JACK ZIMBA, Maamba
ASK anyone who has lived in Maamba for many years and they will use past tenses to describe the place.
â€œMaamba used to be a very nice place,â€ they will say.
And there is enough evidence of what life was like years back in this sun-blasted mining outpost, which lies in the Gwembe Valley in Southern Province.
A disused gymnasium whose doors now remain shut, a tennis court with a net still in place and an empty swimming pool overgrown with grass owing to years of neglect hold thousands of memories of Maamba in its heyday.
A football club sponsored by the mining company once played in Division One, but is now hardly heard of.
And on a nearby small hill is an amphitheatre with a billboard-size screen (no longer in place) where movies used to be projected to entertain the residents in the evenings, while most households had access to a communal pay-TV paid for by the coal mine, Maamba Collieries Limited (MCL) through employee contributions.
The open-air cinema on the small hill now serves as a small liquor store where men will buy beer and sit on the terraces, perhaps reminiscing about the townâ€™s former glory.
Maambaâ€™s picturesque image has faded and its residents, once pampered by the mining company, are now engaged in a daily struggle with hardship.
The township at Maamba grew out of sheer necessity since mining began in 1968 and much of the land is still private property belonging to the mining company.
As the mining industry flourished, driven by demand for coal from industries at the time, so did Maamba and its residents.
But then came the 1990s and with it privatisation, although for MCL, it would have to wait until more than a decade later.
The coal mine, which was owned by the state-run conglomerate Zambia Consolidated Copper Mine (ZCCM), was sold to Nava Bharat Singapore Pty on April 26, 2010, with the state retaining 35 percent shares in the mine.
The new owners of the mine were more focused on turning the fortunes of the mine around and probably overlooked the social welfare of the community, leaving much of the recreation infrastructure to ruin.
Indeed, like many mining towns on the Copperbelt, Maamba was never spared the evils of privatisation, which almost turned some mining towns into ghost settlements.
Maamba cannot be described as a â€˜ghost townâ€™ yet, although there is eeriness around the disused shower rooms at the poolside, with graffiti screaming off the walls.
It is like the feeling one gets standing at the scene of a robbery.
Many of the residents talked to have resigned to hope of the town ever regaining its lost glory.
One man who has seen both sides of Maamba is Isaac Chipaila, a former miner who now runs one of the biggest grocery shops in town.
Mr Chipaila worked as a surveyor for the coal mine for 25 years before retiring, a few years before the mine was privatised.
â€œThere is no hope unless the government comes in with an iron fist against the investor,â€ he says.
Currently there is no law that compels businesses to plough back their profits into the communities where they operate.
Like many residents of this densely-populated town, Mr Chipaila uses superlatives to describe Maamba, only they are in the past tense.
â€œThis place used to look very beautiful, but itâ€™s like people used to live here and they no longer live here,â€ he says.
Mr Chipaila recalles that at the time of his employment, MCL was one of the best employers in Zambia.
â€œWe had better conditions of service than any other parastatal company you can think of in Zambia,â€ he says.
There seems to be a general discontent among the residents of Maamba about the new investor, although a few will admit this is a result of the residentsâ€™ failure to break away from the dependency syndrome on the mining company before privatisation.
Clearly, the story of Maamba can be told in two chapters â€“ before privatisation and the other, after.
And despite the numerous complaints by the residents directed at the investor, MCL still boasts about its corporate social responsibility record.
They have built bridges, rehabilitated schools and hospitals.
And while the town slowly fades, things are looking up at the mine, literally.
A huge chimney painted red and white juts into the sky like a giant straw.
The chimney is part of an ambitious project to build a thermo plant that will use some of the waste material from coal production to generate electricity, which the company will sell to Zesco.
The US$800 million project is being undertaken by Indian and Chinese companies engaged by Maamba Collieries Limited, and is expected to be commissioned soon.
Over 300 Chinese workers are employed by a company called Sepco, which is constructing the thermo plant expected to generate 300 megawatts of electricity.
Some locals, however, believe the number of Chinese workers is much higher than the official figure.
Every morning hordes of Chinese men can be seen in the market area shopping for daily supplies.
Surely this must make the grocer happy. But no.
â€œThe Chinese only come here to buy vegetables and chickens. I donâ€™t know where they buy their groceries from,â€ complains Mr Chipaila, who also advertises crocodile sausage on his freezer.
â€œActually, business has been harder since the Chinese came,â€ he says.
Some traders, however, have taken advantage of the Chinese population by bringing in foods high on the visitorsâ€™ menu such as fresh peppers and free-range chickens.
Indeed life in Maamba revolves around coal. Many of its residents are directly employed by the mine, while many others still benefit through ancillary businesses such as guest houses and by conducting various forms of trading.
And things may remain that way for decades to come, owing to the abundance of coal in the area.
Years of extracting the fossil fuel have only made a small dent on the reserves in the mining area, which covers some 7,800 hectares.
Forget about the deep craters in the earth made through years of digging, there is still over a billion tonnes of coal waiting to be mined at Maamba.
As for the derelict recreational facilities, perhaps they must now be accepted as monuments of a good life passed.
JACK ZIMBA, Maamba