LONG ago, graceful ladies in long Victorian gowns carrying parasols waded their way to the river for their boat trip on the Zambezi. Smartly dressed gentlemen with hats danced the waltz, bridge and chess parties and boat regattas kept the Europeans busy. Today, it is a fledgling town with little comforts and oxen and mules pulling loads, blue taxis, schoolchildren in smart uniforms, matronly women vending piles of luscious vegetables, men selling wooden carvings and malachite hippos at the curio market — Livingstone town in Zambia, has the laid back air of a Wild West town, with no evidence of its past importance. But delve deeper and you will find the history that it hides.
It was the year 1855 when Scottish missionary David Livingstone, in his dugout canoe, with other members of a local tribe, set eyes on Mosi-oa-tuniya or the ‘smoke that thunders’. He was astounded by the deep gorge and the billowing spray which rained like a shower. It was the first time that a European had set eyes on the magnificent Victoria Falls. The first settlers near the Victoria Falls were in a settlement called the Old Drift, north of the Zambezi, where they fell prey to malaria, black-water fever or were mauled by crocodiles and lions. They gradually moved further and founded the town of Livingstone, 10 km from the Falls, in 1904. The roads were sandy; houses were made of mud, grass and wood and wild animals prowled near the town looking for food.
Come night, the people had to protect themselves with screens around themselves which were called ‘skerms’. These were made of stakes six-feet-long driven into the ground and along the outer side fires were lighted, and the servants were made to sit up and keep them from going out. The only way to cross River Zambezi in those days was a tin boat which was paddled by eight oarsmen from the Sekuti tribe. The town was mosquito-proofed from the beginning, everybody had a daily dose of quinine. Even today as you drive down the main street you can see old houses with corrugated tin roofs and spacious mosquito netted verandas.
The ghosts of the past are alive at every corner of the town. The Livingstone museum, built in a Spanish-American inspired style, is the oldest museum in the country. Besides the evolution of man in Zambia, and other interesting exhibits about various tribal customs, it has a great collection of Livingstone memorabilia. There is Livingstone’s battered medical box, his pen knife, umbrella, handwritten letters, his large coat and a well-thumbed hymn book. One learns about his meeting with New York herald journalist Stanley, who greeted him with the famous words, "Dr Livingstone, I presume?" The town had a significant Jewish population who controlled most of the trade, many of them poor immigrants from Russia or those fleeing from Germany and Poland. There is an Indian connection as well: in the 1930s the Kuta Way used to be called the Bombay Alley because of the Indians here! Even today there are shops like Bobbili jewellers and even an Indian restaurant called Utsav. We drive along the John Hunt way, named after one of the earliest English settlers, who was a curio trader. John Hunt was one of the few Europeans who supported the Africans in their freedom struggle, but died before the first African Coalition government was established.
The Capitol theatre built by a Jewish family in 1931, in a classic Victorian style with velvet-covered seats screened not only movies, but was also a venue for stage performances and meetings. Movies from England were screened for the benefit of the Englishmen here, who yearned for entertainment in this remote place. There was a colourful character called Arthur Harrington who loved gangster movies and in an inebriated state, would pull out his revolver on more than one occasion, to shoot the villain on the screen. They say that he would apologise the next day and pay for the repairs too!
There is the St Andrews Church dating back to 1910; to raise funds for this church, dances and other functions were held. The liberal Bishop Hine wanted to allow African-Anglicans to use the same building, which caused a stir among the Europeans. On the Likute way is the Church of Christ, which used to be a Jewish synagogue and the heart of the Jewish community in those days. Further along the street is a large and dilapidated construction known as the Mosi-oa-Tunya Building, a remarkably ugly building which they say is the ‘skyscraper of the town’! It is used mainly as government offices today.
Somewhere along the way, Livingstone town lost its importance and sank into obscurity when the attention shifted to Victoria Falls Town, on the Zimbabwean side. Today, the town which is the gateway to the Zambian side of Victoria Falls, is experiencing a renaissance. The colonial golf course has been given new life. New hotels, lodges, swank river cruises and a host of adventure activities from bungee jumping to micro-lighting are centered around the Victoria Falls. It bring tourists flocking in great numbers. David Livingstone stirred up public support for the abolition of slave trade and it is for this crusade against slavery that his name is still revered by the Africans. When Livingstone died in 1873, his faithful servants Susi and Chuma embalmed his body in bark, and sent it back to England, but buried his heart under a tree. When African countries gained independence they usually changed the names of their towns. But Livingstone Town has always been special and has remained Livingstone....
Published IN THE TRIBUNE, CHANDIGARH, JULY 2012