Letter from Lusaka

Godo, the driver, was waiting for me at the airport.

‘So how is Lusaka?’ I started to chat, as we drove towards the city.

‘Lusaka is fine,’ Godo said. ‘Is this your first visit?’

‘No, it’s the fourth time I’ve been here – the first time was about twenty years ago.’

‘Oh, you will see many changes since then,’ Godo insisted, with a happy grin.

Very true. That first visit, I had been met at the airport by a European expatriate, for whose Aid agency I was going to run a workshop attended by local authority officials.

‘Where do you want to stay?’ he asked, immediately after the greeting ritual.

‘You could stay at the Ridgeway where you have been booked for the six days – and you would spend all, and a good deal more, than your per diem. You could stay at the college where we will be doing the training – and you will have no food other than ugali and bones. Or, what I hope you will do, you could stay at our place, let me change a hundred dollars for you, take my wife and me out a few times, pay for the end-of-workshop party at the Lusaka Club – and you will still have some kwacha left over from the hundred dollars.’

That is how things were in Zambia in the late 1980s. The economy was bust. Inflation was almost as bad as it is now in Zimbabwe; the shops had little to display on their shelves – and, though no-one questioned Kenneth Kaunda’s sincerity (remember, he was the President who always carried a white handkerchief to wipe away his tears when he grieved over his country’s plight), the public had turned against his centralising and nationalising economic policies.

In those days the only people who could live at all comfortably in Zambia were those with access to ‘forex’ – the hard currencies of dollars or pounds. The Ridgeway was the only ‘respectable’ hotel. There were few restaurants; the only popular one was, significantly, set up in a huge marquee – symbolic, I reckon, of the transitory and makeshift nature of things Zambian.

Now though – as I could see on our drive into the city – things are certainly very different.

We passed two huge South African-style shopping malls, with their Woolworths, Shoprites, Games, Mr Prices, Irish Pubs and Ocean Baskets. New hotels have come up and, what I hadn’t noticed on my more recent visits, many small guest houses.

I had been booked into the Pamodzi. I hadn’t checked it out on its website, so I discovered that it is one of the prestigious Taj chain, and I was quite taken aback at its price – 190 dollars a night.

‘But don’t you have a special rate for Aid agencies?’ I asked.

‘That is our special rate, Sir,’ the receptionist said. ‘Our standard rate is 250 dollars.’

Well, I decided to sample two nights of Taj luxury, before moving to accommodation more in keeping with my mission.

The only time I had previously experienced the Taj style was an extravagant but memorable afternoon tea at the group’s flagship hotel in Bombay. Now, the Taj Pamodzi in Lusake is not really up to that sumptuous standard – but it is, nevertheless, rather special. The rooms are spacious; the facilities (swimming pool, gym, massage parlour and shops) are of suitably pampering quality; the restaurants are, in more ways than one, tasteful; the service is almost impeccable; and, in all the lounges and bars, everything tones in sophisticated browns and oranges.

But what I have appreciated most about my so-far days in Lusaki is the enthusiasm of my Zambian consultant colleague to show me, from his more ‘ordinary’ perspective, how much things have indeed changed for guys like him since those depressed days of the 1980s.

At lunchtimes, he has escorted me to the fast-food places of the shopping malls – and he has walked me round the smart bookshops and well-stocked supermarkets. In the evenings, he has tempted me into a variety of bars and restaurants.

Great fun. Most enlightening. Very encouraging.

‘As a Zambian,’ my new friend said, ‘I would rather be alive now than then!’

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation