Northern Road Trip 3

Trip Start Apr 26, 2005
Trip End Nov 17, 2005

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Flag of Zambia  , Luapula,
Friday, July 8, 2005

With the night out in Kasama and the distraction of Chishimba Falls our spirits are high, despite a long stretch of road ahead. Beside the crappy food, dodgy guesthouses and towns, the driving is a pleasant, almost meditative constant in our routine. When the road is smooth I lose myself in thought; when it's rough so much the better.

Driving at night we listen to Voice of America on the radio, which for some reason only works from 8pm to 8am. I look forward to night driving, to the warmth of the heater and the incongruous sound of American accents coming from the speakers. At night the truck is cosy and self-contained, safe from the bush and the dark and witchcraft.

More often than not we arrive at our next destination after dark, and despite the probable dreariness of the town it's like opening a present the next morning to see the place in daylight. And like a child at Christmas I begin to wish for more night driving, more dark and mysterious arrivals. At times when I suggest we should push on and get ahead of schedule by driving through the night, Bwalya gently recommends we stay put and make an early start the next day.

Bwalya and I had long ago shed the potential estrangement of me being the boss's son. We consult each other, constantly mulling over our next steps and the difficulties we face on the job. Aside from letting me sleep a few minutes longer or excusing me from helping change a tyre Bwaly treats me as I would like to be treated; not as the bwana's son but as a valued partner.

Guide, translator, mentor, security guard, sidekick; Bwalya deftly plays all these rolls at any given time. At those times when I want to keep moving he's right to insist we stay; there's no guesthouse in the next town, the road is rough and impassable at night or longer than expected.

On the long dirt road to Kawambwa we miss a turnoff so obscure that we'd have lost our way in the night. We stop beside a teenaged girl and her two younger siblings to ask for directions, and as I poke my head out the window to call them I just manage to catch a glimpse of the three running away from the truck into the bush, the little boy's arms flailing as if to give him extra speed.

They might have been screaming but I can't hear them, just as surely as they can't hear us roaring with laughter. We're still laughing kilometres later, imaging them sitting around the fire that night telling the story, their elders nodding gravely at the danger of being abducted by man-eating muzungus.

Kawambwa is a decent little town in Luapula province, and we mark our transition from Northern province with a swift job and a decent meal. Some things never change, though, and the paperwork takes forever. We have to chase down the local health director at a conference at nearby St. Mary's school, a place that used to put Kawambwa on the map as a centre of education in Luapula.

More recently Kawambwa has been in the news as the site of a tragic road accident. In a real-life version of Atom Egoyan's film "The Sweet Hereafter", 45 students from Kawambwa Boys Secondary School were killed just a few kilometres from the town, along one of the deadliest stretches of highway in Luapula.

Over 80 kids looking for a lift out of town had piled onto the back of a truck already loaded with cargo. And though the vehicle was clearly overloaded it passed through the local police checkpoint. The driver began losing control on the first corner of a sharp, downward slopping S-curve. Then the brakes failed.

One of the survivors told the press: "We were so scared that we held each other, as we shouted to the driver that we were dying." Some jumped off the careening truck. According to witnesses the driver too jumped out of the truck. He survived. At the bottom of the hill the truck crashed through a metal highway railing and turned over.

Driving slowly through the area some 3 months later, the crash site is still clearly visible through a gap in the railing. But this isn't a film set, there's no marker or memorial to the dead, not even flowers. What would be a national disaster and provoke outcries and inquires in North America is yet another tragic but not-unlikely incident in a country where life, even young life, is cheap. Zambia's president, Levy Mwanawas, didn't even attend the mass funeral that followed, sending his wife and the vice-president, who in a speech to the mourners said, "What you are seeing in from of us are not coffins but the sign of a rotting nation."

A few metres from the crash site, a dirt road leads to Chushi Falls. We turn in, and while walking around Chushi I imagine the dead school boys swimming in the river below the falls. It's what I would have done if I lived in the area, if I'd been a student here, like them, celebrating the last day of school.

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eddie on

awe yali bad

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