Zambia is a pretty country with some remarkable natural areas like Kafue National Park, the Liuwa Plains and the South Luangwa National Park. But for me, what was most exceptional on our first trip there was the people.
It’s easy to interact with Zambians because so many of them speak English. Even those who don’t will make an effort with sign language and those ever-ready smiles. So laid back and accommodating are they that you can walk into a crowded market in a genuine rural village (not a tourist market) and be accepted as just another shopper. You never have to feel that someone is going to hassle you, unless you consider the common decency of saying ‘hello and how are you?’ to be a hassle. And that says more about you than it does about them.
The downside of this, a Namibian now working in Lusaka told us, is that you can never ask a question to which the answer can be a simple yes or no. ‘Is this the way to Chipata?’ will apparently always elicit an affirmative answer –whether it’s true or not– simply because Zambians want you to be happy and so they will tell you what they think you want to hear. A better way to frame the question would be to ask, ‘Which is the way to Chipata?’ They will be happy to explain if they can.
Unless you’ve experienced welcoming, gracious Zambia for yourself, it’s hard to understand how it feels. To give you an idea, here are a few anecdotes about people we met.
At our campsite near the South Luangwa National Park one day, a young Zambian gardener came to sell us fresh veggies he’d grown himself. He was unfailingly polite, never pushy, and by the time he left he’d lit up the whole campsite with his smile. You can read more about him here.
Outside a small rural village we met two sisters from South Africa who had come to a wedding at a nearby lodge. They told us the groom’s stag party had been held in the village a few days before. During the festivities one of the blond-and-blue-eyed youngsters had got rather plastered and must have wandered off somewhere to sleep it off. As a result he got left behind when the bus took the revellers back to the lodge – a fact that wasn’t discovered till the following morning.
‘I knew he was left behind,’ explained the Zambian pub owner, ‘so I just gave him some place to sleep. He was very much drunk, not safe to walk back at night where there are wild animals, so he was fine here with me.’ Lovely, lovely people.
Nor is it only rural people who are so friendly and accepting. Just outside Lusaka we stopped at a campsite that was thrumming with locals; it was Heroes Day in Zambia, and a long weekend. Tired after a long day on the road, we pitched camp and went to the pub to see if we could rustle up a toasted sandwich instead of having to make supper ourselves.
It took about an hour and it was the worst toasted sandwich I’ve ever had. But the Mosi beers were good and they were cold, and in the long run the experience was worth it. Why? People.
There was a lot of bling in that pub. A woman with a fur handbag and a complicated set of braids, another in an auburn wig and many gold necklaces, the guys in jeans and shiny leather shoes whose pointy tips extended at least two inches beyond their toes.
The TV was showing a Wimbledon match. Rooting strongly for Serena Williams was a rather flashy young Zambian playing a game of pool against her boyfriend, displaying considerable skill, sipping Mosi straight from the bottle. Good figure, tight hipster jeans, bare belly and white tank top, impossible six-inch heels.
We chummed up in support of Serena and there was high fiving and back slapping when she won a set and then the match. I even got a big bear hug at the end because we were ‘Serena sistahs’.
It was a special experience because we were among genuine urban Zambians in a jovial atmosphere (the two of us the only pale faces in sight) rather than surrounded by other visitors and foreigners.
Whether it’s a barman giving you a place to sleep when you’re drunk, a young man peddling fresh veggies and a winning smile, or a beer-drinking, pool-playing Lusakan in high heels and a lot of attitude, there’s something to like about almost every Zambian you meet.
You might not notice it at first, but I’ll bet you’ll miss it as soon as you cross the border into Botswana.
More about Zambia
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