Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Culture Shock: Evidence of Economic Disparity

By Danielle Parker
in Lusaka, Zambia

Soweto Market lies in the western part of Lusaka, just next to the city's Town Center. An extension of its namesake the Soweto Compound where many of the sellers live, we were taken to get a glimpse of one of Zambia's many markets. Anticipation met reality the moment our group of touring students stepped off the bus. We were instantly greeted with stagnant water and feces swirled throughout the dusty ground. Zambian friends grabbed our arms tightly, warning us to stay close.

Rows of sellers wait by their goods. Photo by Loren Nolan
The market is a large maze of many rows of stands and sellers, all with similar goods: second-hand clothing, dried corn, and small fish. The dirt and smell of the sun-exposed fish and human waste surrounded us as we inched past the stands and sellers. I tried to maintain composure,but periodically retreated to the inside of my shirt where at least the smells were familiar. Someone pointed out that despite each of these long rows of sellers, we seemed to be the only buyers.

Just off the main road lies a large road that leads further into the neighborhood of the market's sellers. Large puddles of stagnant water coupled with the resulting mud serves as a mask, disguising the road from its true identity. A Zambian colleague explained that despite campaign promises, government officials do not see infrastructure in these areas as a priority.“They are not aware of their job. People shouldn't live like this,” she said.

Ineffective sewage systems produce trails of garbage
and mud like this one that runs through the market.
Photo by Loren Nolan
As we continued through the market, we discovered that within in this community, overlooked by government officials, there was evidence of a complex societal norms through one of the most basic human realities: dress. I was forewarned by my Zambian friend in the bus that my ¾ length shorts may be unacceptable and tied my sweater around my waist. People still looked disapprovingly.One of my group members was surrounded by a large group of women screaming in their local language. We later learned that these “call boys” were acting as watchdogs of the community claiming that, according to their standards, her skirt was too short.

We finally found solace past the main roads, on a quieter side-street with a short row of sellers. They were mostly women, which seemed to make a world of difference because with the subtraction of the smell and chaos, it felt like a  different world. There, we found a stand with traditional Zambian skirts that we later learned were called “chitenge,”and bartered until the price decreased 1,000 kwacha,the equivalent 20 cents. We retreated to the bus we left just minutes before changed.

From the market, we saw evidence of the disparity between the Zambian haves and have-nots and how the government reacts to the latter. Blatantly faced with the reality of the culture in Lusaka, we were faced with a wider perspective of this complex country: Zambia.

Danielle Parker is one of 18 students from Ohio University, studying abroad in Zambia over winter intercession, about media, society, and governance, through the Institute for International Journalism.

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