JACK ZIMBA, Dundumwezi
AFTER driving for over an hour through a maze of dirty roads, and making several stops to ask locals if we were still on the right track, we sighed with relief when we burst into the gravel road leading to Dundumwezi.
Here, motorists have curved a network of bush tracks to avoid the actual road which is in a bad state, becoming impassable in the rainy season. On the way, we came across several trucks laden with farm produce headed for Kalomo or Choma.
And when we arrived at Kasukwe, one of the main outposts in this vast constituency, we found welcoming locals too eager to help strangers.
Photojournalist Brian Malama and I had travelled to the remote constituency, south-west of Kalomo district in Southern Province, whose name has now become a byword for something negative; a mockery or scorn word, or just something to laugh about; all because of an incredible margin in presidential results favouring the opposition United Party for National Development (UPND) in last monthâ€™s general election.
Here, President Lungu got the least votes of all constituencies across the country – 252 ballots against his rival UPND candidate Hakainde Hichilemaâ€™s 30,810.
It was not the first time, though, that the constituency was producing such shocking results for the PF.
In 2015, in a presidential election that ushered Mr Lungu into power, he polled 83 votes, while Mr Hichilema got 14,181.
Yet, despite its notoriety in this regard, Dundumwezi remains a little-known or even forgotten place.
And some, like itâ€™s member of Parliament (MP) Edgar Singâ€™ombe of the UPND, are now happy that the people of Dundumwezi have struck the right cord and now getting the attention they needed.
â€œPeople spoke to attract attention and we are happy that we are getting it,â€ the MP told me from his parliamentary office, which is the only remarkable building I saw here.
In his inaugural address last Tuesday, President Lungu mentioned the name Dundumwezi twice, promising to visit the constituency, perhaps soon.
And when he addressed a victory rally, two days after he was declared winner, Mr Lungu did not sound bitter about the few votes he was given by the people here, saying: â€œIf I didnâ€™t get those 252 votes in Dundumwezi, I wouldnâ€™t have gotten the 50 percent plus one.â€
But that has not stopped the negative publicity about Dundumwezi. Clearly, this is one place that could do with some public relations.
Mr Singâ€™ombe describes the people of Dundumwezi as â€œpeaceful and hard-workingâ€.
Now in his third term in office, Mr Singâ€™ombe said people here voted the way they did because they feel neglected by successive governments.
â€œNothing much has happened here in many years, so how did you want them to vote?â€ he said, sounding emotional.
Despite their hard work, the residents of Dundumwezi face many challenges associated with underdevelopment.
Ask anybody here about the problems in the constituency, they will mention mobile phone communication, roads, water, electricity and improved access to healthcare – usually in that order – almost as if they all read from the same sheet.
Mr Singâ€™ombe thinks the failure by Government to provide mobile phone services to Dundumwezi is what really made the people disaffected.
â€œThe first thing that people want to have is a mobile phone network; that is closer to their hearts. You may bring everything, you may give them food, but if this thing does not come closer to them, they will never appreciate anything,â€ he said.
Since 2006, when he became MP, Mr Singâ€™ombe has been pushing for mobile phone connectivity, but despite several assurances from the Zambia Information and Communication Technology Authority, nothing much has happened to date, and here, people have to go to great lengths just to make a call.
About 200 metres from the MPâ€™s office is a small anthill where residents go to when they want to make calls, but even here, the signal is not guaranteed. Sometimes, one has to climb a tree on the mound to get the signal.
Mr Singâ€™ombe believes mobile phone communication is key to bringing development to Dundumwezi.
â€œHere, people can work on their own. We just need a springboard, then we will take off on our own,â€ he said.
In past years, Dundumwezi and the surrounding areas have produced the most maize in the country, but changing weather patterns have made this area susceptible to droughts.
Dundumwezi, however, is still said to produce more maize than the rest of Kalomo district.
And Mr Singâ€™ombe wonders why despite the high maize production in the area, Government has not installed any solar milling plant, like it has done in other areas.
That this is an agricultural hub is clearly evident as there is hardly a road we drove that we did not pass recently-harvested fields or a herd of fat cattle lazily grazing in the sun. We also came across a lot of goats, sheep and gangs of turkey. Most of the goats reared here end up in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where they fetch a lot of money, but it is the middlemen who benefit more.
The people here also grow a lot of sunflower and groundnuts.
Nelson Haluyasa is one of the successful farmers in the area. At his home, we found several men and women shelling maize, with about 2,000 bags neatly stacked in rows.
Yet there was still some more grain in the storage houses, and the farmer already sold some bags to Choma Milling.
At a dip tank at the edge of his farm, we found Mr Haluyasa dipping his cattle. He has about 500 head of cattle.
He wants Government to build dams in the area to reduce the problem of water, especially for animals.
To dip his animals, Mr Haluyasa has to draw water in drums 10 kilometres away and cart it to his farm.
It is almost impractical to fill the dipping trough to the right level, and so the cattle are forced to plunge over a metre into the chemical solution.
â€œThis is very dangerous, especially for cows in calf [pregnant],â€ said Mr Singâ€™ombe, after darting to avoid being splattered with the grey-coloured liquid as another animal jumped in.
At a watering point where Mr Haluyasa draws his water, we found about 60 thirsty animals herded by small boys, all clamouring to get a drink.
â€œThese children are supposed to be in school, but you know, us in Southern Province, we would rather leave school than let our animals die,â€ said the MP.
When the few water points run dry, usually around October, the farmers have to trek many kilometres with their herds to a stream, camping there until the rains come.
Happy Munkombwe has lived in Dundumwezi all his life â€“ he is now 40.
He said water has been a problem in the area as long as he can remember.
There are far fewer water points in the constituency, forcing people to trudge up to 15km to draw water, which they transport by ox-cart, but the less privileged ones have to carry buckets of water on their heads.
Like Rhoda Siamulonga, a cheery young mother of two whom I met with a 20-litre bucket balanced on her head, is open about her support for the opposition UPND. Neither does she hide she voted for Mr Hichilema in the August 11 election, but she said it is now time to move on.
â€œWhoever won the election is the President and must now help us,â€ she said.
So, what sort of place is Dundumwezi?
The whole constituency is typically a farming community made up of mainly homesteads surrounded by crop fields.
It is hard to get statistics on population, but some estimates suggest 80,000 people live here.
But for all its population and vastness – in one direction, it stretches 100km from its central location, a place called Bulyambeba – there is no police post.
And although the constituency was allocated four health posts out of the 650 Government is building across the country, construction for the four has yet to start.
The available health posts are far between, and Kalomo Community Hospital is over 50km away. The nearer hospital is Macha Mission Hospital, but it, too, is not easily accessible.
Mr Singâ€™ombe wants the constituency to be declared a district, in order to enhance development.
Despite its social woes, many of the people in the constituency earn good money from agriculture.
â€œPeople here are rich. There is hardly a home you will go to where you wonâ€™t find a vehicle parked,â€ Mr Singâ€™ombe told me.
Well, there might have been some exaggeration in the MPâ€™s statement, but driving round, I saw many nice cars parked outside not-so-nice houses.
One homestead we visited had a brand new tractor and a gleaming Toyota Hilux parked in a shed. Many here also own trucks, mainly the Toyota Hino and Mitsubishi Canter.
And yet even with such wealth, there is still no bank in this area. Some people confess to practising the primitive method of banking – burying their money in the ground.
In the late afternoon, the men sat outside nondescript roadside taverns sipping on a local brew called gankata, while playing draughts with loud music blaring.
When I brought up the political issues, they were engaging.
Oscar Moono, one of the residents, denied the people here voted for Mr Hakainde on tribal lines.
â€œWe donâ€™t vote for a party, we vote for a person whose ideas we like,â€ he said.
Mr Moono gave an example of the current MP, who stood as an independent candidate in 2006 and won.
â€œDo you think if President Edgar Lungu had come here to campaign it would have made a difference?â€ I asked Mr Moono.
â€œVery much,â€ he said. â€œMany of us donâ€™t know him, we just see him on TV.â€
Many here, including the MP claim that no minister has visited the area, except when the community holds its annual traditional ceremony called Chungu.
And despite being an opposition stronghold, no political violence was recorded here, like in other areas, in the wake of the August 11 polls.
â€œIt is actually us who are scared to leave this place because of what people are saying out there,â€ Mr Singâ€™ombe said.
Back on the road, with the setting sun behind us, we came across several trucks driving back to Dundumwezi. The trucks were now full of groceries, farming inputs, and household items.
JACK ZIMBA, Dundumwezi