As someone who grew up in the leafy suburbs next to the Kafue River, I’m no longer surprised when reporters and tourists exclaim about the tranquility to be found “inside the Real Africa”—with no irony whatsoever.

As a school-aged kid, the most disturbing thing about our lives was that in order to get home from school, we had to round the corner past the house of the woman we called “The Periscope”. (In 6th grade, we’d just learned about how the lenses in said naval instrument allowed one to see around corners; this woman, though unseen by us, seemed to know everything that was going on, within a 360° radius.) Whenever we’d been spotted talking to/walking with a boy, Periscope would have already made a phone call to my mum, to let her know. Later, we found a shortcut through maize and groundnut shambas cultivated by the subsistence farmers who made a living right next to the plush homes of mine employees, so that we’d be out of Periscope’s direct line of vision, but nothing ever changed her level of control over our lives.

Now, what with Zimbabwe in political and economic shambles, South Africa deemed too frightening to do the feel-good-post-apartheid tour, and Egypt and Tunisia in turmoil, where do Tina Brown (who asked her people to find the “Five Places to See Before the Revolution” last year) and CNN send its people?

Yup. Zambia. It’s our turn to become “The Real Africa”. Because of “Zimbabwe’s political instability … Zambia has a real chance of being the destination of choice, but there’s a great deal of catching up to do,” writes Errol Barnett, for CNN. (Barnett’s piece also came with a video.) Zambia turns out to have a great view of Victoria Falls (which we locals like to call Mosi-O-Tunya, “The Smoke that Thunders”, when we want to be especially picturesque), cheap crafts and lodging, and cute sights like tailors “working blissfully” on ancient, free-standing Singer sewing machines. The locals are not murderous, but there is a big drawback: “Livingstone is lacking in infrastructure; most roads are unpaved and riddled with potholes. In fact, the first traffic light was installed in 2011 — locals call it ‘the robot.’”

Ah! We are so wowed by modernity, quaint Zambia! We call the mysterious coloured-lights machine The Robot. (Call me picky, but Barnett seems not to get that “robot” is the Brit-English for “traffic light” – not an indication of our alienation from and wonder at all things related to modern infrastructure.)

And indeed, nowadays, many of the new road projects are being funded and organised with Chinese money and Chinese know-how, though “They’re working with local men, helping to facilitate a smooth straight road meter by meter.” Indeed, “The Zambian government sees an eager investor, China sees a partner in the ‘emerging’ world.” But don’t be too hurried in your easy assessment, Barnett. I was on one of those roads a few years back, on a hell ride to a “River Safari” lodge run by a mostly-drunken ex-Zim farmer (that’s a short story waiting to be written); massive portions of the road had already fallen down the escarpment, exposing the iron-red soil for which Zambia is famous. Our drunk man, who had swilled the better portion of a bottle of vodka during the drive, was lucid enough to remember that the tarmac had only been laid down the year before.

And, as Barnett finds, this place has long been a refuge to the unhomed from all corners of the earth. Not just to South African exiles during the apartheid regime, Mozambicans and Angolans during their civil wars, and more recently, Congolese. It was once also the place where Eastern European Jews came. The Christian church in the center of Livingstone, which, “at first glance seems typical,” has, at the “center of the facade over the main entrance…the faint imprint of the Star of David, the symbol of Judaism.” John Zulu, the “young man working with the Zambian Heritage and Conservation Commission…eagerly tells us that during the 1930s and 1940s European Jews fled persecution and found not only safe haven in Zambia (then called Northern Rhodesia) but prosperity. This was their synagogue. He also showed us the local cemetery with dozens of headstones further exposing the rich Jewish history of Livingstone. By now most have left, many moving to Lusaka, the capital after independence.”

But yes, this quaint and quiet place is full of surprises. Right now, Zambia just beat Equatorial Guinea in the Africa Cup, advancing on to go against Angola next. We’re mostly excited by that. However, there’s plenty of people, particularly the IMF and aid-brokering types featured in this blog, who “spent three years in Zambia in the 1980s,” wining and dining with “Luke Mwananshiku, Willa Mungomba, Dr. Siteke Mwale, and many other highly intelligent Zambians…[as] part of the IMF group that came to rip you guys off.” All they see is “Lake Zambia,” a “stagnant” place where Money Men “come in with our large boats and fish your minerals and your wildlife and leave morsels—crumbs.”

Right. I get it. That man saw himself as one of “the Bwanas” who “take the cat fish.” I realise that people like him may see many Zambians as “the Muntu” (though, as many people who speak southern African languages will realise, the word “muntu” or “ba-muntu” simply means “people”, without the derogatory connotations placed on it by the “whites” of Southern Africa), and that he gets what he wants and I “get what [I] deserve, crumbs,” and “That’s what lazy people get—Zambians, Africans, the entire Third World.” (BTW, these words are all from a supposed ‘transcript’ of a conversation that a Zambian had with a former IMF guy, on a really long JetBlue flight.)

Nice. But as Jacqueline Muna Musiitwa writes, in response to that version of Zambia, “Zambians are far from sleepy and lethargic (though I do not see sleep or dreaming as a bad thing). Perhaps it is because I subscribe to Rabindranath Tagore’s words, ‘I slept and dreamt that life was joy, I woke and saw that life was duty. I acted and behold, duty was joy.’”

Indeed, like her, “I know many other Zambians who live by the same value. I know doctors, artists, cleaners, entrepreneurs, innovators, and intellectuals, amateur and seasoned, small and big, who, despite the odds, work slavishly to improve Zambia. Some work 9-5 and others do not, but rather than focus on ‘billable hours’, they focus on results.” We know, with pain, that “In 2011, the World Bank categorised Zambia as a lower middle-income country, which means the per capita gross national income is between $1,006 and $3,975 per year.” But while reporters from CNN or Money Men from the IMF may come and go, the singular education that I received in that country means that I remain a loyal contributer to its economy, in the small way that I can. And more than the monetary contribution, I remain an intellectual and cultural contributor, who does more than simple “representation”, or act as a cipher for how the Third World Can Do Right.

Further Reading

No more caricatures

Engaging seriously with Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s life could help us understand how South Africa got where it is and where it’s going.