BENEDICT TEMBO, Sioma
DURING the time of the biggest refugee camp in Nangweshi, north of Sioma district in Western Province, Stan Simwaka remembers how the maritime department struggled to deliver food there.
The maritime department, then under the Ministry of Transport and Communications, was contracted by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) to be ferrying food to Nangweshi across the Zambezi River on the west bank.
â€œWe had to deliver 45 tonnes of food by tag boat,â€ said Mr Simwaka, who was the head of the maritime unit in Mongu.
â€œIt was one hell of a programme moving from Senanga to Kalongola. It meant that every rainy season when the Zambezi River broke its banks, passage became very difficult,â€ he said.
During the peak of the rainy season, the 19-kilometre stretch where the boat was being used to ferry food across the Zambezi River became almost impossible because the area was rocky and the fast-running water made it tricky to cross.
Mr Simwaka said during their time, they crossed at the stretch between Senanga Prison up to Kalongola in Sioma where they found trucks waiting to ferry food to Nangweshi.
During the dry season, people improvised crossing paths on the shallower areas of the Zambezi River by erecting culverts.
It used to take two hours to cross the stretch up to Kalongola. Crossing using canoes or smaller boats was dangerous because big crocodiles would pull people.
â€œIt was dangerous to put your hand out of the boat,â€ Mr Simwaka said.
Mongu businessman Mukumbuta Mukumbuta remembers the challenges he used to face taking building materials across the Zambezi River to the west bank.
â€œWe had serious challenges before the bridge was opened as we had to ferry all materials across the Zambezi River by cargo boats, which [you see now marooned the other side] of the sandy beach,â€ said Mr Mukumbuta, proprietor of Country Lodge.
Mr Mukumbuta said there were times when people could not use the ferry as it was very unreliable and unsafe.
He is now one of the beneficiaries of the bridge as it passes very close to his lodge in the newly-created Sioma district.
â€œWe had no idea the bridge would pass through our plot and the whole thing just seemed would never be a reality even when we started hearing of rumours about the road,â€ Mr Mukumbuta said.
He, however, said the idea of the road and bridge passing through their plot gave them mixed feelings as their initial plan was to have an exclusive luxurious lodge in a quiet set-up.
â€œBut the whole thing later turned to be a blessing in disguise as we are now serving travellers and holiday makers who want to be far away but near civilisation. The bridge has truly made our place so convenient that today, most people can travel from Mongu or Livingstone just for a weekend and go back with ease. It takes only about two and three hours, respectively,â€ Mr Mukumbuta said.
With the Sioma Ngwezi National Park/Ngonye Falls Community Partnership Park within reach, Country Lodge has truly become the best weekend getaway for travellers to Western Province.
Country Lodge has 10 rooms that include two self-catering apartments.
â€œWe also have facilities for camping,â€ Mr Mukumbuta said, adding that next year, the lodge management intends to introduce boat cruises from the lodge to the falls and game drives into the game park.
â€œThis year, we were privileged to have the republican President, His Excellency Mr Edgar Chagwa Lungu, when he came to officially commission the bridge,â€ Mr Mukumbuta said.
Construction of the lodge started in 2010 and the first rooms were opened at the end of 2014.
In 2013, Government, through the Road Development Agency (RDA), embarked on a project to construct a bridge across the Zambezi River to link Senanga and Sesheke districts.
These road links form a part of the important western corridor of the country, which once fully developed, will be a critical economic corridor.
The RDA engaged China Henan International Corporation to construct the bridge at K108.2 million.
The bridge, which has given birth to the road, has land-linked Western Province to Namibia.
Mr Simwaka said trade between Zambia and Namibia has improved because traders from Nkeyema, Kaoma, Luampa and Mongu easily travel to Namibia through Sesheke to buy goods.
He said traffic flow from Sesheke to Mongu has increased tremendously as truckers and other transporters who are avoiding the dilapidated Kazungula-Sesheke road are now using the Sioma route from Katima Mulilo and Sesheke to Lusaka via Sioma and Mongu.
The opening of the bridge, which cost K108 million, has improved transportation to Shangombo.
â€œWe have started seeing taxis [going] to Shangombo,â€ Mr Simwaka said of the border town closer to Kwandu Kubangu in Angola, the former headquarters for late rebel leader Jonas Savimbi.
Mr Simwaka said the construction of Sioma Bridge is a big plus to the province.
With lodges mushrooming along the Zambezi River, travellers and holiday makers between Livingstone and Senanga can now sleep anywhere.
â€œThere is much development going on; a lot of tourists are coming to Liuwa National Park, who are driving from Walvis Bay [in Namibia]. It has made voyage easier,â€ he said.
With the bridge completed, Mr Simwaka hopes Government can now work on the road between Sioma and Kalabo because people do not need to pass through Mongu.
With the Sioma Ngwezi National Park/ Ngonye Falls Community Partnership Park in Sioma and the Liuwa National Park within reach, Mr Simwaka said the construction of the road between Kalabo and Sioma will create a tourism hub.
â€œThe bridge and road have solved all problems linking west bank and east bank,â€ he said.
Kalabo and Sioma, on the west bank of the Zambezi River, have benefitted from infrastructure projects which will spruce up the two districts, which were isolated from the rest of Western Province.
Speaking during the handover of Sioma Bridge this year, President Lungu said Government had scored a double by delivering these two important infrastructure projects [Mongu-Kalabo road and Sioma Bridge] for the people of Western Province and Zambia as a whole.
Mr Lungu said lack of a bridge at Sioma had been a missing link since the construction of the Sesheke-Senanga road about two years ago.
â€œTravellers on this new road have had to be subjected to using a pontoon to cross the Zambezi River at Sikuka, posing a threat to their lives due to the inherent challenges of this facility,â€ Mr Lungu said.
Some of the challenges included limited operation times from 06:00 hours to 18:00 hours daily, safety hazards and high operational and maintenance costs.
â€œIn some cases, we have recorded accidents at pontoons, which in some cases have resulted in loss of lives and goods. Just a few weeks ago, the pontoon at Sikuka drifted off course due to strong water currents. Fortunately, all the people on the pontoon at the time of the incident were rescued by the defence forces except for one,â€ he said.
Mr Lungu said without good roads, potential to develop sectors such as tourism and agriculture would remain only but a pipe dream.
The construction of the Sesheke-Senanga road and Sioma Bridge will no doubt open up this part of Zambia to investment in the tourism and agricultural sectors.
He said with the construction of Sesheke-Senanga Road and Sioma Bridge completed, and the ongoing upgrading works on the Sioma-Nangweshi road, Government expects the number of both local and foreign tourists visiting Sioma Ngwezi National Park to increase tremendously.
The Sesheke-Senanga road also provides the country a direct link to Namibia through Sesheke and consequently to the important port of Walvis Bay.
Mr Lungu reiterated Governmentâ€™s unwavering commitment to providing good infrastructure, particularly roads, in the country.
â€œOur firm belief is that roads are a pre-requisite to national development,â€ the President said.
BENEDICT TEMBO, Sioma