The Lusaka airport has the same sort of shabby charm as most Third World airports I’ve been to. It’s the first impression of most foreign tourists to Zambia, so the government has tried to make it an imposing ’60s-style building. But no one would confuse it with Heathrow.

When you approach the immigration desk, you’re confronted with what appears to be the airport’s official welcoming art, a painting by Stepphen Kaputa, “Zambia’s foremost native artist,” entitled “We Welcome You to Our Safari Lodges in Zambia.” It depicts a scene straight out of a Cecil Rhodes fever dream: a half-dozen fat, middle-aged white tourists being served drinks and toured around by happy natives.

The other big sign at immigration is one directed at what appears to be a group of Habitat for Humanity folks who are building some local homes: “Lusaka welcomes the volunteers.” Together, the signs sum up what has, unfortunately, been Zambia’s relationship with the non-African world for the last few decades — a spot for occasional tourism and all-too-regular charity.

It’s about a 15-minute drive into the city center from the airport. Along the way, my taxi must have passed 10 foreign charity operations. A CDC/NIH facility treating TB. An anti-poverty program run by the Japanese government. A Programme Against Malnutrition center. Later in the day, I’d talk to an American woman doing work for PAM, and she said Zambia is almost unique among even African nations: “It’s just about the only place that’s been going downhill for 30 years. No up and down — just down.”

I don’t know enough to say how unique Zambia’s situation truly is, but I can tell you that on the UN’s Human Development Index — a measure of how easy it is for someone in a country to live a long, educated, and at least moderately prosperous life — Zambia’s been a global lagger. It was the only country in the world with a lower HDI in 1995 than it had in 1975. And while there’s been a little progress since then, AIDS is sure to knock the country back down again.

I had been planning on staying at the Holiday Inn Lusaka, a bland, soulless, but assuredly comfortable place. But on the flight from London, I came to the conclusion that I’d rather save a little cash. (Since the only people who stay at the Holiday Inn are traveling businessmen with expense accounts, they don’t have any problem charging $150 a night. For one night, that’s one thing — for a six-week stay, it’s clearly untenable.)

So I detoured to Chachacha Backpackers on Mulombwa Close. As a rule, I don’t much like backpacker places, and as the Lonely Planet-blessed place to stay in town (“Without doubt, this well-established place is the best in Lusaka for budget travellers”), Chachacha is overrun with the habitually unbathed. Much of the place smells like a toilet, and what doesn’t is coated with a layer of dirt. But, hey, it’s hard to beat $6 a night, right?

It was only six bucks because they didn’t have any single rooms, just dorm beds. (“You never know — the other beds might be filled with Swedish 18-year-olds,” advised the place’s owner, Aussie ex-pat Wade.) It was now about 8 a.m. Sunday, and I hadn’t slept since Thursday night. So I took my chances with the dorm room.

Unfortunately, standing in my way was Benson, a 25-year-old University of Zambia student who somehow learned in the five minutes between my check-in and the prospective start of my REM sleep that I was a journalist. Benson pays for his tuition by showing Chachacha tourists around Lusaka — he and a friend have a flier posted on the common room’s wall saying “We are the friendly local guys, and we would like to show you the city.”

But Benson’s true love is research. He’s trained to be a librarian, but he said librarians don’t make any money. He asked about the stories I planned to write, and he quickly proposed showing me around, pointing me toward interviews, looking up statistics for me, and so on. Sounds good, I thought. Let’s talk tomorrow.

“Oh, come on, it’s a free day! Let’s go looking now!”

Um, no.

“Seriously — it’s a beautiful day. [It was.] Let’s go!”

It took about 25 minutes of convincing to get him to acknowledge I wasn’t going to do anything more than saw logs today. Finally I made it to bed.

Woke up about eight hours later and wandered around. Had a few beers at the bar (the local brew is called a Mosi, named for Mosi-oa-Tunya, the local name for Victoria Falls). Got poked fun at for reading PDF files with names like “Educator Mortality In-Service in KwaZulu Natal: A Consolidated Study of HIV/AIDS Impact and Trends” when I could be acting like all the other backpackers, which would mean either:

- Getting sloppy drunk and telling the same untrue tales of your global “adventures” you’ve been spinning for the last nine weeks — coincidentally, the same span of time since you last washed your shirt.
- Making profound proclamations about the Zambian people (“They just don’t have that go-get-‘em attitude”) after six hours in country and a quick skim of the Lonely Planet’s “Facts for the Visitor” section.
- Scamming on the Scandinavian girls, who I’m sure have nothing better to do than hook up with fat 40-something Germans.

I went back to sleep, but that only lasted a few hours (surprise) before awaking at 2 a.m. Luckily, the Congolese salesman at the Radio Shack back in D.C. advised me to buy a shortwave radio for this trip, so I listened to a couple hours of BBC World Service on headphones before sunrise.

I’m not sure if it’s just this time of year, but the sun’s on an early cycle here. It seems to rise at about 5:30 a.m. and set around 6:00 p.m. It’s actually fitting in quite well with my jet lag.

Yesterday (Monday) morning, Benson was ready to go. We took a five-hour walking tour of the city, which left me with (a) a sunburn, (b) my official Zambian press pass (my passport photo gluesticked to a piece of yellow cardboard — it looks like a press pass for an elementary school), and (c) a cell phone. I don’t believe it’s working yet, but my phone number is (+260) 097 815475.

Back in the states, I’d read a lot about how crowded and charmless Lusaka was. As the economy’s tanked in the 1990s, rural Zambians have clustered in the capital (following the ancient Third World paradigm that wherever the government is, that’s where the money is), and the population’s zoomed upward. But the streets were almost empty across most of town. We wandered past some of the places where I’ll be reporting later (University Teaching Hospital, the UN complex, the American embassy). Zambians were reported to be a friendly people, and I’ve seen nothing to contradict that.

At day’s end, I realized I hadn’t had anything to eat since arriving in Zambia. (Those of you who know me realize that me not eating for 36 hours is something of a feat.) Part of me wanted to start off my trip with traditional Zambian cuisine (which primarily revolves around something called nshima, a cornmeal-based dough). But I figure I’ve got plenty of time for that, and when I venture outside Lusaka to rural areas, nshima will probably be all I can get. So I didn’t feel at all guilty about catching a cab to Danny’s over on Haile Selassie Road, the city’s finest Indian restaurant. Mmmmm…chicken tikka massala.

14 October 2003


14 October | 21:34  |  karen

Glad to know you are there safe - take care of yourself.

14 October | 22:15  |  christy

OK, you've officially cracked me up: "They just don't have that go-get-'em attitude". I hope, above all, you enjoy your trip. We'll hold it down over here at DMN while you're gone.

15 October | 21:05  |  michaelbrown

I want to see a picture of you AND the chimp, together, perhaps lounging in a hammock. I mean, you can't go to Zambia without lounging with a chimp, right?

Post a comment

    Remember Me?

© 2003 Joshua Benton