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     Volume 4 Issue 39 | March 25, 2005 |

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Thirteen Months of Sunshine

Living in Zambia

Azizul Jalil

The average altitude of Zambia is four thousand feet above the sea level, giving it a pleasant climate throughout the year. It has plenty of sunshine year-long and perhaps with some exaggeration, even beyond, giving the country the reputation of having thirteen months of sunshine. Its Flame Trees are legendary with large crimson flowers, very similar to the lost and lamented Krishnachuras of Dhaka's Ramna Roads. Bougainvillaea bloom in a variety of colours for most of the year.

Zambia is situated in south-central Africa and is a small landlocked country. It was a former British protectorate called Northern Rhodesia and therefore, English speaking. It gained independence in 1964. During my time there, Kenneth Kaunda was the President. Because the country did not have enough educated manpower, it was dependent on foreign personnel from all over the world including India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Private businesses and trade were mostly in the hands of traders of Indian origin. To the north were the copper mines giving the country its main source of income and foreign exchange. Modern large-scale agricultural farming in about 800 farms was in the hands of foreigners, mainly Rhodesians and South Africans, who realocated after Zambia's independence. Peasant cultivation, with a few exceptions, was rudimentary and the country was dependent on external sources for food staff and most other things. Copper prices were on a decline, there were foreign exchange shortages and the country was in deep economic crisis in mid-1977 when I arrived there as the World Bank's Resident Representative in Lusaka, the capital, to live with my family for the next three years.

President Kaunda, a humanist and a modest man of great humility, was a follower of Gandhi and admirer of Sri Aurobindo of Pondicherry. Their pictures were seen almost everywhere in the President's House. When I first went to see the President to request his support and guidance for my mission, he told me that I would have God's blessings. Kaunda, ran almost a one-party state and sycophancy towards him by the ministers and civil servants was the order of the day. During better times and in the euphoria of independence, the Government had granted lots of rights and privileges to the citizens, including free education, health and liberal employment conditions. But as the copper prices fell, it created an unsustainable economic situation. The unemployment rate rose and along with it increased crime. The situation was further exacerbated by the war across the border to the south in Rhodesia and the presence of refugees and freedom fighters from that country. Zambia was a frontline state and both the government and the people were assisting the black Rhodesians in their freedom struggle by dipping (contributing) from their own modest/limited resources.

With the shortage of most essentials and the bad security situation, living and working in Zambia were difficult. One evening, in the house next-door, there were sounds of rifle fire and commotion. Later we learnt that terrorists/criminals had entered the house, robbed it and took away a car after killing one person. In 1978, the Rhodesian army came at night on helicopters from across the border and bombed the house of Nkomo, the Black Rhodesian leader only a few blocks away from our residence.

The country was beautiful, particularly the area around the Zambezi River in the south and the forests in the north near Ndola. The Bank had financed a large number of infrastructure projects in Zambia like the roads and hydroelectric projects and some other similar projects. During my time, attention shifted to education, agriculture and forestry. We visited the giant Kariba Dam, built partly with World Bank assistance and the world's biggest waterfalls, the Victoria Falls at Livingstone, just at the border between Zambia and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). In local language, it was referred to as "Mosi oa Tunya", meaning "the smoke that thunders". It was a breathtaking sight. We could hear the thunder from a long distance. When we came closer, we saw a large area over which huge volumes of water from the Zambezi River was falling vertically to a depth of about 100 meters. Around it was a huge cloud of fine watery spray as if spreading its wings. This was visible from a distance of 30 kilometres. The Scottish missionary David Livingstone was the first westerner to visit the Victoria Falls in 1855. Upon seeing the Falls, he wrote, "scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight".

Ndola to the north had the copper mines and the Forests. We visited both. It was an experience to see greenish copper ore being smelted and gold coloured copper ingots coming out in the end. Making of copper pipes and wire were also amazing. The World Bank assisted forestry project had afforested a large area with Eucalyptus and other plants. Nearby we visited the site of the plane crash, where, during the civil wars in Congo, the UN secretary general, Dag Hammarshold of Sweden had died under suspicious circumstances. According to rumours, it was a case of deliberate sabotage or shooting down by the Congolese government.

We visited the Luangua Game Park in eastern Zambia for two days. The sight of large herds of deer, buffaloes, zebra, giraffes and elephants in the wilderness, and hippopotamuses in the lakes and swamps was spectacular. One early morning, we ventured into the forest on a jeep, led by our guide who was armed with a rifle. At one stage, we got very close to a lion family. I had three of my children with me who were very excited. The guide calmly assured us that the lions (the lion, lioness and their three cubs), who were basking in the morning sun, would not harm us. In any case, lions seemed to prefer buffalos to humans.

There was a small Bangali community in Lusaka and elsewhere in Zambia. They were mostly professionals- teachers, professors, doctors, pharmacists, accountants and engineers.

I used to meet many of them and attend their functions.

In 1979, the Commonwealth Heads of State meeting took place in Lusaka. Queen Elizabeth came as the Head of the Commonwealth. At a dinner for her at the Intercontinental Hotel, the Queen graciously stated that Britain was also once a Roman Colony as Zambia was now a British colony. President Ziaur Rahman had also come and I had an opportunity to meet him in his cottage. He asked me to discuss the scope of Bangladesh's technical assistance to Zambia and opportunities for increasing trade. Interestingly, the President himself enquired whether Bangladesh could help in setting up an Agricultural College in Zambia. The Rhodesian freedom fighters had come to a delegation to meet President Zia while I was there. Ziaur Rahman told me that being a freedom fighter himself, he was sympathetic and was ready to offer medical and other assistance to the Rhodesians. As a Bangladeshi, I felt very happy and proud!

(Azizul Jalil, a former civil servant and a retired World Bank staff member, writes from Washington.)



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