What it’s like to grow up in one of the world’s most toxic towns - Kabwe

Zambian Business Times - - BUSINESS REVIEW - By Lemmy Kapinka

I grew up in Kabwe, a beau­ti­ful place in cen­tral Zam­bia that was once one of the world’s lead­ing min­ing towns. Now it is bet­ter known as one of the most pol­luted places on Earth be­cause of lead poi­son­ing.

Be­fore I was born, my fa­ther and mother moved from a vil­lage in the cen­tral part of North­ern Rhode­sia, as Zam­bia was called back then, to a town called Bro­ken Hill, which be­came known as Kabwe af­ter in­de­pen­dence. Kabwe is right in the mid­dle of Zam­bia’s Cen­tral Prov­ince, about 100 miles from the cap­i­tal Lusaka.

Bro­ken Hill was fa­mous for min­ing lead and zinc and to work in the mines was one of the most pres­ti­gious jobs one could get at the time. We felt priv­i­leged com­pared to other fam­i­lies liv­ing around us. For ex­am­ple, I went to school with shoes on my feet while most my friends came in their bare feet.

Grow­ing up in Kabwe was an ad­ven­ture for a young kid. We didn’t have toy stores and would spend many hours mak­ing cars out of wire. We found the wires needed to build these cars by scav­eng­ing through the rub­ble in the mine dumps. And when we saw a pond of wa­ter near the dumps, that be­came our swim­ming pool and we would splash in the wa­ter. We had no idea there might be lead or other con­tam­i­nants in the wa­ter.

To sup­ple­ment the small in­come our fa­thers got from the mines, we grew our own veg­eta­bles, in­clud­ing toma­toes, cab­bages and onions. Our par­ents knew noth­ing about the qual­ity of the soil or the wa­ter used to nour­ish those veg­eta­bles.

An­other me­mory I have is that ex­pec­tant moth­ers in our neigh­bour­hood fol­lowed a long-time tra­di­tion of eat­ing a spe­cial kind of clay when they were preg­nant. These moth­ers, who ate the clay to com­bat nau­sea and for the min­er­als, also didn’t know about the pos­si­ble ex­po­sure to lead and other pol­lu­tants when they ate this clay.

Not all my mem­o­ries from Kabwe are pleas­ant. We lived on the western side of the mine and the wind blew from east to west. At cer­tain times of the day, a thick cloud of smoke would emerge — most prob­a­bly from the mine’s smelter — and pass over our home. This stuff made us cough when we breathed it in and if we were play­ing soc­cer out­side, we’d rush in­doors to get away from the smoke. My dad worked on the mines for 20 years un­til he re­tired in 1983. Af­ter high school, I went to univer­sity in the cap­i­tal Lusaka and ul­ti­mately left Zam­bia in search of greater op­por­tu­ni­ties, mov­ing down south.

Fast for­ward to 2002. I was work­ing for the World Bank in Pre­to­ria and while on mis­sion to Le­sotho I over­heard two col­leagues talk­ing about Kabwe. I ex­cit­edly told them that was where I grew up only to be given a con­cerned look. “How are you?”, they asked me. I thought that was a very strange ques­tion but then they re­vealed to me that Kabwe was one of the most pol­luted cities in the world. They shared a re­port on the pol­lu­tion lev­els in Kabwe. I was shocked and went onto the In­ter­net to find out more. Af­ter read­ing about the level of lead poi­son­ing in Kabwe, I de­cided to act. My mother and younger brother were still liv­ing in Kabwe but I con­vinced them to move to Lusaka, where my mother still lives.

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