Maasai hairdressers, Congolese tailors – with more flights and good business, Zambia is an African melting pot

Just over a year ago, these men were herding cattle in Kenya's plains; today they are leading braiders of women's hair in Lusaka.

THE TWO men’s fingers worked quickly on each braid, weaving it tightly together, working their way down, and casting it aside before quickly starting on the next strand. 

Just over a year ago, these men were herding their cattle on the plains of Amboseli in Kenya, but the rumours of well-paid jobs brought them to this small shack in Lusaka, the bustling capital city of Zambia.

Having had to learn how to weave hair into thin braids during their warrior initiation, which takes place when boys are aged between 17 and 20, these Maasai are now famous for their neat and fast work. Zambian women are flocking to the markets where the Kenyans have their stalls, happy to pay a higher price of 250 kwacha ($21) to get their hair done. 

The Maasai are just one example of an African community that has managed to settle and thrive in the Zambian capital. 

The country already has strong ties with South Africa; trade between South Africa and Zambia has increased from over R15 billion ($1 billion) in 2011 to more than R28bn ($2 billion) in 2014. This resulted in an influx of South African expats, many of whom are attracted by the low cost of living in Lusaka - which is estimated to be 26% lower than Johannesburg, for example. 

Although China, India, and South Africa supply the largest numbers of migrants to Zambia, followed by Zimbabwe, the United Kingdom, and the United States these are certainly not the only cases. For decades Zambia’s stability has seen it become a safe haven for its tumultuous neighbours. High unemployment rates in Tanzania and Mozambique and instability in the Democratic Republic of Congo  (DRC), Zimbabwe and in the past Rwanda have brought in tens of thousands of people, and many have stayed. 

This has made the country a true meeting point of East and Southern Africa. 

The ‘Comesa’ effect?

After years of hosting migrants and refugees, Zambians themselves have embraced a high level of coexistence. But the staying and pulling power can also be attributed, in part, to the country’s ability to integrate other Africans better. One factor that makes this possible is that Zambia is quite open to foreign workers. The total volume of migration to Zambia is relatively low, with approximately 16,500 permit applications submitted in 2011 and on average, just 5.8% of applicants were denied admission between 2009-2012. 

Another factor is the ability of Zambians to communicate with foreigners using “Nyanja” - a Bantu language spoken by over 15 million people in southern Africa. Its similarities to Kiswahili means the Congolese, Kenyans and Tanzanians can quickly improvise and make themselves understood. 

When speaking to different groups of Zambians there was also no animosity towards other Africans that you frequently run into in other nations on the continent. This could be because the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) is headquartered here, bringing employment and a regional belonging, or perhaps because of the services and business opportunities that these Africans have brought. 

For example, among Zimbabweans who have moved to Zambia are a small number of white Zimbabwean farmers who have started a new life and managed to achieve record-breaking harvests in their adopted country, revitalising the agricultural sector. 

Kenneth Kaunda legacy

But a lot must also be put down to their demeanour which echoes that of their first president, Kenneth Kaunda, and his idealistic “humanist” beliefs on which he even published a book in 1966 – “A Humanist in Africa”. It’s essentially a form of “Ubuntu” which believes that every person, whatever their station in life, has a place in society, is a subordinate to their community and is not defined by their nation, religion or colour. 

These strong morals are what drove Zambians in Lusaka to organise mass protests and urge the boycott of South African goods following xenophobic attacks against other Africans in April this year. 

These inclusive beliefs have greatly benefitted the city’s large Congolese population, many of whom were fleeing war, but now business opportunities in Lusaka prove too good to leave.

Like many of the other Congolese in the city, Sarah Mwandwa and her friend “Prince” own a clothing and material business. They came here over 12 years ago and were immediately struck by the easy-going nature of the Zambian community into which they moved. Because of this, its proximity to their home-town (a nine hour drive), and because of the stable business climate, they decided to stay. 

They sell Chinese-made clothes that are brought in by Tanzanian business partners and they sell Congolese material too. Unfortunately, a downturn in the Zambian economy has weakened the Kwacha considerably against the dollar, but the Congolese remain positive – the cost of living is lower here Sarah says, and they’re also able to bring in more money by tailoring custom-made outfits which are highly popular with Zambian women. 

Accessibility to Zambia is another factor that has made the country even more attractive as a destination. It’s proximity to many countries in South and eastern Africa for one, make it an ideal location - but it’s also becoming more attractive because of increasing regional linkages.

Southern African regional carrier, Proflight Zambia, launched a three-times-weekly Lusaka - Durban link, Ethiopian airlines launched a direct route into Ndola, in the Copperbelt region, and earlier this year Rwandair launched direct flights between Kigali and Lusaka – giving the 6,000 Rwandese living in the Capital an attractive alternative to get home. Low budget carrier FastJet has also been running services to Zambia for over a year now.

This year, the Zambian government has also been reiterating that it will “soon” revive a national airline to meet the country’s growing aviation needs. This will not only bring down travel costs, but it will also open up the country to more markets and therefore more opportunities. 

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