Friday, 7 November 2014

Mbala: A place Steeped in Rich History, Myth




Chief Zombe sipping the traditional beer during the Mutomolo ceremony in Mbala.

By Jack Zimba
A STREAM of water spouts off a cliff and plunges 221 metres, breaking into a misty shower as it crushes into the rocks at the floor of the gorge.
From the viewing posts on the cliff, which are built like balconies in a skyscraper, the river below looks no wider than a small furrow as it flows westward snaking between the interlocking mountains and disappearing under a lush of undisturbed vegetation.
Somewhere in the nearby trees that have stubbornly grown through the rock crevices on the mountain-side, a family of baboons plays noisily, the barking calls of the males bouncing off the vertical walls of the gorge that bear marks of a giant chisel.
This is the majestic beauty of the Kalambo Falls, situated 36 kilometres north of Mbala town in Northern Province.
Mbala town itself is a place steeped in such rich history, it is like a drive-in museum, dotted with 19th Century buildings built by the British colonialists, including a hotel and prison.
Mbala is also a land of firsts. It was here in 1913 that the first plane landed in this part of the world on what was then one of only three airports in Africa. The other two were located in Cairo, Egypt and in Cape Town, South Africa.
The town is also littered with many remnants of both world wars, including trenches and fox holes used by both the British and German armies. On the main street, there is a monument erected in honour of the German soldiers who surrendered to the British army after the defeat of Hitler’s army that also marked the end of the Second World War.
And every Friday, a decommissioned German ship from the First World War era – renamed MV Liemba – docks at Mpulungu Harbour 40 kilometres from Mbala, carrying an army of traders between Tanzania and Zambia.
But Mbala is also a place of myths. Even Lake Chila, a sizeable water body situated at the edge of the town, is believed to have been formed by some magical power.
And then there is a mythical snake called itiya, a horned blood-sucking serpent that is believed to possess magical powers, killing people by an electric bolt and bringing fortune to those that are able to master it.
The Kalambo Falls, too, is thought to possess mystical powers and back in the old days before Christianity took root in this area, human sacrifice is believed to have taken place here. Each year, a woman with a baby strapped to her back would jump off the cliff to her death in a ritual to appease the gods.
But this majestic natural wonder has no mystical powers. No, it is simply breath-taking, with the second-highest drop on the continent.
And not every beautiful creature is mythical in this place; Mbala has many interesting snake and bird species. There are rock pythons rumoured to be as large as the Amazonian anaconda. Boomslungs and the dreadful black mamba can also be found here.
A few years ago, ostriches roamed freely in these forests. Today, however, there is no trace of the large flightless bird. The largest fowl you are bound to come across is the great hornbill.
Northern Zambia, Mbala included, is also a land of rivers. Several rivers and streams crisscross everywhere charged by a rainy season that is longer than in the rest of the country. And here it does not rain, it pours.
Yes, there are many who believe the beauty of northern Zambia is unmatched, surpassing that of the country’s tourist capital, Livingstone, and maybe they are right.
But if the Kalambo Falls is so majestic, then why is there no road leading to it?
The road that leads to the falls is no road at all,in the strictest sense of the word, but a bush track which cannot accommodate two vehicles side-by-side and offers a grueling ride.
Parts of the road are actually impassable to small cars, with loose stones that make driving dangerous.
And if Mbala is so rich in history, then why is it so underdeveloped even compared to its neighbouring port town, Mpulungu, which now has a new network of neat asphalt roads on its rolling hills?
Despite its rich heritage, Mbala remains a backwater place. A town stuck in history and haunted by ethereal serpents. And it may be facing stiff competition.
Across Kalambo River is Tanzania’s newly-created district of Kalambo. From a certain vantage point on the Zambian side, a small cluster of buildings can be seen.
Many locals in Mbala are watching developments on the other side of the border with a lot of unease. There is genuine fear that the new district will soon surpass Mbala in terms of development, and possibly grab all tourist visits to the Kalambo Falls. The two neighbouring countries share this natural wonder.
But there is also a growing threat to the Kalambo Falls caused by human activities, especially across the border.
There is a marked difference between the vegetation on the Zambian side and across the border. Actually, with a little bit of determination, one can count the trees still standing on the mountainside in Tanzania.
And not that the people on this side of the border are wiser with their natural resources. Drive on the rugged road leading to the falls and you will come across a number of charcoal kilns – either recently built or freshly harvested.
Or you will come across a clearing, old-growth trees felled in the name of chitemene, a primitive agriculture system still practiced by some people here.
A few more years and there will be nothing to distinguish the two sides of the border.
Some water bodies in the area, such as Lake Chila, are already suffering the effects of deforestation. The lake has receded several metres from the shoreline due to siltation caused by human activity around it.
There are reports of Tanzanians coming by boat to cut down trees along Lake Tanganyika to make charcoal, which they transport back to Tanzania where it is prized. Some of the charcoal is believed to reach markets as far as Dar es Salaam.
According to Chief Zombe, in whose chiefdom the Kalambo Falls is situated, some locals are colluding with Tanzanians in the illicit charcoal trade. He wants the Government to increase patrols through the forestry department to curb the scourge.
But there is even a grander proposal to save these forests: turning huge tracks of land around the falls into a game park. This will also increase tourist visits.
Hobby Simuchile is a devoted bird-watcher who moves with an encyclopedia on African birds that weighs a kilogramme and becomes animated at the sight of even the smallest bird. He says Mbala has more bird species than the Kafue flats.
Mr Simuchile, who is also an economist, believes the area around the falls can easily be restocked with game and turned into a park offering ecotourism.
“As you can see, there are only a few households here and they can easily be moved to another place,” he said as we drove by homesteads of mud-plastered huts.
There are also calls to transform the military air base in the town to cater for civilian planes and shorten travel time to Zambia’s northernmost district. Mbala is 1,080 kilometres from Lusaka.
Dr Mathias Mpande, who is also one of the chiefs of the Mambwe people in the district, says allowing civilian planes to use the airport is cardinal to developing tourism in the district. Decades ago, the airport at Mbala served both military and civilian purposes.
There are also proposals to turn the area around Lake Chila into a mini-park to help rejuvenate it.
One of the locals who has made a meaningful investment in the hospitality industry in the district is Geoffrey Chella, who has a 20-bed lodge on the shores of Lake Chila.
He, too, thinks the tourist numbers would increase significantly if the military airport was opened to civilian planes.
“I have interviewed many of the guests who come to stay at this lodge and one of the things they usually complain about is distance. It would be easier if they flew in from Lusaka,” he says.
Some of the guests Mr Chella receives at his Lake Chila Lodge are Britons and Germans trying to retrace the battles of the two world wars.
He says the government should also rehabilitate the road leading to Kasaba Bay, a beautiful resort on the shores of Lake Tanganyika made famous by former President Kenneth Kaunda who used it as a retreat location.
But there are grand plans to transform Mbala into an education centre of sorts.
Three private universities are already earmarked for the district. Perhaps things are looking up for Mbala.

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