What Is The Real Africa?

‘Please remember, you have come to Zambia, the Real Africa!’ That is how President Levy Mwanawasa concluded his welcome message to the thirteen Presidents who had assembled in Lusaka for the 27th Summit of SADC.

I was still around. Not hobnobbing with the Presidents, you’ll understand, but going about my own business of meetings with civil society organisations and donor agencies – and occasionally cursing the traffic jams the SADC Summit was causing in this otherwise free-wheeling capital.

But, over a bottle of the local Mosi beer, I asked a few of my Zambian colleagues what they thought their President meant when he called their country the Real Africa.

‘I mean, I come from Kenya,’ I said. ‘Isn’t that also Real Africa? And what about those other thirteen Presidents – don’t they also come from the Real Africa?’

‘Ah, well,’ one of my companions countered, ‘I guess he was just picking up on one of the slogans used by our Tourist Board. There’s a lot of wild country left in Zambia, you see – lots of national parks with very few visitors but very many animals. And don’t forget that we have our side of the Victoria Falls and the Zambezi River.’

As my Lonely Planet guidebook enthused: ‘Wildlife experts consider Zambia to be one of the best places in Africa to see animals and birds. The wilderness areas are beautiful and varied, and support a staggering diversity of wildlife…. All this combines to make Zambia an unbeatable paradise for wildlife aficionados.’

All very fine – But is this really how a modern country in Africa wants to be assessed these days? Didn’t the leaders of the SADC countries have more on their minds than the attractions of wildlife? Weren’t they going to talk about such things as import tariffs, telecommunications, hydro-power and river navigation?

I, too, didn’t have much chance to savour the beauties of the Zambian countryside in my ten days’ stay. Except for one drive of 360 kilometres to the far east of the country, to a small district headquarters called Luangwa.

For most of the way, we were on the Great East Road, which leads through the Luangwa Valley, a rolling countryside of thorn-bush and the occasional, majestic baobabs – the southernmost part of our Great Rift Valley.

With 80 kilometres to go, when the road meets the Luangwa River. our route was now south along a murram road that followed south along the course of the river. We didn’t see elephants, but we saw plenty of their distinctive droppings – evidence that herds come down from the slopes of the Lower Zambezi National Park to drink at the river.

Luangwa Town, like our Mandera, is in a tight corner and at a meeting point of three countries: Mozambique, Zimbabwe and, of course, Zambia. And the corner is the confluence of the Luangwa and the Zambezi Rivers.

So Luangwa Town is in a really spectacular site, but so far little or nothing has been made of it. No viewpoint, no tourist lodge. The guest house we stayed at provides only a simple comfort and meals only when you order hours in advance.

Yet, apart from its position, sleepy Luangwa has a rich history. It was originally the Portuguese settlement of Feira – which means ‘trading post’. And the famous missionary, David Livingstone, passed this way. In 1856, he camped under a giant baobab, which is still there.

But, before I leave, I must tell you what happened at the opening of the SADC Summit. All the lights in the conference centre went out. For a full three minutes the delegates sat in darkness. Some of the Presidents giggled. Someone was heard to whisper: ‘Perhaps this is what President Mwanawasa meant by Real Africa!’

The official reason given for the power failure was that a lizard had crawled into the machinery of an Electricity Board sub-station. So the two Real Africas had joined forces.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation