Lusaka-Livingstone flight ban threatens lives in Zambia

It’s summer in Zambia and Rufus Mujinga is in a bind. To get to his place of work in southern Africa’s copper mining hub of Livingstone, the town with the highest elevation on the…

Lusaka-Livingstone flight ban threatens lives in Zambia

It’s summer in Zambia and Rufus Mujinga is in a bind.

To get to his place of work in southern Africa’s copper mining hub of Livingstone, the town with the highest elevation on the continent, he’d have to hitchhike for hours on a rickety three-wheeler that’s used to evacuate patients in emergencies.

Only this is Zambia, after all, a state-controlled economy where even short hops to a job can take some 50 hours by bus. But Mujinga’s problem is one of recent political expediency. On June 26, a Zambian government order threatened that any person unable to make it in by train, boat or air in less than 48 hours would be evicted from all national parks – more than 40 of them. Zambia was on the verge of announcing a ban on the movement of tourists through national parks following last month’s cabinet reshuffle, prompted by allegations that five Cabinet ministers had received unauthorised trips abroad in helicopters operated by South African company Lynx Helicopters.

As many as 7,000 people have been relocated as a result of this order. But for Mujinga, a resident of Livingstone whose life depends on a good, orderly schedule, this is no picnic. His 34-year-old wife is six months pregnant and, to keep the job and raise their five-year-old son, Mujinga has to sneak into Livingstone to run errands and even run a little errand for himself. But over the last week, the ban on Lusaka-Livingstone flights – by road, plane or boat – has become the long-term solution to his chronic accommodation shortage.

Livingstone is a popular tourist destination that offers picturesque mountain views, scenic streams and four provincial towns, but with a transport nightmare. Trucks, which often don’t meet new axle-length guidelines and end up jamming the main road with thousands of weary travellers, often strand people on ladders on roadside cliffs.

“The government says they don’t want to evict the people by force but suddenly they find them all living on ladders, you know what I mean?” says Mujinga, whose first-aid clinic in Livingstone has been shut down. “People are tired of seeing people stuck on ladders, and the government says, ‘Oh, we’re afraid they’ll die,’ and they ban them from living on ladders.”

Such thinking, of course, didn’t sit well with Kalweruka (Christine) Nyondo, a Zambian journalist who has documented increasingly politicised travel issues. “To ban thousands of people from doing what they want to do doesn’t make sense,” she says. The fate of the 7,000 people who have been moved off their property won’t matter in the longer term, says Nyondo, but the tiny matter of accessible access to services such as medical care and employment is. “There are a lot of people that need to be connected to jobs. If people are camped at the top of the highway in their tents, they won’t be able to get to jobs. They would be stranded in Livingstone, really.”

That’s why opposition parliamentarian and frequent news commentator Kalimba Kajara has slammed the administration’s move as vindictive. “The majority of these people are the people that support the ruling Patriotic Front in the province,” he says. “In Livingstone, everyone has been the site of accusations, such as ‘oh, they are rooting for the United Party for National Development’.” Kajara says he has been forced off government media channels for criticizing the decision to ban tourists from the national parks.

Last week, Zambia’s main opposition party rejected the ban, warning that the Cabinet had overstepped its authority and that no decision of such magnitude should be made on a whim. Speaking at a public rally in Livingstone on Wednesday, opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema said the move was at odds with national policy. “The matter of decrees can only be promulgated by parliament,” he said. “It is not prudent or correct for a Cabinet minister to make such decision over the heads of the parliament.”

Kenziba Musonda, Zambia’s Minister of Tourism and Arts, is unmoved. “This is a process that has taken several years to realize,” he says. “The government knows that 1,200 to 1,500 visitors go to the parks by air every day, so the government knows

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