John Metcalfe: Zambia

The second-placed runner-up in our Travel Writing Competition 2016, John Metcalfe is pleasantly confused in Kabwe, Zambia

By John Metcalfe
Published 2 Apr 2019, 15:31 BST, Updated 7 Jul 2021, 14:18 BST
Homemade football

Homemade football, Zambia

Photograph by Simon Bruty, ALLSPORT

"You look like Kraftwerk."


I'm startled. Not only because I don't look like any of the band members, but also that a kid of six or seven from the Kabwe slums of Zambia could have any knowledge of the Autobahn creators. It reminds me of a time when I was standing in the middle of a desert looking at a seagull looking back at me. How did it get there? How does this kid know about Kraftwerk? I shook my head to rid it of the fuddle of two days' worth of travel and bring some clarity to the situation. She repeats the statement. I look perplexed. She moves on.

And so goes my introduction to the dichotomous lifestyle of the Kabwe inhabitants. It's full of big smiles and generosity despite the chronic poverty. A panhandler pauses his pleas to answer a mobile phone. Mobile phones are everywhere and most stores have a talk-time top-up kiosk. Public transport is laboured, yet billboards are boasting fast broadband speeds. "Facebook me," I keep getting told. The football skills of the kids are amazing despite playing with a ball made from plastic bags on a pitch resembling a building site. Their passion for knowledge is insatiable despite the ad hoc learning opportunities and classroom attendances in triple figures. The sense of community is strong. Their timekeeping is shocking. The place is welcoming and intoxicating.

I stayed in Kabwe for two weeks, working alongside teachers using sport as a medium to teach life skills to school kids. Lamentably, my stay has come to an end and it's time to move on. I've learned so much and have much more to learn.

Before catching my return flight, I have a few days to spend in Livingston to check out the wildlife and Victoria Falls. The nine-hour bus drive passes surprisingly quickly. The roadside activity is distracting. I purchase a replica Zambia football shirt at a stoplight, but pass on the live chicken.

Our blowout in the middle of nowhere is mercifully repaired by a hut-dwelling tribesman. We pull into a service station where hawkers and chancers from far-flung parts of the continent mingle and ply their trades. It's an ecosystem in itself. A whole infrastructure is supported each time a vehicle pulls in. Cars are washed, goods are sold, phones are topped up, lifts and gossip are swapped. Deals are made.

I alight into the throng to briefly stretch my legs. A young boy tending a souvenir stall tugs at my T-shirt.

"You look at my craftwork?" he asks.

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