Zambezi River

I’ve taught about the Zambezi River before, but only in the most cursory way.  When we got to our very brief Africa unit in our world history class, I had students memorize the four main rivers in Africa using a map like the one below.  The Zambezi is outlined in purple and circled in red below:

But seeing a river on a map and empathizing with the the river and the people who live along the river are two different things.

At the start of the 2010 school year, I showed my students all sorts of cool places around the world using Google Earth.  One place I showed them is Victoria Falls, because it’s amazing to think about a waterfall that’s a mile wide.  Here is on Google Earth.  I’m using the measuring tool to show the width of Victoria Falls.

And here’s a quick Google Images result for the falls — they’re spectacular:

Then I made the connection — Victoria Falls is ON the Zambezi River.  Why had I been teaching my students about the Zambezi river without bringing it to life for them?  (sorry, former students)

As I looked more into the river to prepare for class, I found this image:

I was curious about the dams on the rivers, and I wondered when they were built.

According to Wikipedia:

The Kariba Dam is a hydroelectric dam in the Kariba Gorge of the Zambezi river basin between Zambia and Zimbabwe. It is one of the largest dams in the world, standing 128 m (420 ft) tall and 579 m (1,900 ft) long.[1]

The double curvature concrete arch dam was constructed between 1955 and 1959 by Impressit of Italy[2] at a cost of $135,000,000 for the first stage with only the Kariba South power cavern. Final construction and the addition of the Kariba North Power cavern by Mitchell Construction[3] was not completed until 1977 due to largely political problems for a total cost of $480,000,000. 86 men lost their lives during construction.[2]


I looked up the Cabora Bassa Dam, and it was built in the 1960s.  These are huge dams on one of the largest rivers in the world.  You can really see the reservoirs the dams have created on Google Earth.

I wonder why I’ve never heard of these dams before.  Could it be that our culture neglects African history?  If we do neglect African history, what history do we emphasize instead?

A big dam on a river reminds me of the Three Gorges Dam — that will be the subject of a future post, I’m sure…

One big point here is that Google Earth helps bring the world to life and taking time to use Google Earth in a thoughtful way can help develop empathy instead of fly-by coverage of four rivers to be memorized on a map.

The Zambezi River is more interesting, complex, and rich than a line on a map that goes with the Nile, the Congo and the Niger River.  Each of those other rivers in Africa is certainly worth looking into as well — a great assignment would be to have teams of students take a river from a list of world’s major rivers and “bring a river to life.”


About Steve Goldberg

I teach students at Research Triangle High School (RTHS) about US History. RTHS is a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning. The blog posts here reflect my own personal views and not those of my employer.
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