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Mbala: little-known slave trade history

IT does not rain but rather it pours down heavily. This is a summary of what happens in Mbala district and some surrounding areas such as Senga Hill in the rainy season.
Endowed with vast natural resources, Mbala receives plenty rainfall such that for a visitor, going round this district during the rainy season is hectic.
No wonder some areas experienced voter apathy during the presidential election which ushered in President Edgar Lungu as Zambia’s sixth President.
However, the rains also come with some advantages because some residents of Mbala earn their living through small-scale farming.
“We have been earning our livelihoods, taking children to school because of the fertile land in this district and generally the good rainfall we experience here,” George Mwando of Senga Hill said recently.
Mbala is Zambia’s most northerly large town which occupies a strategic location being close to the border with Tanzania and controlling the southern approaches to Lake Tanganyika, 40 kilometres by road to the north-east, where the port of Mpulungu is located.
According to statistics from the district administration office, it had a population of about 20,000 in 2006.
The population has since increased especially around the ‘boma’ area due to several developmental programmes being implemented.
Mbala’s colonial name is Abercorn and it was a key out-post in British colonial control of this part of country which was called south-central Africa then.
A number of archaeological sites in the area (such as at Kalambo Falls) provide a record of human activity in this over the past 300,000 years.
According to some residents talked to and statistics from the district administration office, before colonial times, Mbala was the village of Chief Zombe on the Lucheche River.
It became the focus of British interest as a result of travels by the explorer David Livingstone, the first European to visit the area in the 1860s.
Timothy Kanguya, who was spotted at Chila polling station during the presidential election in Mbala, said that this area has a history of slave trade which a company called the African Lakes Company devoted efforts to stamp out during much of the 19th Century.
Mr Kanguya who has lived in Mbala for over 50 years said as a result of what was happening in the area, the colonial era began in Mbala in 1893, earlier than in most other areas of what would become Zambia.
He said a European, Hugh Marshall, was sent to Abercorn as the British consul for the area. Mr Marshall built a well-fortified boma at Chief Zombe’s village and acted as magistrate and postmaster.
In 1895 the British South Africa Company took over administration of the territory, called it North-Eastern Rhodesia, and the ‘Zombe boma’ became known as Abercorn, named after the company chairman.
The site was favoured by British administrators as being healthy and having a pleasant climate for hunting and fishing.
Until German East Africa (Tanzania) was taken over by Britain in 1919 as Tanganyika, Abercorn and the smaller Chiengi boma on Lake Mweru were the most northerly out-posts of British southern Africa.
After Zambia’s independence in 1964, the name of the town was changed back to Mbala. Since its heyday as a colonial town in the 1950s and early 60s, Mbala has suffered some decline, and has lost out in development terms to the provincial capital, Kasama, and Mpika, which have better road and rail connections.
According to the Mbala district office statistics, the area has fertile soils and plenty of water but it is too far from urban markets for agricultural produce.
Mbala district’s tourism potential is there for all to see and perhaps what is needed most is to exploit this potential.
In the recent past, the hospitality industry in the district was not as thriving as it is now.
Today, the resorts such as those found in the Nsumbu National Park such as Kasaba Bay, 100 km away cater for both local and foreign tourists.
While it has a lot of tourist potential areas, this national park is a bit far from the main tourist routes and the poor state of the main highway and the lack of regular air services could discourage visitors.
However, the situation is changing as there are several other lodges under construction and the roads are being worked on from Kasama, all the way to Mpulungu.
The Kalambo Falls remains a tourist attraction in this part of the country but sometimes it’s not accessible throughout the rainy season.
Geography and transport
The town is at the edge of the plateau covering most of Zambia, at an elevation of 1670m, about 900m higher than Lake Tanganyika, which comes within 22km (straight line distance).
The escarpment above the lake is the end of the Albertine Rift, the western branch of the East Africa Rift, and the Mbala area experiences occasional earth tremors.
It is also said that the tiny but picturesque Lake Chila within the town experiences inexplicable drying out, and sudden flooding from underground springs, but this may be just a legend.
The second highest waterfall in Africa, Kalambo Falls lies about 40 km (by road) north west, and is formed where the Kalambo River comes over the Rift Valley escarpment.
Mbala is on the old Great North Road about 165 Km north of Kasama. At some point, this road was not paved and it was in a poor condition.
However, the road is now paved, and as of 2008, the condition of this highway has improved than it was before.
Since it is the only paved highway access to the town and district of Mbala, as well as to the port of Mpulungu, its poor condition was a major barrier to development in the area. Nowadays, people that include tourists use the worked on road and according to some residents, this has improved tourist arrivals.
Border town
Mbala is 25 km from the border with Tanzania and is connected by road.
The paved road which winds down the escarpment to Mpulungu affords scenic views and passes close to Lunzua Falls. From Mpulungu, the MV Liemba provides boat services to other ports and countries on the lake.
In the 19th century the lake was an important entry point to the territory of northern Zambia, by boat from Ujiji, which was reached by an overland trade route from the Indian Ocean coast near the island of Zanzibar.
Mbala has an airport but does not currently receive scheduled services.