The dispersed settlements in which most rural Zambians live poses egregious challenges to the development of public health infrastructure like roads, clinics and school. Their dispersed distribution calls into question the practicality of continuing this traditional lifestyle and cultural behavior in the 21st century.
The villagers need clinics, schools and roads yet want no part in shouldering the costs or the life transformations these services require to sustain. They want to return settlement decisions framed in the 18th century when the threat of inter-ethnic conflicts lead most ethnic groups to move further apart, beyond the reach of perceived aggressors.
Now, that the threat of ethnic conflicts has all but disappeared, what is still motivating these people living in far flung and remote areas to continue living beyond the reach of Government.
The bedrock of rural life is supposed to be agriculture yet every year the Zambian governments is overwhelmed with pleas to send seeds, fertilizers and vaccines to rural areas. The governments hardly gains any return on that seed investment instead after the harvest rural farmers appeal yet again to the government to buy their surplus produce which can not make it to commodity markets due to impassable roads. Rural farmers rarely achieve self-sufficiency this cycle of dependence has been going on for years at great cost to the rest of the population.
What draws these people to this hard life on the edges of rural Zambia?
Is it a fatal attraction to the traditional land that their ancestry was first to lay claim or is it the absence of property rights that lures people further and further into the jungle.
Any urban Zambian that has visited their father or mother’s ancestral village will observe how far apart the village settlements are in rural Zambia, you travel for miles upon miles on treacherous impassable roads seeing nothing but bush then a small village setting then bush for miles again then yet another small settlement.
This story about what school looks like in Shangombo in Watchdog Zambia illustrates this wacky phenomenon.
“About 150 pupils at Dihehe primary school in Shangombo are having their lessons under trees while their only classroom built on temporal structures is almost collapsing.
School Head teacher Sikute Kamona said though government had given them school about K180 Million to construct 1×3 classroom block under which 4000 bricks have since been moulded by parents, pupils at the school still receive lessons under trees and a few risk their lives learning under an almost collapsing temporal classroom block built on pole and
Mr. Kamona added that despite the government funds to the school, construction has not been done due to difficulties to find a contractor as a result of long distance coupled with extreme bad road to the area.”
The problem is not only funding, the Government of Zambia has written out a check of approximately 40,000 USD but there are no contractors willing to go down to this remote area for this amount.
What is most challenging and disconcerting in dealing with rural Zambians is not only that government assistance cannot easily reach these people but how little effort these people in remote areas make to detach their lives from the jungle, in order to access the help they so desperately need.
How can the Zambian government help people in rural areas especially the kids in meaningful and lasting terms? Beyond the emotional handout, forced by an occasional glimpse into the daily hardship of rural children.
How can anyone help if these people insist on living on the edge, beyond lure of 40,000 US dollars?
Does the government have any authority to re-order rural settlements to make the delivery of public infrastructure cost effective?
How compelling is the moral or humanitarian justification for such a disruptive measure?
What to do to overcome cultural attachments to ancestral habitats?
What will be the costs and long-term impact of such an undertaking?
These are difficult questions that may not be readily answered but the alternate preposition is to go along with the status quo, to leave the fate of so many children to the hand of time.
How long will it take for the rural mindset to evolve to the reality of 21st century living?
Fifty maybe a hundred years, yet the ability to reorder and adjust can be seen in the transformed lives of those Zambians that have made the move to the cities. So quickly dispensed is the traditional mindset of isolated living, in per-urban shanty compounds. Once in the city, these urban drifters experience a collective shock to their traditional mindset, they flocked together overcoming ethnic diversity to build an urban habitat so closely knit it is said neighbours can literally shake hands through open windows standing in their own homes.
So when people in Kanyama or Misisi need a school, clinic or road - the cost or challenges of delivering such infrastructure is dwarfed by the thousands instead of a few hundred who stand to benefit simply because these settlements dynamics are more favorable. These people in urban settlements are more successful at attracting and actually getting the benefits of government assistance by using their collective weight of their numbers and shared demographics.
Yet their rural counterparts despite collectively significant and shared demographics cannot be as successful because they are so sparsely distributed and isolated from one another.
Well, I think we need to restructure our rural settlements into organized clusters, for the sake of these kids and posterity. Before undertaking such a monstrous task government needs to;
i) Undertake a rural population study to ascertain the specific behavioral characteristics and demographics of rural Zambians.
ii) Use study data to formulate, plan and develop a long-term rural settlement policy including cluster settlement designs, public infrastructure plans, local and national development schedules.
iii) Identify and prepare populations that will need relocating into the created settlement cluster including generating cost benefit analysis, environmental impact assessment, implementation timeframe and education on the long term benefits of organized settlement clusters.
iv) Design and Implement regulatory and tax incentives to enhance economic activity and attract business to serve the market, organized settlements will create.
The rural population study should seek specific understanding of these people in rural areas; their culture, heritage, attitudes to landownership, per capita income for 12 months, mean travel distance to school or health center and most importantly the level of cultural or ancestral attachment to their specific environment
Of course such a study may be costly and challenging but the benefits of such understanding are important for national development planning.
According to the 2000 census data the population density disparity between rural and urban settlement is wide and significant. Lusaka has 63 people per square kilometer while Western province has 6 people per square Kilometer, so it is clear where government expenditure creates the most benefit.
So, how can the Zambian government justify spending K1.3 trillion (US$350 million), approximately 4 per cent of the national budget, on the construction of a 74 km road between Mongu and Kalabo in the Western province?
Considering the population density in Western, at this rate we are talking about connecting 6 people per Kilometer at the cost of 4 per of our national budget.
Ouch… and this money is a secured loan that needs to be repaid with interest, I say instead of spending obscene amounts of money building a road to reach a few people let the Government relocate the few to the many.