Mandy’s Matrix: Reimagining Lusaka

2011-11-01 07:31

Driving into Lusaka from Kenneth Kaunda International Airport is an average experience for the average South African.

The first billboard that greets you is Mike’s Kitchen, inviting you for dinner. If you are in the mood for breakfast instead, the Wimpy billboard on the other side of the road will direct you. And if you are in the mood for some flame-grilled chicken, there’s a Nando’s just around the corner.

Driving in on Sunday, I couldn’t stop wondering if this was what ANC president-in-exile Oliver Tambo and his protégé, Thabo Mbeki, imagined when they lived in Lusaka in the 1970s and 1980s.

This was the primary base of the ANC in those years, where many exiles lived in leafy suburbs like Kabulonga (if you have trouble remembering it just think of the Ninja Turtles slogan “Cowabunga!”), where today the South African High Commission still is.

No one from those days is here any more. As a diplomat here says: South Africans love to go home, wherever they are, they always want to go home.But for me it feels like home, right here in hot and dusty Lusaka.

Living here would have been easy for me – with Truworths, Mr Price and Pep right here for the latest fashion, and FNB and Standard Bank at hand for a credit card that will fund it all.

There is Game for houseware and Ciao Baby Cucina for some decent Italian food.There is even a Woolworths, but my excitement about a possible Woolworths Food was a step too far – this one only sells clothes and homeware.

Group Five is building a new mall that will include an Edgars and although the prices will have a 100% mark-up due to high import tariffs, Zambians will come and have a look.

A friend says the malls with the South African shops are always crowded, but not everyone can afford to buy. “Some will just buy one or two things at Shoprite and walk around in the shops.”

Sounds like me in the Michelangelo Towers – can only afford a cupcake at Annica’s Deli but go around drooling over the Gucci handbags.But I digress.

The argument about South Africans being the Americans of Africa is probably founded in some of the huge spaces South African shops occupy in the Lusaka streets.

But to me it looks like a city that never knew what it was supposed to be, and therefore innovative South African companies took the gap.

Cairo Road, where my hotel is situated, is the city’s main street and was supposed to be part of Cecil John Rhodes’s Cape to Cairo road.

But we all know that road led nowhere. Now Cairo Road is only known for its choked-up traffic and fast food outlets – where you find a Hungry Lion.

Is this what sub-Saharan African cities will be one day – smaller and dustier versions of what we have in South Africa? Is this what the African Renaissance was supposed to be? Bright-coloured billboards of South African outlets along Thabo Mbeki Road?

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