More desert and grasslands. I imagined the entire continent to be more like what I saw in countless wildlife documentaries where deserts and savannahs are predominately featured. In fact, there are enormous river systems, forests and jungles, and while deserts do make up much of some countries' landscape, it is a minority. I love geography... how could I have been so naive? I'm embarrassed.
|I thought I'd see more open plains like what is shown here. Nope, there are huge forests and the entire continent is not one large waterless place.|
Animals! Like I said, I had watched a lot of wildlife documentaries and those never showed cities - just animals on the plains. Certainly there are a lot of things that Africa is, then there are a lot of things that Africa is not. Africa is not a single country or one large landscape full of game animals. It is not lions chasing impalas, zebras meandering through the grasslands at a leisurely pace, or elephants wallowing in a mud hole. It's pretty far from that. Africa, like everywhere else man has deemed suitable for a blessed life, is divided up into tracts of land.
|The wide open expanses that I expected to see filled with animals are a small percentage of actual land usage.|
I know, it makes me sad too. I prefer the animal-laden version of what Africa is as compared to the reality of its reduced herds and sparse animal populations.
|Due to poaching, lax regulations and enforcement, and the need for space people have reduced the animal populations (of all species) greatly throughout the entire continent - especially in Zambia.|
Bad roads all over. In some areas that I've been this is definitely true. I won't deny that, but in other areas the roads are nicer than what we have here in the Midwest. South Africa and Namibia have great roads. Botswana too. I imagined them being pock marked and shattered, but that's not always the case.
Big cities and villages. I never expected so many small towns all over the place (Kalomo, Pemba, Zimba, Mufumbwe, Mbala to name just a few). Yes, I knew of Nairobi, Dar es Salaam, Cape Town and other big cities, but I thought the rest would largely be villages. In fact, there are a ton of small and medium-sized towns spread all over. That was sheer ignorance on my part, but I've learned and I've stopped in as many of these towns as I could.
|This photo of a mother and her child was taken near the town of Mbabala. It's on a map and although it isn't as large as Lusaka it certainly isn't a village either.|
I did not expect...
How Westernized Africa already is. (Yes, this is sheer ignorance. I first came to the continent in 2008 - well over a century after the explorers of Livingstone-lore has already taken survey of much of the continent). Lusaka has a couple of KFCs, a new Pizza Hut - with pizza that tastes just like the American chain, three movie theaters, and the rumor mill says that Dominoes is on its way to Zambia's capital.
Africa is booming and Westernization is one of its most effective methods. I, honestly, expected a more traditional feel in the cities than what is actually there. It's far from an absolute American feel in the cities, but with the hustle and bustle some cities like Ndola, Kitwe and Lusaka are strikingly similar in many aspects.
The type of agriculture here. I knew there would be agriculture - I wasn't that stupid, but I didn't realize how expansive it would be. This is the place where during my childhood famines and droughts were about the only news we received from Africa (I remember the covers of TIME and Newsweek portraying hungry Somali and Ethiopian children). I thought it would be more meager types of agricultural systems because of the droughts - where people are mainly growing their food with none remaining to sell - but instead there are farmers stepping up into new socioeconomic classes and improving their lives, and African agriculture looks to be an important area in which the world will produce its food during the next few decades.
|Here, local farmers - mainly women - listen to a talk by one of the government's extension officers. African agriculture covers a wide-array of sizes: small-scale to large commercial/industrial farms.|
How happy people are. Ignorance, AGAIN! It's called the Dark Continent (incorrectly, I'd now happily point out), so I wasn't expecting so much hope, happiness, and hospitality. I was completely wrong and over seven years later I'm still sometimes taken aback by how open and inviting most people are here. In the US I'd go to Walmart if I was having a bad day, take a look at those around me and think, "My day's not so bad, at least I'm not him, her, them" and so on. Here, I simply say hello to a passerby on the street, receive a reply, and that often does the trick. It's surprising the power that a smile and a hello have.
|Norman, with two of my friends (Caleb and Hannah), was one of my favorite Zambian pals. Caleb and Hannah made him a certificate that certified him (according to them) as the best taxi-driver in all of Lusaka.|
The music isn't good - - it's great. Drumbeats late at night are one of my favorite memories from Zambia. Often the rhythms were paired with singing by the village's women and men. Without the escape of television late at night, people in the village would sometimes sing in-between bouts of gossip. The vocals were fantastic, even without knowing what they were crooning about.
|Local women playing drums at a village wedding.|
And, as for mainstream music - read that to mean music that Americans may know - Zambia has that too. I went to a concert once in the capital with a couple of friends where Hugh Masekela and Oliver Mtukudzi (both have toured in the US on numerous occasions) played and I think that must have been one of the best concerts I had ever been to in my life. Although neither of them are from Zambia, they're both regional talents that have made it big abroad.
|Mtukudzi (left) is from Zimbabwe, just across the border from Zambia. While Masekela (right) is from South Africa, but used to live in Zambia during the time of the apartheid regime in South Africa.|
I'm proud of my time spent here. In total, I've spent some 44 months (just 4 months shy of 4 years) of my 20's in Kenya, Zambia, South Africa and a few other nations along the way. Looking back and thinking about what I thought Africa must be like like causes me to shake my head - how could I have been so ignorant?! - but it also makes me glad to think that I've been able to discover it some for myself. As it turns out, it was wholly different and entirely better.
I will never look at a map of Central Africa, or parts of Eastern and Southern Africa, and be mystified by what's there, or think it is unknown. I know it a bit and that's been a lesson well worth the time and effort to learn.