Steps into Lusaka

Usnish Majumdar

August 24, 2014

[EDIT 2.1.16 - I had the chance to look back on this. While this post is a hopeful one, it also reflects a kind of naiveté about NGOs and their role in development.]

house

We live in the house of a Korean ex-pat in Olympia, a diplomatic and upper middle-class community in Lusaka. Besides the frequent foreigner mistakes, the last three weeks of living here have been rather peaceful. When eight people live together in a two-bedroom house, privacy is fiction. Everything else, however, works out surprisingly well. Besides, where we live is pretty posh. The roads, when they are paved, are nicer than those you would find in most of the city. Through the sinister, ubiquitous walls topped by barbed wire and high-voltage fencing you can catch glimpses of bright flowers and manicured lawns. Why water your lawn if nobody can see it? Our house has three banana trees, a few papaya trees, and a patch of bamboo. Green stalks poke over the electrified fence, but the ground is rocky. Tufts of grass are choked by a layer of red dust that blows everywhere and sits, a dry and sandy lump, at the back of your throat by the end of the day. Here, thirsty grass turns a certain shade of brown that, if you squint just right, you begin to see everywhere you look.

On roads that run past our house even the ditches are well-kept, made of rough-hewn rock and cement that is touched up every week by troops of workers in dark blue uniforms. You don’t have to walk far before this bubble is burst. In the mornings, when the air is alive with the crowing of roosters, you can stroll onto Katima Mulilo, just around the corner from our house. From very early to very late, this road is busy. Squat minibuses sporting orange stripes sputter down the road, their drivers yelling musungu! musungu! (foreigner!), hoping to take you on a 4-kwacha ride (the real local rate is 2 kwacha, but saving 33 cents isn’t really worth the hassle) in whatever direction they happen to be going. Tin-roofed vegetable stands begin to arrange their wares. Holding up the roofs are rough chunks of wood that look as if they had once floated down a river, fallen from a tree. Further down the road, large pots and bowls are fashioned out of concrete, smoothed by men who walk in circles with metal spatulas and wadded newspaper. The smell of burning trash lingers in the air. Between stands and walled houses are patches of scorched ground. On the busy street corner, amid the dust and the noise, a man sells bowls and lampshades made out of beads and wire.

We have made friends with the owner of one of these shops just down the road. As she packs bright red, yellow, and green peppers into small plastic mesh bags, she tells me of her three children, all of which are around our age. She’d like to send them to college, but the University of Zambia (Unza, as it’s called) generally can’t provide education of a quality that guarantees better job prospects upon graduation. Subsistence earning is commonplace here, and because going to college and even finishing school doesn’t offer many advantages, most kids will drop out around grade 8. In the US, we tend to believe in the merits of a “liberal” education beyond just job prospects. But if going to school won’t change the kind of life you can live (i.e. the job you can get), why go at all? The shop owner lamented that in Zambia the government-sponsored public schools (which still require a tuition after grade 8, I later learned from a taxi driver) teach little more than rote memorization.

A Chinese man with a severe face and a prim suit drives by in an immaculate BMW X5. Ever since the privatization of the mining industry attracted significant foreign interest, the Zambian government has had some difficulty in sustaining its own technical employment. Driving down the Great East Road (one of the two large roads that divides Lusaka into sprawling quadrants) you can find the names of dozens of drilling and exploration companies, most bearing overt Indian or Chinese monikers (i.e Mahindra or Shandong Rock). Since the 70s, the Zambian government has struggled to tax mining and imports successfully (something like 40 percent of Lusaka’s public sector earnings come from mining), and due to a culture of wasteful nepotism among heads of state very few public works or social welfare programs have been completed or sustained. In hearing from countless locals how this resulted in real disadvantages for children and for the country, I was surprised at how frustrated I became. People deserve better! Especially when there are clear paths from public policy to better living.

Optimism

Let’s face the facts: The majority of the Zambian population remains impoverished. Even after a long period of sustained GDP growth, 60% of Zambia’s people live on less than a dollar a day. Given this information it’s pretty easy to take a cynical point of view. Is there reason to be hopeful? On the very same walk down Katima Mulilo from our house, you will pass at least a dozen buildings with titles like THET: Partnerships in Global Health, The Civil Society for Poverty Reduction, and The USAID Reading Program. Further down the road, you can spot the NGO that we are here to work with, Special Hope Network. This is an unusual sight that makes me wonder – can the work of conscientious Zambians and NGOs (really, foreign aid) counteract lackluster governance? We’ll have to see what happens. Here I must be careful to not imply that my Western ideals of governance are better than those of a nation that has made commendable progress since its liberation from British rule (which put it at a serious material disadvantage). I speak only of the Zambian people and their lives, their health, and their happiness.

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