Livingstone, Zambia is an interesting place. It’s a melting pot of national and international diversity, a hotspot for tourism, a center of trade, an obstacle to migrating animals, and the so called ‘adventure capital of the world’.It’s a modern day African city, abounding with aging colonial buildings, looming mango trees, wattle and daub villages, overwhelming craft and food markets filled with colourful Chitengi cloths, fragrant dried fish, Cassava chips, Teak charcoal, quality imported second hand clothes and hundreds of smiling Zambians.
People push heavily laden bicycles brimming with imported Zimbabwean neon orange cooldrink through the streets, vendors sell Nyami Nyami necklaces, carved from river stones and said to represent the god of the thunderous Victoria Falls, and children play barefoot dusty soccer matches in copper coloured sands as the sun blankets the sky in tangerine tendrils of African light.
The people are as warm as the sunsets, with massive smiles, extended handshakes and open faces eager to discuss things with anyone passing, especially if there is a Mosi, the locally favoured beer named after the indigenous name for the Victoria Falls, Mosi oa Tunya, in the mix. Like many African cities, it’s also a place of struggle and hardship, and a place where people are intimately connected with the landscape they live on. Rural communities around Livingstone in particular rely on their land for survival.
This reliance, which underpins a thriving informal economy, has had a severe impact on the landscape itself, due to rising demand for natural resources and access to land. As a result of deeply complex issues, the land is currently being ravaged, with deforestation happening at alarming rates resulting in a swath of related knock-on effects from food insecurity to changing micro climates, reduced incomes, and an increasingly desperate situation for the country and region as a whole.
According to the UN, between 250 000 and 300 000 hectares of land are deforested yearly in Zambia. That’s the equivalent of around 600 rugby fields every day being cleared for firewood, construction, charcoal and timber export. Deforestation is having a lasting impact in the area, reducing people’s income and productivity on the many small farms of the region. Slash and burn agriculture, charcoal burning, and a poorly regulated timber industry are all taking their toll on local ecological and economical systems. Some predict that the deforestation may even result in the powerful Zambezi River loosing most of its flow as rainfall drops with reduced evapotranspiration from trees. It’s serious stuff.
However, despite the challenges that the Zambian landscape faces, its people are some of the most amazing, kind, open and inspiring individuals you could ever have the privilege of meeting. It’s a great place to visit, a rewarding place to work, and a country with lots of potential.
Greenpop, a Cape Town based tree planting organisation, has been working in Livingstone for the past three years, hosting ‘Festivals of Action’ that attempt to tackle the diversity of environmental and social issues in the area by spreading information, inspiration and action in an attempt to activate people to ‘be the change’ and create the solutions that are needed in the area.
This year’s festival was the biggest and most diverse yet. Over 180 volunteers from around the world joined nearly 200 Zambians in planting trees, building eco structures, dancing the night away and sharing, learning and growing as a collection of ‘Human Doings’.
Above and beyond the planting of nearly 4000 trees, Greenpop also facilitated ‘participation projects’ which were run by partner organisations that focussed on creativity, art, photography, self expression, alternative building practises and more. The organisation also hosted regular speaker evenings, musical events and workshops that encouraged engagement over key issues in the area, empowerment via the sharing of knowledge and a good dose of fun thrown in for good measure.
I was lucky enough to be part of the Trees For Zambia 2014 Greenpop Team, and though I worked the hardest I have probably ever worked in my life, I had some truly magical and memorable moments that will stick with me forever.
I planted trees with young children, old people, strangers and friends. I got dirty, got silly, got blisters and sampled my fair share of local beers. I fulfilled a childhood dream of climbing a Baobab tree and spent the sunset perched high in its gnarled and welcoming branches, watching the colours of the sky shift from burnt copper to deep purples as the tree reached its branches to the stars and the sounds of the night rustled in the bushes.
I took part in a 200 person tree planting ceremony that honoured Nelson Mandela and was moved to tears by the words of Uncle Benji, Greenpop’s Zambian Director of Trees- an octogenarian with more energy and spunk than most twenty year olds. I danced like crazy to disco music at 7am just after breakfast, and went on to be part of a team that planted 500 trees in a single morning, carrying the energy of our morning dance with us.
I learnt that there is massive power in people, getting active is better than getting anxious, giving is receiving, and smiling is a common language.
Thank you Zambia for your warmth, hope and hospitality.
For more information about the Trees for Zambia project, please visit: http://www.greenpop.org/projects/trees-for-zambia/
Images courtesy of Sarah Isaacs Photography