Mama Meli Update Part 1

I have some significant updates to the story of Mama Meli! When I wrote about her and trying to find her grave, I was doing most of my research on my phone while living in a mud hut and also mostly just trying to find cool locations to add to Atlas Obscura, so please forgive my mistakes in that post. I’ve been digging back into the story for a final project (Hello Professor Lombard!; I assume you will find this), and whoo boy have I found out a whole lot more information.

When I first read about Mama Meli’s story, I was more than a little confused about the timeline. The story to me read like she had gotten captured, her captors quickly tried to hustle her to the border, and they got caught by one of the types of British colonialists in the area. I thought this happened when she was about 10 or 12, over the course of like a month. Then, I assumed, since her parents had been killed in the slave raid, she was sent off to live with the missionaries at Kawimbe Mission. I lobbied some criticism about the fact that when her relatives came to claim her, the missionaries demanded payment of a cow. And then I mostly busied myself with looking at old gravestones.

I have learned so much more! The first big change between then and now is I have access to a library with a copy of Strategies of Slaves & Women: Life-Stories from East/Central Africa by Marcia Wright. In the last blog post I name-checked Women in Peril; that is Marcia Wright’s first book on the subject, which is wholly included in Strategies, but Strategies includes much more information. The second big change is that the library also has access to The Chronicle of the London Missionary Society, which is an absolute treasure-trove of information on the Central Africa mission of the LMS (I link HathiTrust there, but they’re also on Google Books).

From Strategies, I learned I had very much misunderstood Meli’s story. Wright estimates that Meli was captured in probably 1894 or 1895 when she was about 5. Meli’s story is so very much wrapped up in the story of Kawimbe Mission, and so I find it fitting that Meli was likely born very close to the founding of the mission in 1890. Another intriguing bit was that Meli was probably something of a political prisoner. Meli was the youngest daughter of Mumembe, and was born with the name Mwenya (in her oral history, Meli/Mwenya refers to herself as Meli, so I am going to stick with that). Around the time when Meli was born there was Chief Ponde of the Bemba who was launching raids and attacks into Mambwe and Lungu territory. Meli’s older brothers were often called to fight in defense (I think) against these attacks. Chief Ponde was also having some marital troubles with at least one of his wives. This wife ran away at some point during the course of all this fighting, only to be knocked up by Meli’s oldest brother. This made Chief Ponde mad, and he swore that he would get retribution against this brother. Mumembe, fearing for his son’s life, hustled him way up north into Mambweland so Ponde couldn’t get to him.

Fwambo village, from the April 1897 edition of The Chronicle

A few years later, Chief Ponde was (still?) at war with the Mambwe chief Fwambo. Chief Ponde was set to launch an attack against Fwambo, and the brother decided to actually go fight for Ponde, figuring that if he did well in battle he would be forgiven. The fight was somewhat disastrous. Fwambo was well fortified, and apparently it was cold up on the plateau where Fwambo was, but since Fwambo’s men were used to the cold they routed Ponde when they launched a counter-attack while Ponde’s men were still warming themselves. I also found it pretty intriguing that the missionaries from Kawimbe mission sent armed men to help defend Fwambo as well. This was far from the missionaries’ only interaction with Ponde; they had a range of relationships with the Bemba Chief. The missionaries had been harassed by Ponde, received messengers and entered into negotiations to set up missions in Bemba territory, and Mr. A.D. Purves (watch for his wife later in this narrative) bought the only known contemporary war charm from the man.

Anyways, despite Meli’s brother distinguishing himself in battle, Ponde failed to forgive him, and I guess remembering about his wife having gotten knocked up, vowed to attack Mumembe’s village in retribution. It was in this attack that Meli was captured. It is also likely that Meli’s mother was killed in this attack. After being captured, she was taken (along with other captives) to Chief Ponde’s village, and then given to a family. For the next five years or so, she lived the life of a slave. It’s with this first family that Wright identifies Meli as something of a political prisoner here because when she accidentally burns down the hut of the family she was given to, the father is about to kill her when his wife reminds him that Meli is “the family of a Chief” (uncle maybe? I was a bit unclear).

Apparently her worth drops over time, because after a bit she is sold off to Chona Maluti, an Arab (Wright prefers the term “Swahili” for being more accurate) trader/slaver and elephant hunter. Chona would be killed when he was trampled by an elephant, and Meli would be taken to the encampment of other Swahili traders in the area. It was around this time that she heard that her father had died, and I think she wound up with these traders for about a year. Her nose was pierced “in the Muslim fashion,” and she was renamed Naumesyatu. She was sold to another Swahili trader, who fed her better, and then was sold off again to a set of traders who renamed her Mauwa.

As a bit of an aside, for all the different names that Meli gets, she’s actually a bit remarkable for having an independent identity. From my experience with Mambwe culture, I know that as soon as you have a kid, you are typically referred to as “Father of” or “Mother of” your first-born. So in her story, Meli refers to her older sister as “the mother of Mulenga Chisani.” Later on (I swear I am getting to them), Meli will mention she was in the care of Mama Purves and then Mama May. I found both these women in The Chronicle, but they are exclusively referred to as “Mrs. Purves” and “Mrs. May,” immediately becoming subsumed into their husband’s identity as soon as they are married. Interesting little cultural overlap there, if you ask me.

Anyways. These latest traders who had bought Meli were going to finally try to bring her to the coast, likely to be sold at Zanzibar. During the time Meli had been enslaved, however, the British had set up a boma at Fife (roundabouts modern-day Nakonde, though I’m actually unsure how much they overlap) and declared the slave trade outlawed. And now here is a whole thing I didn’t pick up the first time around. The traders have to get past the outpost at Fife. A man comes along and offers to help the traders out. Turns out, the traders had his kid, and I assume he wanted to use the British people at Fife to get his kid back. So the traders take him up on his offer to lead them past the outpost. Except then this guy just goes to the outpost, and tells them all about the traders, and together they lay a trap. He leads the traders right into an ambush, and during the pandemonium Meli runs into the woods with the other children. They come out later that night when they were hungry, and are picked up by some villagers who bring them to the outpost.

After I assume being fed and taken care of, the children who knew where they were from were sent back home. The rest of the children were eventually sent to Kawimbe Mission. This was about 1899, and the children wind up in the care of Mama Purves. Meli was initially actually identified as a boy and briefly named Jim, before she identified herself as a girl and was dubbed with her final name, Mary. “Mary” winds up getting pronounced as “Meli,” which is how it is written in her oral history, and therefore in every subsequent source, including this one.

Join us next week for the second part of the update! I wrote like 5,000 words about Meli and I am going to milk it!

Niamkolo Church

From Chronicles of the London Missionary Society, January 1902

I’m doing research for a project on Mama Meli, and you better believe you’re gonna get some of that action in the coming weeks, but in the meantime I’m going to post some interesting stuff I have found out about Niamkolo Church. I mentioned the church briefly in my Mplungu post, and this post will consist entirely of me posting in their entirety three articles from The Chronicle of the London Missionary Society, which is turning out to be a trove of information on northern Zambia at the turn of the 20th century. I wish I had the ability to peruse gigantic PDFs back when I lived in a mud hut. I know there’s not a lot of analysis here, but I’m working on finals, and also retyping these articles took me longer than just writing a post probably would have. Also also also, the most intriguing part of all of this are photos/engravings from the church’s heydey. If you Google the church currently, you get modern-day photos, which is cool, but nothing showing the place with a roof. So that should be exciting!

But before we begin, two more things. First, this is the header of one of the issues of the Chronicle, and I just want to say these guys weren’t messing around:

Two, an excellent Instagram is “Sacral Architecture,” which publishes drawings of various religious buildings in Africa, and yes of course they did Niamkolo Church:

Alright! Now we shall begin in earnest:

April 1891 – “Tanganyika Sketches”

[This is before the church was built]

These are sketches of the Niamkolo station, which is situated at the south end of Lake Tanganyika, and were drawn from photographs sent home by Mrs. Swann. In “Our House” we see her with her husband at her side, and Mr. Carson standing a little way off. The little steamer Good News, having met with an accident, had to be docked and thoroughly repaired, which accounts for one of the sketches. Cloth (calico) takes the place of money in Central Africa. Porters and workmen of all kinds have to be paid in cloth. Hence the need for a “Cloth Store” at each station.

February 1896 – “A New Church”

On returning to his station from the Committee meeting at Fwambo, Mr. Jones spent a Sunday at Niamkolo and preached to the largest congregation he had seen in Central Africa. There must have been 700 people present, and it was a cheering sight. On the following Thursday (August 22nd) a memorial stone in the new church was laid by Mrs. Purves. Copies of the new hymn-book, the Society’s CHRONICLE and News from Afar, and the British Central Africa Gazette, together with cloth and beads to represent the currency, were laid in the cavity, the ceremony being witnessed by a large crowd of natives. Mr. Purves had been fortunate enough to discover an excellent quarry near the lake shore, whence huge slabs of grey freestone were dug, which looked as if they had come from the mason’s hand, so regularly did the seams lie. “It is amusing to see the children now busy on the lake shore,” says Mr. Thomas, “building stone houses and churches. The African in that respect is not very much different from the child at home.”

May 1896 – “New Church at Niamkolo”

Dear Mr. Cousins, – At Niamkolo “a notable great frame” has been erected in the form of a stone church, and I should like to tell you something about it. It is as yet but a “frame,” as you will see from the photographs which I enclose, if you can make any use of them.

The sense of wonder is not so easily roused in the African as some people at home imagine. If he has been any time in contact with the white man, he looks upon most of his actions as a matter of course; so that when he can really do something which makes the native open his eyes and mouth, exclaiming “Yanga we!” (“Oh, mother!”) it is a triumph. It is no uncommon thing to see strangers standing in front of this building, bowing their heads, and accompanying the motion with a “He! He! He!” of astonishment, and perhaps enter into a hot discussion as to whether there are any poles hidden away in the walls to hold the stones together. He is only accustomed to wattle-and-daub shanties, and a large stone structure with a tower piercing the heavens beats him. One of the men said that Mr. Purves, who had to do with the building of it, possessed the wisdom of the gods who piles up the mountains. A wattle-and-daub house at best will only stand five years, so that on a station the work of building is never finished, unless one deals with more permanent material. So that it was a great find to come across a quarry on the lake shore near the station, whence huge slabs of freestone have been dug with edges so straight as to make one think they had just left the mason’s chisel. These were brought round to the station in canoes, and the main outdoor work during the last dry season was the rearing of this structure. It roused a great deal of interest among the people, and even the children were busy building stone churches on the lake shore. One day, as I was watching them at it, I saw the little naked brats setting to and eating the mortar which they had made by dipping a dirty loin cloth in the lake and wringing it out over some stones they had ground to powder. I suppose it served for nsima (native porridge). It made me think that, whatever the African has not got, he is the happy owner of a digestion that many a dyspeptic at home would covet.

Tier upon tier the building went up, while scaffold rose above scaffold, until the heavy beams were laid across the walls, and the couples spanned the abyss. These the natives swarmed and laid on the pliant twigs, to which the grass was fastened by means of fresh bark form young trees. This was the offering of the villagers. They brought in all the trees and twigs, and roofed the building without any pay. Finally the more daring spirits working at the tower completed their dizzy task and capped it with a glass [sic, grass?] roof.

A round cap on a square tower does not look artistic, hence the necessity of some friend to open his heart and send out a number of sheets of corrugated iron to replace it. H.C. Marshall, Esq., the representative of the British South Africa Company nearest us, has kindly promised a bell for the tower, so that when it arrives no villager can say that he did not hear the call to service. One cannot boast that this temple was reared without noise, for a good deal of shouting had to be done to keep them up to the level, and at first a good deal of pulling down, but it is something to be thankful for that it was completed without a single accident. It has proved a fine object-lesson for the training of hand and eye, and will act as a beacon to voyagers on the lake, and, above all, a guide to the hearts of children yet unborn to Him in whose name the house has been built.

The spiritual temple is slower in the building than this stone one. During the year seven have been admitted into full membership at Niamkolo. May be, one is over-particular in rejecting the stones until they are trimmed in the accustomed way; while, on the other hand, one shuns the accusation of first making them church members, and then making them Christians.

[Here Niamkolo Church stuff, and all paragraph sensibilities, end]

At our new station called Kambole, on the Ulunga plateau, a large church, built of wattle and daub, was finished by Mr. Nutt, before he had to leave for home after the second attack of haematuric fever. He will be greatly missed, for he was a most enthusiastic African, and full of energy. Mr. Jones is now left there alone, a day and a half’s journey from a white man. However, just lately he has been kept far from being dull. Ponde, the Awemba [Bemba] chief I visited last year, made an attack upon the village of Kitimbwa – the paramount Chief of Ulunga – which is only some four miles distant from the new station. There has been a good deal of raiding carried on between these two parties of late, but the final provocation that led to the attack was the fact that one of Kitimbwa’s sub-chiefs had, a few days before, taken two women belonging to Ponde’s village, and the very day he was presenting these to his head chief, Ponde, together with another small Awemba chief, called Zisampa, appeared near Kitimbwa’s, and found the village – although a large one – an easy prey. Instead of making the attack at deep dawn as is their custom, they besieged it about 10 am, when most of the people were away at their gardens, and the chief was left with a few people in the village. Kitimbwa was killed, and a number of those with him, although it is said the chief lost his life dearly, having shot the son of Kitimkuru, the great Awemba chief, who was among the besiegers. The people in their gardens, instead of running to aid their chief when the weird alarm was sounded on the drum, fled and left him to his fate. Mr. and Mrs. Purves, who were up spending a short holiday with Mr. Jones, heard the war beat, and wounded women with their children soon after fled to them for refuge, and the next two nights they had a very anxious time, for on the first night the Awemba camped at the village of Kitimbwa, close by, and during the night a man, supposed to be a spy, attempted to climb the stockade; having refused to say who he was, or to speak at all, he got a cold reception from one of the men on guard, and disappeared. I sent forty men up from the lake as soon as possible, and they remained there until they knew the Awemba were well on their way home with their spoil of cloth and powder, a large number of women, several heads, and the body of Kitimbwa. This was cut up and burned on the ruins of an old Ulunga village which they sacked years ago, on the boundary of their country. The body of a chief taken in war is burned outside their own territory, lest his spirit should return in some other form and wreak vengeance. Mr. Jones, in a letter to me, said: “Yes, Kitimbwa has gone to his account, the only chief who has actually and openly opposed missionary work in the district. Is not that a significant fact? Better for him if he had done otherwise. Most of his villagers are now in this boma, and all say they want to settle here. Whether they will or not depends upon the measure of safety that will be guaranteed to them.”

Here, to my mind, is strong evidence that the Awemba do not wish to molest the white man. No doubt they have a wholesome fear of the gun; but here was Mr. Jones, with a mere handful of people round him, and a strong temptation offered in the way of cattle, although flushed with their unexpected success, they left him alone. The sight of the village after the attack, with mutilated bodies lying within and without the stockade, haunted one day and night for a long time. Surely the cup of this dominant tribe must be about full, and this extensive upland, and well-watered country, which remains a hunting-ground of the Arab slaver, must come under a better rule. It seems that at last the British Administration has given his quietus to Mlozi, a powerful Arab slaver at the north end of Lake Nyassa, the head and front of the offending in the Karonga war eight years ago, described by Captain Lugard in the first volume of his “Rise of our East African Empire.” There is a rumor that the British South Africa Company, under whose aegis this region has recently come, intent do settle the Awemba problem next year. Then there will be a fine opportunity for a mission to enter, for the country is healthy, and the people are a physically fine race, brave and industrious. Who is to enter in and possess the land? Already the French Fathers have established a station on the edge of it. However much we might wish, we are in no position to move a step in the matter, as things are at present reduced to one man on each station except this one. Since I came out six persons have left for home, and no new man come to take their places. Fever, after two years’ conflict, has driven me from the lake up to the hills, wehre Ihope to share the work in the coming ear with Mr. Carson at Fwambo. A fine, comfortable brick house which he had built, or at least the natives, who, he said, needed but little superintendence, was ready to receive me, with a flourishing fig-tree in the square in front. To my right a road recently constructed stretches away for some distance in the direction of the lake, but one cannot hope to see Mr. and Mrs. Purves coming along, as they cannot leave the station for any length of time. Another long stretch runs in the direction of home, and it is in vain that one strains his sight along this for coming of the much-needed reinforcement. If it was not for the native teachers we should be at a loss what to do. The charge of the outlying schools both here and at the lake depends almost solely upon them. One can but do his best, sitting at times under his fig-tree, though the vine may be absent, and labor and wait for the fulfillment of that fine prophecy: “But in the latter days it shall come to pass that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established top of the mountains, and it shall be exalted above the hills; and peoples shall flow into it. And many nations shall go and say: Come ye and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, and to the house of the God of Jacob, and He will teach us of His ways, and we will walk in His paths… And He shall judge between many peoples, and shall reprove strong rulers afar off; and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” -Yours truly, W. Thomas.

Infrastructure in Zambia


This is another in my burgeoning genre of “op-eds I tried to publish somewhere else but couldn’t so here you go.” I wrote it in fall of last year when I knew slightly less about African infrastructure development.

For the past two years I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mbala District, Zambia, teaching fish farming to rural farmers. I also worked on projects in malaria and HIV prevention, nutrition, and women’s empowerment. I was enthusiastic about the work and unlike many PCVs I came back feeling energized about the ability to impact change in developing countries. But I also came back convinced that in a whole career of development work, there is nothing anyone could do in that village that would help them as much as building a paved road would.

My village was a mere 12km from the town of Mbala and connected via a dirt road. The quality of the road changed throughout the year, with the community spending weeks repairing it during the dry season only to have the rainy season carve deep chasms and massive mud pits into it. When rain hadn’t turned the road into a river, it took a 4×4 Land Cruiser about an hour to make the trip. Based on my experiences with that road, I have become an absolute convert to the school of infrastructure development.

I think the biggest long-term impact of building infrastructure will be on education. Newly hired teachers in Zambia are assigned to rural schools which probably don’t have access to electricity or running water. Teachers work as hard as they can to get transferred from these schools as quickly as possible. Building a road to a village followed quickly by power lines means rural schools will be better able to recruit and keep teachers so the kids in a village actually have a shot at education.

Even in schools with the best teachers, the lack of infrastructure massively hampers education. There are basic problems: students in Zambia have a required computer course to graduate secondary school, but at a school without electricity students will never see a computer, let alone get experience on one. Schools in Zambia are also responsible for printing standardized tests. At a school near me, which had only one government teacher and no electricity, printing these tests meant he had to walk 12km to town during the week. After printing them, he then had to walk back, leaving his students without a teacher for the day. With electricity and a printer, this all-day task becomes a 20-minute one.

Better infrastructure leads directly to better health outcomes. One of the major determining factors for the risk of a child dying of malaria in Zambia is the distance between that child and the nearest hospital. Right now, a child sick with malaria faces a walk under the African sun or an impossibly expensive taxi ride. Hiring a taxi to drive to my village over the dirt road cost 150-200 kwatcha. The farmers I knew struggled to earn 60 kwatcha for school fees every year. But in Zambia, paved roads are quickly followed by minibus service provided by plucky entrepreneurs. A minibus service over the same distance on a paved road would probably cost about 10 kwatcha. With paved roads, a sick child can actually get to a hospital when they need one.

Patients living with HIV have to travel to the hospital monthly to receive their medicine. An all-day 24km round trip walk every month can be insurmountable. That paved road and minibus service would save their lives too. Lacking their own transportation, health outreach workers rarely if ever make it to distant villages. A paved road makes it possible for these workers to actually go out and conduct bed net checks, provide training on malaria transmission and sexual health, and help make sure people are sticking to their regimens. Northern Zambia has one of the highest rates of malaria and HIV and both are problems that will never be kept in check until the infrastructure network is in place to make sure change happens.

The existence of basic infrastructure spurs other aid and development. Despite there being a variety of NGOs based in the town of Mbala, none of them operated in my area. They were willing to drive 50km west along the paved Chinese-built Mbala-Nakonde road (pictured up top), where they could access target villages in under an hour from town, but would not drive 12km east over a dirt road to my village. A village with a paved road is suddenly actually connected to the world’s development resources.

Roads extend the rule of law. The police in Zambia are chronically underfunded, and getting them to travel to a rural village often requires covering their expenses. Given the difficulty of getting to a rural village like mine, the police are unlikely to ever come. With a road in place, the police can actually show up. It would be easier for every other aspect of government to show up too: forestry officers can come and fight illegal logging, land surveyors can come and do the inspections necessary for rural farmers to get deeds to their farms, and the list goes on.

The United States has not helped to contribute to Zambian road infrastructure. From 2013-2018, the Millennium Challenge Corporation spent $332 million to help upgrade Lusaka’s water supply, which is necessary infrastructure I support, but nothing advertises America’s good will like a road. I never heard anyone talk about the water supply, but every road I traveled over people knew exactly who built it. Zambia is nearing completion of their Link 8000 project, named for the 8201km of roads constructed under the program. This should have been an ideal project for the US to get involved in; it was initiated by the local government and had clear, tangible goals. The US was invited to participate, but did not join. Zambia turned to China for funding instead, with work done by Chinese contractors. Spending America’s time and money on basic road infrastructure is a fantastic way to show the world how to do it right: at a reasonable cost, with as much skill and technology transfer as possible, to produce a high-quality product. Every kilometer of road America helps pave accrues good will and helps improve people’s lives.

Battle of Lake Tanganyika

Lake Tanganyika.1

I’ve mentioned it before (briefly), but the Battle for Lake Tanganyika is probably one of the wildest naval expeditions to have ever happened.  During WWI, the Germans had set themselves up for naval dominance of Lake Tang, causing the British to launch an overland expedition to bring two tiny gun boats to the lake to try to even out the naval odds. It’s one of those tiny little episodes of history that are both nearly forgotten but also have a legend all their own (The African Queen is loosely based on it!). This post isn’t really about the battle, because I could hardly do it justice, there is so much crazy stuff that happened. For a long time I thought there wasn’t much to read about it, but I guess I finally googled it or something and came across Mimi and Toutou’s Big Adventure: The Bizarre Battle of Lake Tanganyika by Giles Foden. Despite the name, it’s a book for like, adults, and is a colorful if straight history of the whole expedition (for a fictionalized account, A Matter of Time by Alex Capus is good if not entirely accurate).

Digging into the book, I was excited to discover that he had cited an article published in the October 1922 issue of National Geographic, which contained a whole series of photographs by the expedition’s historian, Frank Magee. With the power of the internet, I was able to buy the nearly century-old issue (which contained the “Special Map Supplement” of Africa), and it arrived on my doorstep mere days later.

Lake Tanganyika.2

The point of this blog post was really to show you some of the pictures from the issue. There are like 30 of them. Unfortunately, the nature of my scanner is that I couldn’t really get good scans of the majority of pictures, though fortunately some were placed nearer to the margins and that is what you get to see here. These top two are nice because they actually show some of the ships involved in the battle, with the Mimi, one of the two gunboats, featured in the one up top. There are other, even wilder pics, including one of the gunboats being hauled up a hill by a whole team of oxen. If I can figure out a better way to get the pics scanned in, maybe I can give ’em a post.

Lake Tanganyika.3

The bottom pic is at Lake Bangweulu.

The one point I wanted to make though is that in telling the story of the battle, the people that get lost in the tellings is the thousands and thousands of native Africans that were affected by it. I’ve written about the effect of WWI on the people of Africa before, and the short story is that it doesn’t go well. Fortunately, the Lake Tanganyika expedition doesn’t appear to have resulted in thousands of tenga-tenga dying or anything like that, but certainly the expedition couldn’t have happened without their support, as the pictures above illustrate. Giles Foden’s book actually touches on the lives of the people affected by the battle, and he goes to some lengths to find oral history about the battle from the people still living at the lake.

But when Foden tells his story, he has to rely on the primary sources, such as Magee’s article, and in those sources the story of these people is lacking. I’m not actually that familiar with 1920s era literature on Africa, so I can’t judge Magee against the standards of the time. I would judge him in a lot of ways sympathetic to the people, like when he tells the story of how at one point the expedition relied on “native women from local villages” carrying water in gourds and jars from eight miles away in order to fill the water tanks of the steam-powered tractors they were using the haul the boats. He notes that since water carrying is “domestic work,” the men refused to help, and expresses some disgust.

But way more often than he ponders the gender balance of work, he is concerned about all the cannibals he believes himself to be surrounded by. Graves of German sailors killed in the battle are guarded against natives “addicted” to cannibalism. On noting one particularly decked out chief, he notes “the origin of the spats and pink sunshade puzzled me somewhat until I remembered we were in the land of reputed cannibals.” But most of all the native population just aren’t characters in the story; the only Africa native that is mentioned by name in the whole article is a pet chimpanzee the expedition dubbed Josephine.

Then again who am I to judge? If you go back and read my blog articles from my time in the Peace Corps you won’t find a whole lot of names. A chunk of that is privacy, but a lot of that is just that, like the people on the Lake Tanganyika expedition, the people I met were more or less the background to my own adventures. In the link above (here it is again) where I mention the Battle of Lake Tanganyika, I was myself travelling to the lake to find a ship (the remains of one anyways). The people in that story don’t have names (even the ones that helped me along the way), and in that telling I treated them more has a hindrance to one white guy trying to find the material legacy of other white guys on their turf. I still have some lessons to learn.

Lake Tanganyika.4

This photo is from the Nile river, not Lake Tanganyika, but I like dhows.

Roads, Busses, & Schooling


A school I visited in Zambia.

Reading this week:

  • The Good Shepherd by C.S. Forester

I was supposed to be in Kenya this week for a school project, but COVID-19 put a damper on those plans. So in search of content I wanted to share some thoughts on a sort of pet notion of mine: the effect of school busses on education.

I am more or less obsessed with the notion that the key to all development is building good roads. This of course comes from my experiences in Zambia, where the village I lived in, while only 12km away from Mbala, was connected to the town only via an absolutely terrible dirt road that took a 4×4 a hour to travel down. That, combined with the education I saw in Zambia, got me thinking about busses.

I think busses are a little-sung hero of public education (not entirely; there appears to be a globe-spanning school bus industry that does its best to trumpet its advantages). I didn’t have to think about them much until I had to think about the implications of living without them. In Zambia I don’t think I saw any school busses. I would see a bus for the nursing school driving around, and one time I wound up on a bus that was almost entirely chartered by a girl’s boarding school that was sending a chunk of students back to Mbala, but as far as I know there aren’t any examples of dedicated public transportation for schools. The upswing of that is that kids have to walk to school. That by itself is good and fine; kids should of course be expected to walk to school uphill both ways in the snow. But what it means is that you wind up having schools every 5-10km or so, so that kids are able to walk to school in under an hour (people at a fairly brisk pace walk about 5km an hour). An hour walk doesn’t sound too bad, until you do it every day both ways in the hot African sun without shoes.

The upswing of having schools every 5-10km is that they have to be small. If the country has so many teachers, and those teachers are going to be split up among so many schools, then the more schools you have the fewer each school gets. One school near me had only one teacher who was teaching, or at least trying to teach, 150 students. So this, I think, is one of the big advantages of busses: they let you consolidate schools. That would allow you to pool resources in a lot of better ways. Teachers could specialize in just one subject or just one grade, which I think could improve teaching. These schools I am talking about are mostly primary schools, which covered grades 1-7. Back in my elementary school, we had one teacher that taught most every subject which I think is normal, but we were able to have a dedicated art teacher and a dedicated computer lab. In Zambia computers are part of the school curriculum, but there is no way these tiny schools would have the resources to maintain a computer. In a more consolidated school, I think you could  manage to have something like that. You might even be able to have a dedicated administrative staff, which would be a boon. In the school with the lone teacher, whenever he needed to talk to the school district office he had to go into town which cost a whole day of instruction.

School busses would also provide a lot more school access. It is sustainable, if less than ideal, to have a whole bunch of primary schools spread around rural areas. But for secondary schools, the curriculum there requires dedicated science teachers and the like. So by necessity (and, unfortunately, demand), there were a far smaller number of secondary schools. The closest secondary school to my village was in Mbala, which like I said is 12km away. This was generally a 2.5-3 hour walk, which is more or less impossible to do every single day if you’re a high school student. The upswing is that secondary schools in Zambia tended to be boarding schools, though if you lived near enough you could of course just be a day student. But boarding schools were necessarily more expensive, and so out of reach of the vast majority of students. If there were school busses that could take students to school, far more students would have access to education.

I tried to find articles and research that could help me determine the exact effects that school busses had on education. I couldn’t find a whole lot that was specifically about busses (I did come across this article, which I think explains my own academic success), so I tried to find research about school size. Turns out there are a lot of articles in that vein, mostly it seems tied to the small schools movement. The general theme in these articles is that smaller schools provide more access to teachers and community, which is good and excellent. An interesting insight in this article is that larger schools are favored by governments because they tend to be cheaper to run. In the context of Zambia, the education system is already pretty dismal due to a lack of budget, so I think that if larger schools are cheaper this could be a major advantage, despite a potential reduction in community, if it means that more students have access to education at all. One newspaper article from 1988 was in line with my thinking, pointing to research that said students in bigger high schools did better because they got to enroll in the more specialized and advanced classes that those schools were able to support.

I would like to see more research on the exact impacts that bussing can have on student’s education, especially with regards to access to education and the effect on schooling. That might be another arrow in the quiver of arguments for why roads are so awesome, because it would be hard or impossible to have busses without an adequate road network. Of course, it might be out of reach anyways; not only would you have to build a whole road network, but according to one article bussing in the United States costs about $500 per pupil per year. In Zambia in 2018, the government was able to allocate about $200 per pupil total for education. There is lots and lots of work to do to make sure every kid can get a quality education.

Things I Learned in the Peace Corps, Part II

I’m not religious, but the Quran describes heaven as a place of gardens and flowing water.

I have gained a whole lot of perspective on how to evaluate the effectiveness of aid. It’s really easy to poo-poo the whole aid business, and point to all the failures, but the biggest thing I probably learned is that most aid projects are going to fail no matter what. I think the aid business (or at least people with Big Ideas and Deep Thoughts about the Business of Aid) are looking for the magic bullet aid project, one that will work every single time, but that is impossible. As an agriculture extension agent, the best lens to view our projects is as new business ventures. Even if the goal of a particular project isn’t a cash crop, I think of them as having business implications. If I ask a maize farmer to grow some orange sweet potatoes so his kids can get vitamin A, I’m asking him to divert time away from maize (where he makes his money) and invest time in these potatoes, and hopefully the payoff (in the form of his kids health or food security) from the potatoes is worth his time and effort, or at least more than the money he lost from growing less maize (and, hopefully it wasn’t cheaper to just buy those same potatoes from some other farmer with the money he would have made from the maize) (I’m sorry for all the parenthesis). If I ask a farmer to dig a fish pond, I’m asking him to spend money buying fingerlings, and hopefully some predator or disaster doesn’t kill all the fish (and lose the farmer his time and money) before he can eat or sell them. So once you realize a lot of these aid projects are businesses, you then have to remember that most businesses fail. This is true even in the best of circumstances, and subsistence farmers are not in the best of circumstances. So if you have a project where you try to convince ten farmers to plant fruit trees and two of them stick with it, it’s easy to mock your 80% failure rate, but it is probably more accurate to applaud your 20% success rate.

I also learned it is really important to frame your definition of success properly. Let’s say you give a farmer a couple of goats and teach him some stuff about animal husbandry. You leave and the farmer does great. He breeds his goats and increases his flock and starts making money. He feeds his family and sends his children to school. He buys a TV but it is kinda cheap and it breaks a year later, but whatever, he’s pretty successful. Then in year four his kid gets cancer, and the only way he can pay for his kid’s medical bills is to sell off his whole herd of goats. To make it a happy story, the kid survives. But then you come back in year five to evaluate the long-term effects of your goat project. He invites you into his hut and you ask him where his goats are, and he says he sold them all. You notice his busted television and you conclude he wasted your kindness by selling the couple of goats you gave him for some quick cash to buy a cheap television. So is that guy a failure because obviously giving a guy some goats isn’t a sustainable project five years down the road, or is it a roaring success story because he fed his family for four years, sent his children to school for four years, and saved his kid from cancer, all for the price to you of three or four measly goats?

I learned that aid takes time. One notable thing about the Peace Corps is that we’re here for two years. When you come in you’re supposed to make sure your life is in order so you can dedicate a whole two years of your life to living and working with the same relatively small group of people. Two whole years! But two years is all of two rainy seasons which is all of two growing seasons. Take my orange sweet potatoes project. I’m a huge orange sweet potato fan. I showed up in the village in May. A few months later I went to an orange sweet potato workshop and learned all about ’em. I came back to my village and my host dad and I spent a growing season figuring out this whole potato thing and increasing our seed stock. Then this growing season we started giving out some seed to some more farmers. So when I leave at the end of my service, after two years of potato efforts, I’ll be able to point to five or six farmers who have planted a small field or two of potatoes. I know, from being here, that’s a pretty decent accomplishment, but if I had come here to start the Orange Sweet Potato Revolution, spreading the Gospel of Orange Sweet Potatoes throughout the land, that’d be a pretty dismal failure. I’m not even sure those farmers will stick with it next year. But maybe next fall, now that people have seen those farmers grow potatoes, there is plenty of seed stock, and people have developed a taste for orange sweet potatoes, there will be a hundred farmers growing them, and maybe a few years after that they’ll have replaced white sweet potatoes entirely and no one will ever suffer a vitamin A deficiency again. But I will never know because I won’t be here, and if I had to re-apply for grant funding or something after two years, maybe those grant people would put their cash elsewhere. It takes a few years to change the world.

I learned that to see the benefits of aid you sometimes have to look in unexpected places. This I think about mostly in the context of Peace Corps volunteers not thinking they have an impact. Your impact can be in a lot of subtle ways. At my own site, my host dad kept coming up with and asking me about ideas he had to improve the integration in his garden. I was pretty stoked he was implementing all these things. Finally one day at lunch I discovered that he had a copy of the Integration Manual that the previous volunteer had left behind. If it weren’t for the previous volunteer, my host dad never would have had access to this whole wealth of ideas to improve his garden, but the previous volunteer had no idea she was still having an effect. I hate unsourced aid stories, but I heard of one village that had really good dental hygeine. This stunned the clinic workers, because the surrounding villages just weren’t at the same level. It turns out that years previously, they had a Peace Corps Volunteer that brushed his teeth twice a day, which the villagers could see because the volunteer was brushing his teeth outside. He never talked to the villagers about it, they never asked him about it, but the whole village started brushing their teeth twice a day because they saw the volunteer doing it. So that volunteer had a years-long health impact on the village and he had no idea. When I went to Camp GLOW (empowerment lessons for girls), we partnered with a local Zambian organization that has programs for girls. One of their trainers got her start when she herself went to a GLOW camp when she was a teenager. So years later she was there working to pass those same lessons she learned onto more and more girls every year, which might not have ever happened if some volunteer hadn’t taken her to a GLOW camp. There are a lot more stories like that if you look, and they all demonstrate long-term, positive effects of aid and of individual volunteers that no one is going to think to measure for until you start looking for stories. I learned that aid can matter a lot, even if the number of fish ponds you manage to get dug is pretty small.

There is probably nothing I learned in the Peace Corps I couldn’t technically have learned out of a book or from some aid worker’s blog posts. But after 27 months of living and working on the ground in a developing country, right next to the people who need help the most, I have gained the perspectives I think are vital to really understand the problems people face and to ask the right questions for the world’s challenges.

Things I Learned in the Peace Corps, Part I

By the time this is published my Peace Corps service will have come to a close. I quit a $130,000/year (plus benefits! and equity!) job to come out here and work for free and it has been worth it. Of the Peace Corps’ three goals, only one of them is actually about providing technical help to countries in need, and the other two are about learning about people and culture. So here are my thoughts about what I learned (stretched out over two posts to cover the weeks I’m on COS trip; whoo COS trip!)

I of course learned a great deal about Zambia and by extension Sub-Saharan Africa. Maybe I shouldn’t say “of course” because so much of the history of this area is poorly documented, or the connections are poorly explained, or both, and learning about the history and culture of this place takes a special effort. It’s really easy to live here for two years and never ask why things are the way they are. I am especially glad I wound up living in the Mbala region, because there are so many different things here to lead you down rabbit holes of history and culture. It was a quick mention of the SS Good News that lead me to learn all about the London Missionary Society, the Stevenson Road, and how and why colonialism came to Northern Zambia. Poking around more leads you to the slave trade, and the revelation about how much the slave trade affected so many different aspects of culture and the distribution of people, even this far from the coasts. These days I tend to think that instead of turtles all the way down, it’s the slave trade, linking everything from the Bantu migration to the modern-day borders of Zambia and Tanzania. That’s a history that is hard to find until you look. I also love the pre-history of this place, reaching all the way back to man’s earliest uses of fire, and I love to think about the unbroken chain of people all living in this very spot.

In the modern-day, it is fascinating to catch glimpses into a national psyche that both prides itself on being a Peaceful Nation (how different is that from the American ethos?) while also being proud of their history of supporting the freedom struggles of other Southern African countries. Every time I go down to Lusaka, I pass the bombed-out Chambeshi Bridge which attests to the pain Zambia has felt for helping others throw off the chains of colonialism. Like all cultures, Zambia can be a mix of contradictions, both declaring itself to be a Christian Nation while having people sue each other over witchcraft in the courts, or watching the country reconcile pride in tribes and traditions while also being One Zambia, One Nation. Seeing what goes on in Zambia also gives insights into American culture, because a lot of the things an American might find distasteful about Zambia, from a lack of infrastructure to child marriage, weren’t all that weird in America not so long ago. Living in a foreign culture can do a whole lot to put your own in perspective.

The most significant parts of what I learned in the Peace Corps is really just an actual understanding of things that maybe I knew beforehand only intellectually. Before I came to Zambia I was aware that people lived on $1/day (I guess the more modern definition of “extreme poverty” is actually $1.90/day, adjusted for purchasing power parity) but I didn’t really know what that meant. Now I know what it is actually like to cook on a brazier. I know what it is like to get all your water from a stream that may or may not be muddy any given day, and is the same stream where people wash their clothes and small children. I know how much effort and time it takes to hoe ridges, plant the seeds, and spend a rainy season weeding to get the same amount of beans that sells for a few dollars at the market. I know how much it sucks to walk three hours to town only to be told to come back tomorrow and hike three hours back in the equatorial sun. Early on in service I found plans for a “low-cost” solar dryer that was supposed to only need $10 worth of parts. Now I know asking a guy to build that could be the same thing as asking him to not send his kid to school for the next year.

One thing I learned that is especially hard to glean from just numbers is the impact of infrastructure and its secondary effects. I think about the schools in Zambia a lot. Around me there are three schools, and none of them have water or electricity. They are all located 10-20 kilometers away from the nearest “big” town (Mbala) down dirt roads that can be downright treacherous in the rainy season. Besides the obvious difficulties of teaching subjects like “computers” in a school without electricity, the most insidious effect I think is how hard it is to retain teachers. Qualified teachers are, by definition, people who have gone to college and are used to Big City Living. Even if they grew up in a village, most don’t want to go back to living in a place where they fetch water from a stream. So the schools can’t retain teachers; as soon as they can, the teachers leave for jobs in town. This diminishes the quality of education these kids could possibly receive, all else being equal, and means it is impossible to maintain clubs or other empowerment projects long-term. Even things like administrative tasks are made harder. At a nearby school I have worked at, there is one government teacher (the rest are volunteer teachers from the community). Whenever he needs to do basic admin tasks, like print out tests, he has to go to the school board office in town, which means he has to spend the whole day there and the students are deprived of the one person at the school actually qualified to teach. Living here I have seen how the lack of infrastructure contributes to a cycle of illiteracy and poverty that would have been hard to understand if I had never witnessed it for myself, first-hand.

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.