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Zambia Helpful Travel Information

Zambia is a state in Southern Africa. Roughly the size of Texas or France, Zambia is a landlocked country, bordered by Tanzania to the north-east, Malawi to the east, Mozambique to the south-east, Zimbabwe and Botswana to the south, a narrow strip of Namibia known as the Caprivi Strip to the south-west, Angola to the west, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the north-west.

Zambia Map (Wikipedia)

Zambia Map (Wikipedia)

Zambia offers travellers some of the world’s best safari opportunities, a glimpse into “real Africa,” and Victoria Falls, one of the World’s Seven Natural Wonders and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Much of Zambia remains desperately poor, with GDP per capita on the order of US$600/year, and the bulk of Zambia’s population lives on subsistence agriculture. The economy continues to revolve around copper, but after decades of mismanagement the industry is now doing better thanks to higher commodity prices and investments made after privatization. Another recent success story has been tourism, with the misfortunes of its neighbour Zimbabwe driving tourists to the northern side of the Victoria Falls and Zambia’s safaris, but the fast growth has come from a low base.


Cultural and Language Considerations

As can be seen even from the bizarre squashed-peanut shape of the country, Zambia is one of the stranger legacies of colonialism, agglomerating a large number of different tribes (73, according to the official count) and languages (20, plus dialects). Fortunately, with a long history of coexistence, significant migration around the country and similar Bantu-family languages, they all seem to get along pretty well and Zambia has been spared the violent intertribal strife that has decimated countries like Rwanda.

Thanks to its former colonial status, English is Zambia’ official language and the language most often spoken in schools, on the radio, in government offices, etc. However, there are over 70 different Bantu languages spoken throughout the country, the most important of which are Bemba, spoken in Lusaka (a little), the Copperbelt and the north; Nyanja (Chewa), spoken in the east as well as in Lusaka where it is the main language; Tonga, spoken in the south and Livingstone; Lozi, which predominates in Western province; Lunda and Kaonde are spoken in Northwestern Province.

Many urban Zambians will speak at least passable English. As you move into the rural areas, though, expect communication to become more difficult. Nevertheless, do not be surprised to find a rural Zambian who speaks flawless English.

The most important thing to remember when speaking to Zambians is to greet them. When you first approach a Zambian, always begin by asking, “How are you?” even if you do not care. They will consider you very respectful. Sport, especially football (soccer) is a very good conversation topic with men; church is a good topic with either gender.

Wherever you happen to be in the country it is a good idea to learn the local way of exchanging greetings, asking for something politely and thanking someone. These simple phrases will help make life easier.

Afrikaans usage is on a slow but steady rise, mainly because of immigration from South Africa and the ease of learning the language.

Zambians follow a strict patriarchal society — men are afforded more respect than women, and older men are respected more than younger men. However, you might find that a white person, of any gender or age, is granted the most respect of all. A holdover from colonial times, this might make a traveler uncomfortable, but this is largely a Zambian’s way of being courteous. Accept their hospitality.

Zambians are a curious people. To a Western mindset, this might be interpreted as unnecessarily staring at you or talking about you in front of you. Be prepared to be greeted by kids yelling mzungu, mzungu! (literally, white man) and answer lots of questions about yourself.

Zambians love to shake hands, and you should oblige them. However, Zambians often like to hold hands for the duration of a conversation. This should not be interpreted as anything sexual; they are merely trying to “connect” with you. If you feel uncomfortable, simply pull your hand away. If you wish to be courteous or show respect then holding your right wrist or elbow with your left hand as you shake is acceptable. Do not expect a firm handshake as this is considered agressive, likewise do not be too firm in yours.

Eye contact is also considered aggressive and disrespectful, you can make eye contact but do not hold it, slide your eyes away, but do not face away.

Women should not wear shorts or mini-skirts, especially as they travel away from Lusaka. (Thighs, to Zambian men, are huge turn-ons.) Low-cut tops, however, while discouraged, are not nearly as provocative.

Pointing with the index finger should not be done, it is considered vulgar.

Finally, when meeting a Zambian — even to ask a question — you should always say hello and ask how they are. Properly greeting a Zambian is very important. They are uncomfortable with the Western notion of simply “getting to the point.” Enquiries about children are generally welcome and are a good way to break the ice.



Getting around – transport systems and fuel stations

Zambia’s main international gateway is Lusaka, gone are the days when getting to Zambia meant flying via Johannesburg, Lusaka is fast becoming something of a regional hub. Lusaka remains well-served by flights from Johannesburg, Cairo, Dubai, Nairobi, Lilongwe, Addis Ababa, and London. Livingstone International Airport has daily direct flights from Johannesburg with the carriers.

TAZARA trains run between Kapiri Mposhi, Zambia, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, on Tuesdays and Thursdays. According to the schedule the trip takes 38 hours, but these trains break down regularly. If you are on a tight schedule, a train might not be your best option.

Vehicles drive on the left side of the road in Zambia. There are many ways to get into Zambia by car, but the most popular include:

• through Livingstone (in the south) from Zimbabwe

• via the Chirundu Bridge (in the south) from Zimbabwe

• via the Kariba Dam (in the south) from Zimbabwe

• through Chipata (in the east) from Malawi

• through Chingola (in the Copperbelt) from the Democratic Republic of the Congo

• via the Katima Mulilo Bridge from Namibia

• via the Kazungula Ferry from Botswana

• through Tunduma and Nakonde from Tanzania

Crossing international borders by car will incur a tax, depending on the size of the vehicle. The process can also take awhile as you will have to pay at different booths or offices, often not conveniently located. For a standard sedan, you can expect to pay the following:

• Carbon tax at K50,000, payable in kwachas only

• Third Party Insurance at approximately US$46, payable in rands, US dollars, or kwachas

• If you cross over the bridge between Zimbabwe and Zambia, you will also pay a toll fee of US$10, payable in dollars.

Border crossings are not without corruption and you are particularly vulnerable when travelling by car. Try to avoid arriving early in the day to avoid having to choose between paying a bribe or spending the night in the car at the border post.

Minibuses — meaning vans outfitted with seats — are popular, but they are often irregular, dangerous, and uncomfortable. To maximize profits, a “conductor” will squeeze as many paying customers — and their luggage, or katundu (ka-TOON-doo) — into the bus as possible; whether or not the customers are comfortable is irrelevant. In terms of meeting locals, however, this method is among the best, and it can provide a traveler with a truly “authentic” experience. Payment is made during the journey — banknotes are passed down the bus to the conductor at the front, and change comes back via the same route.


Currencies and ways to pay

Originally, the Kwacha — meaning “sunrise,” so-named to celebrate Zambia’s independence — was tied to the US dollar, so conversion was simple. However, in the late-90’s, the kwacha was floated and devalued rapidly. Since mid 2005 the Kwacha re-appreciated strongly, due to the international debt-relief and the boost of the copper prices. The currency became stronger and more stable through the latter part of the decade to the extent that in January 2013 the government re-based the currency.

U.S. dollars used to be commonly used for larger purchases however alongside the re-basing of the Kwacha from January 2013 this practice was made illegal for all Zambian businesses. All transactions are now carried out only in re-based Kwacha. The dollar was becoming less popular anyway due to its fluctuating exchange rates.

Tipping is not required — indeed, it was at one point illegal — but often expected. Porters expect US$0.50 or so per bag, and better restaurants typically add in a 10% service charge or expect an equivalent tip.

Finally, keep in mind the Zambian custom of mbasela (em-buh-SAY-la) — giving a freebie when more than one item is purchased. If you buy a few small items, do not be shy about asking for your mbasela.

ATM’s may be found in major cities, but you should not depend on them to be functional. Most of the ATM’s accept only VISA. Other international credit cards (like MASTERCARD and AMEX) are generally a problem.

Traveller’s cheques are almost impossible to process in Zambia, most chance you will have in the Lusaka international banks (Stanbic, Standard Chartered), but even then you will get a very poor rate, a high commission charge and it will take you a couple of hours, if you are lucky.



Health, Safety and Emergency Information

Zambia is one of the few African countries which is generally safe, crime levels are similar to a European country. Bearing this in mind you should always be aware that some of the people are desperately poor and common sense should prevail.  Women should avoid going to bars alone. Furthermore, men should avoid purchasing drinks for Zambian women they meet casually in bars; this is an invitation to spend the night.

While it’s possible to get a good exchange rate from an individual money-changer on the street (although you really should use banks if you can), you should avoid changing money with groups of men. They are likely running a scam.

Generally, Zambians are friendly people. However — as with any location — be careful about walking at night, especially if you’ve been drinking. There are few street lights, and many of the locals are very poor.  Carjacking is also a potential risk while driving after dark.

Many places of accommodation have electric fences, gates and guards for added security. You can check before booking.

Corruption became endemic in Zambia under president Rupiah Banda. Don’t expect the police to be of any substantial assistance to you. If you need to log a report for insurance purposes, you can expect to have pay to do so. If you make an accusation or indicate a suspicion with a local, the person you lodge the complaint against may be interrogated and beaten by the police. However this situation has improved under new president Michael Sata.

Drinking tap water in the cities is potentially risky, unless either (a) you have a strong stomach, or (b) you are at a restaurant or hotel that caters to foreigners. If neither of these conditions apply to you, you should probably stick with the bottled stuff.

The HIV infection rate among adults was estimated to be 16.5% in 2003. Take the necessary safety precautions.

Zambia is a highly malarial country. Especially at dusk, you should make every effort to cover exposed skin with clothing or insect repellent. In addition, using malarial prophylaxis in highly recommended.

In practice, yellow fever is not a problem in Zambia any longer, except perhaps in the extreme west along the Congolese borders. However, many countries will insist on a yellow fever vaccination certificate if they find out you’ve been to Zambia, so it’s best to get a jab.


Embassies and high commissions contacts (

Botswana – Tel 250555, 5201 Pandit Nehru Rd

Canada – Tel 250833, 5119 United Nations Ave

Congo – Tel 235679 or 213343, 1124 Parirenyetwa Rd

France – Tel 251322, 74 Independence Ave, Cathedral Hill

Germany – Tel 250644, 5209 United Nations Ave

Ireland – Tel 291298, 6663 Katima Mulilo Rd

Kenya – Tel 250722, 5207 United Nations Ave

Malawi – Tel 265764, 31 Bishops Rd, Kabulonga

Mozambique – Tel 220333, 9592 Kacha Rd, off Paseli Rd, Northmead

Namibia – Tel 260407/8, 308 Mutende Rd, Woodlands

Netherlands – Tel 253819, 5208 United Nations Ave

South Africa – Tel 260999, 26D Cheetah Rd, Kabulonga

Sweden – Tel 251711, Halle Selassie Ave

Tanzania, -Tel 227698, 5200 United Nations Ave

UK – Tel 423200,; cnr Independence & United Nations Aves

US – Tel 250955,, cnr Independence & United Nations Aves

Zimbabwe – Tel 254006, 11058 Haile Selassie Ave


Satellite and Mobile Networks

Cell phones have been booming in recent years, and Zambia has a highly competitive market with three main operators.

Internet cafes are springing up in Zambia, but again, connections can be sporadic and very slow. Moreover, because constant electricity is not a guarantee, some Internet cafes operate backup generators, which can be extremely costly. Be prepared to see Internet cafe charges as high as 25 cents per minute. Some hotels might offer Internet connections to their guests.


Border and Entry Requirements

Zambian visa policy is best summarized as confusing: there is a bewildering thicket of rules on who needs visas, whether visas can be obtained on arrival, and how much they cost. Local border posts also apply their own interpretations. Due to recent political turbulence in Zimbabwe, Zambia has been cashing in on the unexpected boom in its tourism industry, with visa fees hiked and the previous visa waiver program cancelled: you’re now expected to pay in cash on arrival at the immigration kiosks.

The upside is that once customs has figured out what category you’re in, actually obtaining the visa is rarely a problem and a rule of thumb is that most Western visitors can get visas on arrival. Visa-free entry is possible for some nationalities, including Ireland, Malaysia, Singapore, Zimbabwe and South Africa. See the immigration department’s web-site for the full list of visa-exempt nationalities. Current visa prices are US$50 for a single-entry and US$80 for a multiple-entry visa for all nationalities and is valid for 3 months; US passport holders can only apply for a multiple-entry visa, but it is then valid for 3 years.

• A day entry visa is available to all nationalities at US$20, valid 24 hours

• Transit visas carry the same cost as a single entry visa, valid 7 days

Do check with the nearest Zambian embassy for the latest information; the Zambian Embassy to the US has some information on their homepage and getting the visa before arrival will reduce the uncertainty factor.

If you require a visa to enter Zambia, you might be able to apply for one at a British embassy, high commission or consulate in the country where you legally reside if there is no Zambian diplomatic post.



If you look at a map, Zambia appears to be squarely in the tropics, but thanks to its landlocked and elevated position it does have distinct seasons that run as follows:

• Dry season — May to August. The coolest time of the year, with temperatures 24-28°C during the day, can drop as low as 7°C at night. Probably the best time of year to visit Zambia: come early in the dry season for birdwatching or to see Vic Falls at their biggest, or later when the bush has dried up for good game-spotting on safari.

• Hot season — September to November. Temperatures rocket up to a scorching 38-42°C and clouds of swirling dust make driving on dirt roads an asthmatic’s nightmare. If you can take the heat, though, it’s a good time for safaris as wildlife clusters around the few remaining watering holes.

• Wet season — December to April. Temperatures cool down to 32°C or so and, true to the name, there is a lot of rain — sometimes just an hour or two, sometimes for days on end. Unsealed roads become impassable muddy nightmares, and many safari lodges close.

Temperatures do fluctuate based on the altitude, if you are in a valley (such as the Zambezi) it will be warmer and if you are higher up (Kasama) it will be cooler.

Elize Rowe

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