The sweat from my palms soaked the steering wheel as the tense muscles in my hip throbbed. My body was on edge and had been for the entirety of the drive south. Upon arriving in Zambia, I’d been informed by my family that I would be the one responsible for driving our rental car. Ordinarily not a big deal, but it was my first time driving on the opposite side of the road and in a non-North American country. The roads in the Luapula Province of northern Zambia did little to allay my fears. Many are paved, but in such a poor state of repair that there are no such things as lanes. In truth, you spend at least one third of most drives with one (or both) tires off the road, the car at a 25 degree angle while zig-zaging between potholes large enough to swallow a small tank. The scrape of the car’s undercarriage is a constant reminder that you zig-ed when you should have zag-ed. By itself that might not be so bad, but then add in large freight haulers and buses that race along the roads at high speed. And if that is not enough, add in head-height grass which lines many of the roads and conceals everything and everyone. My eyes constantly scanned the road for potholes with quick glance at my rear view mirror in search of large trucks bearing down on me. Then back to the sides of the road where I diligently watched for erratic movement from the veritable army of goats, small children, old grandmothers, and bicyclists who use the roads as walking paths and have a tendency to dart into traffic. Despite constant and nearly un-blinking vigilance I found myself forced to slam on the brakes to avoid people and things at the last moment.
As I turned the key off and the car stilled I let out an audible sigh of relief. Somehow I’d gotten us to a small guest house along the shores of Lake Bangweulu just outside of Samfya. As I sat in the driver’s seat collecting myself, I wiped my hands on my jeans leaving dark streaks of sweat. Finally, I allowed myself to take in my surroundings. The parallel-parking spot I had pulled into faced out onto what looked like a small sea. In reality, it was a sprawling lake.
As we settled into great little rooms that opened out onto a small sand beach and a wonderful view of the lake, we all struggled with the day’s contrasts. We had started out in my brother’s small mud brick and thatch hut. A building that is a lovely and cozy place but which lacks electricity or running water and has a small outhouse located behind it. Now, a few hours drive away, we were back on the grid with semi-reliable power, running water, and perhaps most importantly western flush toilets. It made for a powerful contrast which set the stage for the rest of the evening.
My brother David is a Peace Corps volunteer and he had brought us to Lake Bangweulu to see the sunset. I’ll confess that as a big fan of sunsets, I wasn’t entirely sure why the multi-hour drive south had been worth the pleasure of a simple sunset. Still, he was our guide, the local expert, and it was hard not to be won over by the prospect of a real bed and a cold beer.
As the sun began to set and the early twilight of late afternoon settled over the lake, it quickly became apparent why the sunset was worth the drive. Lake Bangweulu is known as the place where the water meets the sky. It is an aptly chosen nickname for this unusual body of water. More than 70km by 40km in size, the lake’s depth averages about four meters and fluctuates more than a meter between Zambia’s dry and rainy seasons. During our visit in the midst of the dry season the lake still stretched beyond the horizon.
Just beyond a small fence at the end of the beach, we watched as a group of children washed dishes, did laundry, and then set to fishing. The children, some barely old enough to walk, participated in chores. The older children kept close eyes on their younger brothers and sisters though I doubt the oldest was more than 10. There’s a certain responsibility among the young Zambian children that I found incredible to watch … a certain level of maturity that most western children twice their age lack. Perhaps the most powerful of which were the (slightly) older sisters who diligently took care of, disciplined, and watched over their 2 and 4 year-old siblings with great care and competency.
Shortly after the children finished their bath and their chores, they wandered back up the bank. A young woman and her son waded down and out into the reeds with bamboo fishing poles. With the poise, elegance, and stillness of a heron they carefully raised and lowered their poles, gently jigging and probing the reeds for fish. Their patience and control reminded me in many ways of the street performers who pose as human statues, perfectly still and seemingly lifeless before moving smoothly to the shock and surprise of those passing by.
In one last rush before the sunset stole the remaining light, a near constant flow of chitenge-clad women atop reed and dugout wooden canoes made their way past us. Some used push poles to take advantage of the lake’s shallow depths while others had rough-hewn wooden paddles attached to long poles which they used from a standing position.
The weather was perfect. The wind was still which left the lake with a glass-like surface and the air was thick with the haze of pale gray smoke from local controlled burns. By day the late afternoon sky was devoid of clouds but boasted the moon and later the bright glow of a nearby planet. The horizon itself quickly faded away, lost and indistinguishable from the lake’s smooth waters. I’ve never seen a sunset that was able to so perfectly blend water and sky. The combination of gentle smokey haze, mirror-perfect water, and clear skies accomplished the unbelievable. What was left were strange little boats that seemed to have taken flight to float among the clouds. The sort of strange and mystical spectacle that one might see in movies of far-off places and imaginary lands – but never in the real world. Then the color changed. The soft blue-gray transitioned into a multi-spectrum rainbow centered along the horizon. The sky’s dark blues re-emerged while the waves reflected the violets and purples of the next stage of the sunset.
Then as the sun approached the horizon the violets deepened and transitioned into oranges and golden hues as the smoke served as a filter that split off the sun’s otherwise harsh rays and left it visible to the naked eye as a glowing red orb.
I’m not sure how long the sunset lasted, I suspect close to 30 minutes. It’s hard to tell though, as every 5 minutes it seamed to drastically change. The colors would shift, the haze would lift, the sun would slip into a smoke bank, or one of the local fishing boats would slowly cut their way across the horizon and in so doing add a new perspective and human element.
As we sat on the beach enjoying a local Zambian beer I couldn’t help but feel an emotional connection to the area. One brought about and highlighted so beautifully by the sunset. It was a thing of contrasts, just as Zambia and Sub-Saharan Africa is a place of similarly extreme contrasts. It can be a profoundly harsh place, but it is also a warm and welcoming place with its own element of profound hospitality. A trip to the heart of Africa, one that takes you into authentic Africa, beyond the walled compounds and neatly pitched tents of safaris and large cities is a must. It will change you by infusing you with a new perspective and understanding. It will give you a renewed respect for all nature has to provide, a deep sense of awe, and an opportunity to connect at a deep level with people who live vastly different lives.
When we set out for Samfya to watch the sunset, I expected a few minutes of transient natural beauty. A wonderful thing, but something that hardly seemed likely to offset the hours of anxious and uncomfortable driving required to get there. As often happens in these types of situations, I was not only wrong but met with an incredibly rich experience that was one of the gems of my visit to Africa. I’d place the sunset in my top 5 and will forever have its beauty and the wonderful musings that accompanied it burned into who I am and how I see the world.