Vroom, vroom – driving in Lusaka!

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Lusaka city map

NOTE: Pictures from various sources!

It’s now been 3 months since the unfortunate mishap with my car, and I’ve been back on the road for about 2 months.  I figured it was time for a short description of what it’s like for a right-side of the road Yank to be driving on the left…and to be driving in a “frontier town” like Lusaka.
Outside Manda Hill
Paved roads and car ownership are both fairly new to Lusaka.  Although the roads in the downtown area are nicely paved, with neatly painted lanes, traffic lights, directional signs, sidewalks and shoulders, and even colorful billboards, the rest of the city is not so well equipped.

Downtown
Most of the roads that are paved are very narrow, with no shoulder to speak of and a huge drop-off where the pavement meets the side of the road.  In addition, there are ditches lining the road to accommodate the rainy season.  Right now, there are workers out on almost every road, making these ditches even deeper…the rains are coming!

Paved road Ditches

Much of Lusaka’s population still walk almost everywhere (or grab one of the mini-buses…more about that later)  Since there are no sidewalks, the people walk on the side of the road when they can.  But many times the people walk along the pavement.  And because there are so few “main” roads, most of the traffic in the morning and evening is all going on the same road in the same direction as the people walking to work.  This includes bicycles, small passenger cars, larger 4-wheel drive vehicles, pick-up style trucks (often with a dozen or so people sitting the bed) larger construction trucks and the ubiquitous mini-buses. There can be some spectacular traffic jams.

traffic jam Side of road

Learning to drive on the right instead of the left would be a nerve-wracking experience under the best of circumstances.  (I managed to live in the UK for 4 years without ever driving!) On a straight away, it is fairly simple…you drive on the left, constantly thinking to yourself, “Stay on the left!  The LEFT!  Stay to the left!”  and if there is some traffic, it is not too bad, because you are simply going along with the traffic.

But then you might have to turn!   First, you put on your directional signal…only sometimes you put on the wipers by mistake.  Now, a left-hand turn is easy.  You turn left and you stay on the left.  A right-hand turn is a little trickier.  You turn right, but you stay on the left.  My right-hand turns are usually bit wider than they should be.   But then…there are the rotaries.  (Round-abouts to some of you.)  Here’s where things get a bit dicey.  Everything is reversed and your instincts about where to merge, where to exit, when to yield, when to accelerate…it’s all backwards.

I have been known to look at a map and drive well out of my way to avoid a rotary.  But sometimes it cannot be helped and usually my inner dialogue goes like this, “Oh, God, here comes a rotary!  Okay, just stay to the left.  The LEFT!  Now, blend into the traffic!  Why is that guy beeping at me!  Okay, just m-e-r-g-e right into the lane.  Look, there’s the exit…so…careful now…just put on your signal – no, those are the wipers!  Put on your signal and c-a-r-e-f-u-l-l-y get over to the left and there you are! See, you did it!”   There is no way to be relaxed while driving, because letting your guard down could mean that you react instinctively and your instincts will be WRONG!

In most places, only the main road is paved…dirt roads are still the norm in Lusaka, and  indeed, in all of Zambia.  And you often share the road with livestock; even right outside the main center of the capital city!

Uneven roads Red clay road Animals on road dirt road

Even in the middle of the city, where there is a divided highway, people tend to treat the road like a walkway and vendors spread their wares out right on the pavement.

Soweto market 2 Soweto market

Potholes are common and often ridiculously deep.  And if the dirt road isn’t properly graded, it can become nearly impassable in the rainy season.

Muddy roadPotholes

Driving at night has its own special challenges.  There are no street lights and people drive just as fast and turn just as suddenly as they do in the daylight.  In addition, the walking traffic does not abate…and people have not yet learned about wearing light colored clothing for visibility.  So you have dark-skinned people, wearing dark clothing walking along a dark road with no sidewalks or shoulders. So far, I have avoided driving at night unless absolutely necessary.

And the mini-buses…ah, the mini-buses.  This is Zambia’s local public transportation and used by most of the citizens to get around.  They are 18 – 34 seat vans, usually blue  and they go everywhere!  How do you know where a particular mini-bus is headed?  Well, the bus drives down the road and the “conductor” is leaning out the window, shouting the destination, while the driver beeps the horn.  “DOWNTOWN!  DOWNTOWN!”  or  “CROSSROADS!  CROSSROADS!”  The locals seem to know which bus is going where and often the bus is stuffed full of many more passengers than there are seats.

minibus1 Melissa minibus

Anyone can flag down a bus and they will stop almost anywhere, although there ARE some designated stops.  The bus will pull over, bumping over the edge of the pavement and onto the side, sometimes narrowly avoiding a ditch.  If the traffic is going too slowly, a mini-bus will often drive on the wrong side of the road, until they come up against oncoming traffic and have to pull over.  It is not unusual (but a bit disconcerting) to be driving along a paved road and see a mini-bus approaching you, head-on.  I have seen them driving over curbs, onto sidewalks and grass strips, along the dirt by the side of the road and squeezing past the traffic by driving into places that you would think a motor vehicle simply could not go.  Many of the mini-buses are in a state of disrepair and there has been movement to regulate them and require the owner/drivers to obtain a license.  But they remain a cheap way to get around Lusaka and almost anywhere in Zambia.

However, plans are moving forward to improve the roads, add sidewalks, better pavement, street lights and a “ring road” around the city.  The engineers I met in Ndola a few weeks ago were very enthusiastic and positive about the work being done and about how Lusaka is moving forward.  Just down from my school, on Leopard’s Hill road, the project to create a 4-lane highway is well underway (financed by the Chinese, who do a great deal of business with Zambia.)

Road project Divided highway

I do not expect to ever feel fully comfortable driving in Lusaka…as much as I love adventure I would much prefer to let someone else be behind the wheel for my travels!

One response »

  1. That is fascinating…and hair raising! Driving on the left would be bad enough, but what an array of challenges. I wouldn’t want to drive there, either. Kudos for braving it. 🙂

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