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Notes on the Geography of Zambia: Victoria Falls and Livingstone

David Livingstone was the first European to see the great falls on the Zambezi, and so the town established on the left bank of the river was named for him. It has kept his name, as he, more than most other white men of his generation, has kept his respect among Africans. Despite a population well over 100,000, Livingstone feels like a small place, perhaps because it would take a mighty place indeed to look important next to the waterfall.

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Open ground a few miles west of town.

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It would be great if we could say, "See, this is Africa." The reality is that we're within the guarded Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park. That's the "Smoke That Thunders" park, a African name for the waterfall.

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It's a peaceful place, so long as you're not prey.

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And here's the Zambezi, with an island on the right and some of the "smoke that thunders" in the distance.

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Watch your step.

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This is February, not quite peak flow, but already the spray is much too great for anyone to see the whole length of the fall unless they're airborne. You can hear it, though.

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There are raincoats for rent, though getting wet feels good in the otherwise hot sun.

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Amazing that the camera lens didn't drown.

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Not bad for a website with the world's most mediocre photography.

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The mist rises like inverted rain.

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Downstream a few hundred yards is the Victoria Falls Bridge, built in the UK, shipped to Mozambique's Beira, brought here by rail, then reassembled. It opened in 1905. The story is that Rhodes asked that it be built close enough to the falls for passengers to feel the spray. They rarely if ever did; nor did Rhodes, who died in 1902. He never even saw the falls.

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The deck, originally double-tracked, was widened 13 feet in 1930 and modified to make room for a walkway and a roadway.

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The view upstream from the bridge.

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Downstream. Those cables are for adventure nuts.

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The bridge was not only widened in 1930 but raised five feet. The projecting platform was added still later for certified idiots.

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There's one.

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Losing his lunch.

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Accident happens, this one to an American missionary killed in 1904 by a falling rock at the falls. The stone is at the Old Drift Cemetery, near the townsite called Old Drift, established in 1898 at the site where the river was forded until the bridge was completed, at which time settlement moved in the days before the bridge. The settlement then moved to Livingstone. Which begs the question: why wasn't the track built here, across the river and above the falls? It would have obviated the need for heroic engineering, but that may just have been when Rhodes wanted.

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Here's that cemetery. There's precious little else to remind you of the Old Drift. A resident recalled that it "was a very small settlement of about a dozen white men round two or three stores right on the river bank. In the rainy season it was a swamp" (Percy M. Clark, The Autobiography of an Old Drifter, 1936, p. 123).

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A stone on the site. The choice of the new townsite was up to the British South Africa Company, which would continue to rule here until 1923. The company chose a site five miles north of the falls, inconvenient for tourists but on higher, drier ground, free from cholera and with fewer mosquitoes than the Old Drift, where many had died from blackwater fever, a virulent malaria. Malaria had been shown in India just a few years earlier to be transmitted by the Anopheles mosquito, and word traveled fast. By 1908, an "Old Drifter recalled that mosquitoes at the abandoned settlement had been "energetic and indiscriminating; the loafer and the lord on a hunting expedition are treated with strict impartiality--for the mosquito is a democrat, and cursed is he who forgetteth his quinine o' nights, for the shakes and the vomiting shall surely affect him" (quoted in Clark, p. 180).

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We've gone into the new town and come to St. Andrew's Anglican Church, opened in 1911, the year that Livingstone became the capital of Northern Rhodesia. Awfully plain, you say? According to Kristin Ese, the church originally had Dutch gables, but they began to crack and were removed in the 1930s. (See her An Historical Guide to Livingstone Town, published by the Livingstone Tourism Association, 1996).

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The town's white population at the time was 300, mostly employed either in the government or by the railroad. There were about a thousand Africans, but they were confined to one of several "compounds" (the Railway Compound, the Maramba Compound, the Lubuyi Compound, and others). All were on the east side of the railroad track, while Europeans lived on the west side. The town would grow by 1951 to include 2,300 Europeans and an estimated 18,000 Africans, but the residential segregation persisted. (See Merran McCulloch, "A Social Survey of the African Population of Livingstone," a paper published as a Rhodes-Livingstone Institute in 1956.)

How intense was racism here? Consider this comment by an American anthropologist visiting Northern Rhodesia in 1953. She came to Luwingu and met the local District Commissioner, "a tall, blonde, intensely serious man, in his late thirties or early forties, born in India where his father was in the Civil Service." The description continues: "He seemed to have stepped out of the pages of Kipling. When he was showing me around the station, I was startled to see an African throw himself on the ground, lie on his back and softly clap his hands together, the traditional greeting of a Bemba man to his chief. It was the most servile, obsequious gesture I had ever seen. The D.C. took it as his due. He thought has was born to command. Fearless, sure of his racial 'superiority' and of the rightness of his role in carrying 'the white man's burden,' he knew no doubts." (Hortense Powdermaker, Friends and Strangers, 1966, p. 244.)

The observation may say as much about Powdermaker's sensitivity as it does about the D.C., and there were certainly Northern Rhodesians who believed the British should go home. This church, for example, is on John Hunt Way, named for a local curio trader who died in 1962, two years before independence. It was named for him some years after his death because he had helped those fighting for independence.

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A plaque inside the church. Broken Hill is now Kabwe. So the choice of the quotation (from Psalm 126) means that the British saw their work in the empire as arduous but righteous. Right?

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Wonders of the internet! Five minutes digging yields the tidbits that Clough was christened in Jamaica in 1872 and passed the bar exam in London in 1894.

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What's on Livingstone's main street, Mosi-o-Tunya Road, formerly Mainway? Opened in 1930, it housed the Standard Bank of South Africa until 1995, when it became the Finance Bank of Zambia.

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Stanley House was built in 1928 by the Public Service Association, a merchants' cooperative. It housed Barclays Bank and a jewelry store. Only white-owned businesses were allowed on this street until the 1940s; Indian-owned businesses were then allowed on the condition that they sell only to whites.

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The original owner of this theater, Solomon Grill, opened a theater a block away in 1919. He opened this one a few years before the capital was moved to Lusaka. It had a balcony and even two boxes, but the timing wasn't great. Closed for a while, the theater was restored about 2009 and then reopened.

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Post-war simplicity verging on austerity.

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Parallel to the main street, but one block east, is Kuta Way, formerly Queensway but informally Bombay Alley. This was the town's designated Second Class shopping district, where the merchants were Indians and the customers mostly Africans.

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Construction here was dirt simple.

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More of the same, with a gesture toward shade.

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Can you imagine colors like this in 1910? Not a prayer. Older photos show the building in white, and in fact the building was called the "white corner building." Until 1930, the tenant was the Standard Bank.

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What's hiding behind the street vendors on Zambezi Street formerly Fairway?

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There you go: it's the defunct North Western Hotel from 1907, in business as a hotel until 1991 and now listed as a historical monument. (Anything built before 1924, when the Colonial Office took over the administration of Northern Rhodesia, is officially classified as part of Zambia's protected "Ancient Heritage.")

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The Duke and Duchess of Connaught visited in 1910, and to mark their visit a high court was built of wood and iron; it was replaced by this building in 1924.

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Davidson Avenue, still so called after the town's first mayor, Robert Davidson, who was an Old Drifter. It's as good a relic of the British as you could find in Livingstone. Where does it lead?

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To here.

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One side.

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Another.

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Speaking of mortality, this building until 1972 was a synagogue, its foundation stone laid in 1928. With the dispersion of the Jewish community, the synagogue closed and the sefer torah sent to Lusaka. A star of David, formerly embossed in the square under the central bracket, can barely be made out still.

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Go for a hike in the town cemetery and what do you find?

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A walled enclosure for some of the members of that synagogue.

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One of the tombstones.

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Meanwhile the tourists need to be housed.

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And catered to at the high end with the Royal Livingstone Express. It doesn't go very far, but it does stop sometimes on the bridge. It also runs backwards for several miles, so that these riders are actually at the front of the train.

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Puff, puff, puff: here comes the locomotive, marked to indicate Zambezi Sawmills Railways, a short line built about 1920. The country needed timber, and this railway, which extended to Mulobezi, about 100 miles to the northwest, got it.

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Momentarily stopped to pick up butter for dinner (no joke).

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From the pedestrian bridge over the tracks in town, you can see not only some concrete ties, resistant to insects, but also, straight ahead, the "smoke that thunders."

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There's a rail museum in town, too, and it has a nice collection of Garratt engines. The letters do not indicate "rail road" but rather Rhodesian Railways. Over a hundred of that company's engines were Garretts, able to bend around tight curves and especially good on narrow-gauge tracks like those in southern Africa. In 1967 the portion of the company operating in Zambia became Zambian Railways; in the next year, Zambezi Sawmills Railways was nationalized.

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A conventional locomotive.

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Don't blame the museum. The locomotives of the Zambezi Sawmills were typically painted in bright colors.


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