Una vita in Africa – A life in Africa Rotating Header Image

January 4th, 2011:

Il Cuore di Lusaka – The Heart of Lusaka

“Is this a city? Yes, there are houses, but there is not a central piazza, not a park where people can meet, not a theater, not a town hall worthy of the name”. My Mozambican friend, used to the mediterranean look of the Portuguese colonies town, is perhaps exaggerated in his criticism. Lusaka, the capital of Zambia, is not so bad. However, his observations have some truth.

Like many other African cities, Lusaka was founded to meet the needs of the pragmatic British colonizers, and was built around the railway line that was primarily used to export copper. The criteria that have guided the planning are basically the same of the South African apartheid: three roads parallel to the railway where there are hotels and shops, them a cluster of government offices, a posh residential area for British settlers, and, as you move away from the center, an Indian residential area, then a belt of African neighborhoods, further away the farms (owned by the settlers) to supply the city with provisions. The only concession to the imagination, or rather to the imperial dream of the founders, the name of the main street: Cairo Road. In 1931, when Lusaka was founded as the capital of Northern Rhodesia, you could start off by road from Cape Town and reach the Egyptian capital always driving in territory dominated by the British.

The total value of copper that from 1931 until 1964, the year of independence, rhe British have exported through the railway that crosses Lusaka makes your head spin if you try to calculate it. Obviusly without even a compensation for the locals, When the British loosened their grip and Zambia became formally independent, there was a period of great prosperity. Zambians were proudly saying that Lusaka was the fastest growing African city, and likened Cairo Road to Miracle Mile in Los Angeles, because it was lined with elegant shops were you could buy anything, including the latest technological gadgets of the time. Then the copper price collaped in 1973 and today, after years of economic and politica disaster, the resurgense in copper prices and the arrival of Chinese companies and capital, are restoring the splendor of Lusaka, and ultramodern shopping malls are springing up everywhere. Although the majority of people continue to live in destitution.

To understand a town designed for business you should go to the market. Among boxes of tomatoes and sweet peppers, bags of dried fish, beans and rice, bunches of bananas, piles of cabbage – a landscape that changes depending on the products of the season – you meet all the Lusaka that does not count to the eyes of the world: Men who bring here the produce of the small farms, the porters, women who ran kiosk to keep the family, housewives who come here every morning to look for cheaper products. Here you can also meet street children, moving in small fast moving groups, innocent and shrewd, ready to render a paid service as well as alert for any chance to steal food or money.

Today I meet Lavu, the eldest of a gang of teenagers. He shows me Ouma. “You see? He is only eight years old, his mother has taken up with another man who chased him. As of yesterday, he is with us. But why are people so bad?”. Question that would shake the wrists to a theologian. Ouma still has tear marks on his dirty face, and signs of beatings all over his body. “Lavu – I say – it is not true that all people are bad. You are “people”, and you have accepted Ouma. You can not be in the world without having to deal with injustice and violence, but we are here in this world to help each other with love, doing what is right. Love can overcome evil, and you are demonstrating this simple truth. I promise you I will help you to help Ouma. I want to imitate you, because you are doing what Jesus would do “.

They look at me, bewildered. Then they break into an happy smile. I promise that if they get sick or too hungry they can come to seek help at Mthunzi, where already dozens of former street children have found refuge, and they disappear again in a few seconds, swallowed up by the flood of people moving around us. Once more I am confirmed that these street children represent the heart of this town.

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