Political turmoil in Zimbabwe, riots in South Africa and tribal wars in Kenya has created an opportunity for politically stable Zambia to become one of Africa’s hottest tourist destinations. Zambia shares one of the world’s largest waterfalls with Zimbabwe. A UNESCO World Heritage site, Victoria Falls is a breathtaking naturally phenomena created as the Zambezi River plunges 108m into a wide chasm.
Scottish missionary David Livingstone, who named the falls in 1855, said: “scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight”.
Along the river is the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, which offers visitors the chance to spot giraffe, zebra, warthog, buffalo and antelope but the park lacks the big cats that prowl the South Luangwa National Park and the Lower Zambezi.
It hasn’t stopped luxury operators from opening high-end wilderness lodges along the Zambezi River near Victoria Falls. Most are boutique lodges catering to small numbers of guests.
Fortunately, some lodge operators are aware of the role ecotourism plays in preserving the environment and are providing support to local communities.
My visit to Simonga Village, 18km from Livingstone, was an eye opener.
Founded in 1958, the village is home to around 3000 villagers of the Lozi tribe, one of Zambia’s 73 tribal groups.
The Lozi migrated to western Zambia in the 17th century from a region that is now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo.
For several years, luxury safari lodge, The River Club, in conjunction with Wilderness Safaris Wildlife Trust, has supported projects in the village.
These projects are funded by the donations of lodge guests and range from sponsoring students and teachers, by providing school supplies and books, to constructing a school library, digging wells and building a police post.
I’m made aware of the project during a stay at Sussi & Chuma Lodge, which is an upmarket lodge with 12 luxury tree houses by the river.
When I visited a few years ago, lodge guests were encouraged to visit Simonga village but the lodge has since established a philanthropy project at Nakatindi Village.
Zambia responsible tourism
The villagers in Simonga Village are mainly farmers who grow sorghum and sweet potatoes, herd cows, goats, chickens and donkeys.
Through bartering among themselves, they are usually self-sufficient for food. But during heavy rains, when the yield is poor, times can get difficult.
There is no plumbing or electricity and no western medical services.
As the nearest hospital is in Livingstone, the traditional healer, who prescribes herbs from her mud hut, is visited often.
To fight Zambia’s malaria problem, an outreach programme provides anti-malaria tablets, sleeping nets for pregnant women and heavily subsidised sleeping nets for everyone else.
Before 1998 the villagers fetched water from the Zambezi River (2.5 kilometres away) but thanks to a 30m bore installed by a Japanese company, clean water is available right there in Simonga village.
The tribal greeting is a ritual handshake and hand clap. It’s one of the interesting aspects of their culture.
Another cultural difference is that, unlike many other African tribes, the Lozi are monogamous.
Marriage is an expensive business for men. A prospective bridegroom is required to pay a dowry of at least one cow, which is worth around US$200, as well as cash of US$20 to $40.
Most Lozi select their own partners and after a year of courting, an uncle or an aunt is chosen to lead dowry negotiations.
A walk around the village is an eye-opener. The huts are mud and thatch with rough tree trunks as beams.
Barefoot children, sporting beaded afro hairstyles, tag along laughing and giggling. Women sit on the dusty ground plaiting each other’s hair while young mothers nurse crying babies.
Another group of cheerful children take turns to pump water from a well.
They may not own the latest iPhone or Playstation but what’s there not to be happy about?
Here, clean water is more precious than the newest electronic gadget.
Education about preserving the environment starts at the village school, which has around 400 students and 14 teachers.
Painted on the school wall is a sign that promotes environmental conservation. Although education in Zambia is compulsory it isn’t free.
The average cost to educate a first grader is around US$50 a year rising up to US$500 a year for grade 12.
It’s extraordinarily expensive considering the average income is only US$1200 a year.
Music in the village
We follow the sound of singing to a simple thatched hut furnished with rough timber benches.
The choir members of the New Apostolic Church are eager to demonstrate their repertoire of hymns.
Villagers who are not members of this church’s congregation belong to one of the other seven Christian denominations in the village including Roman Catholic, United Church of Zambia, Jehovah’s Witness or Seventh-day Adventist.
Our tour leads us through backyards where metal cooking pots bubble on outdoor stoves. Women sit on floor mats while men perch on stools with the boys at their feet, eating lunch together.
The staple diet is maize porridge eaten three times a day with sugar and milk for breakfast or with dried fish and spinach at other times.
As we exit the village, I realise the most valuable asset is unshakable hope for a better future.
I feel richer for the opportunity to glean an insight into their lives, which is a world apart from our own.
If you loved this story, watch this video to learn how Sir Richard Branson’s Kenyan safari camp is helping the Maasai.
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