Black Mountain, Red Earth chronicles the collapse of mining towns in the Zambian Copperbelt, and the rise of multinational frontier towns in western Zambia.

Black Mountain

Thousands of Zambians toil in the mining towns sprawled across the Copperbelt, digging copper out of the ground that makes into the wires that power our phones, tablets, and essentials tools for modern life. 

Money pours back in as global demand for copper grows, pushing prices higher. Land prices soar even higher. Everyone from engineers, consultants, families to pastors rush in to stake their claims. 

Far from manicured images of safari tours or white sandy beaches, this was the real Africa; 

the Africa that supplies the world and keeps our world running. 


Copper is excavated deep from the earth's crust, having formed some million years ago. 

Ore is removed, crushed into powder, and purified with scorching heat. 

Left are the impurities separated from copper, turned into waste. 

For every thirty-three grams of copper excavated, one ton of it becomes waste,

waste that swells as large as a mountain. 

Black Mountain. 


A mining pit stretches from one end of town to the other, 

growing ever so slowly as each cubic meter of earth is moved from the bulldozer,

its landscape shaped by its absence.


Towns fall into abandon 

as copper is depleted. 

The life and death of these towns,

chained to the fluctuations of copper prices. 


Home was what everyone wanted;

a place of shelter that stood still 

while the earth moved around them.

They build their own homes on some forgotten land, 

using bricks, charcoal bags, or ant hills,

anything that could be scavenged.


Jinpeng has a dream to build a new water bottling plant.

He collects water from a natural hot spring, 

where local boys wash themselves.  

We were standing on top of fresh water, 

soon to be sold in plastic bottles.


Hope finds itself as ore, 

freshly unearthed deep from the ground.

Ore pays for new houses and feeds families. 

What people are mining for is not copper,

but hope,

hope sitting somewhere deep beneath our feet, 

waiting to be excavated.


Walking along the streets of Kitwe, 

one gathers the desires of the human heart, 

plastered as advertisements promising love and wealth that run

 deeper than the largest copper mines. 


Ten young men are killed 

on 18 October 2018,

when Black Mountain caves in on them

as they scavenge for copper scraps.

Their bodies are lowered into the earth, 

from where copper emerges.

Red Earth

It's still another thirty kilometres to the next town. 

Anything between is nothing but an endless landscape of bush and red dirt. Head further west and you arrive at a mining town, then another, before crossing into Mwinilunga where the road splits and leads you all the way to one of the many ports where copper is ferried to the rest of the world. 

Locals call this area the “New Copperbelt", where multinational companies have claimed their stakes in this remote region of Western Zambia.

Our truck, which I had been hitching for the last three hours, is slowly trudging along the dirt road with hauls of copper ore on the back. The driver is humming to "Give Thanks for He is Good" playing on the radio. 


Kalumbila is a new town with the language of SUV's and minivans ferrying consultants, miners, Western expats, golf courses, and the names of multinational mining companies plastered on everything from billboards to trucks.

 Our driver points down on the red earth below us, 

"There is copper sitting beneath us here...The trees will be gone and this will become an open mining pit. In five to ten years, this whole area will become one large town, maybe even a city".


"This time is different"

That's what they all say, as if the pains of poverty were nothing but a distant memory. 

"We design these towns anticipating that the mining companies would leave one day. They're designed to last for more than twenty years, well beyond the capacity and industry of a typical mining town"

 But in this frontier town, shrouded by verdant trees and red earth, I felt this very real sense of nowhere, suspended in time. 


"The Chinese are like ants; 

they work quietly and get things done. We will sleep and by the next morning, we wouldn't have noticed that they've built an ant hill behind us."


People from all walks of life are brought together here by forces they cannot control; 

a Zambian woman from London, a South African grocery store entrepreneur, a Somali man from Minnesota, Filipino construction workers, Australian miners, white Rhodesian exiles, witch doctors and pastors, Chinese entrepreneurs, among others.

People came here for all sorts of reasons: running from somewhere, running towards nowhere, all the more free to re-invent themselves in this verdant forest. 

Deep beneath the red earth lay a dream of an abstract future.


"A tree planted elsewhere does not bear the same fruit. 

When you take a tree and its root and place it somewhere else, the fruit doesn't taste as tasty." 

-Abbas Kiarostami


Back in Sydney's house, we congregate around the round table, eating chicken, greens, coleslaw, and Nshima. 

I asked his daughter what her name "Cisubilo" meant.

 She responded, 

"It means hope"

Photographs taken throughout North-Western and Copperbelt, Zambia, 2014


2023 “Decoding Visual Structures in Photography”, Wits Africa-China Reporting Project Photo Exhibition 2023, Johannesburg, November 21

2023 “Black Mountain, Red Earth”, Doctalks x MoMA, The Ambasz Institute, New York, October 31

“Black Mountain, Red Earth 黑山, 紅土”, The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure, Spring 2021, University of Hong Kong Division of Landscape Architecture, 2021 

“China’s World Cities", Transfer: Diffusions and Mobilities in the Built Landscapes of Asia and Beyond, University of Hong Kong Department of Architecture, 31 May to 01 June, 2019

“Visualising Africa-China: Directions in Photography and Perspective”, Africa-China Journalists Forum 2018, Johannesburg, November 1, 2018

“Urban Africa, Made in China”, China-Africa in Global Comparative Perspective, Universite Libre de Bruxelles (ULB), Brussels, June 27, 2018

“Africa-China: Mapping an Emergent Axis”, AUHI, Faculty of Architecture, The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, March 30, 2017


Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism\Architecture Exhibition Grant, Hong Kong, 2015

Graham Foundation Research and Development Grant, 2014

Robert Eidlitz Travel Fellowship, Cornell University, 2013


Africa-China Journalists Forum & Photo Exhibition, Johannesburg, South Africa, 2018

Shenzhen Hong Kong Biennale on Architecture and Urbanism, Hong Kong, June 2015


Hui, Justin. “Urban Africa, Made in China, 非洲城,中國製造”,  2016. Print. 

Photography appears in

Lee, Ching Kwan. The Specter of Global China: Politics, Labor, and Foreign Investment in Africa. The University of Chicago Press, 2017.

Articles and Chapters

Hui, Justin. "Global Towns in the New Copperbelt." MONU: Transnational Urbanism 22 (2015): 38­41

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