I'm back from Zambia.
Got back the day before Thanksgiving. I've almost entirely lost the knack of sleeping on airplanes, so long flights -- and Johannesburg-Frankfurt is over ten hours -- now turn into all-nighters. The plane wasn't full, but there was a very annoying young woman who refused to move to a nearby seat ("But I like this seat") so I was blocked from stretching out. So, finished a book on the barbarian migrations of late antiquity and the early medieval period; fifty pages of Gardner on Chaucer; a nature documentary; a few minutes of "Life on Mars" (the American version; didn't impress); and the first "Best of the Who" album.
-- The barbarian book was interesting. It was Peter Heather's Empires and Barbarians, and I have a number of bones to pick with it that are beyond the scope of a blog post. (Fewer pots, more genes and pollen counts, and cut 75% of the academic wrangling.) But it made the intriguing and plausible point that a lot of ethnogenesis in late classical Europe took place against a background of intense violence. We think of Huns and Goths and Franks and whatnot as solid masses, neat black arrows moving across Europe's landscape to pierce the frontiers of Rome. But in fact most of these were probably groups-of-groups, accumulated from smaller warbands hammered together under the stress of invasion and war. Smaller groups that didn't agglomerate were at a military disadvantage; they disappeared, or are remembered only by specialist historians.
Zambia, OTOH, had a relatively peaceful modern history. It got raided a bit by slavers, but not as much as the parts of Congo to the north -- it was a long hike to the coast, so the slavers only showed up intermittently. (There was a famous tree in Ndola, mind, under which slave purchases were made for many years. It fell down a few years ago. I glimpsed it from the road, driving past; the Zambians are letting it just lie there.) Too far inland for the slavers, too far north for the Zulus or the Boers, just out of reach of the Belgians, British rule was relatively light in terms of mass violence... and Zambia today has around 70 ethnic groups, and the largest four together don't quite make up half the country. In Zimbabwe the Shona and Ndebele are over 60% of the population; in Zambia you'd need six or seven groups to reach that figure. It's suggestive.
Speaking of Zambia's demographics: about 60% of the country's population, and maybe 75% of its GDP, is located along the "Line of Rail". This is the old rail line that the British built to reach the copper mines in the north. It starts at Livingstone by Victoria Falls, down on the border with Zimbabwe; runs north and east 400 km to Lusaka, the capital; then heads due north another 300 kilometers to Ndola and the copperfields, up by Congo.
Zambia -- er, "Northern Rhodesia" -- was pretty lightly populated when the British showed up; for most of the colonial period, we're talking maybe two or three million people in a country a bit larger than Texas. (And it's not that Zambia is desert, either. Most of it was scrub forest or savannah, with plenty of rainfall. Population density was low because many people were pastoralists, and the rest were using a pretty basic Iron Age technological / agricultural package.) The Brits seem to have quite deliberately worked to concentrate population along the Line of Rail by a combination of carrots and sticks.
And it worked a treat. Whatever Zambia looks like on the map, in reality it's more like Chile: a country around 700 kilometers long and maybe 40 or 50 wide. The Line of Rail strip is relatively densely populated; the rest of the country consists of a couple of isolated population clusters (one over by Malawi, another out west on the upper Zambezi) and a whole lot of space that's still pretty empty.
This is in some ways to Zambia's advantage. They've got the main north-south road in pretty good shape. That means most of the country's population now lives within an hour of that main artery. That means much of the country has -- by African standards -- surprisingly easy access to markets.
On the other hand, if you're off that line, you're probably screwed. And rising population density along the Line of Rail is already causing social tensions -- things like disputes over land are becoming very common. And infrastructure and investment money is still pouring disproportionately into the Line of Rail, which means this is going to get worse before it gets better.
The funny thing is, the railroad itself -- like most railroads in Africa -- is in pretty horrible shape, and barely functioning. But it doesn't matter; the Line of Rail has now taken on a life of its own, and would surely continue to dominate the country even if the actual rail line were shut down, dug up, and sold for scrap.