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