For the next few blogs I’m not going to write about schools or the Book Bus but about some of my impressions of everyday life in Zambia! I have been living and working in Zambia for over 2 years now and whenever new volunteers come I get reminded that things that seem to be commonplace and normal to me now can be out of the ordinary and fascinating when you experience them for the first time.
I always make sure that we make trips to the local markets. They are vibrant and bustling, full of unusual sounds, smells and sights! You can buy absolutely anything in these markets. Whether it be fresh vegetables, used clothes, a live chicken, plumbing parts, orange squash, wool or dried fish you are looking for you are sure to find it! The “food court” is the place that launches the biggest assault on your senses. Piles of dried fish covered in flies, meat hanging up in the open air, dried caterpillars or flying ants, bright red tomatoes, shiny green peppers, huge bags of charcoal, deep fried doughnuts or sweet potatoes sold in old newspaper; everywhere people are selling their wares. Mostly it’s the women, in their brightly coloured “chitenge” fabric, usually with a baby strapped to their back and a couple of toddlers playing by their feet, who do the selling. They call to potential customers, to their friends, neighbours and children. The market is always alive whichever day you venture in. The narrow alleys, the constant noise and jostling is normal to me now and I feel quite at home wandering around and being the only m’zungu but I love to see the wide eyed wonder of people who have never been to such a place, there is so much to take in it’s no wonder many volunteers keep popping back, especially to buy more fabric!
The carpenters on the roadside who make you furniture within a day, the men hammering old metal to make braziers or cooking pots, the women pounding stone into gravel at the quarry they are all trying to make a living. There is no social security or safety net here. If you don’t make any money that day then your family will go hungry. Many houses that we pass on the way to school have small stalls outside their homes where they will sell vegetables or bread or talk time to make a little extra money. This is a cash society and the most used notes are the 500 and 1000 kwacha notes, worth 7.5p and 15p respectively. The government has introduced “plastic” notes that are waterproof and un-tearable to try and prolong the lifespan.
Another question that I often get asked is what is in all the small plastic bags that many stalls are selling. This can be anything from salt, sugar, flour or cooking oil to washing powder or “Mealie Meal”, which is the ground maize flour used to make the staple Zambian N’shima. The stall holders buy a “big” bag or container of the said product and then they divided it into small and sometimes tiny portions to sell to the many Zambians who could never afford to buy a whole KG of sugar or a bottle of cooking oil. Most people that you meet are living day to day, they will buy whatever they can afford with the money they made that day selling bananas, doughnuts or vegetables. You can buy single cigarettes, mobile top-up for less than 7pence or a pile of 5 pieces of charcoal. The people doing this “small” business are, in the end, probably making a few pounds on the price of the original product they bought. Then when they are sold out they will buy another one and so the micro economy keeps turning.