Lusaka, Zambia Report of what it's like to live there - 01/04/17

Personal Experiences from Lusaka, Zambia

Lusaka, Zambia 01/04/17


1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

No. I have also lived in Vienna, Austria and Chennai, India.

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2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?

St. Petersburg, FL. Trip is about 24 hours, with connections through Atlanta and Johannesburg or 27 hours through DC/NY and Joburg (via Dakar/Accra). There are no direct flights from Zambia to Europe or the States.

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3. How long have you lived here?

3.5 years.

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4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

Diplomatic mission.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

Housing here is quite nice, but can run the gamut from old and charming to new and a bit sterile. Most residences are standalone with decent-sized yards. Our house is on the older end in Kabulonga with a good-sized yard. Most Embassy housing is near supermarkets, malls, and restaurants, though nearly all of these require a car to access due to poor pedestrian conditions.

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

Local produce is cheap and of good quality, but you have to know where to go to get it. There are a few markets that sell farm-fresh products, along with a couple grocery stores. The higher-end supermarkets cost a bit more, but even with added import costs from SA, often run a little lower than U.S. prices, given the Rand's continued poor performance. Actual American products are often expensive, as are sports equipment, building supplies, and finished/tech products.

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

Between the commissary, DPO, and local market, we haven't really needed much else.

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

Indian restaurants are very good here and there are quite a number of them, including in the areas in which Embassy families reside. Chinese, Korean, and Thai restaurants also exist, but are of varying quality. There are a few continental places, as well, but they tend to be pretty pricey. Service can be slow and inefficient, but the food is generally good.

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5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

Bugs are everywhere, but usually not a problem! Ants will come marching in during cold season. Mosquitoes and flies are annoying during the rainy season, so make sure to use that bed net and wear repellent. Big wall crab spiders (called "flatties," here) can be jarring but are harmless. Roaches will show up in rainy season, but can be managed. Six-inch centipedes (called chongololos and kind of cute), crickets, mole crickets, toe-pinchers, locusts, and other small insects will wander or fly into your house from time to time, but aren't issues.

We've also had a dog, a cat, several birds, lizards, and a very small snake in our house, but they disappeared quickly when our dog saw them. Termites show up during the first rains and can be quite beautiful flying around in twilight, as long as you keep your screens shut!

Snakes can be a problem, so make sure your gardener knows how to identify and deal with the bad ones (mambas, puff adders, boomslang, and cobras). Owls are also good to have around to control snakes and rodents, but they come and go as they please. There are fantastic birds in Lusaka, so keep an eye out for colorful fly-catchers, rollers, kingfishers, widowbirds, cordon bleu, red bishops, turacos, peacocks, hornbills, raptors, and more!

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

Almost always through DPO. Local post is unreliable and slow.

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2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

Household help is readily available. Housekeepers, nannies, and gardeners tend to be professional and hard-working, though there are a few bad eggs here and there. It helps to set priorities early on and to suggest work improvements throughout. Salaries are quite low (around $100-$150/month). Add-ons like transport, meal supplements, and even school fees bring the price up, but still keep help very affordable. Being compassionate and engaged with household staff greatly improves communication and quality of work.

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3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

The (free) NEC has a small gym with cardio equipment, weights, machines, and yoga materials. CDC has a very small gym. There are local gyms - including at least one cross-fit studio - but they are on the expensive end, locally. A few folks run, as well (CLO has more information about that, as it's rewarding, but requires caution).

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4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?

Increasingly so. Some credits American cards, however, only work on certain bank machines (Barclays and StandChart, not Zanaco). Many restaurants and stores have card readers, but power outages can knock out the network frequently, so having cash is never a bad idea. ATMs are accessible, but often run out of money. They can also charge large fees, especially when coupled with your own bank's FTFs. Avoid using ATMs at night, as petty criminals can stake them out. The Embassy has a CitiBank cashier, at which official Americans may withdraw kwacha or dollars.

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5. What English-language religious services are available locally?

Zambia is predominately Christian, so there are innumerable churches around town. Some Americans frequent South City Church in Roma (nondemoninational protestant), Abundant Life Church in Kabulonga (same), St. Columba's in Long Acres (UCZ, similar to PCA), St. Ignatius (Catholic), or the Cathedral of the Holy Cross (Anglican). Zambian churches tend to hold very long services, but some Americans - including missionaries - attend these, as well. There are very small Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist, and other denominations, but I'm not aware of Mission folks attending them.

There are a handful of Hindu temples and an increasing number of mosques around town, as well. The Baha'i community is rather large. There is an LDS community here, but no temple. The local Jewish community is miniscule; a rabbi travels up from SA for high holy days.

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6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

Almost none. A few words in Bemba, Nyanja, or Tonga can help to show respect (though you should know when to use which). There are local language teachers; I'm not sure how expensive they are.

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7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

In many ways, yes. There are precious few sidewalks and drivers have very little regard for people with disabilities in parking lots or on the road. Some buildings are constructing ramps and an increasing number of companies (like Pick n Pay) go out of their way to employee deaf, mute, or learning disabled persons.

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1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

Buses are very unsafe. Trains barely operate. Taxis are OK, as long as they're official and trusted. Some Americans contract with local drivers, but they can be unreliable, though their rates are usually reasonable.

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2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?

A high-clearance SUV is a must for traveling outside Lusaka, where roads can be particularly bad. We have a Honda CR-V and a Corolla, the latter of which is adequate for jetting around Lusaka. Please speak with the RSO about vehicle and other crime, which exists at somewhat high levels and can affect foreigners. The vast majority of Mission Americans, however, have avoided issues by using common sense defensive driving techniques and avoiding night driving outside town and late at night within Lusaka.

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

High-speed is a relative term. You can get 20-40 GB packages with decent download and streaming speeds for $60-$100/month, depending on your usage. Zamtel has the best rates, but is fraught with service issues. MTN and Airtel tend to have better reputations. There are small providers, as well, but they can be more expensive and harder to access support.

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2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

The Embassy has issued us BBs/iPhones, which work pretty well on MTN. You can also purchase a local SIM easily and top off "air time" as you go, including from vendors on most busy street corners.

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1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?

There are a few, including one foreign vet at Showgrounds, one in Kabulonga, and one out on Leopard's Hill Road, all near various housing areas. No quarantine. GSO Shipping/Customs is great with importing pets.

Keep in mind Zambians are often skittish around dogs, so never take them off leash. Drivers can also be reckless. It's not worth it.

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Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:

1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?

The Embassy has quite a few jobs for EFMs, including several in USAID, PEPFAR, P/E, PAS, Consular, MGMT, and elsewhere. Local employment can be spotty, with most spouses working for international schools or NGOs. My spouse worked full-time at an international school (not AISL). Pay wasn't great, but the experience was good.

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2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?

Lots, especially through church groups and NGOs like Habitat. CLO will have better information on how to get involved, if desired.

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3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

Zambians tend to dress up a bit, even in hot or rainy weather. Men often wear suits and women dresses and heels. Formal dress is a good idea for the USMC ball and a smattering of other events, but business usually does the trick.

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Health & Safety:

1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

You should approach RSO about this. Lusaka has a high crime rate, though most of these incidents affect people outside the American community. That said, there have been home invasions, robberies, assaults, and other issues in recent years.

Car accidents are a major concern, as well. Zambian drivers can be poorly trained and make confusing traffic decisions, so you need to keep your wits about you at all times. Especially after dark and on weekends, drunk drivers are a constant and dangerous issue.

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2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

You should always wash your food in DI water and some sort of solvent (we use vinegar, others bleach). Airborne issues are common, given the poor air quality during the dry season, as are stomach bugs. Malaria is a big concern outside Lusaka (and recently within it, though on a very limited basis). The Health Unit stocks prophylaxis and can advise on medical care. Urgent care facilities are very poor; most people are medevaced to SA for serious issues.

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3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?

During the rainy season, it's usually pretty good, with the wind and rain sweeping pollutants out of the air from November to March/April. Dry season can bring up lots of dust and swirl around smoke from persistent trash-burning, causing respiratory problems for some folks. Outside Lusaka, there are few issues.

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4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?

Not sure. Please check with the Health Unit, if you're a Mission American.

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5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?

SAD is not an issue here - there's lots of sun, even during rainy season! Folks stay fit, by and large, and have an easy time getting around town (with some precautions), visiting each other, and attending other events.

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6. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

No extremes in Zambian weather! Temps are usually 60-75F during the day and 40-55F at night May through early August (cold season); 85-95F during the day and 65-75F at night late August through early November (hot/dry season); and 70-85F during the day and 60-65 at night mid-November through April (rainy season). As you might have guessed, it rains during rainy season, but usually only a few downpours a day, punctuated by sun. There can be more severe thunderstorms during late rainy season (Jan-April). It rarely rains outside the rainy season.

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Schools & Children:

1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?

AISL is where nearly all American kids attend. ISL is decent, but much better for elementary school children (the secondary school is not as well-managed). LICS is very small. Baobab and Banani have decent reputations, but are pretty far out of town, on the southern and northern outskirts of Lusaka, respectively. There are tiny Swedish, Italian, French, and Chinese schools, too, but they tend to cater to mostly language study.

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2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?

AISL has some accommodations; others are inadequate.

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3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?

Lots of preschools - many Mission folks like Casa gli Bambini - and they are not very expensive, as I understand it. Don't know about before/after-school care.

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4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?

Cross-fit is growing here. There are local soccer, running, rugby, and a few other sports clubs. Tennis lessons are pretty easy to find. AISL is usually the locus for kids' sporting activities.

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

It's decent, maybe a few thousand in Lusaka. The Chinese, Indian, and Lebanese communities tend to keep to themselves. Western expats are pretty well mixed; there are somewhat frequent food-focused events around town. Music and dance are very rare (though Zimbabwe has a great annual festival, HIFA).

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2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?

There are a few expat groups (Expat Zambia among them) that plan and coordinate events on Facebook. Waterfalls holds night markets from time to time, as does Sugarbush Restaurant. It's best to combine these with your own social interactions, though, as they're not super common. A market at the Dutch Reformed Church in Kabulonga attracts lots of expats, but it's dwindled in popularity since our arrival in 2013 (when it was kind of the only game in town).

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3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

Lusaka is tough on singles looking for relationships, I understand, but not bad outside that rubric. Couples and singles mix often in social gatherings. Families very much stick to other families, especially on American compounds and surrounding AISL events.

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4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

Absolutely not. Consensual same sex sexual activity is illegal in Zambia and non-cis/heteronormative gender identity or sexual orientation are highly stigmatized, sometimes violently so. While LGBTI Americans - including some families - have served here, they have to be discreet.There are local LGBTI support groups, but they keep a very low profile.

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5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?

Zambians are generally very welcoming to foreigners and people of different religions and ethnicities (though, as mentioned above, they can be extremely hostile to LGBTI persons). Gender equality remains a hot-button issue for the Mission, Zambian government, and civil society. Gender-based violence - most often domestic - is unfortunately common.

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6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?

The weather is fantastic; people are warm and willing to talk; trips for safari viewing (though expensive) are can't-miss experiences.

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7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

Spending time in safari parks or nearby areas at different seasons offers new perspectives on each visit. I'd recommend seeing Vic Falls during both the rainy and dry seasons - totally different experiences. Zambia has some fall and spring colors, so areas along the Zambezi escarpment can be quite picturesque. There is a chimp park near Solwezi that lots of people really like. Mutondo Wilderness and Shiwa'ngadu hot springs in Muchinga Province are neat (featuring some neolithic drawings, too). Bird watching is fantastic, all over the country. If you can make it, tribal ceremonies like the Nc'wala in Eastern Province and Kuomboka and Western are sights in and of themselves.

There's Japanese sushi rice growing wild in Western Province, mangoes everywhere. Avocadoes are plentiful, cheap, and good in rainy season. Central/Northern Province have huge, tasty mushrooms during certain times of the year, too. If you're adventurous, you can also try finkubala (mopani worms) or inswa (termites), when they're available!

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8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

There are some general African crafts available, but unfortunately many are imported from DRC, Tanzania, and Zim. Local artists, however, have reformed some of these products - like colorful chitenge cloth - into fun new styles and are worth supporting. Masks are everywhere, but of dubious provenance. Cool if you like them, but don't expect anything unique or old.

You must bargain for some things, but don't be too stingy!

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9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?

Weather, closeness of the community, and bird-watching.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?

That I needed sweaters for cold season!

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2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?


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3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

Rigidity with time. Just be a bit flexible and kind to people and you'll have a great time. Zambians will feel disrespected if you're too demanding, though they likely won't tell you that.

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4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

There is precious little written on Zambia. Check out The Africa House by Christina Lamb for something set in (but not about) Zambia. Maybe avoid Louise Linton's memoir, as it really gets a lot of facts and atmospherics about Zambia wrong (and Zambians really resented the book).

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