Bordered by no less than eight countries, Zambia is a country we hear little of in the global media, if at all. At best, the phrase “Victoria Falls” might ring a bell. Too bad. There is more to Zambia and its people than meets the eye, as I found out on my recent visit to the Southern African nation of 15.5 million.
Although I made my first Zambian acquaintances as far back as 2008, it wasn’t until I read “Lusaka Punk” by Ghanaian-Zambian Efemia Chela that the threads that make up the Zambia began to weave themselves before my eyes. Her Caine Prize 2015 Workshop story of an NGO-dominant Zambian capital with expansive houses and cellars where youth and cultural identities are made and punk rock rules supreme piqued my curiosity. The following year, I had the opportunity to visit Lusaka for a week on assignment.
My First Visit To Zambia
I wasn’t particularly impressed. At the time, Zambia was undergoing a period of power cuts and rationing and the local news about the 2016 presidential race were anything but flattering. It all felt too familiar, too Ghanaian.The pace of life and customer service was also slow; probably the slowest I’ve ever encountered – and believe me, Accra is by no means fast-paced. My tight schedule covering the African Development Bank’s 2016 annual meetings while being sick also left little time to actually see and appreciate Lusaka. The highlight of my trip was an enriching visit to the local co-working space, tech and innovation hub Bongo Hive – home to digital entrepreneurs like Zambian fashion bloggers and duo Mafashio. Aside that, my first experience of Zambia was a blur of long work days, strip malls, hilly drives and cold nights. I was disappointed: where was the oomph, the punk I’d read about? Not surprisingly, I wasn’t exactly jumping with excitement when I found out I’d be going on assignment to Zambia in May. When asked what Lusaka was like, I’d respond, “a very slow and quiet version of Accra” and if anyone asked if I could see myself living there, I’d immediately respond, “Goodness no. I’d be bored out of my mind.” Long story short, I wasn’t expecting much from the city or country. After all, I’d already seen it all – right?
Five Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Zambia
From the title of this post, you can probably guess I was wrong. Zambia literally blew my mind, defied my expectations, and gave me a lot of humble pie to chew on the second time around. Touché. Here are some of the things I learned about Zambia and why I will no longer judge a country by its capital.
A Major Regional Trade and Transport Hub
Zambia has eight neighbors, many of which feature frequently and prominently in the news cycle. There’s Botswana which is often heralded for its economic advancements; Zimbabwe and Tanzania with their eccentric and famous leaders Presidents Robert Mugabe and John Magafuli. Both the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola make periodic headlines with their vast natural endowments – and the politics in tow – while Mozambique and Namibia are touristy delights with the former’s pristine beaches and the latter’s desert wonderlands. Malawi, also makes the list as a top destination for snorkeling and other water sports at Lake Malawi. But while these countries may stand in the spotlight, Zambia plays a crucial role behind the scenes: the landlocked country – or land-linked, as they like to call themselves – is positioning itself as an important regional transportation hub. In addition to the Kenneth Kaunda International Airport where visitors can get visas on arrival, the country has three other international airports and numerous airstrips and fields for domestic travel and regional air cargo services. Generally speaking, the main road networks are pretty well developed, and as I found out, the country also has a railway network that primarily serves its copper mining industry. With all these routes and trucks coming from as far off as South Africa, there’s a diversity of products, particularly in the capital’s many strip malls. It goes without saying that Zambia not only helps make trade possible within the Southern African region, but also puts Africa a step closer to its dreams of regional integration.
Green with Respect for the Environment & Wildlife
It seems Rwanda and Zambia are drinking the same kind of tea. Want to build a house but there’s a tree on the land? Redesign your house or get ready to plant four more trees to replace the one you cut down. Hunting game without an approved government license? Prepare for 20 to 25 years in prison. Zambia’s animal world is jam packed with some of the most intriguing creatures, including elephants, baboons, rhinoceros, lions and giraffes so it only makes sense they would go to great lengths to protect both the environment and wildlife. The numerous safaris offer an opportunity to not only observe but interact with the country’s vibrant ecosystem. Talking to my Zambian colleagues, it was clear that the people not only followed, but believed in the rules governing their environment and wildlife. The Mulungushi International Conference Center in Lusaka may have state of the art facilities, but the real showstoppers are the antelopes which graze unperturbed on the green lawns. Driving through Lusaka, what apparently used to called ‘The Garden City”, I couldn’t help but think about Accra’s receding greenery and the lack of public parks and gardens in Ghana. Are we truly committed to environmental protection and maintaining the delicate balance of life?
Friendly & Passionate People
Like Ghana, Zambia has earned itself a reputation for being politically stable and relatively safe. Its people pride themselves on being friendly, welcoming and hospitable. But quite unlike Ghanaians, Zambians don’t seem to mind ruffling a few feathers, especially where leadership is concerned. In 2002, Zambia made news by adopting a “No GMO” stance during a regional famine; a position fiercely guarded by farmers, consumers, leaders and citizens alike. With about 90% of the Zambian population identifying with the Christian faith, religion is very much a part of life. However, it would seem Zambians are fed up with fraudulent “prosperity” preachers and pastors. Weeks before my visit, a controversial Nigerian prophet was denied re-entry into the country by the government on grounds of being a likely “danger to peace and good order in Zambia”. I listened mouth ajar as my Zambian colleagues told me that churches are taxed and the government has a streamlined church registration process. New entrants are often advised to join existing churches as pastors in lieu of setting up their own. To say that I left feeling inspired by the Zambian fervor for rights and responsibilities would be an understatement.
Healthy Food: A Vegetarian’s Paradise
With a 743,398 square meter expanse of land, there is more than enough to go around for the relatively small and growing Zambian population of 15.5 million – many of whom engage in agriculture and farming. My assignment in Zambia involved learning about the country’s food culture and lifestyle, and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Zambian food not only looks and tastes good, but is actually very healthy. The national staple nchima (made from maize or millet) is eaten with many different soups and sauces made from the countries many leafy greens. That’s not to say there are no meat-lover options – quite the contrary, Zambia apparently has some of the best beef on the continent – but you would have an easier time going vegetarian in Zambia than in Ghana. A healthy lifestyle and fitness culture also seems to be in the offing as more and more Zambians ditch fast foods for their indigenous meals. Make a brunch date at Mulungushi or Dulce and Banana to sample some of the local cuisine – Zambian food is an absolute must!
An Encyclopedia of Parks & Natural Wonders
Views, on views, on views. While I didn’t have the chance to go on a guided safari, I did get to indulge in road trips and chasing clouds outside the capital – what a sight to behold! From rolling hills to high mountains to low plains and farmlands, to the famed Victoria Falls – the world’s largest waterfall – and seventeen others, the Southern African nation offers a lot of natural life and wonder. The capital Lusaka is equally as lush and green and the city’s flat structure means you get to witness spectacular sunsets and sunrises. Space enthusiast like myself? You’ll be glad to know you can see the Milky Way in the Zambian night sky. I saw a lot, but as I found out there’s more to do and see. If there’s one reason I’d probably return to Zambia, the natural escapes would be it!
Got any Zambia travel tips or considering a trip there soon? Leave a comment and let us know.
Jemila Abdulai is the creative director, editor and founder of the award-winning website Circumspecte.com. A media and international development professional and economist by training, she combines her business, communications and project management expertise with her strong passion for Africa. Besides writing and reading, she enjoys travel, global cuisine, movies, and good design.