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Expatriate Life in Zambia during the 1970s

In 1970 high copper prices inspired huge investment, and hundreds of skilled workers, mainly from Britain, signed three year contracts to use their know-how as mine employees on Zambia’s Copperbelt. The swelling population had already grown from 3.47 million at Independence in 1964 to nearly 5 million. Few expats made more than a couple of crackling phone calls home during those long contracts, some had never been away from their parents’ home before, and most had never been outside Europe. Newly married before we went out, this was the adventure of our lives.

ZambiaChingola was known as the cleanest town on the Copperbelt, and it was spotless. The sun shone; salaries beat those at home; there was no malaria; we could afford help in our spacious mine bungalows and large square plots rich with bougainvillea and frangipani; and we made lots of friends. Unless we provoked trouble with officialdom by political activities or comments, we couldn’t believe our luck. Medical facilities were freely at our disposal, as were sports clubs of every description and a large swimming pool for mine employees. For long weekends and short breaks we could follow well-paved roads for exploratory trips to Victoria Falls, Lake Bangweulu, and game parks, and we could still cross the border at Kariba into Rhodesia for more adventures. Many of us started a family and good primary schooling was available although older children usually went to boarding school.

And then Ross found himself in a dispute over a dog, and in a blink of an eye found himself in prison for a few hours with the threat of much longer. Our heaven was turning into hell. Prison anywhere in Africa should be avoided at all costs, and Zambia was no exception.

He managed to steer clear of the worst and we returned to London for two years then signed up for another contract in Zambia, still optimistic and a little wiser.

By the time we’d welcomed 3 daughters to our family, the price of copper had plunged, investment dried up, many expats left for better opportunities elsewhere, and those who remained struggled to keep things going. Food shortages made life more difficult, and news reports back home of Zambia’s involvement Rhodesia’s bush war worried our families. Our letters of reassurance saying we saw none of the violence took weeks to reach home. The sun still shone; houseboys still sang as they polished our red concrete floors with foot dusters;  mangoes still tasted sweet; and we still lit our braai’s and whiled away the evenings sipping Lion or Castle Beer and Cinzano with lemonade.

In spite of the AIDS epidemic, and the HIV rate currently running at 14.3%, Zambia’s population is likely to reach 17 million by 2017 - more than three times that of the 70s, and so is a very different place. Expatriates are more likely to find themselves in Zambia as volunteers in aid programmes or on very short contracts with the mines. They now have mobiles, emails and blogs to communicate with friends and family, and no longer have a long wait before returning home.

Zambia is still a beautiful country with a wonderful climate, it has enjoyed political stability for many years, and we treasure the memories of our time spent there.

Ross and Sara Dunn lived in Chingola, Zambia between 1970 and 1977. Sara has written an account of their experiences in ‘Malachite and Mangoes, Five Years in the Zambian Copperbelt’. Her previous book ‘Appointment in Zambia A Trans-African Adventure’ tells of their unorthodox and dangerous journey to get to Zambia in 1970.

©Sara Dunn 2016

 

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