Abidjan v Lusaka

It’s been almost half a year now that we’ve been living in Lusaka, Zambia, and as with previous moves around Africa, I thought it would be interesting to spotlight a few differences compared with Abidjan. Development wise, there are a lot of similarities. But there’s a very different feel, and I’m enjoying my first experiences of southern Africa. The continent is far from uniform!

SPACE – a key feature of Zambia is the huge size of the country (752,618km2) compared to its 16 million population. It’s more than twice the size of Ivory Coast, with two thirds of the population. This has implications in a variety of areas including refugee policy (the country is very generous in giving land), to provision of Government services (quite hard as people are very spread out), to the quality of the tourism. In Lusaka, it’s apparent in the large university campuses, the high numbers of football/cricket/polo pitches and golf courses, and the healthy sizes of people’s gardens. The house we’re renting has a plot of 3,350m2, – not uncommon in my area or in Lusaka (for the middle class). Such a size would be very rare in Abidjan, a city with an extremely high population density even for African cities. I was looking at the paperwork for my Abidjan house this week – the plot size there for our 4 bedroom house (same number as here) is 270m2.

GARDENING – undoubtedly related to this, there’s a real culture of gardening. Many of these large plots have beautiful gardens, and each morning you can see gardeners out with their sprinklers watering the lawns and shrubs. You get almost no rain for six months of the year, but still the place stays fairly green. Many of the roads in certain areas of the city are lined by mature trees which are really beautiful, especially in October when the city turns red with Flamboyant flowers. In Abidjan, gardens tend to be on the small side, and tree lined avenues are not a strong feature of the city.

MALLS – As many residents in Lusaka will tell you, the big change over the last few years has been the sprouting of numerous malls around the city, generally South African, and often on opposite sides of major junctions. Abidjan has perhaps seem similar growth, and in that sense you get the feel that both cities have a relatively good sized middle class elite. The design here tends to be a different, shaped perhaps by i) the greater amount of space, ii) the more favourable climate.

CLIMATE – We’re really enjoying the weather. After the sticky humidity of Brazzaville, Abidjan and Freetown, Lusaka is a treat. This week, I’ve been the coldest I’ve ever been in Africa, and we even tried to get the fire going in our living room (yes, we have a chimney). We don’t have any air-conditioners in the house, and those at work are more often used to heat rather than cool the room. With limited humidity, long dry summers, and a temperature that averages 20C across the year, it’s hard to complain.

FOOD – the staple dish in Zambia is nshima, similar to what Ivorians call toh, made from maize meal. In general, I think Ivorians have a much broader range of indigenous staples (yams, rice, foufou, foutou, attieke, sweet potato, plaintains), something that isn’t so common in other countries I’ve spent time in. Related to this, the Ivorian culture of eating out (not just for the elite/expats), is also something that you don’t often find elsewhere. It explains where many cities seem sleepy compared to Abidjan.

SHOPPING – I have an odd habit of reading packaging labels, and I’m struck that it is actually quite rare to find a product that was not made on the African continent. Most things are either made in Zambia or in South Africa. This applies to 19/20 items. It is extremely rare to find something Made in China, Made in the UAE, or made somewhere in Europe. The only things I’ve found recently are delicacy foods (olive oil from Italy and blue cheese from Denmark). West Africa really has a long way to go in this regard – how odd that despite being a longer boat journey away, so much there comes from the East. It’s really tiresome to be drinking milk from European cows in Abidjan. Here they can be a bit resentful of the South African economic power. But it’s interesting that such products don’t appear much in the West African market. This might perhaps change if South African brands like Shoprite have more success, and I guess Abidjan has a language barrier to overcome. My ‘prior’ that has been shattered has been to discover that almost all necessary manufactured products are in fact already being produced on the continent.

PEOPLE – people here tend to view West Africans on the whole as quite aggressive. I’m sure Nigerians have done a lot to influence this stereotype. But it’s also certainly true that people here are in the main more towards the passive end of the scale (as Nigerians might think of Ghanaians). When you arrive at the airport here, almost no-one greets you, offers to help, tells you about a service they are offering etc. For western visitors, I’m sure it’s more welcoming then the shouting match that frequently results on arrival in a West African city. I do sometimes miss it though.

STREET LIGHTS – one odd thing is that street lighting is rather rare in Lusaka. Even on the dual carriageway that runs close to our house, there are lights, but they don’t seem to work. This wasn’t apparently the case in the past. Our residential area gets extremely dark at night. In Abidjan, it’s not commonly appreciated how much street lightening there is (which again encourages people to be out and about). Our very minor residential road in Abidjan is lit throughout (indeed we have a streetlight almost on our front door).

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