From England to Africa: Following the Family Footprints

My stomach was in a knot, and my mind was buzzing with anticipation: we were finally reaching the small Zambian settlement of Chipata.

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Photo © Rose Munday

Despite never having set foot there, this dusty town, close to the Malawian border, means a lot to me. It was here, almost a century ago, that my great-granddad was sent to head up a branch of a major bank.

Using his handwritten diary as an itinerary, I had traced the steps of my great-granddad and great-grandma’s journey from England to this far-flung place. Though the words have faded with age and the pages are threadbare from fingers pouring over them, to me, the diaries bring back to life an eager, apprehensive young man. My great-granddad. My travel companion and guide.

For him, the journey was treacherous. After a ship across the Atlantic and various trains through South Africa, there was no transport available for the final leg of their journey. Instead, they embarked on a 26-day walk across Zambia with all of their belongings.

For me, that same stretch of land was taking our tour group just two days to complete on our overland vehicle. My journey was to take me from Nairobi, Kenya and traveled through Tanzania and Malawi before reaching Zambia. That same sense of apprehension my great-granddad felt hit me as I packed my belongings and hauled them onto the bus.

Locals in Africa. Photo credit: Rose Munday

From the moment I arrived, I fell in love with Africa. From the barefoot Maasai tribes who walked the warm earth to the towering Baobab trees, the landscape fascinated me.

Despite the differences between our journeys, there were plenty of similarities.

As I sat watching the plain of Africa roll by, I read excerpts of my great granddad’s diary and saw the same arid landscape reflected in his words. I saw his eyes flicker back and forth, trying to keep up as the desert flashed past the window.

As I passed through local villages, women, with precariously balanced buckets of water trembling on their heads, turned to stare at me. They seemed wary at first, but their faces creased into smiles as children ran to the roadside, whooping and clamoring for a few seconds of our attention.

The locals showed a similar interest in my ancestors, too. My great-granddad described an old man's face crinkling like parchment as he welcomed my great grandparents into his humble home for lunch.

At night, we camped under the milky way and were warned that large animals were at bay. The distinctive cackle of a hyena broke into my sleep on numerous occasions, setting my every sense on edge.

In 1920, the animals were no less at large. My pregnant great-grandma, Jessie, found herself in the path of a herd of stampeding buffalo. Luckily, they changed course at the last minute, and she ended up laughing with relief as the animals charged into the horizon.

The dairy tells of their visit to Victoria Falls, too: “Words cannot describe that sight because it is too terrible and majestic”, my great-granddad wrote. “Jessie just held on to me and went pale in the face.”

Having never previously left their hometown, they'd likely never seen a waterfall before, let alone the world's biggest.

As I stood on the banks, marveling at the same view, I too was mesmerized.

They say 550 million liters of water drops over the Falls every minute. I wonder how many liters had cascaded over the last century since they had visited.

Hippo in Africa. Photo credit: Rose Munday

Days turned into weeks. Lions lazed in the midday heat in the Serengeti; rotis sizzled in a clay oven on Zanzibar island; the waves peacefully grazed the sandy banks of Lake Malawi. Some days, the roads seemed to roll on forever.

Then one day, we finally arrived in Chipata.

I found the bank my great-granddad once managed. As it loomed towards me, grey on a day which happened to be overcast, it could have been any bank in the world.

Aside from a few cars and a takeaway pizza restaurant, it seemed not much has changed since my great-grandfather wrote in his diary almost a century ago.

I felt happy to have seen the place my ancestors lived, yet slightly sad that I'd never meet them or get to tell them of my travels. Most of all, I felt a sense calm - the feeling that I was exactly where I needed to be.

The low-rise, dusty town didn't stop to acknowledge the end of my journey. The people never stopped ambling by – the children continued to clamor for coins and the market flogger's voices didn't falter.

Among the normality of day-to-day life, my journey ended. In the same location, a century ago, so did my ancestors'. While my reason and method of traveling were different, I believe it was the same spirit of adventure that boosted our spirits. It filled us with curiosity of what each new day would bring.

They say travel isn't always about the destination, but your journey there. Chipata was the most ordinary of towns so that's certainly true for me. Without a doubt, it was the story and the journey that brought it to life.

As our bus slowly rumbled out of town, an old man sat on the roadside, smiling up at me – his grin infectious.

I smiled back, wondering if he knew what the moment meant to me.

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2 Comments

  • Max neumegen. said

    Nice.

  • Cynthia A Scarborough said

    What an adventure! You are fortunate to have a journal to use as a guide. Sounds like a great trip.

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