feature: a month in africa – going back to zambia 21 years later

September 15, 2014

Looking down from the plane at the patches of light winking up at me below, my stomach did backflips – and it wasn’t from the turbulence. In about 20 minutes I’d be landing on a continent that I should call home but seemed far from it. Africa. A city called Lusaka in a country called Zambia to be exact.
This is the city I was born in and swept away from before I could even speak so that my parents could start a new life in England, which came to be my home and all that I knew. Revisiting my place of birth was an endeavour I’d been putting off for 21 years and now I couldn’t run from it any longer.

By Tash Vals, AFROPUNK Contributor *

I was terrified. I didn’t speak the language, I didn’t eat the local cuisine, I didn’t wear the clothes – in short, apart from my surname and the colour of my skin there were no recognisable remnants of Zambia in my London lifestyle.

The biggest shock came in the form of the significant difference between the poor and the rich. The variations of financial circumstance across my mother and father’s respective families showed me a different picture every time of the Africa that everyone hears about or sees on the TV, but few ever actually experience. One week I’d be visiting relatives who lived in houses made of mud and brick where there was no electricity, and water was gathered from wells. Another week I’d be staying in guarded estates with swimming pools, basketball courts and en suite hot tubs.

Despite the affluence of any inhabitants of this city however, now and then I was reminded by the bleak fact that I was staying in very much a Third World country. London transport for instance, can be a pain in the ass but compared to the transport in Zambia, British buses are practically golden chariots. Driving on the roads was like being dragged across the Moon’s craters in a wheelbarrow, they were that coarse. Whereas I’m used to huge red double decker buses, buses here were about the size of slightly larger Golf Volkswagens. I’m not kidding. Drivers in England (and America, I would also assume) get paid a set wage, regardless of whether the day is busy or nobody gets on the bus at all. In Zambia, getting as many people on the bus as possible was imperative. Conductors would try and cram as many as 20 people in one vehicle and in desperate times would even offer passengers a spot on the floor for a discounted rate! Imagine sitting on one of these crowded buses in 90 degree weather in traffic that extends a 15 minute journey into a 2 hour one due to an underdeveloped road system.

Oh, and you can forget about bus stop system you’re so accustomed to. Here, conductors hail you as if they were hailing a taxi. Imagine being a female tourist, leaving a mall and walking into a group of men who begin to shout at you frantically in a language you don’t understand while trying to grab your arm and drag you towards an unknown destination. This was the scene I was confronted with and it was my first taste of the local bus services! Luckily I had a cousin with me who seemed very relaxed amid the commotion and quickly explained that the men were conductors of different buses and were competing amongst themselves to get us to join their respective vehicles.

Temperamental electricity was another problem I struggled to come to terms with. As my uncle explained, within the last decade, the population of Lusaka has expanded far beyond the expectations of the government. This means that electricity supplies are not enough to sustain the entire city at a given time. What this meant was that as often as five to six days a week, the electricity would cut off without warning. These period of darkness could occur at any point in the day and could last anywhere from 5 minutes to about 20 hours – it was completely unpredictable. This was an issue that was designated to neither the poor nor the rich. Lack of supplies didn’t discriminate, so whether you lived on a private estate or a shanty hut, your power could go at any moment.

As much of a culture shock as my visit was, I’ll admit that it felt good to be the majority for once. On top of that the weather was beautiful (Zambia’s version of winter is pretty much England’s version of summer) and being a sufferer of debilitating hay-fever, my sinuses were relieved to be welcomed graciously by the friendly African air.

Another pleasant surprise was how close families are over there. When two people get married, their respective families are united also. If your husband’s cousin’s daughter’s sister in law was passing through town it would be considered incredibly insulting not to take her in, feed her and accommodate her for as long as she pleases. Extended family is taken very seriously here and it’s something that Western countries should learn from.

This article isn’t meant to point out neither Africa’s shortcomings nor its glories (of which there are many). If I could reverse things, I would have started visiting at a much younger age and done so more frequently. Despite this feeling, I’m just glad I came at all. Never more than now has there been a higher consciousness and recognition among young black people of our African heritage. As racism began to disguise it by changing its attire from white sheets to corporate suits, it became harder to pinpoint and address effectively – especially since we were assisting it with Willie Lynch based colorism ideals and a lack of support within the community. Although we’re looking up and taking notice, few have the intention of visiting where it all started.

Visit, learn and invest. If like me, you know the exact countries in which your heritage lies by all means go and explore your ancestry. If you’re not too sure, heck go anywhere! Invest in land and property. Create revenue for your chosen locations. I’m no business guru but I’m willing to take time out here and there to learn how best to benefit my family’s community with the few Western resources and advantages I have.

It’s not enough to claim Africa based on your skin tone alone. If we have never spent a significant amount of time on the continent, who are we to say what’s best for the development of the country, or where we’re being sold short? Now, while we are beginning to take ownership of our ancestry is the right time to take things up a notch and really reclaim Africa.

* Follow Tash on Twitter @ohlookitsTash