Transport in Zambia is never straightforward. Even just getting from my village into Kasama, 90K away, can be a challenge. There is one bus, but you never know when it might pass by: 9 am? 10? 11? Noon? So after I hike the hour from my home to the tarmac, I opt for hitchhiking. Once, I sat along the roadside for a solid hour before I saw a single vehicle going my way. Luckily it was a Zambian government cruiser, aka a safe and FREE hitch – a small miracle for a travelin’ PCV.
Hitching is not free in Zambia, since it’s such a common form of transport for the carless masses. Payment is typically negotiated before getting into the vehicle, and after the usual string of greetings, which is a convenient way of sizing up the driver and his level of sobriety and/or creepiness. The driver is almost always a man, though I once had the good fortune of catching a free ride from a nun. I have yet to find a drunk OR creepy driver hitching, though I’ve heard stories …
And I HAVE been in vehicles that were so run-down I feared they wouldn’t make it. Once, our driver patched his leaking gas tank with a gluey mixture of soap and Coca-Cola. Amazingly, it held.
Under official Peace Corps policy, hitching is highly discouraged. In Zambia and some other countries, however, it’s tacitly accepted that if PCVs were banned from hitching, we’d never be able to get anywhere. So, I stick out my arm and wait. (No “thumbin’ it” here; to flag down a ride you raise your arm and move it up and down horizontally, or, if you’re lazy, you move just your hand in a limp-wristed fashion.)
Hitching from my vil into Kasama is no big deal, and when I headed down to Lusaka for PCV training a couple weeks ago, I took a straight-shot bus with three fellow LIFE PCVs. Getting back, though, was a whole other story. I was travelin’ with my buddy Samuel (that’s Ba Samwell in Bemba), and we had a few stops to make along the way, so the bus wasn’t really an option (it’s almost the same price to go five hours out of Lusaka as it is to go the whole 12 hours to Kasama).
We were trying to get to his village, about 40K north of Mkushi. And in the interests of full disclosure, we both had large backpacks. Samwell also had a large ZamBag, and I had a guitar. We weren’t exactly traveling light.
We started out with a cab ride to the northern outskirts of town, since it was a Saturday and the few minibuses passing by our hotel were packed full and not stopping for us. This was the first shocker: I’ve never seen a minibus driver who won’t try to cram in a couple more passengers, even if they have to sit on other people’s laps.
Then we caught a minibus to Kabwe, normally about an hour away. Though I must stress that, really, there is no “normal” transport time in Zambia, just my own misguided, wishful thinking based on distance and what would be possible in more “organized” country. Silly American and her expectations.
We sat on that minibus for two-and-a-half hours, stopping about 50 times – and I am not exaggerating. Finally, exasperated, I caught sight of The Fig Tree – a total mizungu restaurant run by a couple South Africans. I’d always wanted to eat there but had never been there at a meal time. Luckily, since our journey had taken so ridiculously long, it was nearly lunch time. And goodness knows we were sick of being on that bus. So, after the initial shock of realizing how far from Kabwe we still were, I rapped on the roof and said we wanted to get out.
I think Samwell and I both thought we’d have better luck with hitching post-lunch. That, perhaps, one of the other mizungu patrons would take pity on us and give us a ride. Nope. We sat on the side of the road for almost an hour and a half. I eventually got so bored I pulled out the guitar to entertain myself, though tentatively, since I wasn’t sure if my playing would increase our chances, or drive potential hitches away.
Then, finally, a stroke of good fortune: a South African couple coming out of the restaurant agreed to take us all the way to the turnoff for Samwell’s village, for free – as long as we were willing to ride in the back of their pick-up truck in the sun for a few hours. Of COURSE we were! As it turned out, the guy was a darn good driver, and fast (not to mention his truck was in great shape), so it wasn’t nearly as sketchy as it would’ve been many run-down Zambian pick-up trucks, and we arrived in record time. Then it was just 10K to Samuel’s village (we got a ride from a teacher he knows; cars are MUCH more common in the Mukushi area than in my neck of the woods in Northern Province.)
Samuel waitin’ for a ride in the dust outside Serenje.
A couple days later, we were off again, heading to the village of another PCV friend, RAPper Kate, just north of Serenje. The leg to Serenje was straightforward enough, but we then spent about an hour and a half at the dusty, trash-strewn truck stop by the Serenje turn-off, being whipped by the wind as semis bound for Tanzania raced past. Finally we got a ride in a private mini-van. Score! (we thought) But then the guy drove about 60 kilometers an hour (40 mph?) most of the way and made two looooong stops, seemingly just to chat and catch up with people he and the other passengers knew. Of course. This IS Zambia …
But the final leg of my journey, from Kate’s site back to Kasama just yesterday, proved to be the most interesting. Kate was nice enough to escort me and Samwell to the road, and to hang out for over an hour before I finally caught a ride. (Not sure how much longer it took Samwell to hitch.)
Because Samwell and I were now going opposite directions – me heading back home to Northern Province and him returning home to Mukushi – we stood on opposite sides of the road, chatting while Kate went back and forth between the two of us. Sometimes, Samwell or I switched sides, too. After all, the road was only two narrow lanes, and you could see a vehicle coming from a long ways away – plenty of time to cross the road and stick out an arm.
Oh, did I mention I had just 53 kwacha on me? And no food? I’d unknowingly cut it really, really close on funds. But I knew there was an ATM in Mpika, about halfway to Kasama, so I prayed for a cheap hitch.
Thanks to Kate, I got one. I don’t know how, but she flagged down a semi truck heading back to Tanzania and talked the driver down to 20 kwacha from their initial offer of 50. This is insanely cheap, so much so that I almost felt bad taking the ride, like I was ripping them off. But he agreed, and his passenger/assistant threw my bag and my guitar in the cab. So after a quick good-bye with my friends, I hopped up in the padded bed area behind the seats. In all my experience hitching – both in the States and in other countries – I’ve never ridden in a semi. It was a pretty sweet ride: so cushy back there I actually napped for a while and forgot the fact that there was no seat belt and I would’ve gone flying right through the windshield with nothing to stop me if we’d wrecked. Luckily the driver seemed competent and sober, though he spoke mostly Swahili and didn’t seem to want to talk much anyway.
Dropped at the side of the road in Mpika, I headed straight to the ATM. Which was out of order. Of course. This IS Zambia …
I was mildly worried about my prospects of getting another ridiculously cheap ride to Kasama, but I was also pretty freaking hungry. So I spent my spare 3 kwacha on groundnuts and popcorn, knowing that drivers negotiate rides in increments of 5 kwacha, so the 3 wouldn’t do me much good anway.
With just 30 kwacha left in my pocket, I walked back out to the road with the completely misplaced confidence that has gotten me through much of my life. The first car to come refused to come down from his initial offer of 50 kwacha and drove on. I remained undaunted.
And then, like some miracle, just 15 minutes after I’d first stuck out my arm, a United Nations Land Cruiser pulled over. Much to my embarrassment, he informed the Zambian who’d just arrived to hitch next to me that he wasn’t allowed to take ordinary passengers – only volunteers. But he could take me, the PCV, for free. This is fairly common practice among NGOs and government agencies in Zambia, who often sympathize with PCVs’ carlessness. Apologizing profusely to my Zambian hitching compatriot, I climbed aboard. As it turned out, my UN ride (thank you world community) also dropped me off right outside the PC Provincial House in Kasama, even though it was a good 10 minutes outside of town and out of his way.
The best part of this last ride, though, was that for the two hours it took us to reach Kasama, I had one of the most interesting conversations I’ve had in all my time in Zambia – certainly the most interesting conversation I’d had on transport. The driver was Zambian, originally from Southern Province (I proudly whipped out the five words I know of Tonga, the language of the South), and he was a former forester who’d worked with my awesome Peace Corps LIFE boss, Ba Henry, when they both were employed by the Zambian Department of Forestry. Now, though, he does research on deforestation, land degradation, land use change, and development in tropical areas all over the world. We talked about remote sensing; GIS; women’s empowerment; the difficulty of balancing human development needs and the environment; and the controversial, ever-changing definitions of what constitutes “deforestation” in different countries and different ecosystems. Fascinating, eye-opening, and completely unexpected.
Come to think of it, I guess I could describe the sum total of my Zambian transport adventures with those exact same words.