The “Smoke that Thunders”

In the hierarchy of waterfalls, Victoria Falls ranks at the very top, perhaps second only to Iguazu Falls in South America. The spray from the falls is visible from 20 km away, reason why it is called Mosi-Oa-Tunya in the local Lozi language, meaning “Smoke that Thunders”.

(Daily Times, 20 March 2013) 

The flight from Johannesburg in South Africa to Livingstone was over the vast, flat expanse of Botswana. As the plane approached this small Zambian town at the confluence of four nations, named after the great Scottish explorer and missionary, I could see the famous spray of the waterfall from my window seat. From Livingstone, Zimbabwe lies a short walk over a bridge, Botswana is only a few kilometres away, and the Caprivi Strip of Namibia is fairly close too.

Like the Wakhan corridor in the northeast of Afghanistan, resembling a swan’s neck, which was carved out as a buffer between British India (now northwest Pakistan) and Tsarist Russia (later Soviet Union, now Tajikistan), the Caprivi Strip is a geographical anomaly. A narrow strip of land, 450 km long, the shape of a gun pointed at Namibia’s head, it was “given” by Britain to Germany at the Berlin Conference of 1890 in order to allow Germany access from its colony of Namibia to Tanganyika (now Tanzania). In return, Germany abandoned any claim to Zanzibar in favour of the British.

This was a time when the “scramble for Africa” was in full swing and the fate of African lands – and their rulers and subjects – was decided by European statesmen in European capitals. A pitiless colonial scramble for the resources of Africa was clothed in a respectable name, “the white man’s burden”.  Beginning in 1881, the European powers were competing with each other to seize lands in Africa using their military and naval might before which Africans were utterly helpless. By the time they were finished, or rather interrupted by the First World War, only two African countries had escaped colonization, Liberia and Ethiopia.

Livingstone was the first capital of Zambia, which was then known as Northern Rhodesia (as opposed to Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe). After a period of neglect and decline, it is thriving again on account of the tourists who come here in large numbers to see the magnificent Victoria Falls.  The spray from the falls is visible from 20 km away, reason why it is called Mosi-Oa-Tunya in the local Lozi language, meaning “Smoke that Thunders”.

A landlocked country nearly one thousand kilometres from the ocean, Zambia is named after the Zambezi river and rather oddly-shaped like a contorted figure 8 or a seahorse, almost split in two by a dagger-like penetration of the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Belgian Congo, later Zaire).  This is yet another evidence of African borders being defined by the colonial scramble, not by the logic of nationhood, tribal affinities, geographical compactness or plain common sense.

In the hierarchy of waterfalls, Victoria Falls ranks at the very top, perhaps second only to Iguazu Falls in South America.  Of the three top-ranking falls (Niagara Falls being the third), Victoria has the highest drop, 107 metres, compared to 80 metres for Iguazu and 58 metres for Niagara Falls.  Victoria also is the widest uninterrupted waterfall, with a width of 1.7 km, compared to 0.67 km for Niagara Falls.  If total width is taken into account, Iguazu takes the lead at 2.7 km, but it is broken into 270 separate falls.

My motel in Livingstone was very artistically conceived.  With straw roof and other trappings of a Zambian village, it blended well with the environment and gave visitors a feel of Africa.  Fitted with all modern amenities, well maintained and very competently staffed, it was owned and managed by a Zambian-Indian couple who also ran an Indian restaurant across the street. My room didn’t come cheap but it made for a very pleasant stay.

The bus to the Zambian capital Lusaka from Livingstone takes 6-7 hours along a good road.  All along the highway, there are lush green fields on either side interspersed with typically African round huts and the occasional patch of ant-hills as high as a meter or two. Near to the villages and on bends in the road, colourfully dressed local women stand patiently, next to locally produced vegetables, fruits and handicrafts for sale.

The main intercity bus stand in Lusaka is small and compact.  Bus bays are equipped with fixed steel ladders, which overhang above the bus roof, a reminder of the times when the luggage had to be lifted and stored on top.  These days most buses come with luggage rooms in their bellies, so to speak. Buses leave in every direction from here, including cities in neighbouring countries.

Situated at an elevation of 1,300 meters, Lusaka is a pleasant city. Its main avenue, Cairo Road, is broad, attractive and sprightly, showing obvious signs of economic expansion. But the real magnet for me was the Soweto market, just one block behind Cairo Road.  In this colourful, noisy and bustling bazaar, I saw mushrooms the size of umbrella canopies.  More than a meter in diameter, this mushroom is native to Zambia and grows nowhere else.

Soweto is no exception to the general African rule that selling in bazaars is women’s business. So disgusted by this practice was Thomas Sankara, who seized power in Burkina Faso (formerly Upper Volta) in a coup in 1983, that he designated a day when no woman was to be seen selling or even buying in the bazaars in his small West African country. Sankara decreed that it was to be an all-men’s day at every bazaar in Burkina Faso.

The 33-year old Sankara also outlawed polygamy, female genital mutilation and forced marriage. Sometimes called “Africa’s Che Guevara”, he was shot dead in another military coup four years later. That day still seems far off when the rural women of Burkina Faso, Zambia and the rest of Africa can find some relief from the daily grind of every conceivable chore under the sky and more, let alone getting rid of male oppression and exploitation.

I did not have the time to visit Zambia’s remote Luangwa Valley, home to four national parks and called the “honey pot of Zambia”. Sixty animal species, including elephants, lions, giraffes and the world’s largest concentration of hippos, are to be found in this 52,000 sq km valley.

It was time for me to cross the bridge into the Zimbabwean town of Victoria Falls to see the “Smoke that Thunders” from the other side.

By Razi Azmi


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3 Responses to The “Smoke that Thunders”

  1. Adnan khan says:

    For some reason I always thought that Livingstone
    Was in Zimbabwe , whereas it was in Zambia. Very
    Informative article …

    • Razi Azmi says:

      Victoria Falls is along the border, so it can be viewed from both sides (Zambia/Zimbabwe), just like Niagara Falls (USA/Canada) and Iguazu Falls (Brazil/Argentina).

  2. Mir Mohammad Ali Talpur says:

    Respected Razi Sahib your pieces are always a treat. They give mountains of information and tons of insight.
    The loot still continues in all continents but methods have changed. The burden of colonialism will never lighten. The arbitary divisions left this world in tatters and darning these is difficult.
    Thank you once again.

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