Thursday, September 6, 2007

Are things better in Zambia than they were 10 years ago?

It's tough for a foreign visitor to know whether things are truly better in Zambia but at first glance, some things are clearly better. Roads are paved and have been widened. New retail businesses have opened. More people own cars than before--traffic can be pretty bad in the afternoon. I saw a couple of sidewalk vendors selling cut flowers--not the sort of fancy stuff that might be marketed to foreigners....but simple handfuls or small bundles of flowers that an ordinary Zambian could buy. And, I could see that the sellers had been successful. That's a real statement about the quality of life when people have money for flowers--a luxury good.

How about press freedom and media? Are things better? I would say yes. More private media firms are operating--there are around 30 on-air commercial or community radio stations around the country. Ten years ago, besides ZNBC, there were only three FM stations on the air in the country. All three of these are still around and prospering.

The Post newspaper, now more than 10 years old, looks successful. The print reproduction quality is very good; it's full color. The Daily Mail routinely has spot color. The Times of Zambia seems to be the weakest paper of the big three. And, let me clarify and tell you the news content of The Post is still strong--yes, there are some sensational stories and they've learned to package some stories that will sell papers--such as the recent and continuing controversy in Zambia over whether it's appropriate for women to wear two piece bathing suits in a beauty contest. The Post made a point to include contestant photos in the event people had not made up their minds.

Both The Daily Mail and The Times continue to carry the burden of the MMD, the ruling party, when it comes to selecting newspaper stories. But, newspaper coverage still seems better than 10 years ago. Newspapers are expensive--more so now than before. A paper costs about 75 cents...up from less than 50 cents before. And, the number of ad pages--at least in The Post--has increased. (The Post will let you read headlines online but you must now pay for full content access. Go to for access to the newspapers.)

ZNBC TV looks as tired as ever. Production value in the television programs I saw was weak. The news content and delivery needs help. Basic skills seem to be lacking among some of their staffers--though realistically it may also be that management simply doesn't want individual doing too many things. Even 10 years ago, ZNBC seemed to be a tough place to work.

I haven't seen specific figures on Zambia's fight against AIDS but a couple of people told me they're making progress. Still, it was so sad to hear of the many people I'd met before who were now dead. Ten years ago, I heard an estimate that one media employee in three was HIV positive--media people, with some degree of celebrity status plus simply a job--were believe to have a higher infection rate than the general population. Perhaps that estimate was true. I use to imagine what it would be like if every third person I shook hands with was positive. Ten years later, I have an idea.

A sad note certainly but what a joy and pleasure to be back in Zambia. I learned so many things 10 years ago and have continued to learn about Zambia, the world and myself because I was there. I don't want my next visit to take 10 years for the return and am now working on a project that perhaps will get me back much sooner.

Monday, September 3, 2007

I'm back from Zambia. The flight home was easy enough--an hour's delay in Atlanta but otherwise easy enough. I slept A LOT on the plane and have felt good this afternoon....I hope to get a good night's sleep this evening.

What new in Zambia: Retail space—lots of new stores. Most of the places are chains that were based in South Africa (Bata Shoes, Shoprite and Mr. Price are three.) The good news is that products sell for less. The bad news, much of the sales revenue leaves the country—although all the retail developments employ people and the consumption opportunities give people a reason to aspire for middle class or higher status.

My friend Muwana took me to a couple of local Zambian social clubs. Our first stop was the BP Club—literally run by British Petroleum for the employees but available for others to visit. The BP Club is located near ZNBC’s Mass Media Complex—Muwana’s office location. It was a good place to be because it was off the beaten path—no mini bus routes were particularly close so if you didn’t drive yourself or take a taxi, you’d probably select another place. The room would likely hold 50-60 people but there were probably no more than two dozen patrons when we arrived.

Muwana introduced me to several friends, including Joshua who upon hearing my name was Greg, told me he had a nephew named Greg and that for the evening, he’d be calling me Nephew. I called him Uncle. A doubting friend who walked up questioned us on the family relationship. As quickly as I could I said, “Look at our smiles and the sparkle in our eyes—you’ll see that we are related.” It was a good time for all to laugh.

Later we went to an Irish pub—the sort of place you’d see in the U.S. with all sorts of plaques or signs saying things like, “Liquor kept the Irish from conquering the world.” The bar, McHags, is located in Manda Hill Shopping Center.

Food: It was great to have N’shima again. Made from boiled corn meal, the thick paste is the Zambian equivalent to bread. I enjoyed lunch with two friends at a restaurant called Food Fayre. During the week, they have a buffet style meal. Saturday, when we were there, we ordered from a menu board. The three of us had village chicken (a Zambian equivalent to free-range chicken), rape (a green similar to kale), okra, and lowanbi (a local vegetable that’s boiled and cooked with some peanuts mixed in.) Delicious! The meal cost about 15,000K per person—that’s a little less than $4.00. While it seemed like a bargain meal for a hungry worker, I found myself thinking later that I often spend only about $1 for lunch by bringing something to work or keeping some cans of soup in my office. The simplest option in Zambia would be to walk a little further to an open market and buy some bread, fruit or vegetables from a seller’s stall.

Zambian Phrases:
“It’s just there.” A location reference that could mean 100 feet away or several miles.
“Where do you stay?” Where do you live?
“I’ll just pass by on my way to . . .” or “I’ll pass by at 18:30 hours.” I’ll stop by while I’m on my way. Or, I’ll stop by at 6:30 PM.
“Do you take ______?” Do you eat or drink or consume something.

Things I brought back:
Baskets—a suitcase full of them. A tablecloth with a guinea fowl pattern. Some small animal carvings. A bottle of Mosi Beer, made by Zambia Breweries, a company once controlled by the government but privatized and then purchased in full by SAB-Miller—the combined South African Breweries and Miller Brewing. And, renewed friendships and wonderful memories!