Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Coffee in Lusaka

We left Croc Valley and bumped back along the potholed road to the border town of Chipata. Here we stayed overnight in a non-descript camp on the edge of town. From here we had a two-day drive via Lusaka to Livingstone – the nearest town to the thunderous Vic Falls.

The drive to Lusaka was 534km along Lusaka Road, passing through colourful villages that stood against a backdrop of oddly angular rock formations that jutted out of the ground at irregular intervals. Very few people noticed the truck, let alone smiled or waved: tourism has been well established in Zambia since the Victorian era so white mzungos are no longer a novelty.

We set off at 5am and at 10 we stopped off at a small village for a mid-morning snack. Here, at one of the small stalls that lined the road a woman dunked balls of dough into sweetened, hot oil making delicious large doughnuts.

The bar next to where we stopped the truck was already full. High unemployment levels here mean that many people have nothing much to do other than drink or chew on the narcotic known as chat. Often in villages you’ll find the male workforce in the pub and dazed women staring at nothing in particular and baring the characteristic yellow teeth associated with chewing chat.

By 2pm we’d reached the Greater City of Lusaka. Large mansions with manicured lawns surrounded by walls topped with razor wire started to make an appearance. So too did gated housing developments and billboards advertising mobile phones, supplements for children and loans for business start ups. But even as we got closer to town, there were still areas where people worked the land.

As we entered town, modern American style malls sprung up. The one we stopped off at was an L-shaped block complete with cafes, book shops, computer stores and a large Super Spar supermarket. Leading the way in were newly paved paths, with elegant street lamps for after dark; the carpark was home to large 4x4s, some baring the logos of charitable missions.

And yet, after I’d enjoyed a few luxuries such as a cappuccino and speedy Internet access and the truck turned left out of the complex, I was struck immediately by the juxtaposition of rich and poor in a single town. Just a few metres from the shopping mall there was a patch of almost baren land, fringed with the detritus thrown from car windows where women were almost bent double, with hoes in hand and babies strapped to their backs as they tried to grow food for their families.

Such a vivid juxtaposition is not something we see often in the west. Our towns and cities are paved over and those who are poor are usually placed in tower block estates in residential areas out of view of the city centre…this is certainly true of London. A Chelsea-ite could spend their entire lives in London without ever needing to frequent the likes of Brixton, Stockwell, or Hackney (among many others!). Their entire view of life in London could be perfectly rose-tinted through no real fault of their own.

In Africa, on the other hand, you may be rich but every day on your way to your plush office block you must drive past those trying to eek a living on the small patches of land squeezed between shopping malls and luxury hotels. Here, the rich are far less sheltered from the reality of poverty and yet my guess would be that they are equally inclined to do very little. Given the amount of corruption on the continent and the instability of many countries, you get a deep sense that it’s each man for himself over here.

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