Exploring Zambia: Fascinating experiences in the heart of Africa

Up and about in Zambia.

VICTORIA FALLS is just one of the many reasons to visit Zambia (photo credit: HILARY ZETLER)
VICTORIA FALLS is just one of the many reasons to visit Zambia
(photo credit: HILARY ZETLER)
My wife and I were in Zambia a few years ago on a day trip from Zimbabwe, to visit the Victoria Falls. It is on the Zambezi River, which forms the border between the two countries. We were amazed to see people on the top of the falls, on the Zambian side, hanging over the 100-meter drop.
We knew we had to go back. The first thing we did this time on landing in the capital Livingstone, was to take a tour of the falls and “hang over.” On our way back to Livingstone, a few kilometers from the falls, we passed the “Railway and Jewish Museums.” The Jewish Museum was opened in 2013, financed by the sale of Jewish properties in Zambia. Large donations were also made to the Tel Aviv and Ndola (Zambia) university medical schools. The state-of-the-art museum shows the history of Jewish settlement in Zambia.
One of the most incredible stories was that of brothers Elie and Harry Susman, immigrants from Lithuania who, in 1901 set out with eight ox wagons and 28 men to the interior to meet with a tribal chief to get trading rights in the area. Four months later, two wagons and four exhausted men arrived at their destination. Lions and Blackwater fever had taken their toll, but they developed an extensive trading, transport and ranching network in Zambia, extending to the Congo and Botswana. Livingstone was then the capital of northern Rhodesia and many of the businesses there were owned by Jews. There was a synagogue and cemetery, although there haven’t been any Jews living there for many years.
We took a camping safari to the Kafue Game Reserve, the biggest in Zambia and bigger even than Kruger Park in South Africa. On the way to the park, we passed many villages and there were bags of maize all along the road. The bumper harvest had been completed and the farmers were trying to sell their crop before the rainy season started. We did not see many animals; they were far from our jeep. Occasionally we suffered painful bites by swarms of Tsetse flies, which are fatal to cattle. That is why this huge area was left to wild animals. It was October, the hottest month, with the temperature nearing 40º. The camp was hot but comfortable with hot showers, water toilets and electric lights.
From Livingstone, we took a bus to Lusaka, 500 km. away, the capital of Zambi since 1935. We stopped once, at Mazabuka, 130 km. from Lusaka. It is the town where Stanley Fischer, the previous head of the Bank of Israel was born and brought up. In Lusaka, we stayed in a very convenient modern hotel, at Levy Junction, in the center of the city. It is a mere 50 meters from the Levy Mall, a modern shopping center with shops, supermarkets, a variety of restaurants and a cinema complex. We thought that Mr. Levy must have been a prominent man in Lusaka. He was. Mr. Levy Mawanawasa had been president of Zambia for six years. I surmise that his father had worked for a Mr. Levy, and named his son after his employer.
In Lusaka we hired a Ford 4x4 double-cab truck for the rest of our trip. We drove north to Kitwe in the copper belt, so named because of the huge reserves of copper, split between Zambia and the Katanga province of the Congo. Together, they are the second largest source of copper in the world, accounting for 95% of Zambia’s exports. The 360-km. trip took a full day, as the roads are extremely poor in places.
Zambia is landlocked, and due to its strategic geographic position and the fact that its poor roads are actually much better than those in neighboring countries, hundreds of long, heavily laden trucks cross the country. They travel to and from the Congo and Tanzania in the north, to South Africa and Zimbabwe in the south, and from Malawi and Mozambique in the east, to Namibia and Angola in the west. Many of them carry fuel from the coast.
The two largest towns on the copper belt are Ndola and Kitwe, 50 km. apart. They each have a population of over half a million. We found the old synagogue in Kitwe, which is now a Salvation Army church. The guesthouse where we stayed was in a residential area with big houses and gardens that have been neglected and are sorely in need of attention. The road had once been tarred, but there were many more potholes than there was tar. There are no street names, so it was difficult to find our guesthouse. When northern Rhodesia became independent in 1964, many of the white people left. To a large extent, Indians have taken their place. We met a Sri Lankan dentist who has been living in Kitwe for more than 20 years. The white mineworkers have been replaced by locals and Chinese, who now own most of the mines.
We drove another 50 km. to Chingola to see the huge open pit mine, but we were taken on a temporary road that obscured most of the mine. The roadworks here were the worst we encountered. At times all traffic came to a complete stop for 20 minutes. From Chingola we proceeded to Mufulira. This mining town was more neglected than the others. We found what had been the synagogue and now is the Four Square Gospel Church. It is in a quiet residential street that had once been tarred, with neglected big houses and gardens. Driving along the main shopping street, I noticed on the façade of a shop in raised letters “SUSMAN,” which had been painted over. It was difficult to find a place to have a sandwich and coffee. Eventually we did, sort of.
The following day, after driving up and down the Ndola Kitwe highway, we found the turnoff to the Dag Hammarskjold memorial. The secretary general of the UN was killed when his plane crashed or was shot down in 1961, a few km. from the Congo border and Ndola Airport. He was on a peace mission for the Congo. The guide was very knowledgeable and I left there with a feeling that the British, whose colony it was at the time, were responsible for a big cover up.
On the way south, we passed Kabwe, formerly Broken Hill, which for many years had a very large lead mine. Mining ceased in 1994, but the area is full of lead dust and the water is also contaminated. Today it is considered one of the 10 most polluted places in the world.
Our next stop was Lake Kariba, the world’s largest man-made lake, with an impressive area of 5,400 km². It is on the Zambezi River and was formed when a huge dam was completed in 1959. We walked on the dam wall, which is an impressive 128 meters high and nearly 600 meters long. Besides growing extremely tasty bream fish in the dam, it also provides Zambia and Zimbabwe with most of their electricity. We stayed at a lovely hotel overlooking the dam, where five zebras run free, acting as living lawnmowers.
Apart from in the Victoria Falls area, there are very few tourists in Zambia. It is one of the most stable countries in Africa. It has never had a coup or terrorist activity, never been involved in a war and has regular elections. Nevertheless, 64% of the population earns less than a dollar a day, 14% have HIV and 40% do not have access to clean water.
There were never more than 1,400 Jews in Zambia, even though it was one of the few countries that welcomed Jews from Eastern Europe before WWII. There were synagogues in Livingstone, Lusaka and four in the copper belt. They have all been sold and today fewer than 30 Jews remain in Zambia.