On a Road to Nowhere, Slowly

Having had our departure for Lundazi delayed by three days, yesterday morning Betty and I set off from Lusaka. Much like our experience of Zambia so far, the 800-kilometer trip was slow, frustrating and required us to put our lives into other peoples hands.


We left our hotel at 11 o'clock, keen to get on the road after twiddling our thumbs for three days. Initially we headed in the wrong direction, into Lusaka, as our driver needed to carry out some administrative activities and Adam, a council worker and our chaperon, needed to pay his brothers' school fees. We were left in one of the large shopping centers and told that they would return within the hour.

Four-and-a-half hours later they returned. Our fridge and motorbikes had now been joined on the second truck by a three piece suite, a cooker and other home improvement items that the driver had bought in Lusaka.

By five o'clock in the afternoon we had barely traveled 50 kilometers. Driving through the mountains east of Lusaka, the Zambian countryside glowed in the orange evening sun. It was good to be moving, and moving fast. It is at moments like these that I feel a thrill of traveling, even more so in the great expanses of Africa. There is time to think quietly about life, about where you have come from and where you are going, while the present rushes past you in a blur. Sadly, this did not last very long.

As an equatorial country, the sun sets early in Zambia, and it does so very fast. By six p.m. it was pitch black.

Stopping momentarily in Luangwa, a town strategically positioned next to a bridge crossing the Luangwa River, we entered a primevil world. With no electricity, paraffin lamps lit the small stalls selling dried fish and reed baskets, manned by obscure gargoyle faces, lit up by occasional smiles.

As we continued on I remembered VSO's safety briefings: Under no circumstances travel by night. As we zigzagged across the road, searching for tarmac free from potholes, I realised why. The driver clearly knew the road well, and maintained his breakneck speed, but sometimes he would catch the edge of a pot hole, sending us out of our seats into the roof of the four wheel drive.

At 11 p.m., with our driver practically sleeping at the wheel, we arrived in Chipata, halfway to Lundazi, where we were told that we would take a night stop. Without any food we slept on filthy beds, under torn mosquito nets in a government motel. Our chaperons stayed elsewhere, presumably with family.

The next day we finally completed our journey.

The road from Chipati to Lundazi is without doubt the worst road I have ever used in my life. Snaking up the eastern border of Zambia, it is so full of axle-destroying potholes that the 4×4 we were in spent most of the time with two wheels off the road, and often left the road completely to drive along the sand. The driver also signified his concern by slowing to an average speed of 50 km per hour. Nevertheless, the journey was bone-crunching, and it took us four hours to complete the 180 kilometers.

Arriving in Lundazi, we were first shown to our "new" home, and told to start unpacking our things. However, another family, an employee of the council, was already living there, and despite how often they asked us to "feel at home" it was difficult to relax.

A representative from Betty's work, Thandizani, came to visit us and said that we could not share with strangers, so we would have to move out untill the family found alternative accommodation. We moved to a nicer, smaller house which we are hoping we can stay in.

At the moment we are still living out of our suitcases, and the journey has not reached its final resting place. However, we are safe, happy and healthy, which considering the state of the road should not be taken for granted.

When we completed the application form for VSO over a year ago, we did not realize just how much we were putting our lives into other people's hands. Not only our driver, but the council seems to control our every movement. We are totally outside of any decision-making, regardless of how affected we might be by the decision.

Perhaps this is a good way to understand how the poor feel when decisions affecting their development are made in the offices of the Zambian government and aid organizations. Clearly, Lundazi District Council needs to improve its participatory decision making techniques.

About the author

  • John Crockett

    John Crockett left the United Kingdom in October, 2008, with his partner Betty Alié to join a Voluntary Services Overseas program in Zambia. John will serve as fundraising and project management advisor to the Lundazi District Council for two years, while Betty will work as monitoring and evaluation officer with Thandizani, a local NGO focusing on HIV/ AIDS. John has worked in fundraising and communications for several U.K. nonprofits. Both hold master’s degrees in development economics from the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, where they met.