demonstrate great resilience to all that life throws their way. Their strength to endure is both impressive and humbling. Zambia grows on you despite its problems. I’m compelled to agree with the local saying indawo nimbotu loko – the place is nice.

Dhun Davar is a graduate of the London School of Economics. She is now working with VSO on an aids project in Monze, Zambia.

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