Somewhere only we know: Zambia

Trying to relate to both the motherland and your mother's land can be a challenge

I’ve only been to Zambia once. It’s one of the lesser known countries in Africa, landlocked between Zimbabwe, Congo and Mozambique. It’s also where my mum grew up, until she moved to the UK as a working student, met my dad, and got married decades later.

When I was seven my parents decided to take their three pale-skinned daughters with British accents to the place where half our hearts were meant to be. But to us, Zambia was a completely foreign world.

The country is half desert, half oasis. In some areas, you see young elephants dive in waterholes to tackle the humid, 30-degree heat. The next day, the soles of your shoes crunch against the straw-coloured grass that peeks from the dehydrated soil beneath.  Sprawling communities stifle these natural landscapes, but sometimes, the latter peeks through. Zebras chew at the vegetation between parking spots, while dust, kicked up from the road, stains bricks a permanent shade of red.

Zambia is perhaps best known for Victoria Falls in Livingstone, which borders the Zambezi river. It is the largest waterfall on Earth, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, and according to my puerile logic, named after Posh Spice. We went during dry season—a disappointment because the water levels were down, but on the flipside, the risk of being blown off the viewing bridge by skyward splashes was reduced significantly.

By international standards, Zambia is third world. But like all countries, some people are far better off than others. Early in the trip, before the fancy hotels and safari tours for Western tourists, we were taken to do the ‘relative rounds’. Aunty Nelly lived in a shanty town, where vines and palms creep through gaps in the rusted, corrugated iron walls. She greeted us at the driveway, dressed head-to-toe in chitenge print, and introduced us to a cousin I’d never heard of before. I can’t remember her name but I know we were around the same age. Her t-shirt was torn and muddied, and her hair had been chemically straightened but stuck up vertically. My parents stopped me from drinking the glass of water Aunty Nelly’s kid innocently offered me, in case we contracted cholera or gastro.

My first solid meal as a baby was nshima. The maize dish, with a polenta-like consistency, is served with tomato drumsticks, okra, wilted spinach and creamy beans, to be eaten with your hands. In London, nshima was a treat. Here, it was eaten every day. At lunch, some member of my extended family slapped my wrist as I reached for a plate. “Iwe, wali tumpa sana!”, or crudely put, “You are very stupid!” In Zambia, your hands have to be dipped and cleaned in a communal bowl before going for food.

Before we went there, mum would tell us bits and pieces about her childhood. A large avocado tree grew in her uncle’s backyard. She’d sit on the steps with a spoon in hand, scooping every morsel of the ripe flesh from the pods that fell to the ground. Back in the Copperbelt, the regional mining town where she lived, she’d once found a snake in her unmade bed. And at home in the UK she reminded us daily of this story, to scare us into making our own each morning. When we were travelling, before going to sleep, I’d shake the mosquito nets and cautiously pull the sheets back, in case any reptilian guests had wriggled in.

My memories of Zambia aren’t as vivid as I’d like, and key moments are stored only as isolated vignettes: eating fresh mango (with salt), crying about not being allowed to swim in the pool (my hair had just been braided), the “free” jewellery thrown around my neck by a street hawker (who demanded cash as I was walking away), my youngest sister scooping baboon shit into her mouth (she was a toddler, and my dad stopped her) or sipping Fanta in the heat while condensation dripped off my fingers (it somehow tastes better and sweeter than the recipe we’re all used to).

But Zambia has changed now. Foreign investment, leadership shifts and new money has produced high-value real estate and climbing GDP per capita, as well as an emerging middle class. My relatives drive expensive cars to ‘colony of wealth’ themed horse races, and while the wealth still doesn’t lie with the majority of the population, Zambia’s people have been dealt a larger slice than ever before.

Neither its newfound opulence or deep-rooted struggle define Zambia’s identity or place in the world. I’ve changed and grown and so has the country.  Now that we’re older, mum wants us to go back.  To once again get us to try and understand, appreciate and expose ourselves to her culture, her land and her history—and I know it’s time.