What’s the capital of Africa?

When my friends here make fun of Americans, they refer to our geographical knowledge of “the country of Africa.”  It’s true that occasionally, when explaining to people that I was moving to Malawi, I had to explain that it is in Africa.  And I am also guilty of skipping the Malawi explanation altogether, and just saying I live in Africa – despite the continent’s great diversity of countries, climates, cultures, and cuisines.  But while I know that Sub-Saharan Africa is not Northern Africa, and I can identify most African countries on an unlabeled map, I still subconsciously believe a lot of it must be similar.  At least neighboring countries would be, right?  So I was surprised to discover HOW DIFFERENT Zambia is from Malawi.

To start, Zambia is a MUCH richer country than Malawi.  I was struck by this perception the first time I crossed the border into Chipata (literally a few kilometers from Malawi) last month, but I didn’t have time to fully develop my impressions until I spent a few days on a bus last week, criss-crossing the southern part of the country.  Despite a similar landscape to Malawi, there were notable differences:  Lusaka appeared to be a real city, complete with (a few) tall buildings, two Subways, a movie theatre (!), a official taxis.  On the outskirts of town, all sorts of industries flourished – concrete plants, Zambeef and sugar processing, etc.  Further down the road, even rural Zambia appeared more wealthy than rural Malawi does; more houses had tin roofs (rather than the thatch that is so prominent in Malawi) and maize fields seemed larger.  Rural towns were less dingy and more vibrant, and roads were (with some notable exceptions) in good repair.  It’s hard to describe, I guess, what makes a sub-Saharan African country appear “rich,” especially to my largely US-based audience, but it was an unexpectedly stark contrast.

Because Zambia has a couple million fewer people than Malawi in approximately seven times the land area, it is a much less densely populated country, and nowhere was this more obvious than on the road.  On Malawi’s main roads, you are almost never out of sight of bicyclists or pedestrians.  Even far off the “main” roads, people are everywhere.  In Zambia, we went miles without seeing anyone – on the highway.  There are actually trees in Zambia, too, and much (presumably arrable) land lies fallow.  In contrast, Malawi struggles with rampant deforestation, and most land than can be farmed is farmed.

After I came home, I did a little investigation – is Zambia richer than Malawi?  The answer is yes – by far.  Zambia’s GDP per capita is about $1500, while Malawi’s is $800.  Zambia’s economy has been humming along in recent years, due largely to its copper mining industry.  Malawi, on the other hand, has few mineral resources, and far fewer exports than Zambia.

And yet, despite the obvious visual cues that Zambia is a wealthier country, it faces many of the same struggles as Malawi.  Zambia barely outranks Malawi on the Human Development Index (and both are in the bottom 20).  Malawi actually has a lower infant mortality rate (89/1,000 live births) and AIDS rate (12%) than Zambia (101/1,000 and 15.2%, respectively).  Zambia has a higher literacy rate, but Malawi has a longer “school life expectancy.”  Both countries engage large proportions of their labor force in subsistence agriculture, which is highly vulnerable to natural distaster.  (All data in this paragraph came from the CIA World Factbook.)

Upon returning to Lilongwe, I sent my PCV friend in Zambia a message, saying things didn’t look so bad there.  She responded (via Facebook on her phone), “We still have a long way to go.”  And it seems – despite Subway sandwiches, shopping malls, and color-coded taxis – they do.

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3 Responses to “What’s the capital of Africa?”

  1. Mbulawa Says:

    Zambia has a lot of inequalities. Very few Zambians enjoy the benefits of the country’s ‘wealth’. The other ‘problem’ Zambia has is the unusual higher per capita NGO presence it has. Zambia is one of the top 5 African countries that are attractive for NGO work because NGO workers are able to access the stuff you’ve mentioned that is not in Malawi. And we all know that NGOs can be self-serving i.e they tend to exaggerate the statistics or the problem so as to get more money from their donors. I will always take the statstics with a pinch of salt.

  2. wongani Says:

    yo what you said here is not true at all, malawians have a better government and we have better cities. The problem with this article is that you are comparing lusaka with Lilongwe which u can not compare. Try to compare Lusaka with blantyre and see the difference. Malawi has the 2nd largest growing economy and we are way better than zambia in many ways so just shut up

  3. william Says:

    Malawi is better organised than zambia,the cities are cleaner n mo organised,da road system is much better in malawi! N da living standards r better in malawi than zambia.
    Jst wonderin if u hv rily bin in malawi;cz i’ve bin in both plecs…

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