FEW routes are likely to tell you more about Zambia than the 320-kilometre journey up the Great North Road, which starts off from the capital Lusaka and runs up to Ndola in the heart of the Copperbelt region.
The third-largest city in Zambia with a population of over 450,000, Ndola holds much of the key to Zambia’s economy, to which copper is vital blood—dangerously so, many economists say.
It is easy to fly to Ndola, but then you would miss out on the sights and sounds of the real Zambia. Intent on getting a feel of this, my journey thus begins at the Post Office in downtown Lusaka, which runs a remarkably on-time bus service to Ndola, among other routes.
I almost bail out of the journey after a headline in the popular The Post seeks to reassure Ndola residents that fruit bats that are being found on the roads there do not harbour the Ebola virus.
For the pocket-friendly price of 70 kwacha (about $13) I am soon on the 1300hrs bus, alongside 40 or so other passengers. Friday afternoon traffic is manageable, and in no time the bus swings onto the Great North Road, which would be Zambia’s section of the Cape to Cairo road envisaged by imperialist Cecil Rhodes.
2008 election posters
Multinational presence is strongly visible along this key travel artery, from French energy producer Total and South African telecoms firm MTN to dealerships for American car manufacturer Ford.
Further down, haphazardly erected trading structures line the dusty roadside, as dated electoral messages exhort Zambians to vote in the 2008 elections. Of interest is the imposing Chinese built 60,000-seater National Heroes Stadium near the busy Mandevu junction, where the finishing touches are being built ahead of its first match that pits Zambia against Sudan.
Settlements along the road are predictably linear, but soon give way to parched land dotted with thickets and scrub, with Zambia being particularly dry at this time of the year.
The rolling land is sparsely populated—only 14 million Zambians live on land the size of Kenya and Tunisia put together.
The highway tarmac, done with Chinese input, is smooth with nary a pothole, while signs threaten road tolling.
Caressed by the heat of the sun fellow passengers soon nod off one by one, and only my curiosity keeps me awake. Mercifully our careful driver remains alert, and as if to reassure, slams the speed pedal to the floor the traffic thins out.
The landscape is remarkably flat—a driver’s paradise, and a nightmare for wild animals crossing the roads. Large-scale wheat farms soon appear, as mobile irrigators work hard to keep the relentless sun at bay.
Quite some beef
At Chisamba, Huntley Farm hub of listed Zambeef looms up. With its “Feeding The Nation” motto, it is clearly big business, and one of the few such successful agribusinesses in the region.
Further on it is clear many Zambian farmers are small-scale, practicing subsistence farming. Small fires lick the sides of the road, as farmers clear the way ahead of planting season, variants of which are known as Chitemene farming.
The majority of Zambia’s vast land is arable, with over 70% of the population employed by agriculture. But only 1.5 million of its 75 million hectares are cultivated, and it is hard to shake off the feeling that it has a lot of idle land, which it could allow investors to make use of.
A “Christian” land
Several churches and mission schools also stand regally along the road; Zambia is one of the most religious countries in Africa, and is predominantly and officially Christian.
Two hours on after navigating past several trailers, we soon reach Kabwe. Formerly Broke Hill and a key rail base, it is a financial capital of sorts, with several institutions present here, while numerous lodges—testament to Zambian’s friendly nature—also appeal to travellers. Because it is a halfway point buses also allow their passengers to grab a drink, but before long we are on our way again.
The landscape begins to green, with a number of river valleys breaking the monotony of endless dry thicket. Settlements are seen clustered around these areas.
We soon get to Kapiri Mposhi—the famous post where the Chinese-built Tazara railway starts its journey to Tanzania.
A weighbridge demands trucks and buses make a call, but unlike many others around the continent, it is remarkably efficient.
On the horizon modern power pylons can be seen carrying precious energy to Ndola. At some stages they advance right to the edge of the road, before dancing away into the horizon, as if seeking warmth from the last rays of the setting sun.
Sunset is a breathtaking sight, and an appreciative father next to me can be heard demanding on his cellphone that his family in Ndola get out and admire the golden red globe to his left.
Due to the dry periods “toughened” seed business looks to be thriving here, with several demo plots visible.
The break off to Luanshya, a mining outpost that has in recent decades been hard hit by the vagaries of unemployment, soon appears as dusk begins to fall. Five hours later after we first set out, Ndola shows up on the radar.
The air is thick with dust and diesel fumes, and several yards serving all sorts of industrial and storage purposes can be seen. On our right I get my first glimpse of one of the region’s copper giants—the First Quantum Minerals Ltd.
On my way back in the morning I espy my first copper ingots, stacked up at the firm’s yard.
Ndola is a major industrial and financial city, with that staid feel of having been around during the colonial times. It is a mix of both the new and the old, and has a sedate tick to it that belies its importance to the Zambian economy.
Guesthouses and lodges are also affordable here, with Zambians extremely willing to help you, without looking to take advantage of strangers. Due to its industrial origins it would be unlikely to be a tourist magnet. For that you go to Livingstone to the south, where you can stare at the famous Victoria Falls all day.
But for those seeking to understand Zambia’s economy, a trip here is essential.
*This article has been amended to reflect the ownership of First Quantum Minerals Ltd.