Zambia, Part 1: Visiting My Childhood Home in Chipata
— Zambia — 9 min read
21 - 23 December 2012
In all of Africa, one country holds special significance to me and that is, Zambia. In 1983, at the age of 2, my family moved to the small town of Chipata in Eastern Zambia and we lived there for 9 years. My father, an agricultural scientist with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN, was stationed at a research center near town. My family says those were the best years as life was good in Zambia. Vacations were spent on the shores of Lake Malawi and going for game drives in South Luangwa National Park. I saw lions and elephants out on the savanna before I saw them in a zoo. I got my first taste for road trips in rickety Land Cruisers and was crossing borders before I could even write. My time in Zambia is a fundamental part of who I am today and I knew I had to visit this ‘home country’ on my motorcycle journey.
It wasn't easy to come back because the visa process is extremely difficult for Indians, which was surprising considering the long relation Indians have with Zambia. In the 1970s and 80s, there were many Indian families all around Zambia and even the provincial town of Chipata had over 50 Indian expat families, which made for fun parties. What was great was that there were many kids around the same age as my sister and I and our friends from Chipata are still all in touch, thanks to facebook.
Besides the personal connection to Zambia, I wanted to revisit Victoria Falls and then connect overland to Namibia. And in Lusaka, I was looking forward to meeting the girl child that I was sponsoring for the past few years through Children International.
Entering Zambia at the Chanida border with Mozambique. Zambians are known to be super friendly and some of that must come from the relative stability and growth the country has experienced since independence.
_ Checking in at immigration and everything was very orderly and professional. Just a few days before I had received notice from my contact in Lusaka that my visa was approved and I presented that letter here, along with $50 and was welcomed back home. For sanDRina, Zambia doesn't accept (or need) the carnet and customs simply issued a temporary import permit for free that I was to hand over when I left, which reminded me of the smooth border crossings in South America. Being politically stable meant that Zambia was on top of its bureaucracy and the customs agent made sure I bought insurance for sanDRina.
On the road to Katete with lots of bicycle traffic.
My route through Zambia. I entered from Mozambique then visited Chipata before heading for Lusaka and Livingstone. From there, I exited to Namibia. Click on it to go to the interactive version in Google Maps. I was here right in the middle of the rainy season and was keeping an eye of this localized rain cell that eventually crossed my path as I neared Chipata.
Oh, yes. Welcome to Chipata and a walk down my memory lanes. I think the welcome sign was different back then...
It had been over 20 years since I left Chipata but I remembered the map of town perfectly. I knew exactly where the last house we lived in was. I figured that if it was still there, someone else might be living there so I tried to find a hotel nearby with the plan of paying a visit later. But there were no rooms available due to some conference, so I decided to just swing by the old house and as I got closer...
...I realized our old house had been turned in to a guest house! Oh wow, that meant I could sleep in my old house. I remember those massive roots as I would cycle over them.
Back home!!! I was overcome with emotion to finally be back at my old house. I was so happy that it was still there and had not been demolished and was even happier to know that I could sleep in my old bedroom. I went inside and declared triumphantly to the young manager that this used to be my old house. He said, great, you can stay in your old room for $25 a night. There was no discount for past residents. But anyways, I would have paid $100 or more to spend a night in my old house.
This was different. The front porch used to be just the part on the left and they've constructed the extension on the right. I remember long afternoons of aunties and uncles playing card games out here and my father making me sit out here and read the encyclopedia, which I loved.
The hallway from the living room, with my parent’s room on the left, guest room on the right and my sister’s and mine straight ahead. This corridor was so long in my memory as my little feet would run in the middle of the night, being scared of something to my parent's room. Now, I covered it in just a few steps.
My childhood room. Excuse the mess.
My old bathroom. Still the same. So many good memories of bubble baths.
That evening the power went out and the manager said they couldn't prepare dinner as the cooking range was electric. No problem for this overland traveler. I set up my camping stove on the kitchen table, where I used to help my mom make cakes and lick the batter, and made a simple meal of egg-fried rice. I cherished this moment, reveling in the thought that I was actually cooking in the kitchen that set me on a course to use my cooking skills to connect with people all over the world and here was was now, back where it started.
The next day, I strolled through the golf course that was next to our house and remembered cycling all over the grounds and feeling the wind in my face, a precursor to my motorcycling life.
A bit further up the road and I came across Hillside Basic School. The first school I went to.
A map of Africa on one of the school buildings. Maybe they’re depicting Africa when the Sahara was greener...
I left Chipata, traveled the world and now, I'm back. What a privilege to come back and visit such a deep part of my memory and know that it did happen and these are my roots. I was nomadic for the past few years and that nomadism brought me home, at least just for a visit.
I walked down the road and came across the Chipata General Hospital where my mother and some of our close family friends used to work at.
Walking around town and I saw these guys playing Checkers. Just like most small towns in Africa that I've come across, there's quite a passion for board games.
Getting a meal-to-go of fried chicken and french fries served in a plastic bag - proper African street style.
I took sanDRina for a spin around town and came across the old mosque and shops nearby where we used to buy provisions.
At the old Barclays Bank at the main intersection of town. They wouldn't let me take a picture of the bank, so from the bank, looking across at the petrol station that used to be a BP and the Great East Mall that now has many South African chain restaurants. I remember sitting in the bank, waiting on my dad, and staring out at the main road as big trucks from South Africa would roll in. Zambia and South Africa have a long connection as this area was first brought under British rule through the British South African Company, led by Cecil Rhodes, who was seeking the mineral wealth that sustains Zambia till this day.
I was back in Zambia during an important moment in its history as the country rebased its currency. They were lobbing off three zeros for a number of reasons that included psychological confidence in the currency and making imports cheaper that the people depend on. During my time in Zambia, the Kwacha was a pretty strong currency as it was pegged to the dollar at 1.2 Kwacha. But in the late 80s and early 90s, poor policies were catching up with the country and high inflation set in. That was also when many long time resident expats moved out of Zambia, including my family. Now, when I arrived back in Zambia, the Old Kwacha was trading at 5,250 to the dollar. After the new year, it would be 5.25 to the dollar.
I strolled into the super market and being a lover of oats, I was happy to see this sign. From January 1, 2013, only the new prices were going to be accepted and until then, everything was quoted in Old Kwacha and New Kwacha. Sadly for Zambia, all these oats are imported from South Africa, which puts a strain on the economy.
There weren't that many Indians around but there was an amazing selection of canned Indian food. I had never seen Delhi Breyani in a can before now. I wasn't tempted to try any of them.
I rode a few kilometers out of town towards the Msekera Research Institute, where my dad was stationed at. I was also keeping an eye on those rain clouds.
Visiting the first house that we lived in in Chipata, which was next to the research station. There was no one around, so I wandered around for a bit and absorbed the flood of memories coming back.
Click here to see the high resolution version.
Flashback photo: My sister, Lavanya, and close childhood friends of Deepak and Kiran in the garden of that first house. We look so 1980s. I wonder why Deepak's stepping on my foot? A nice coincidence is that Deepak and I share the same birthday, but he's a year older. There were always two birthday parties that day. Both their parents were doctors at the same hospital that my mother was at and I remember the immunization policies that all the families adhered to. Namely that if any kid got a childhood disease, such as measles, mumps or chicken pox, there was a sleepover at the infected kid's house so that all the kids got the disease, got over it together and built a strong immune system when it doesn't hurt the body much. Some people in the West might think it's crazy to voluntarily subject your kid to a disease but it's much smarter to get those diseases as a child rather than as an adult when it's much more serious. Interestingly, besides me, everyone else in that photo is now a doctor.
Looking down the rough road from that first house to the research station and the main road. I remember bouncing along on this road in our standard issue Toyota Land Cruiser FJ45. And now, I was riding down this same road on a Suzuki DR650 that I was riding through Africa. I soaked in the moment and GoPro'd it.
I rode through town and continued on towards the border with Malawi. This was a special moment as this was the place that connected music and being on the road for me.
Flashback photo: My dad taking us for a drive in our Nissan Bluebird on the road to Malawi. Many an evening we used to get in the Bluebird and just go for a drive. My dad enjoyed listening to music while driving and he would ask me to identify all the different instruments and that taught me to pay attention to music ever since. Jammin - it goes back to these moments.
I got back to town and I was checking out the condition of the houses of my childhood friends and as I turned the corner, I saw these ominous rain clouds sweeping in fast. It's so awesome to say that I ran home for safety.
I made it home as the rain hit and just like back in the day, I'm enjoying the rain from the big windows of home. These storms are just as intense as I remember them. They sweep in fast in the afternoon and are finished within half an hour. Hey, guava tree, nice to see you’re still holding it down.
And the best part about fast moving rain is that it leaves behind clear skies. Our house was an old colonial house when we lived there and thanks to being bought by these motel owners, it's got a secure future. This fence wasn't there to the garden and I remember learning to cycle around the huge front lawn and having my first skinned-knee here.
A fresh mango from this mango tree that's been at the house entrance even before my time. It tasted especially delicious.
I couldn't get over the feeling of just staring out of my old bedroom window and seeing this giant motorcycle parked outside and knowing that I had ridden it from my most current home in Chicago to this old home of Chipata and onwards to another home in Chennai. sanDRina, you connect all my homes and of course, you're my home on the road.
This dirt. I used to play in this dirt and probably ate it too. I remember building cities in this dirt for my Lego trucks and cars that would then get all muddy. I remember having a toy dump truck and wow did I have fun with that...
It was time to leave and I said bye to the motel maid in our old kitchen.
Putting on my muddy boots in my old bedroom. Goodbye old bedroom.
One last moment of reflection on the front steps of the house. Goodbye, old house. It's been fantastic to come back and touch deep memories of my early childhood. I'll be back._ sanDRina and the Chipata Golf Course. From bicycle to motorcycle. Onwards!