Village life, tasty river water, teaching at school, searching for food and shelter. The wilderness and rural life of Zambia’s Great East Road. 600km, 9 days, $55.
Beggar in Chipata
I’m standing on a veranda looking minted, as usual. I’m the pale male, holding a coke, smoking in sunglasses. I’m in Chipata, the biggest settlement in eastern Zambia, one of the poorest countries in Africa.
A man is hunched under a bloated sack of coal and almost walks past me before he asks. “I am asking you for 1000 Kwatcha. I am very hungry. For food. 1000… 2000 Kwatcha. If I beg, I do not have to steal.” I shake my head. “You don’t have?” He says, already turning away to look inside Restaurant Africana. He tries his luck with the staff. Holding his sack with one hand, he motions to his mouth with his fingers. He gets shot down immediately. The staff bark at him from behind the fried chicken counter. Stay away.
He leans against a pillar, slides down it into a crosslegged collapse. His sack crumpled up next to him. He stares at his feet, then at me. He asks to finish my cigarrette and I give it to him. I start unlocking my bicycle.
Dressed in black t-shirt and trousers, carrying a smartphone, a man steps out from the restaurant. The beggar points up at him. “You do not have food? No? You have food. I can see. Greedy. You are all very greedy. God will punish you and you will suffer.”
The man in black replies quickly. “Do not judge others. You must not judge others, my brother. God is not for you to use to punish others.” And he continues talking in in the local language, Nyanja, sometimes gesturing at me.
He then fetches 4 slices of bread from inside and hands them to the man on the floor, and leaves in a telecom company pick-up truck. I leave on my touring bike. This must be the 20th time I’ve been approached for money for food today in Chipata.
I’m hanging around Chipata because I’m waiting for Jimbo. A 30 year old Japanese around-the-world cyclist, already 2 years, 8 months and 39,500km* into his 4 year jaunt.
He arrives a couple of days later, lugging around 60 kilos (not including the 11 litres of water he carries, sometimes 17 if the going get’s tough) of kit with disfunctional gears. Strangely, there’s a very large ball of elastic bands on his bike. I haven’t asked him about it yet.
The night before our departure for the Great East Road I meet an English crowd and hit the coffee flavoured brandy (6p per 30ml). A couple of us walked down to the local ‘Cocktail Bar’ and whupped** the locals at pool. By 4am the English are climbing into their taxi and I’m getting my head down ready for the 2 week slog.
800km of empty Zambia, dotted with small villages. That is the Great East Road. We leave late. I go and stock up on water bottles and we use the internet for the last time for a couple of weeks.
We’re ready to go. Like 2 African male lions prowling new territory. Hunting down food, water, and ultimately, of course, a hareem of fertile females escorted by a feeble alpha male.
Before we head off Jimbo warns me “OK Jack. I go very slow. You might be surprised.” He does and I was. We re-enacted the tale of the hare and the tortoise for 6 hours. It suits me fine. I had time to restock my water supplies at the well, have a Castle beer with the local boys and eat some chewy fried goat before Jimbo rolled into the trading town of Chiwoko just before dark.
Jimbo is the expert, so I asked him what he wants to do. “Let’s go to the school.” He says.
We ask around, ride down a dirt road and go knocking at the Headmistress’ home. We ask if we can set up camp in a school building, with thunder and lightning playing rather overdramatically above the hills behind us. Mrs Pele decided we should stay in a classroom and enlisted some students to move desks in the dark to clear space for us.
It’s dark as night now so we do everything by torchlight. After we set up our tents***, we wash with our water bottles, then Jimbo cooks us rice with his temperamental petrol stove while I dice garlic, onion, tomatoes and chilli left over from yesterdays dinner, and mix in a can of pilchards in chilli sauce. We both have huge portions, make some sweet tea and wash up. The classroom door and windows swing and bang in the wind of the rainstorm outside. In terms of my bike tour so far, this coming 2 weeks is going to be another story entirely.
* The circumference of the Earth is 40,400km
** I say ‘whupped’, Whenever we were definitely about to lose the barman came over, picked up the black ball and threw it down the table into a pocket and declared us the ‘champions’. Everyone apart from our opponents would cheer and shake our hands. Fair enough, I reckon.
*** My Tarptent is not designed to stand alone. It require tent pegs. I improvise by tying the 4 lines to desks and realise my new replacement tent pole is quite a bit too long. It’s not perfect, but I’m glad we’re in the classroom and out of the storm. Not sure how I’m going to get into my tent tonight, it’s surrounded by bloody desks holding it up.
A slow start
There’s a strange thing about bike touring in an exotic country. You might find yourself with a powerful urge to purchase the hats on people’s heads. It happened to Jimbo in the Congo. He bought 4. I bought my second in Zambia this evening. A tweed flatcap. The first was a green suede 1920’s detective-style hat. I gave it to Jimbo, he pulls it off a bit better.
In a small trading town I found a small restaurant that serves tea. Fabulous news, yes, but that’s not all. Not only does it serve tea, it also has sofas. Cushiony sofas! A real break from the saddle for the arse cheeks. No thin wooden bench for us. I whistle Jimbo over. He’s as amazed as me. Why is this not in the Lonely Planet, we wonder? Then it get’s better. There’s some kind of automatic back massage feature in my sofa! Very cushty… I lean back and enjoy that for a moment, then jump up and pat down the lump as it wriggles away. It’s a big old rat, sworn enemy of the retauranteur. I guess that’s why you don’t see sofas out here.
This section of the Great East Road is maddeningly straight. We ploughed through the heavy rain into the fairly big truckers town of Katete, had an early lunch and did some much needed bike maintenance. The rain didn’t stop, so we stayed here for the night, covering only 30km today.
Reading the Sunday Post in Katete, I came across this sensational news: Sex with a minor does not cure HIV or AIDS. Here’s a snippet:
The power gradient that places men above women is such that women are more vulnerable to HIV infection because unlike men, women do not in the main choose who with, how, how often, where, and or when to have sex. Jimbo and I headed out to the bars in the evening, drinking spirits and mixers and being chummy with drunk people, when we weren’t refusing to give them money for more drink.
One guy proudly dragged me to the local nightclub, which was decked out with leather cushioned doors, lazer lights and reflective walls. Pretty snazzy. But I had my eye on someone’s hat in the previous bar.
Back to School
We covered a better distance today, and found another school to stay in. At around 6pm, we bought cooked pork fat and freshly fried doughnuts (really good – I bought 6) in a small village and asked where the nearest school was.
Just nearby down the hill, we met the headmaster, who unlocked the bore hole for us to fill up our water bottles and showed us to a classroom to set up our tents for the night. At aroundabout this point I found myself offering to teach an English class early the next morning.
The Head hung around and chatted to us as we cooked our pasta. He explained that there are 5 teachers at the school, and 700 students. Grade 2 has 147 children in the classroom, and each teacher takes 2 classes. I would be teaching Grade 7, there are only 85 of them*.
Just before leaving us to get some sleep, The Head warned us to be careful to look out for spitting cobras, adding that “they get stronger when the moon is in the west.” It didn’t occur to me to go outside and check where the moon was.
At 6am the school bell rang. Or, more accurately, a man hit a car wheel with a stick outside our classroom for 5 minutes.
By 6.20am a couple of hundred kids had turned up and were busy sweeping the grounds with leafy branches for brooms. One boy empties a plastic bag of stones onto a small pile. They’re collecting the stones to rebuild the toilets, which collapsed in the rain. It’s the job of the school’s Parent’s Association to come and crush the stones with hammers, bring sand, and mould bricks.
At a word from The Head, everyone sprints into line. Probably eager to get a seat, as the classrooms are decked out for 30, not 147. The kids are aged 13-14 and are already waiting in the classroom. The teacher, Jim and I walk in. In perfect voice, all 85 kid’s shout out “How are you sah!” with military oomph.
We get started. After introductions Jim and I take a seat and leave it to the professional to begin with. When the teacher asks a question, hands strain to be picked to answer them. When the teacher makes a point they all say ‘yes’ simultaneosly. If the teacher is happy with his point he might reinforce it with an ‘eh?’ and the class say ‘yes’ again. The discipline is extraordinary.
The lack of teaching equipment, also, is extraordinary. Just a blackboard. There aren’t any teaching books, or, as the English teacher put it, ‘we have to rely on our experience’. What this means essentially is that they have to plan every lesson from scratch. Teach every language point in their own words. No wonder today’s lesson practise consists of 5 multiple choice questions.
In the staff room after the lesson we swap contact details with The Head. He’s very keen to twin his school with a well-off school somewhere and get funds for more teacher’s houses and electricity.
On the wall behind him there’s a sheet listing the number of orphans at the school. The number is 85, and ‘full’ orphans, with no parents. Next to that is a ‘how to keep your body healthy’ poster, that recommends you keep your hair ‘clean and well styled’.
I leave the school feeling like I should style my hair, and we ride on and away from the flat savannahs into hills and twisted roads.
* The biggest class I’ve taught before is around 20, and it seemed like a lot at the time.
Hitting the Hills
Stopping at the market town Sinda, I have 2 ice buns, 2 rice samosas, 2 muffins, 2 cups of sugary tea, one boiled egg and a cup of coffee for breakfast. Total price, 90p. Over the rest of the day I ate 5 bananas, 4 more egg, 4 bread rolls, 200g of pasta, a few cokes, 2 more coffees, half a tub of peanut butter, a doughnut, a tin of fish, handful of pumpkin leaves and some okra and garlic and chilli, another bread bun and coffee and 120ml of potable spirits, between 8 litres of water.
This evening we couldn’t find a bore hole for water, a school to stay in or, in fact, anything really. We kept on riding into the sunset*. Over to Jimbo again: “In this case, I go to a small village and I beg for water.” Righto.
We rode for another few kilometres and spotted a couple of huts and a boy stood next to a bag or charcoal. We greeted him and he ran away a few metres. We said ‘don’t worry! Bwanji (how are you)?’ and he ran away a few more metres. We got off our bikes and walked towards him and the huts and he legged it.
Jimbo greeted the women brilliantly. They spoke no English but understood we needed water for washing, cooking and drinking. One women said suddenly summoned up the ability to speak English and said ‘you want Head Man’ and led us along a path through high grass.
A man greeted us and we shook his wrist.
“Are you Head Man?”
“No, I’m selling this stone.” He says, holding up a fist sized rock.
“OK, maybe later.”
We found and met the Head Man, Banda. Head Man of Talandile Village. He arranged for us to have 2 or 3 gallons of water. We washed and set up our camp in the middle ground between the huts.
While we were cooking our pasta, I put BBC’s Planet Earth on my laptop for the kids of the village to watch. We watched 3 episodes before bed – Jungles, Deep Sea and Deserts. They oohed and aahed at the monkeys, giggled at the lizards catching flies and squealed at desert goats butting each other.
In the morning we thanked everyone and gave Banda my hat and some biscuits to share out between the kids.
* Note: Riding West is blinding from 3pm to 6.30pm
Jimbo’s Bad Day
The first thing we saw on the road was an overturned lorry that had taken a corner too quickly the night before.
The sun was scorching today. As I scuttled between the shade of trees along the road, Jimbo plodded along behind. His forearms and legs nearly as black as a Zambian’s, he was doing fine. The road was almost completely uphill and I’d had enough sun, so sped off ahead to a village we had heard sported a bore hole and possibly some cold soft drinks.
I kept speeding off ahead, but nothing came into view. A couple of huts in the grass and some charcoal on the road – probably the remains of previous cyclists – were the closest I could find to a cold soft drink.
We crossed the Luangwa bridge in the morning and were permitted to take an illegal photo of the bridge by the military post.
Finally, at around 3pm, a good 6 hours solid cyling in the sun, a small shop appeared. Some boys showed me to the bore hole behind the shop. I filled up and downed a litre of the water there and then. It didn’t look that yellowy brown at the time.
The shop owner and some boys boiled me up 6 eggs and a couple of litres of tea, which I ate with six bread buns. So I sat in the shade happily, and expected Jimbo to turn up within an hour. No sign.
While I had been relaxing, Jimbo had been working on several consecutive punctures. 6 in total. The first few were out in the shade-less open and at this time we were low on water. Jimbo reckons he nearly passed out before reaching a group of women who helped him with water and sold him bananas.
I cycled back a couple of kilometers to find Jimbo halfway down a hill. I gave him my spare inner tube (which also has a slow puncture problem) and we were on our way again. Jimbo a little worse for wear.
To add to his puncture problems, Jimbo’s higher (easiest) gears stopped working. Remember his middle gears weren’t working at all before we left? That leaves him with just the lower (hardest) gears.
Thunder and lightning were gaining on us, we managed to make it to a small village just in time and ducked into a school before the heavy rainfall.
A very very drunken headmaster allowed us to stay at the school, where we learned that it costs Zambians at least 1.5 million ZK / $3000 each year to study after basic (primary) education, making this utterly impossible for 99% of the population. We also were told that Zambian are the second highest consumers of alcohol worldwide. I can believe it. Every bloke gets completely trolleyed every day on potable spirits (1000 ZK / 12p per 60 ml).
I’ve been joining in. In fact, in the evenings around Jimbo’s petrol stove I’ve invented 2 new cocktails:
The leafy pumpkin
6 parts boiled pumpkin leaf water
1 part coffee granules
2 parts potable alcohol
The nut twister
1 part peanut butter
4 parts coffee
2 parts potable spirits
Just over halfway along the Great East Road now. More to follow!