Saisi Battlefield

Kamba Hill

I’ve really stretched out the content on this site, but over the second to last weekend in April I went to go visit the Saisi Battlefield. This is an expedition that Colin from the oft-referenced Mbala / Abercorn Facebook page asked me to go on. In the midst of the Centenary Celebrations, a Saisi Battlefield Park was set up, as detailed in this YouTube video. This park, according to Colin (and now me), appears to be in the wrong spot. So Colin asked me to head out to investigate.

This was a fun little adventure and will be (was, by time you read this) my last adventure in Zambia, provided the trip to ringout goes smoothly. It is located about 65km from me and so it took me a while to get around to going there because it was a multi-day trip. I set off the first day and made it to Katie’s, where we searched for Mama Meli, and the next day Katie and I biked to our friend TJ’s house, who lives pretty near the battlefield. It was a very pleasent bike ride, being mostly downhill, and had very pretty views as we rounded the escarpment and biked down into the valley.

The information we were operating off of when it came to the site comes from A Soldier’s Burden, which seems to be a book detailing some of the battles of WWI, an excerpt of which you can find here (it was also used as the basis for that YouTube video above). The battlefield map from Soldier’s Burden is above, and clearly is of Kamba Hill (8°56’12.0″S 31°44’12.1″E), as opposed to the location of the Saisi Battlefield Park, located much closer to Mt. Sunzu. Some things make sense about this to me and some things don’t. I don’t actually know the exact provenance of the map, but if it was made by someone who was at the battle then yeah, we’ve got the spot right. The rivers on the map are a lot wider and marshier in real life, and could provide good defenses, but the map shows the man-made defenses facing towards the south when the Germans (this was a British fort) were coming from the north. The site also apparently had a garrison of several hundred people, but the area of the entrenchments is not actually that big I think you’d be hard pressed to fit that many people into the fort. But I am no WWI expert. Nonetheless, we forged ahead to check out the site!

TJ and Katie, adventuring with me.

TJ was very enthusiastic about this project, and is a bit of a WWI enthusiast himself, but didn’t know he lived so close to a battlefield until I told him. He asked around his village and got a lot of information for us which was cool. After arriving at his house we went over to the hill and climbed to the top. Our goal was to find more concrete evidence that this was the site.

Unfortunately, the evidence for that was mixed. We didn’t find anything like old bullets or guns, and none of us were experts on century-old trenches. The above picture is me standing in a semi-circle of stones that we thought (based on some other stuff we found on the internet) might have been a gun emplacement of some sort. Again, it faces the south, and I don’t know why that would be, but it appears those stones were put there by people. Whether that was villagers or the British. Over on the east side of the hill I found some things I thought could be trenches, though to be fair they could be furrows or just natural formations. What a century can do, ya know? Like I said though, TJ had asked around the village and the people living there were clearly familiar with it having been a battle, and even told TJ about weapon caches to the north, in Tanzania. So pretty neat!

One of the more interesting aspects of this adventure was the crowd we gathered. The hill is mostly covered in tall grass and we had actually accumulated quite a number of children followers before we noticed. Since they were short (being children) they were only a few feet from us in the tall grass before we spotted them. Good thing they weren’t velociraptors. In the above picture you can sorta see the string of children following us down the hill. They’re only that visible in the above picture because we taunted them a bit by asking if they were scared of us; they claimed they were not.

So all in all a good adventure. As it got dark we climbed off the hill and went back to TJ’s house and had a relaxing night. I sent a lot of the pictures I took and my thoughts about the site to Colin, and he is talking to some other historians he knows and trying to pin down some more information about the battlefield. Yet another potential tourist attraction in Zambia totally under-used. Imagine the gift shops the villagers could run! This is an important piece of history in the Mbala region and I hope it gets documented, and soon.

Mama Meli / Mama Mary

Reading this week:

  • Hyperion by Dan Simmons

There are MAJOR new updates to this story, available as of December 13, 2020, here.

Mama Meli is a classic story of trying to find obscure historical stuff in Zambia. I first heard of her because she is mentioned in any Zambian news article about slavery, and rightfully so. She is billed as the only known freed slave buried in Zambia.

The truth, it appears, is slightly more complicated than that. It appears she is famous because she got her oral history recorded in the book Women in Peril. You can read her entire life story, in her own words (and what I assume excerpt from the book), in this linked PDF. I recommend reading it, but as the short version, she lived quite the life. She was born in 1880 (there are different dates stated) in Northern Zambia, near Kawimbe. As a small child, she was captured in what must have been one of the last Arab slave raids in the area. This was a violent capture and the slavers killed her parents. She was transported to near what is now Nakonde, where the slavers tried to sneak past a mission established to combat these slave raids. Due to some trickery, the slavers were discovered and stopped, and their slaves freed. Mama Meli was taken back to Kawimbe where she was taken in by the mission there. In a nasty frying pan/fire situation, in my opinion, her relatives discovered she was at the mission and tried to claim her, but the mission demanded the exorbitant price of a cow for her release because she was such a hard worker. She was eventually married off but lived a rather full life, going through three husbands and working as a midwife all over Northern Zambia. She eventually died at the age of 102. If you just think about the span of her life, she was born at a time when she was at risk of being captured by Arab slave traders and lived a chunk of her life having never even seen shoes, and died in the independent, relatively wealthy Republic of Zambia.

And, according to sources, she is buried at Kawimbe, which happens to be right where my friend Katie lives. So I went up there to try to track down Mama Meli (it’s not her original name, but she was eventually named “Mary” by the missionaries, and in the local patois this gets transformed into “Meli,” and all the written sources refer to her as “Mama Meli”). Katie asked around before I got there, and was told that Mama Meli is buried somewhere on the old Kawimbe Mission grounds (there is a new Kawimbe Mission) in an unmarked grave. Sweet. So after I arrived at her house we set off to find the location of the old mission, and something that could be her grave.

To cut a long story short, we were unsuccessful in finding Mama Meli. No one quite knows the location of the old mission exactly, and as I said we were looking for an unmarked grave. But after we asked a little old lady we found, she did direct us to a pretty cool old mission graveyard.

First off, we never would have found this thing without the nice lady. The above picture is of the graveyard from the path. It isn’t until you’re in it and on top of it that you find anything, and man what you find is cool.

Hidden throughout the grass are a whole variety of graves of missionaries that died in the area. The earliest grave we found was from 1898 and the latest from 1925. This brings me to the point of this article, which is a long lament for Zambia’s efforts at tourism.

Later in the day we went to go greet Katie’s counterpart and discovered that he was hosting at that moment the local chief, Chief Fwambo. I took the moment to try to impress upon him my thoughts on getting more tourists to Zambia, and Mama Meli is a great case. She has a great story and would be super popular with any tourists in the area with even a faint interest in slavery or its effects on the area. But to find out about her you have to follow closely Zambian newspapers, and then have some idea where Kawimbe is. And once you’re there, there is noting to guide you to the right spot to look. No one that we talked to is even quite sure where her grave is, though apparently her grandchildren live in the area and I think they would know. It would be so cheap and easy to put up a sign with some background on Mama Meli, marking her gravesite or at least the old Kawimbe Mission site. Put another sign or two along the road (again this is cheap; a piece of wood and some paint) and man the tourists would come like flies. Then, just stick with me for a minute here, what if, and just what if, the say, nearby Moto Moto Museum, in conjunction with the Mbala Town Council, assembled a scenic byway map or something. They could list all the important historic sites in the region (having put signs in those spots, as well), and put that information on a map/brochure that tied together the history of the region, from prehistoric times to the Bantu migration to Arab slavery to missionaries and colonialism to the freedom struggle (Mbala even has Zambian Freedom Struggle sites!) to the modern republic and just made it easy to find all these sites and to literally put Mbala and the environs on the map! Not to mention the natural beauty and crap! And man, like, if some local enterprising entrepreneur trained up a taxi driver or two in some of the historic significance, and came up with a set price for the tour so you could just call up Steve or whatever and pay him K500 to have him drive you to all these sites in a morning or afternoon and explain something of the history and I’m telling ya like overnight Mbala would be the tourist destination it dreams of being. I swear this wouldn’t be expensive and there are already like a dozen people that work at the Moto Moto Museum that could put this together, easy.

So yeah. Thank you for coming to my TED Talk.

Izi Falls: Getting Back

Setting off.

The evening at Izi Falls was relaxing, but it was the next day we were dreading. We were already tired and sore from getting to the falls, and now we had to get back. My bike was busted, it was largely uphill, and we didn’t know if the weather would hold. We dawdled setting off but eventually packed up our gear and head out.

The view from the nice old lady’s shower.

We had decided the night before to hire some guys to haul our stuff out to the last big village we passed on the way to the falls. That would put us pretty near the main road and on relatively flat terrain. We hiked back to where we had locked our bikes, which wasn’t too bad, and Alli dropped her stuff and went on ahead to find some help. I was gonna get the bikes ready to go and hopefully find my missing wheel nut.

My wheel nut was a lost cause on the hill covered in weeds, and grass, but I busted out some of Alli’s tools (my toolkit got stolen a while back) and managed to jerry-rig a wheel nut using some of the hardware from my toolkit mounting rack (which I didn’t need because again the toolkit had gotten stolen). I was pretty proud of myself and head up the hill to meet up with Alli and our recently hired porters.

One last look back towards the falls, with the valley filled with clouds.

Hiring dudes to carry all your crap is a $5 well spent, lemme tell ya. It was Alli’s idea and it was a good idea.

Having help hauling all of our stuff out made the going a lot easier, but it was still hot and a heckuva walk uphill. At least the sweeping vistas of the second largest lake in the world were still there to keep us going.

The guys took us all the way back to the village, where the road now began for us. It was still a few kilometers to the main road, and we were already tired, but we were hoping to catch a canter on the way back once we hit the main road. There was nothing to do but keep biking and eventually we hit the main road. Unfortunately, a canter did not immediately materialize and there was nothing to do but keep biking back towards home.

This portion of the trip was actually pretty okay. The road is very good and it had gotten cloudy, which made it less hot. It was raining all around us, it seemed, but not on us yet, so the clouds were a welcome relief. At one point we stopped by a tuck shop for some sodas and of course our visit was quite the event. One or two minibusses passed us going the other way saying they were going to Mpulungu, which confused me, but we pressed on.

Again, the whole trip is comprised of sweeping vistas. This picture is overlooking the Lunzua River valley, with the village of Mwenda at the bottom. There was rain coming from the south, which was ominous, but I hoped that our weather luck would hold.

We zoomed down the escarpment, which from the picture you can tell was a lot of fun, but it was on this part of the trip that the rain finally hit us. So we hustled into Mwenda and luckily there was a shelter that we could hide under.

Stuck in the rain in Mwenda.

While we were waiting for the rain to let up, Alli made friends with the local ladies selling bananas while I took a look at the map. Eventually it dawned on me that all these minibusses that were going to Mpulungu, but somehow not passing through Mbala, were taking a road that went from Mwenda to the main, tarmac’d Mpulungu road. And, it should be all downhill. I convinced Alli that instead of taking the safe, known road straight to Mbala, and biking 23km or so, on average uphill, we should zoom the 10km downhill on the Lunzua river road and then catch a minibus to Mbala. She was convinced and off we went!

Going down that road was super cool! It was very foggy when we went down the road, since it had just rained, and so the whole valley had a sorta spooky-cool mist-shrouded thing going for it which was awesome. And along the way we came across all the infrastructure for the Lunzua hydroelectric station, and that was super cool to check out. The feeder pipe for the power plant is in the above picture. We came across the abondoned construction camp, which had some really cool signs with diagrams on them.

I didn’t know this place existed, and I am a sucker for signs with diagrams on them, so it was really neat. The sun came out right as we hit the end of the dirt road and arrived at the tarmac, so it was possible to believe that the valley was always cool and mist-shrouded and maybe haunted. From there, we just had to catch a minibus (which impressively bunjied our bikes to the back) and we were back to Mpulungu.

I had meaning to go on this trip for like, two years, ever since I learned of the existence of Izi Falls, and just never got around to it. Every time I bike home I get a wide vista of the whole escarpment from Mbala to the lake, and I had always wanted to bike that route. My time here in Zambia is coming to a close and if Alli hadn’t pressed for the trip I probably wouldn’t have made it. If you ever get the chance to bike and canter and hike 100 or so kilometers off the beaten path in Mbala, I recommend it.

The escarpment and home.

Izi Falls: There

The falls!

Reading this week:

  • Doctor No by Ian Fleming

We came across the falls suddenly when we finally arrived. We had to cross a small river, walked through some woods, and were stunned to find a household almost right on the edge of the cliff. We said hellow to the nice old lady who lived there, and she lead us down to the river and finally we were at the falls!

I got hella vertigo taking this picture.

Pool at the top of the falls.

View over the edge of the falls.

When we got to the falls we were dehydrated and woozy from lack of food but both of us immediately set out to explore. I climbed down from the river crossing to try to get to the very edge of the falls. Alli went off to explore the far cliffside to get a good view. All day we had been joking about the phone call we’d have to make if one of us fell off the falls, this far from the nearest road or transport. I didn’t know at the time where Alli had gone, and started to get worried that she had actually fallen off the cliff. Luckily she hadn’t, and she actually got some pictures of me crawling on my belly to look over the edge.

I was worried about rain so after exploring and getting some food into us, we set up camp. The best spot was actually right near the edge, and I tried to avoid thinking about just rolling off the edge. There were signs of a camp fire so other people had the same idea we had before. Our spot gave some pretty awesome views of the valley beyond the falls and was sorta shielded from the roar of the water.

With the tents set up the next major goal was swimming! Over on Abercornucopia, they note there is a pool at the top you can swim in, and I think this was the major draw for Alli. The water was pretty cold but after a whole long day of getting to the falls it was pretty nice to relax and wash the sweat off. If you sat in the right spot it was like getting a water massage, and if you pulled your feet up you could pretend the water was sweeping you off the edge of the falls.

After swimming it was a pretty quiet evening. I started a less than impressive fire, but it was warm enough for two people and we watched as it slowly turned to nightfall. We were hoping to see the lights of the fishermen on the lake from our vantage point, but I guess they were taking Sunday off. I brought camping gear to Zambia with the notion I would hike off into the woods and camp places, and this is the first time I actually did that. Totally worth it.

The next morning I woke up before dawn and got to catch the sunrise coming up over the hills. Mpulungu (again, from a distance) was absolutely gorgeous in the morning light and I wish more people could make it out to see all of Zambia’s amazing sights like Izi Falls.