Nairobi-Lusaka by road, Part I

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The towering Uhuru Heights under construction in Dar es Salaam combines office space with residential apartments

Lusaka must be the only African capital (or major city) that is not a frenzied construction site. No new major roads are being constructed downtown. My quick look only found two new constructions of tall-ish buildings downtown. Lusaka feels really sleepy compared to the three other African capitals/major cities that I have been to in the last three months  – Dar es Salaam, Nairobi, Accra. Dar es Salaam, in particular, is impressive. The city is constructing a rapid bus transportation system with a dedicated lane. Citywide construction of “office space cum residential apartments” mark the landscape promising a rich experience of downtown living for city residents in the near future (I wish Nairobi did more of this….)

The guy who runs the place I am staying at in Lusaka tells me that the only construction going on in town is of shopping malls and expensive residential houses that no one will afford. President Michael Sata, he argues, is bent on turning Zambia into Zimbabwe.

Michael Sata (a.k.a King Cobra) may not go the way of uncle Bob in Zim but he is definitely not the hope for change that Zambians voted for back in 2011. The growth in the economy (6% on average in the last decade, 7.3% last year) is barely trickling down and the ruling PF seems too preoccupied with killing the opposition to care. The old duo of  Scott and Sata seem out of ideas on how to translate the country’s economic growth into wider socio-economic transformation.

Indeed the African Development Bank in its latest report on the Zambian economy noted that “Zambia has yet to achieve significant gains in social and human development. The poverty headcount remains high, with about 60% of the population still living below the poverty line.” The economy is imbalanced, heavily dependent of capital-intensive copper mining that it barely taxes (80% of exports, but paltry a 6% of revenue).

I was first here two years ago for reconnaissance research and have come back for more work. The pace is a nice change from Nairobi. It is also warmer than Nairobi at this time of the year (well at least before nightfall) – just after three years in California and seven months in Nairobi and I have become a little soft on cold weather (Moving to Chicago this fall will be fun!!)

This time round instead of doing air (Nairobi-Dar), rail (Dar-Kapiri) and road (Kapiri-Lusaka), I decided to do it all by road. This turned out to be a terrible idea.

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Sign post on the Tanzanian side of Namanga

Leaving Nairobi was itself an adventure. Despite Vanessa’s well-intentioned “alarm clock” calls to make sure I was up and ready by 5 AM, I missed my bus (I also missed my bus the first time, which is why I flew to Dar es Salaam). However, this time round it was my dad who was dropping me off and because he is a lot more daring that me and my brother, he decided to chase the bus (we were barely five minutes late, thank you very much Nairobi traffic at 5:45 AM). We did not catch my bus (Dar Express), but caught up with its competitor (name withheld for legal reasons, see below) after it had been stopped by the traffic police on Mombasa road for lack of a passenger license (it had a cargo license). Let’s just say that I was mightily impressed by my dad’s driving skills. I wish I were as daring.

So after the police got their cut (which I later found out was Kshs 5000, about US $60) we set off on the journey to Dar. The conductor on the new bus was kind enough to give me a free ride to Namanga (only Tanzanians can do this!!!) with hopes of catching up with Dar Express – in the end we did not, and I had to pay Kshs 2000 for the rest of the journey. The last time I was on the Nairobi-Arusha road was in 2009 when it was all no more than a dirt track that left you caked in thick red-brown dust. Now it is all paved. Nairobi-Namanga took a dizzying three hours. Just over an hour and a half after that we were in Arusha. After Arusha we sped to Moshi where we were caught up in the Prime Minister’s motorcade as he went to the city referral hospital to visit victims of the recent bombing at an opposition rally in Arusha (Arusha is the Chadema (Tanzania’s main opposition party) stronghold; but even in Dar the few people I spoke to about politics did not have nice things to say about the CCM government, especially with regard to rising inequality and corruption – yeah, I just totally Tom-Friedmanned that one).

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The 922 kilometer (573 miles) Nairobi-Dar road

I must say that the Nairobi-Dar road is impressive. Save for about one hour total of patches that were still being done about two hours outside of Moshi, most of the road is paved. Sometimes I forget how massive (and hence empty) Tanzania is. Namanga-Arusha is marked by flat plains, rolling hills and mountains. In the plains cattle rearing appeared to be the economic mainstay (unfortunately, with school age kids herding tens of cattle and sheep – wake up, Tanzania ministry of education). The hilly and mountainous areas mostly have maize and coffee. After the hills there are vast sisal plantations that stretch from horizon to horizon. Arusha and Moshi are the only big towns on the Namanga-Dar route. I particularly like Moshi (or may be I just don’t like touristy, expensive Arusha). It is a town with character, combining a provincial feeling with urban comforts. It also has some nice public monuments.

I rarely see weigh bridges on Kenyan roads (besides the infamous two in Gilgil and on Mombasa road) but in Tanzania they are plenty. And they are not just for the trucks, but also cater for passenger buses. Most of the trucks on the route were connecting Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and the eastern DRC to the port in Dar. The passengers on the bus consisted of businesspeople (mostly Kenyans and Congolese), random travelers like myself, and tourists (most of who alighted at Arusha). On the Kenyan side, between Nairobi and Namanga we had a total of 5 police stops. On the Tanzanian side between Namanga and Dar there were 6 police stops and about 4-5 weigh bridge stops – the Tanzanians definitely police their roads more keenly. The police on the Tanzanian side were on the lookout for khat/miraa (illegal in Tanzania, and a beloved commodity of truckers) from Kenya and other contraband. True to EAC hospitality, I did not have any problems with immigration at Namanga (unlike in Nakonde, Zambia) or at any of the police check points (officers came on board to check passports). Talking to Tanzanians reminded me of just how bad Kenyan Swahili is – we must sound to Tanzanians like the Congolese sound to us whenever they speak whatever it is they call Swahili (*ducks and runs*).

The bus arrived in Dar es Salaam about 20 hours after leaving Nairobi (Not bad for a US $42 ticket), despite having been made to believe that the trip would take 13 hours. It didn’t help that I ignored Vanessa’s advice to pack food, hoping to buy stuff on the road – the first food stop was six hours into the trip, I had not had breakfast. Exhausted, hungry and mad at myself for taking the hard way to Dar I decided to get a room at the Peacock Hotel. It is not fancy (probably a 4 star?) but it has hot water, the rooms are spacious, and there’s fast internet. They also have a nice restaurant downstairs (Tausi) and are within walking distance to the port and other sites of interest in Dar – a Subway, Indian restaurant, the national library, banks, etc.

I had a day to burn in Dar reading, writing and walking around in readiness for the second leg of my trip to Lusaka, again by road.

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5 thoughts on “Nairobi-Lusaka by road, Part I

  1. Pingback: Nairobi to Lusaka, Part II « An Africanist Perspective

  2. Massive road construction is taking place in rural areas. At least Lusaka has its fare share of relatively good roads. Moreover the Lusaka ring road is scheduled to start early 2014, new airport to be constructed beginning August 2013. I say your assessment of Lusaka is rather parochial. But then it is your assessment.

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  3. I agree. PF is doing a great job with road construction. I was just in Livingstone and both the drive there and within Livingstone was impressive. Zambia’s roads are definitely much better than Kenya’s, no doubt about that.

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