JACK ZIMBA, Kipushi
RECENTLY, photojournalist Brian Malama and I undertook an expedition to Kipushi which lies at the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Our principle objective was to get to the source of the Kafue River.
Kipushi lies north of Solwezi in the newly-created Mushindamo district in North-Western Province.
The place derives its name from the mining town across the border, which bears the same name, but does not mirror its civilisation.
The road to Kipushi is treacherous gravel and although it is only 120 kilometres from Solwezi, it takes about four hours to cover that distance with a four-wheel drive vehicle.
The route is far less enchanting, lined with forests, broken only by small unremarkable settlements.
In many parts of the road, the soil has been pounded into a fine powder by the many heavy trucks that traverse this route, to the extent that even a motor bike will leave behind a cloud of dust.
During the rainy season, however, much of the road becomes a mud pool. Trucks have been known to get stuck for weeks on the road.
There are many telltale signs on the road of trucks that once got stuck. There are metre-deep fallows created by stuck heavy trucks months ago.
Mostly it is the Tanzanian trucks that ply this route, carrying various cargo destined for the DRC. They offload their cargo on the Zambian side and it is then loaded onto Congolese trucks for onward shipment to Lubumbashi, which is about 30km from the border.
One government official at the border told me our customs office collects about US$26,000 every month from this border.
Arriving at the border that afternoon, the first thing that came into our view were the many blue containerised trucks parked near the border crossing.
The state of the road is a major discussion point when you engage with the locals.
“How was the road?” was the frequently asked question.
The impassability of the road, especially in the rainy season, makes hard lives here much harder.
Sometimes, locals prefer using motorbike transport to travel to Solwezi, or they venture into the DRC for their groceries.
The settlement on the Zambian side is one of the drabbest border points I have ever seen anywhere in the country.
Here, the only decent buildings belong to the Immigration Department.
The rest of the buildings are made of mud bricks without plaster.
If you decide to spend a night at Kipushi, you may need to sleep on the other side of the border. This is because there are no decent lodges on the Zambian side.
There are two so-called guesthouses a few metres from the border crossing. One of them offers accommodation for as little as K10 per night. But you have to be ready to sleep on a floor bed with not-so-clean beddings. The building itself is derelict and forbidding, with metal doors that leave gaps underneath large enough to let in a big house cat.
We spent a night at Aunty Rose’s guesthouse, which offers accommodation for K50 per night – the most expensive here. The guesthouse was recommended to us by one of the locals.
Aunty Rose’s guesthouse offers spartan accommodation with no running water or flushable toilet. The only consolation were the fresh beddings we were given.
And at least it had a solar-powered lamp. Electricity only recently reached this far-end of the country, and many buildings are yet to get connected to the grid.
Water is a major challenge for settlement dwellers and at every moment during the day, especially in the mornings and evenings, young men and boys can be seen pushing rickety bicycles laden with containers of water across the border.
We slept that night to the constant humming sound from the heavy machinery at the mine across the border.
The zinc and copper underground mine is owned by the Canadian project developer Ivanhoe Mines and the state-owned Gecamines.
The mine lies within a kilometre of the border crossing point. From the Zambian Immigration office, tall structures at the mine can clearly be seen jutting into the sky.
Many here believe the underground tunnels at the mine run deep into Zambian territory. There is no evidence of that.
There are no proper restaurants on the Zambian side of the border, just makeshift stands.
One popular makeshift bar and restaurant serves boiled goat meat and Congolese lagers – Simba or Tembo. But many Zambians prefer going across the border for drinks.
Twice we ventured across the border for lunch, each time remembering to switch lanes immediately after we crossed the border. Unlike Zambia, the DRC is a keep-right country.
The ladies at the Plaza Hotel restaurant, where we went for our lunches, always served their meals hot and fresh.
The men walking into the restaurant were courteous, greeting us in either Swahili or French.
“Jambo,” the men, who wore heavily-scented perfumes, would usually say as they walked passed our table.
“Jambo,” we would reply.
Swahili is the most commonly spoken language at the border, and many Zambians have learned to speak it, which makes it hard to tell the two nationalities apart.
At the restaurant, we gorged ourselves on nshima served with samaki (fish), plus traditional vegetables. We sat under the gaze of the country’s leader Joseph Kabila, whose portrait hang the wall.
Like many borders around the country, the border crossing at Kipushi is very porous and residents from both sides enter at will, but for two prying journalists, it would have to take a lot of bidding and a good amount of money to bribe border officials.
On a hot August morning, Embu Mbuyamba, my daring motorbike rider and his colleague whisked us across the border. We rode past some neat houses – some double storey.
The old mining town bears signs of the good old days when the mine was flourishing.
“This place used to be very beautiful,” said Embu, who speaks good Bemba.
Embu was born in Kipushi town. He makes his living transporting people on his motorbike.
Up a hill, we swept past a large cemetery in one corner of the town, about a kilometre from the Zambian border.
But even in this seeming peaceful environment, there was a chilling reminder of the DRC’s checkered past of having to deal with insurgency at various points of the country’s history.
Embu told me the Banyamulenge were once very active in this area and carried out a number of atrocities. When their bloody episode came to an end, some of them were conscripted into the regular army.
My heart skipped a beat when one turn into a dust road that demarcates the two countries brought us face-to-face with a Congolese soldier on foot patrol. But he took no interest in us.
I had a great sense of relief once we crossed back to the Zambian side of Kipushi, its drabness notwithstanding.