Real Life in Lusaka, Zambia

Lusaka is one of the fastest-growing cities of Southern Africa

When the sun starts to rise, the city stirs; a lone bus meanders along the coarse gravel road, this is the story of real life in Lusaka, Zambia…

Lusaka City is the honeycomb of the landlocked Republic of Zambia, and just like a beehive, the clustered suburban dwellers feed off the 140sq.m land. When the sun starts to rise from the East, the city stirs; a lone bus meanders along the coarse gravel road, hooting for the attention of the early risers.

In a city that breeds an economic sanctuary for its inhabitants, there are three main types of individuals to be found. First, there is the student. Persons under the age of 30 make up 74% of the 14 million total Zambian population. After graduating their study, they are hoarded into the tight working class. The high unemployment rate leaves many youth without a source of income. Young people who have succeeded in joining the workforce are the second group of people. Then, there is a third, working to feed the 74%.

Zambia’s Lusaka sleeps early. Electricity rates are on a steady rise. Besides intermittent power outages called load-shedding, most roads are not lined with streetlights. This makes walking after sundown a sketchy affair, depending on the community one lives in. For the ones who feed the city, pre-dawn darkness does not intimidate. Bus drivers and conductors take off as early as 4:30 a.m. to transport merchants who buy meats, vegetables, and produce from the central trading area called City Market for their respective small scale businesses.

For the subsistence farmer living in rural communities on the outskirts of Lusaka, bicycles are the main mode of transportation. Their weathered bicycles are weighed down by sack bags filled with bounties of fresh vegetables or charcoal.  The far travelling men gather at Chelston Junction and other city hotspots to resell to the mostly female marketeers.

The Marketeers: Feeding Lusaka City

Food is the heartbeat of every major city. Lusaka is no exception. The Zambian staple is maize meal to make a pap called Nshima. This is eaten with vegetables and a protein. The direct line to a typical Zambian meal is the small trader, who on their makeshift stands, sell the produce they had bought at wholesale in the wee hours of the day.

One such trader is Peggy. She and her mother sell tomatoes in Lusaka’s Economic Zone at a makeshift market along Leopard’s Hill main road. This is what they do to support their family. Living in this secluded area of Lusaka means the cost of living is comparatively lower than the City Centre.  Peggy does not have to travel far to City Market or Chelston Junction to get her produce. She grows her own tomatoes and vegetables for sell.

Peggy’s day begins at about 4 in the morning. Cleaning around her home is a primary concern, but most important is picking tomatoes and onions from her garden, then buying fresh produce such as pumpkins, lemons, or sweet potatoes, which she doesn’t grow in bulk. The overall cost of her vegetables will depend on the season, scarcity, and the market price.

Being a trader in Lusaka is competitive. The market is bounty with fruits, vegetables, and spices at an affordable price. Every next trader is selling exactly the same product with equal or better quality, and sometimes at competitive prices. The monotony extends from foods to other commercial goods as well.

For Peggy, the high demand for tomatoes and onions is a hail Mary.  She sells them on the curb along the highway, and so, she and her cohorts are the only merchants for miles. The isolated improvised market brings with it a number of problems as well. Sitting in the open sun, the guarantee for a customer is not always there. Leopards’ Hill Road is busy and drivers may not want to stop; those that do buy a dozen tomatoes for approximately one dollar in Zambian Kwacha from any one of them. This is a great deal for customers hailing from Lusaka, where cost is as high as demand.

Another big market in Lusaka is fuel consumption. The use of charcoal, a non-renewable resource, is sold in nearly every market place in Lusaka. About 84% of Zambian households depend on wood fuel consumption which is a leading cause to drought caused by deforestation. Trees are cut, chopped, and then burned to create charcoal, causing a lot of small fires in different parts of the city and is seen as normal to residents. These fires usually burn out on their own so they do not cause any alarm.  This energy is used for cooking and warmth in both urban and rural settings, though it is prevalent in rural areas where there is little access to electricity. Even though charcoal contributes to the climate deterioration, the charcoal industry feeds the subsistence farmer. Once the charcoal is picked, it is packaged in empty sacks, most times recycled from old sacks of maize meal or mealie meal as it is called in Zambia. This is then transported on bicycles or trucks, depending on the demand and supply.

Though marketeers feed the city, they are not highly esteemed in society. In a metropolitan where the big ballers drive the latest land cruiser or sportscar, the merchants are generally viewed as less prosperous.  They are at the mercy of market prices and demanding customers. It may seem they are the bottom-feeders in the economic ladder of Zambia’s capital, when in reality, without dedication to their craft, this growing city would starve.  The Peggies of Lusaka may not have the best shops to sell their fresh produce or upper advantage on market price, but their value is vital for Lusaka to function as an economic ecosystem.

The Artists: Lusaka’s Budding Underground

From a bird’s-eye-view, Lusaka emulates a dwelling cut and dry for commerce, legal procedures, and motor traffic during peak hours. For the born and bred, the capital of Zambia represents a lair of mischief, adventure, and hope.

Gerald is a 22-year-old student at the prestigious University of Zambia. For him, growing up in this city meant being engulfed in soccer to the point of missing meals; nevermind that the ground was caked with dust and the ball was fashioned from plastic bags. There were also exploits of gate-crashing weddings and parties with friends of different tribes.

Lusaka is a melting pot of 72 local tribes and hosts a richness that can be found nowhere else in Zambia. The local diversity still has little interaction with expats because they are usually clustered in their own groups as well. This comes with the ‘mind your own business’ culture embodying Lusaka. It is a beacon for the dreamers who want to leave the provinces for the idea of success.

“Lusaka is a busy and swift city; a Zambian Mecca of sorts, with people trying to make ends meet,” Gerald reflects when asked about the sentiments he feels about the highest populated city in Zambia to date. Due to the high population, the job market is fierce and unemployment is detrimental.

As an upcoming poet, Gerald is yet to find economic independence from his craft and still relies on his parents for funds. The growing economy of Zambia has birthed a large lower-middle-class, especially in Lusaka. This creates three factions in the city; those that live in overcrowded compounds, residential areas, and colossal private properties. The latter are a handful. Also as a student, Gerald dedicates his spare time to youth advocacy through his poetry, book review clubs, church, markets, and long walks in the city to fuel his imagination and dreams.

Born into a lower-middle-class, Gerald, like many young people in Zambia, attended dual schooling. There is a bountiful of private schools that are relatively easy to enter into, but expensive, and government schools which are inexpensive but competitive to enroll. Therefore, on average, a child in Lusaka is likely to attend both government and private schools during their study year. It is not uncommon to find a child selling small merchandises at a makeshift stand or wandering about selling sachets of water, carried in a bucket on their head because they have no one who can afford to sponsor their education.

The many who cannot afford to go to higher education as Gerald does, learning a craft is crucial to living comfortably in the city where rent is high and salaries are low. Surviving as an artist means taking another job to earn a living. The craftsmen, painters, novelists, and sculpturers can be found at Kabwata Cultural Village or at Arcades Weekend Market selling their craft mainly to tourists. This is an untouched gem, though it is slowly gaining traction as artists like Gerald use their advocacy to speak on civic issues using art.

Life as a child in Lusaka can be very enchanting and generally safe to grow up in. This does not translate into adulthood, where the struggle to make ends meet overwhelms the sense of childhood adventure. There are hardly any city parks except for the likes of Munda Wanga Botanical Gardens or Chaminuka, which are on the outskirts of the main city. Not many families can afford to travel far or pay a substantial entrance fee to sit in a park that is only able to be accessed via private transport.

Growing up, Gerald’s family and his friend’s families only had the bare necessities available to them.  The high urbanization rate and lack of innovation contributes to the problem of lack in homes. The opportunities are few for a growing populace, making life very difficult for the earning adults. And yet, the hope persists.

“Lusaka is still a ‘heaven’ in people’s minds, thus many leave their fishing, farming, basket weaving lifestyles in their quest for a ‘better life’ to come Lusaka,” Gerald says.

The uphill battle of living in the big city also has its perks.  Lusaka is marked as one of the fastest-developing cities in Southern Africa. Not only does it promise hope for those trying to rise above the 72% poverty rate in rural parts of Zambia, it remains a remarkable trendsetter for other provinces in terms of service delivery, availability of goods, and diversity.

The Middle Class: Fueling Lusaka’s Mall Culture

The culture of Lusaka cannot be complete without scenes of competing malls, churches, and bars thrown in the mix. Foreign investments from countries like South Africa and China in Zambia has seen shopping malls sprouting throughout the city. The working class love to spend on food. Hungry Lion fast food and the Shoprite grocery chain store are a couple favorite hotspots, always having long queues, especially on month ends, after payday.

Young working mother, Banji, however, finds eating out in Lusaka as far too expensive. She doesn’t think it is economical, and she reckons only those who are well-to-do or in denial about their debt can ever afford to do so on a frequent basis. Like many Zambian families, she prefers to eat home-cooked meals. The staple diet is nshima made from maize meal, eaten alongside a protein such as fish, chicken, meat, or the local chikanda and vegetables in season.

On preference, Banji would rather live in Ndola than Lusaka City. She finds the former cheaper, much cleaner, and less congested than the capital. Also, Banji says Lusaka is a hand-to-mouth city, such as you are only as rich as the money you have, and as soon as it is spent, you are swallowed back in poverty. The city does not support her financially as most of her earnings go to commute, food, and supporting the basic needs of her family. This makes it difficult to save funds. Lusaka is a spend-as-you-go city, and you cannot do anything without spending some money.

Her experience growing up in the city did little to appease her opinion. Because her family could not afford a lot of things, she was bullied by schoolmates who looked down on her because of the things she didn’t have. Another challenge was the cost of education, which meant she had to change schools multiple times according to the availability of funds.

Banji lives in a neighborhood that is in close proximity to a peri-urban compound. This affects the security of the entire community due to pilferage and prevalence of manslaughter. Gangs from the compound reckon those living in urban areas have better lifestyles and more money. The crime is not always extreme though, as Banji recounts.

“I was crooked out of money on a named street. I bought a phone and when I tested it with the seller, it worked fine. When I got home, I discovered the phone was burnt out and I used my Mom’s phone to call the seller, but his line was off. I went back to the street and asked around for the seller only to be told that he is a conman.”

In all of this, Banji acknowledges some things that she likes about Lusaka. After a difficult time finding a job, she finally found good employment.  She admits the city of Lusaka is beautiful and full of diverse people. Most products and services are available in the city compared to other towns, and despite limitation and cost, she can easily visit the zoo and shopping malls whenever she wants.

Zambia is a declared Christian nation; therefore, it is not uncommon to stumble upon churches in nearly every community in Lusaka. These are small structures reinforced with wood and plastic, classrooms transformed into prayer centers on Sundays, or colossal cathedrals – there is a church for everyone.

The bars do not discriminate either. Zambians love their Mosi lager so much that alcoholism is a growing problem in the nation. Banji does go to church, but thinks the bars are too congested.  Some locals prefer to frequent all three; the mall, church and bar. In a place where the recreational places are few, there are only so many places one can go.

Lusaka’s Dynamic Potential

Living in Lusaka is the first step to connecting to the best opportunities that can be found in Zambia. The ideal way to survive in the competitive ecosystem is to have a strong support system; a system to offer accommodation at least, because it is quite expensive.

What we navigated through in this article is only the surface of the labyrinth that makes up the fastest-growing city in Africa. The only true way to experience Lusaka firsthand is to visit the city, commute by public bus – squeezed between clammy strangers and your head bumping the roof on bumpy roads. Take a walk in the market, skip over puddles of brown water and soggy litter, then an instant later bask in the glory of fresh vegetables, bright fruits and aromatic spices. Order a hot nshima with fried bream and get puzzled at the names of vegetable variety, wondering why they are called rape, chinese, or bondwe.

The capital city of Zambia is a place of highs and lows, and like an orchestra, the beauty of living comes in enjoying the blend of both. Welcome to Lusaka.

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