Having spent a year working in Guguletu (Gugus), a township outside of Cape Town, I was very interested to visit one of the compounds in Lusaka. While the compounds are not a result of the blatant separation of people based on race, as in South Africa, they are definitely a symbol of the deeply entrenched poverty in Zambia (also very much related to race). And are a staggering contrast to the rest of the neighborhoods in Lusaka.
With only a few weeks left in the country, I finally convinced a friend, Awiya, to take me into a compound. Most people are not keen on bringing musungus into these settlements, but when he realized I was going with our without him, he decided it was best to accompany me.
Misisi (pronounced missus) Compound is the oldest in Lusaka and used to be a place where the British folk resided during colonial times. One older white woman continued to live there, even after the rest of her kinfolk flocked back home or to different neighborhoods. Everyone referred to her as ‘Missus’… and the name stuck. Oh the legacy of colonial times…(David) Livingstone, Zambia….Victoria Falls…and now Missus Compound.
There is one long, dusty road that stretches through the entire compound. We followed the road from start to finish….which is enormous. I was overwhelmed. I had seen plenty of poverty and desperation in the rural villages, but this was so different and I can’t even pinpoint exactly why. So many people come back from visits to poor areas throughout Africa, saying “they are poor, but they are so happy”. This irritates me a bit, as I feel that it is a way to shake off responsibility to take action…but I can also see their point at times…especially in many places I have visited in the last two months. I didn’t see much happiness here…I just saw children playing in piles of disgusting trash, women engaged in exhausting manual labor, and men drinking shake-shake – the local brew. Community water pumps and toilets were sporadically placed and after an hour of walking, I only saw one school. I asked if children go to town for school and my friend said it was too expensive – most children in the compounds don’t go to school beyond the primary years.
Awiya asked if we had areas like this in the US and I tried to explain the so-called projects and other disenfranchised communities. I also explained the welfare system and our government’s attempts to mitigate the problems. He mentioned that the Zambian government didn’t care about the people in the compounds… ‘And they know that no one cares about them’, he said. ‘Why do you think there are so many churches…the only hope that people have is that God cares about them’. It was true, we had passed by a church on every block….which was usually directly across the street from a shebeen (bar). I thought about if I was living in the compounds….would I have faith in God or faith in the shake-shake to save me? I bought a carton of the shake-shake on the way out.