Finding Pavarotti in Western Zambia



The pontoon boat Pavarotti.
Courtesy of Carl Henn

The Pavarotti could take large quantities of food and small vehicles.
Courtesy of Carl Henn

When not carrying food, the boat could accommodate about 100 people at a time.
Courtesy of Carl Henn

Imagine my surprise when, on a routine visit to the Angolan refugee camp on the giant floodplains of the Zambezi River in western Zambia in early 2006, I ran into … Pavarotti.

The startling experience throws some light on the often highly complex arrangements involved in getting food aid to refugees, as well as the type of global conflict and postconflict resettlement efforts in which America is involved.

In addition to my other work at USAID Zambia, I had been designated the Mission Food-for-Peace officer supporting Angolan refugee feeding programs. There were more than 450,000 Angolan refugees at the height of the civil war in Angola that began in 1975. Many of the refugees had fled into Zambia over a period of years as the long, brutal civil war dragged on.

Although the war ended in 2002, convincing all the refugees to return home was a complex process that ended up taking years. Refugees had legitimate reasons to fear for their lives. Angola had been heavily mined.

It was dangerous for farmers, children, vehicles, essentially everyone and everything. Farmers might lose a leg while planting or harvesting crops. Children could be killed just trying to play soccer. On the road, a vehicle might hit a hidden mine at any time.

In 2006, 75,000 refugees were still in the camps. USAID was one of three major international relief agencies involved in supporting refugees and the major donor to the World Food Program (WFP) that has the mandate to supply food aid.

I visited the refugee camps with representatives from the U.N. High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), which established and managed the camps; the WFP, which imported American food aid; and the Zambian Ministry of the Interior, which ensured security.

My job was to make sure American food aid reached the refugees, was distributed properly, and was not being resold or diverted. We also sought to maintain the peace between the refugees and the local population, which resented “foreigners” receiving free food and lodging.

Two Angolan refugee camps were located on the huge Barotse floodplain. UNHCR was trying to close the more remote Nangweshi Camp and move the remaining refugees to Mayukwayukwa Camp, which was more accessible for delivery of food aid and other supplies and services.

Getting the food to the camps was a challenge. There was no bridge across the Zambezi River to the refugee camps. The Zambezi overflowed its banks from January to March at the peak of the annual flood following the end of the rainy season. During those several months, the river flooded the plains, submerging the only road and making it impassible.

UNHCR had to find a way to float the food commodities across on boats. Food aid is bulky and heavy (50-pound bags of cornmeal, large tins of oil, and 25-pound sacks of beans). The small local boats, mostly dugout canoes, could only transport a relatively tiny amount of food.

That’s where Luciano Pavarotti comes in; the renowned opera singer was also a goodwill ambassador for the UNHCR. A charity named “Luciano and Friends” did a refugee benefit concert in May 2002 and raised enough money to donate a cargo boat. Pavarotti asked UNHCR if he could name it after his father, Fernando Pavarotti, who had just died.

To get the metal cargo boat to where it was needed, it had to be cut into sections and transported thousands of miles from the coast, then reassembled on-site. A pontoon boat, it was a cheap, efficient way to float up to 63 metric tons at a time across the river. The boat could also transport small vehicles; and when not transporting food, it had enough deck space to take about a hundred refugees at a time.

I had certainly not expected to see a boat named Pavarotti on the Zambezi River. But there it was.

We can be proud of the ingenuity of the various agencies and the generosity of the American people in supporting the refugees, who had no land to farm in Zambia and no other way to get food. Thankfully, all of them eventually moved back to Angola.

International aid sometimes works in strange ways and makes for strange bedfellows.

Carl William Henn worked for USAID Zambia from 2004 to 2010, serving as a Food-for-Peace officer to support Angolan refugee feeding in remote western Zambia across the Zambezi River. His primary assignment with USAID was HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment, but the job was expanded to include drought relief and refugee feeding. Prior to USAID Zambia, he worked for USAID Zimbabwe as a health officer. He later served with USAID Burundi, 2018-2019. He has recently taken early retirement to focus on writing a book about his experiences.


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