“You won’t believe how nice the road to Kalabo is these days! Getting there is so easy,” they said.
And it was at least half true.
In 2014, I conducted my research with groups of persons with disabilities in two places: Mongu and Kalabo. The rationale was that these two places would offer different perspectives on life in Western Zambia. Mongu was urban and connected; a veritable town with a supermarket and banks, two traffic lights, and highways to the major cities of Lusaka and Livingstone. Meanwhile, Kalabo was essentially an administrative and commercial hamlet with only a few kilometres of isolated paved road; a place that was a place because it was far from everywhere.
Traveling between the two communities was a journey in 2014, and the modal choice was determined by the natural environment.
Between Mongu and Kalabo lies the Barotse Plain, a wide plateau over which the Zambezi River spills in the late rainy season. For hundreds of years, the rise and fall of the water determined the Lozi way of life, with areas for grazing, fishing, and gardening determined by the timing of the rising and falling waters.
When the Plain was flooded, travel between Mongu and Kalabo was by boat. As a passenger, I would sit mesmerized by the mysterious route that the captain would take; sometimes following canals and rivers, other times seeming to dart through grass. The specific course would change every time with more direct and efficient paths available when the water was higher.
Here is a small sample of that journey.
Being out on the water provided a glimpse of the impressive canoeing skills of the Lozi fisherfolk in their dugout boats.
It was also a unique glimpse of homesteads built on higher bits of land surrounded by pasture, gardens, and boats.
The harbours on both termini were vibrant commercial locales. Arriving in Mongu after one trip I was welcomed by a herd of cows.
As much as I loved the scenery and ruggedness of the boat trips, they were also a pain. There were only a few boats with a few seats and they could sell out. Because of the finite seats, one of my research assistants was stuck on the wrong side of the Plain on a day that we needed her. The travel was also costly. Then there was that time that we booked tickets for a boat that was not available. After numerous phone calls from the crowd of us gathered at an empty pier holding useless tickets, the sales agent opted to come to Mongu Harbour and explain. He was intoxicated and his explanation was in the form of yelling “non-refundable!” in slurred speech.
When the flood waters fell, it would become possible for cars to drive through the Plain, usually still requiring a car ferry to cross the main span of the Zambezi.
Here is a sample of what that was like.
Boarding the ferry required a careful approach, shooting for a wishful ramp while skidding down a sandy bank.
As the flood waters receded, they often left pond-like pockets of water. This could be a bad combo for cars on a road that was not really a road.
For reasons that I cannot precisely remember, at some point it was possible to cross the Zambezi on a rickety bridge. It was nice to not have to wait for the ferry, but in some ways the ferry felt more like solid to me than did that bridge.
Even in 2014, signs of change were on the horizon: the Mongu-Kalabo Road Project was in full development. The slowly-developing infrastructure loomed large, casting foreboding shadows of change onto the landscape.
During my absence from Bulozi, the road project was finished. It is this development that has people gushing about the current ease of travel. Friday was my first opportunity to travel the route myself.
Having made the trip, I can now confirm that the trip is far smoother – and only about half the price of what it was three years ago. But I can also confirm some continuity between the pre-Road era and today.
On Friday I embarked upon an experiment that would have been unthinkable in 2014 without a flying machine: heading to Kalabo and back in a single day. To increase the odds of success, I headed down to the taxi stand for cars making the crossing at 7am. And waited there until 9am for the first taxi to get the requisite four passengers crammed into the back seat before moving.
The specifics of this transportation conundrum are probably more suitable for my extra-curricular blog about public transport in Zambia. The short answer is that nearly all of the travelers in the morning are headed from Kalabo to Mongu; a grand total of almost nobody does the reverse. If I want to plan for more one-day work trips out to Kalabo, I will have to crack the code of arranging the day to not be sitting around for hours. Strategizing ways to do this more efficiently is now on the to-do list.
In the meantime, here are some photos of the new (and incredulously smooth) road, as of yesterday. See this site for a montage celebrating Western Province’s development (presumably assembled for the majority of Zambians who never make it to our peripheral province).