Back when I was growing up on a farm north of here, Lusaka seemed an empty backwater, a mildly violent village on steroids. During those socialist days, in the mid-to-late 1980s, the place was devoid of anything you might call enterprise, but you still couldn’t stop at a red traffic light after dark (in the unlikely event that the traffic lights actually worked) for fear of carjackers. This was at the height of South Africa’s apartheid era, and that country’s toxic violence had leaked into independent, majority-ruled countries far north of the Limpopo River. Nations such as Zambia, sympathetic to the anti-apartheid movement, were known as Frontline States.
Operatives, exiles, and leaders from the African National Congress who opposed the apartheid regime set up in safe houses on the outskirts of the city. This fact gave our otherwise almost deadly-tranquil city an air of purpose and intrigue. On roads leading out of the city, there were police and Army roadblocks set up to catch pro-apartheid white South African spies. Often the police or Army officers manning the roadblocks were drunk. They were always underpaid. It was rumored that they were responsible for the after-dark robberies and carjackings for which the city had become notorious.
Not only because of the violence, but also because there was very little to buy in the city, we tended to avoid Lusaka as much as possible. On the farm, we raised our own meat and vegetables and rationed the socialist-era luxuries like toothpaste, toilet paper, and shampoo so they would last the months between our trips to Lusaka. Those shopping excursions were endurance tests: my mother and I would remain in the pickup, the windows wound up to within a crack, sweating in the central African sun, while my father dodged into mysterious compounds to negotiate the black-market purchase of petrol or beer. Then it would be my father’s turn to guard the car while Mum and I ducked into state-owned stores where we could buy a limited quantity of peanut oil, soap, jam.
But in 1992, with the Cold War over, the communist bloc no longer subsidized Zambia’s ideology, and we had free and fair elections. Suddenly you could buy a latte at an outdoor café on Cha Cha Cha Road while private security guards protected your car and fended off beggars. Traffic lights and intersections became clogged with street vendors selling cellphone chargers, counterfeit perfume, pirated DVDs, and plastic toys, all from China. And then the Chinese themselves arrived.
Now a sign at Lusaka International Airport welcomes visitors in English and Mandarin. By 2006 it was estimated that as many as 80,000 Chinese were living in Zambia. I was last home in April 2010. Dad had been sick in that nonspecific, feverish way of elderly Zambians. In the old days, there were very few doctors in Zambia and almost no medicine. Now there seemed to be an influx of both.
Dad had put a great deal of faith in his new Chinese physician, Dr. Fang. “Polluted blood,” she had diagnosed. She prescribed injections of antimalarial medicine, intravenous infusions of antibiotics and vitamins, plus a complement of Chinese herbs and potions. She ordered Dad to come to her clinic every day for a week, and I offered to drive into town with him from the farm. So we left at dawn, and it was midmorning when we hit the city. We took the third exit on the south roundabout on Cha Cha Cha Road, past the Catholic cathedral with its gold stained-glass windows. We skirted the Gymkhana club with its resident drunks and the new multistory Chinese hospital with its swooping double-eaved roofs. Somewhere just before the University of Zambia, with its perpetually rioting students, Dad took an abrupt right down an unmarked dirt road and then swung left between a storm drain and an enormous pile of refuse, and suddenly I had no idea where we were, because Lusaka is growing faster than anyone can name its new parts.
It was nearly noon by the time we got to Dr. Fang’s office. Dad obediently lay on a gurney with an IV drip in his arm and promptly dozed off. Once in a while, a nurse crept into the room with a plastic swatter and killed a few drowsy flies. Beyond the walls of the clinic, starlings crashed around in the bougainvillea. A cockerel cried from the servants’ quarters. Someone was burning piles of garbage. And beyond that, the restless hum of a booming African city, dusty and vibrant and feverish with ambition.