Zambia is living testimony of a country that has literally risen from the dead. I last visited the country in the mid-1990s and at the time it had not looked or felt good from any conceivable angle that one can think of. Lusaka, the capital, was stagnant, dusty and sleepy. It was still the "one-horse town" that I had known from my childhood.
What a pleasure it had been for some of us to move to Harare in the newly-independent Zimbabwe in the 1980s and be able to enjoy the bright lights, fine dining, and the general ambience of manicured lawns and cleanliness. Now, circa end of 2019, I am back and Zambia is no longer comatose. Lusaka, the capital, is now bursting with energy, including developments of overhead motorways or "one stair" roads as the locals call it, a feature Zimbabwe is unlikely to be seeing for a while given the enormity of the things that need to be tackled to get the country back on its feet.
So a tour of the Lusaka's central business district was due and brings back memories. Like watching John Travolta and Olivia Newton John in the movie Grease. The cinema was located in the city's tallest building, Findeco House, built in the 1970s with the help of the then country of Yugoslavia.
The building, still the tallest, now looks lost and tired but its degeneration was already in progress by the time I left Zambia. It was an ambitious project for which the country was not prepared.
Eventually, people had to walk as far as 22 floors, the furthest, to reach their destination because there were no skills to repair the elevators or there was no money to fix them. Africa is full of white elephants like this, projects built without proper planning.
But it is away from the parameters of the CBD that you see the new and modern Lusaka, which now looks planned with thought and precision. When I lived there in my growing years the distance to the international airport through the Great East Road was way out of the city limits. It was mainly open, bare land.
Now you are travelling through the urban jungle of office blocks, housing, hotels, shopping centres and, of course, traffic.
The economic turnaround apparently began after the end of the rule of Kenneth Kaunda, who was Zambia's first president. Then came Frederick Chiluba who started "freeing" the economy. Subsequent rulers, and there have been four since Chiluba, each brought "something new" to the table be it road infrastructure, housing or the shift of the economic emphasis from mining to agriculture. As we speak, Zambia has one of the strongest currencies in Africa as a result of these strategies. That, in brief, was the story of Zambia's changed fortunes as told by the locals on the ground.
Of course, there are challenges. Needless to say these would be considered minor compared to Zimbabwe's. One individual complained he was not able to get his tax refund as the tax office was "holding money" in order to supposedly pay Eskom, the South African electricity utility. "It's an indication of where we are heading," he said.
That is the one area the two countries have something in common -- power shortages which have to be made up with imports.Do not be surprised if a Zambian greets you with the statement: "Welcome to China."
While this may be said in jest, behind those words is something deeper. This could mean one of either two things, resentment or pride. The Chinese have bankrolled Zambia enormously. Many billboards are written in both Chinese and English, making it look like the Asians are there to stay.
The South Africans are also having their day. Lusaka has as many as 30 malls, most of them developed with South African money. You may as well be shopping in South Africa as all their major chains are there. The University of Zambia has become like a town on its own with a shopping mall right on its premises.
One cannot help thinking that Zimbabwe has missed some opportunities. If only the country had had vision when the going was good. After all, they were once "brothers" through a federation.
What if, for example, Zimbabwe's TM or Bon Marche supermarkets had penetrated the Zambian market to rival similar South African brands like Checkers or Pick n Pay? What if Barbours, that iconic Harare high class department store, had set up shop in Lusaka, even in South Africa's Cape Town, the popular destination of the moneyed international jet set? It may sound like wishful thinking, but had Zimbabwe played its cards right, the country could have been a grand total economic player in the region.
The wishes are not far-fetched. Zimbabwe was once the popular shopping venue of neighbouring countries.Francistown and Livingstone residents from Botswana and Zambia respectively used to trek into Zimbabwe daily to stock up on wholly Zimbabwean made products, not forgetting Mozambicans as well.
South Africa's Pep stores, who are not particularly at the high end of the clothing market, recently pulled out of Zimbabwe due to "local problems." What a pity because once upon a time Zimbabwe had a thriving clothing industry.
International brands like Van Heusen shirts and Lee Jeans used to be made under licence in Zimbabwe. There was also that factory in Norton that used to make Giovanni shoes, the renowned Italian label.
A coffee culture has emerged in Zambia, a reflection of the growing middle class. The best some of us could do many years ago was visiting the Zamby restaurants derived from the Wimpy name and set up by the government.
The Zambianisation programme after independence meant that the Wimpy eateries were dissolved and replaced by the Zamby concept. Yes, the Zambian government was once involved in the business of frying chips!
This new or middle-class Zambian does not see Bata shoes from Zimbabwe as the epitome of taste, unlike the older people who said they used to be in love with this Zimbabwean product. The gap in taste was bridged as shown by Mazoe orange, available in Zambia, and seen in quite a few households.
Did the demise of the Zimbabwean economy boost the economies of neighbouring countries? I do not have the statistics, but the eyes can deduce certain things.
However, one cannot help thinking there have been missed opportunities for Zimbabwe, who missed or failed to capture economic chances when the going was good.