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Interview with Norman – A South African expat living in Zambia

Updated 12 Sep 2013

Norman is a South African expat living in Zambia. He moved to Lusaka with his wife and family to head up a new contract in 2008. Five years down the line, they are enjoying life in Zambia. Although the cost of living is high, they feel safe and find the locals friendly and welcoming. In his interview with Expat Arrivals, Norman offers some great advice to expats contemplating a move to Zambia.

Learn more about expat life in Zambia in the Expat Arrivals Zambia guide or read more expat experiences in Zambia.

About Norman

Q: Where are you originally from? 

A: South Africa

Q: Where are you living now? 

A:  Leopards Hill, Lusaka

Q: When did you move to Zambia? 

A:  2008

Q: Did you move with a spouse/children? 

A:  Yes

Q: Why did you move to Lusaka; what do you do? 

A:  Transferred to run a new contract

About Lusaka

Q: What do you enjoy most about your host city, how’s the quality of life? 

A:  I have not been a victim of crime or had any near miss.

Q: Any negatives? What do you miss most about home? 

A:  Internet speed

Q: Is Lusaka safe? Are there any areas expats should avoid?

A: Yes it is safe, once you know your way around and how to address people, there is nowhere that I have not ventured. My wife shops in the informal markets on her own sometimes. When you are in peak traffic, just keep your doors locked to prevent an opportunistic grab. Having said that, if you were unlucky enough to be one of the few who do fall victim to this, it is likely that the locals will try to apprehend the thief for you. 

Q: How would you rate the public transport in Lusaka? What are the different options? Do you need to own a car?
A: You do not need your own car, but it makes things so much easier. The minibus taxis are everywhere and the normal taxis are not far away. You can get a ‘tame’ taxi driver who will look after you, but this is no London where you really can operate without a car quite comfortably.

Q: How would you rate the healthcare in Zambia?

A:  Not great, sometimes scary. You will need a good evacuation plan for more complicated procedures. One can die here at the scene of an accident because of a lack of adequate first responders. Don’t come here if you have a condition that may need you to get expert help within 2 hours.

About living in Lusaka

Q: Which are the best places/suburbs to live in the city as an expat?

A:  It really depends on what you want. You can find decent town house type places all over Lusaka if that is your thing. Big open properties around Lilaye, Kabulonga, Leopards Hill. You can also find places on small holdings where you are surrounded by bush and wildlife as we are in New Kasama which is linked to Leopards Hill. 

Q: How do you rate the standard of housing in Lusaka?

A:  At first it is a shock to the women, but one can now find relatively new developments which are as good as anything in SA.

Q: What’s the cost of living compared to home? What is cheap or expensive in particular?

A:  Everything is much higher. Zambia is an expensive place to stay if you want to maintain the consumption levels of your home country. Top-quality fresh vegetables are very cheap.

Q: What are the locals like; do you mix mainly with other expats?

A:  One starts by mixing with other expats, but as you become more involved in activities, the next group would be former expats and settlers who are now permanent residents. It takes a while because they shield themselves from making good friendships with expats who are just going to leave once the bond is strong. Working relationships with local Zambians are easy, but becoming house friends is unusual.

Q: Was it easy meeting people and making friends in Lusaka?

A:  Yes. Zambians and those working here tend to be easy to engage if you want to.

About working in Lusaka

Q: Did you have a problem getting a work visa/permit for Zambia?

A:  Yes, it took a while, but once you know the procedures, it becomes easier.

Q: What’s the economic climate like in Lusaka, is there plenty of work?

A: Formal employment is difficult to get. There are, however, many opportunities for entrepreneurs.

Q: How does the work culture in Zambia differ from home?

A: Zambians do not have a sense of urgency. This can frustrate A-types and shorten their life span. Even the most educated Zambian (UK, USA etc.) will arrive late or miss deadlines. Meetings start FROM 2pm, not at 2pm. (Today a client had a 2pm meeting with me and they arrived at 14h45 with smiles on their faces and no apology). Pens, calculators, markers etc. go home with employees. It’s not considered stealing.

Q: Did a relocation company help you with your move? 

A:  Yes

Family and children

Q: Did your wife have problems adjusting to her new home?

A:  Yes. Our first choice was taken from under our noses and she tolerated the home we did find. We have subsequently moved into the first choice and all is well.

Q: Did your children settle in easily?

A: Yes. There were a number of frustrations, but after about 18 months they appreciated what they had and are happy to be here. My youngest, now 18 has only returned to SA to represent Zambia twice in MotoX and for two family holidays. He has no need to go there for a break from Zambia. 

Q: What are the schools like, any particular suggestions?

A:  Wealthy Zambians send their children to SA. Having said that, AISL (American International School Lusaka) provided my son with an education good enough that most of his first year at varsity in London was credited. Baobab is good for young South Africans wanting a similar level of discipline. International School Lusaka is a favourite of expats of Asian extraction.

And finally…

Q: Is there any other advice you would like to offer new expat arrivals?

A:  A few things to note about life in Zambia:

1. Patience. It does not help to lose your temper when the waiter gets things very wrong. He or she will be distraught enough. 

2. Zambians are the nicest people in the world. They are not fighters, so confrontation does not work.

3. They will not tell you bad news unless they really have to. If you push them for a yes or a no that they are reluctant to give, they will eventually give you the answer that they think you want. E.g. Are you going to produce 400t? The answer could eventually be: ‘Yes, it’s in the budget.’ They actually told you No, but you heard Yes.

4. Get to understand the traffic. 

a. An indicator is used to communicate more than it is used to indicate a change in direction. 

b. Emergency lights are used where most other drivers would use just brake lights.

c. Look in your rearview mirror before stopping at a red traffic light and be prepared to run the light to avoid being rear ended. 

d. At night, slow down at green traffic light and check that you are not going to be hit by someone at full speed running a red light.

e. Local drivers cannot judge speed and distance. They will wait far too long to overtake, miss easy opportunities to overtake because they think the oncoming car is moving faster than it is and will slip onto a road in front of a fast approaching car.

f. Drivers will let you push in even if you have broken traffic laws, but hold them up for a few minutes at a broken traffic light and they lose all sense and gridlock quickly, not allowing anyone to move. Don’t get aggro, just sit back and enjoy the antics.

g. Do not drive at night. If you do so often enough you will have an accident. Wild animals, domestic animals, pedestrians, stationary unlit broken down vehicles, unlit moving vehicles ….. one of them will catch you out eventually.

h. Zambian drivers wait until the sun is well and truly down before switching on lights.

i. If you are travelling long distances, rather use a 4x4 type vehicle. When hit at speed, the potholes can seriously damage a lighter vehicle.

5. Corruption is cheap and efficient. One can pay to have perfectly legal processes sped up by registered consultants.

6. Zambia considers itself to be a Christian Nation. Be aware of this, but expect to be surprised when the stereotype that this statement conjured up is broken. (Male infidelity, petty theft, abuse of women at home.....)

7. There is no discernible conflict between Muslims and Christians.

8. Women should dress conservatively.

~Interviewed September 2013

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