This part of Africa is one of the poorest parts of the world. People cook outside, with firewood, which is one of the indices of poverty. Village life can appear an idyll. The climate is beautiful, social relationships are mostly co-operative and people have time to talk, to enjoy simple pleasures. Such lifestyle can appeal to some of us in the ‘first world’ as a simplicity that we’ve lost, to our detriment.
But there are downsides. In the villages, there is no economy as such. Agriculture is the way of life for all who live in a village; it’s the only way to get food to eat. There are no businesses, no offices, no factories. Just bush. Having said that, where other work is available, perhaps in an NGO or one of the many struggling one-man businesses, then people have to get to work by either walking (often for hours) or if you’re lucky and have a bike, on two wheels. The Great East Road is the main route through the area going from Lusaka to Malawi. Always there are people walking on the sides of that road. Village to market or back, going for firewood or charcoal, going for water, kids walking for miles to or from school. Nearer the towns there’s the bicycle taxis if you can afford one. A network of unmapped dirt roads leads maze-like to villages; further into the bush just tracks and remote villages that only the residents know how to get to, or of course the Peace Corps boys and girls who manage to find their way into them, following their missions whatever they may be.
In the towns life is a little different as there are markets for pretty much everything you need. And bars which can turn a place into a no go area at night especially for women or europeans. It’s possible to see a few sprawling colonial style bungalows with walled garden and iron gates on the outskirts of towns and there’s a kind of transition zone between town and country where a network of dirt roads and tracks weave between two roomed houses with tin roofs which are fairly cheap to build, and there isn’t a definite village identity. Chipata is a larger town on the border of Malawi with supermarkets, and more definite industry and you see the signs of more wealth there.
Education is a tricky one. Theoretically available to most children, in reality you have to pay for tuition at certain stages, and for uniforms. And you have to find a school you can get to. Many kids walk miles and miles each way. For Children living in villages right out in the bush, education is not possible unless you’re lucky enough to be in range of a privately built philanthropic project such as that built by Chief Mbang’ombe in Kapeya area. Higher education for a village dweller is pretty unlikely.
There are some NGOs out there trying to make a difference to agriculture methods and encouraging entrepreneurship. When you see the government agencies and advisors coming in and promoting use of inorganic fertilisers, you start to give up hope. The region grows maize as a carb staple which is fine when the rainy season behaves, but as the climate changes and weather patterns seem to be more unpredictable, we’ve seen crop failure on a catastrophic scale. It’s tragic to see a huge field of maize, planted and cared for by the whole local community, with shrivelled cobs not even fit for animal feed.
And if you’re a rich European, you’re totally unaware of all this as you enjoy the luxurious surroundings of a safari lodge just a relatively short hop northwards in the Luangwa game reserves. You don’t need to see anything of the true life of a village person in Zambia, any more than they will ever see any of the money you’re theoretically putting into the Zambian economy.