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A Zambian Diary

I have been travelling to Zambia for about 10 years now but, strangely, what drew me here was Somerset. When I bought my house (actually one half of an old double-gabled house) in 2006, I thought I had come away as far as was possible from the metal trade.

But, on the first day, speaking to my neighbour over the fence, she said she was a teacher and about to ‘pack the kids off to Mufulira’. She naturally thought I would not know what she was on about. But she had not banked on the fact that ‘Mufulira’ was one of the first brands of copper I learned when I joined M.C. Brackenbury & Co in 1979. My new neighbour now told me that her school was one of several that had been twinning with their opposite numbers in the copper belt, including the poorest of the poor community schools out amongst the slag heaps. I was, at one and the same time, both curious and ashamed. Curious to find out more, and ashamed that I had managed to profit for so long from the shiny end of the metal trade without taking the trouble to visit a mining community.

After ten years of travel here – and only to the copper belt – there are things that have begun to seem like home. At Lusaka airport there is a ten tonne block of chalcopyrite ore made into a sculpture that also involves a series of copper wire bars upon which it is resting, and some rather manky looking copper cathodes.

Surely one of the best sculptures in any airport anywhere, and the first sign that this country is all about one thing – copper. The tragedy for Zambia, of course, is how little it has done for the country. In the last elections, although peaceful, following the death in office of Michael ‘Cobra’ Sata (so called because of his ability to cut someone dead with his tongue) Edgar Lungu of the same party is largely thought to have stolen the office. The Vice President, at the time of Sata’s death, was Guy Scott, the only white Vice President across the whole of Africa; affectionately known in Bemba as ‘our Musungu’. Although there was a known clause in the constitution stipulating that Scott was not permitted to accede to the Presidency, Lungu in his bid for power made sure that Scott could not even oversee the process. Many Zambians are thus convinced that the Lungu election was rigged and that he used government funds for his campaign. Certainly, out here in the copper belt, the outsize pictures of Lungu on every street corner, and the people who owe their T-shirts to the President, is the hallmark of a common demagogue anywhere.

No visit to the copper belt, though, would be complete without a trip down the mine. In my case, this is to be done with a small group of Rotarians, with whom I am travelling, and a selection of Zambian friends from the local community. For those who may not know, Glencore bought the old Mufulira mine and smelter complex, from the Zambian Government in 2000 and, renamed it ‘Mopani Copper Mines’ (MCM), after the Zambian tree of the same name. Today, Mufulira from its own mine and imported concs produces as much copper (200,000 mt) as the whole of Zambia did in 2000. But, after eight decades of incremental development going back to the British in the 1930s, and later ZCCM, the mine itself is inefficient. Through the courtesy of MCM we are guided by Mopani’s Jan Thirion down to the face at 1507 metres, where he points out that the ore will travel in a circuitous route to be conveyed to the surface (at 6000 metres, four times longer than the present depth of the mine). Hence, the need for the new vertical shaft that is being sunk, and which will, by 2020, treble production, extend the life of the Mufulira mine, and bring copper direct to the surface. In further years, it will also allow MCM to reach 2000 metres down. Alongside KCMs Konkola Deep, up the road at Chingola, this is the equal deepest copper mine in Africa.

If you are going to be a proper metal tourist, though, what you are interested in is neither safaris nor beaches (and being a landlocked country the nearest one of those is probably by a waterhole in South Luangwa National Park) – no, what you really want to see is a frontier. The place I have in mind is Kasumbelesa, which is a single sclerotic artery, a thin weak thread between the untold wealth of lawless Congo and the south. Travelling north on the T3, patches of excellent road are interspersed with rutted, potholed and dusty excavations which bear a passing resemblance to mine workings; a level of dilapidation that even austerity-bound UK councils cannot compete with. The double tipper ore trucks, sporting seven rows of four wheels, heading south with beneficiated cobalt or copper ore can carry 34 mt and have been personalised with interesting names on their grilles to be speed-read as they head directly towards you trying to avoid an inconveniently placed pothole. It is therefore possible that the last thing on earth you might see coming at you could be ‘Miss Piggy’, ‘Steady Eddy’ or, in one case, ‘Road Kill’. As we reach a roundabout in Chingola, rocking from side to side in the ruts and gullies, it occurs to me to wonder whether the explosives lorry ahead with red flags is mis-described and perhaps just a maize smuggler. The price of mealie in Zambia is pegged by the government at $11 per 25 kgs bag, so is less than half the price it would fetch just across the border in the Congo, which makes it potentially a better business than Cobalt. It is perhaps one of the reasons the queue for the border starts about 5km before it, and can take anything between 3 days and two weeks to cross. About 50% of the trucks going into Congo are acid trucks, marked UN 1830, carrying sulphuric acid for leaching and SXEW (solvent extraction and electro-winning). Many in the other half carry heavy mining machinery and other hazardous oxidising materials. Overtaking the trucks, we have come as far as we can by car, so our driver abandons the vehicle just near a ditch and we walk.

It occurs to me that obstacles and queues have an economic purpose in Africa – for, wherever a journey is held up, whether it be a railway crossing or a checkpoint, so a market will form. It struck me that what I was observing was probably not unlike the Leipzig Fair in the 14th Century. At this place of apparent chaos, this meeting point in the middle of a continent, ramshackle wooden huts have been constructed along the last few km, selling freshwater whitebait, maize, peanuts, tomatoes, cucumbers, pop-corn, pumpkin leaves, honey-coloured chanterelle mushrooms or pots and pans, plastic utensils, live chickens, towers of eggs perilously balanced on heads, ice, dried fish, car parts. Backs of lorries parked up on the kerb spill their goods as traders gather in groups, women and men haggle, drawn to this great African bottle-neck from Tanzania and South Africa, Zimbabwe and Angola – not just Zambia and Congo. In this maelstrom children carry vast loads on their heads, bicycles are not used for cycling but as a means to support jute and plastic bagged weights of several hundred weight, pushed by thin hollow-eyed old men, heading once more to the border. Items are decanted into smaller units from bigger ones for premium sale, other places sell food and water to be eaten and drunk now. Ablution blocks do not appear to be provided in this makeshift town, so the ditches are full of the rankest stinking liquid (I cannot call it water) that I have ever seen or smelt in my life, where malaria and, possibly cholera, will breed.

Next time you are trading copper or shipping concentrates from Africa and have cause to worry or complain about delays, you might pause to think of this scene.

Published April 12th 2017 on


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