Seattle to Lusaka: First Impressions of Zambia



I may pretend to be a blogger/writer but really I’m a list-maker. Honestly, any time you’ve read a blog post that I’ve written there’s a 99% chance that it started it’s life as a list. Here’s a sample of the lists I’ve written about Lusaka and Zambia in the last 24-48 hours (links to stats added for this post).

What I knew about Zambia before I arrived:

  • That it’s one of the poorest countries in the world (#31 based on 2010 data).
  • That the rates of HIV/AIDS infection here are among the worst in the world (
  • That malaria is a chronic problem here (
  • That literacy rates are low (
  • That Zambia had a peaceful transition from British colonial rule to independence in 1964.
  • That the first post-colonial leader was Kenneth Kaunda (aka KK) who stayed in power for 27 years.
  • The Victoria Falls are on the Zambezi between Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Things I learned while on my way here (guidebook-less, I might add):

  • To prepare me for what to expect in Zambia, the Saudi couple who I met on my way from Dubai to Johannesburg advised that “while South Africa is part-European, part-African, Zambia is all-Africa.”
  • A South African hydrologist who met on the plane from Johannesburg to Lusaka – and who has worked all over Africa – suggested that Zambia is one of the most fertile countries in Africa. “Anything will grow there.”
  • That “Zambia has very little of the black-white racial tension that you still see in South Africa and Namibia” – from the German agriculture and forestry specialist – on his 7th trip to Zambia in the past two years – who I shared dinner with on my first night here.
  • Jeremiah, a Zambian forestry specialist who joined us at dinner, shared that “Kenneth Kaunda required that children attend secondary school and attend it in a different area of the country from where their parents were living. This was and is a big factor behind the lack of racial and inter-tribal tensions here”. It appears that the national motto, “One Zambia, One Nation”, holds true even though there are more than 60 tribes in this country.

Given all that, here are my first impressions of Lusaka and Zambia:

The single-runway Kenneth Kaunda International airport in Lusaka looks like it was built in the 60s and hasn’t been updated much since. It’s got low ceilings, graffiti over the windows and one rickety luggage belt. Passport control was four officers in small booths although they did have computers, digital cameras and digital fingerprint readers. It reminded me of a smaller version of Shannon airport before it’s latest upgrade.

There’s a prominent Bank of China billboard greeting passengers on the walkway from the plane into the terminal building. It may be that this jumped out at me because I’ve been reading the Economist’s reports on Chinese investments in Sub-Saharan Africa (

As our taxi left the airport, I noticed first three girls with their thumbs out trying to hitch a ride, then a small group of people waiting on the roadside and then a South American-style collectivo (shared minibus) trundling to pick them up. I’ve since since blue and white collectivos all over the city. Just like in South America, the wide open windows and jam-packed vehicles make me suspect that these no-frills, no-air-conditioning minibuses are the most common form of public transit for locals.

Although, given the constant streams of people walking on the dirt tracks alongside the roads, it appears that there either aren’t enough collectivos or that even these super-cheap buses are too expensive for many people in this city of about 2 million.

On the way from the airport to my hotel, obviously alerted by the Bank of China sign, I counted at least three Chinese restaurants and Chinese signs on businesses. Today, while walking during the evening rush-hour, I noticed that the trucks filled with laborers (usually sitting or standing in the truck bed) which passed on the road had Chinese drivers. I guess this is the Chinese investment in Africa in the flesh.

There were two billboards that caught my eye on the way in from the airport. The first was a government warning about pediatric HIV/AIDS and the second had a picture of a good-looking couple and the following text: “Having an affair? Don’t tell your husband but what about HIV?” Direct messaging I guess.

Zambia is much, much greener than I was expecting. There are many colorful trees and plants. I’ve seen advertisements for roses as well as a kid selling what looked like orange tree saplings on the side of the road. I wish I had a sub-tropical plant book with me. I’m just going to have to take lots of photo and put Google goggles through its paces when I get home. Seriously, it does seem that anything will grow in this red dirt.

Many homes and buildings are behind high broken glass topped walls with gates and armed guards. The data I could find on this says that petty crime is high here although not usually violent and avoided by taking simple precautions such as not going out alone at night. So far, I’ve found every single Zambian I’ve interacted with to be welcoming and very friendly.

Zambia is not cheap but not ridiculously expensive either – at least not in the affluent/tourist bubble that I’ve experienced so far. I’ve been taking mostly taxis which cost ~$10 for a 30-minute ride. A (very tasty) chicken curry dinner with a beer cost $18. Spar is a full-sized grocery store chain here (as opposed to the 7-Eleven style in the UK and Ireland). The one next to our hotel is well-stocked with a curious mix of mostly British brands but some local, some South African and Parmalat (Italian) dairy products.

For my kids (because I suspect a trip to Zambia could be in your future): you can check out things to do in Zambia and Lusaka on

My trip to Zambia to visit the libraries built by Passports with Purpose in 2011 is sponsored by Expedia.

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