Zambia is a former British colony, so they say “tarmac” here instead of “road.” Instead of “pants,” it’s “trousers.” “Pants” are underwear. British English is just about as foreign to me as Bemba.
A road, I mean, a tarmac, is a big deal in Zambia. It’s not like in the U.S. where there are paved expressways and avenues and lanes leading to every possible destination or diversion a person could think of. In America, you can gaze off at a scenic mountain vista, purchase and consume a hamburger, and drive right into your house without once leaving your car. In Zambia, roads outside of metropolitan areas are far and few between and the closest thing to drive-through is when you stop on the side of the road for a pee break and a dozen women descend upon the bus trying to force pieces of fruit or fish or fried chicken through your window.
The first thing you’re likely to notice when you travel in Zambia is that there are people along the sides of the tarmac here. A ridiculous amount of people. 90% of the population does not own a vehicle, so every road is a de facto pedestrian highway. The ratio of vehicle traffic to foot traffic is so low that children sitting and playing in the middle of the asphalt is a common sight, and drivers lean constantly on their horns as they run a harrowing gauntlet of wobbling bikes, bleating goats, and casually oblivious pedestrians.
In my part of the country, there’s exactly one road servicing a section of the province 50 kilometers long and about as many kilometers wide. Most people live in villages clustered along the tarmac and walk or bike along dirt bush paths which splinter off in various directions. Three kilometers to the west is the Luapula River, the border between Zambia and the Congo, where many of the men in my community fish. To the east is hectares and hectares of kumpanga, the “bush” or undeveloped land where villagers travel up to 10 kilometers to reach family plots where they farm cassava and maize.
Motorized vehicles do make appearances sometimes, ranging from the occasional late-model BMW (always a shock to see in a place where the average rural Zambian family lives on less than $1.00 per day) to minibuses crammed to the gills to flatbed semi trucks transporting cargo and invariably also a handful of people and a small flock of goats at the same time.
But motokas are infrequent occurrences; I’ve waited well over an hour without seeing a single car pass by. So what really gives Zambian roads their distinct cultural flavor are the non-vehicular traffic they convey. Including, frequently, the wayward goat or chicken.