“There is no way we can do away with our past.”
George Njolomba’s general store sits at the juncture between Zambezi’s old and new markets, a visual symbol of the owner’s devotion to past and present.
Inside his small shop, two TV sets broadcast soap operas from South Africa and Japan. People gather on couches and chairs to watch television, drink a Coke, and chat with George. The shelves that line the pale yellow walls are crammed with everything from spring onion crackers to L’Oréal shampoo, Lay’s potato chips to Johnson’s Baby Powder, long brooms to giant tubs of paint.
While his shop filled with Western goods represents Zambia’s post-Colonial present, George is passionate about his people’s traditions. He serves as a cultural guide to visitors, explaining the complicated roles of the Makishi dancers in the centuries-old, rites-of-passage ceremonies.
“Everybody has to be part of it,” he says. “That is our tradition. That is our culture.”
George’s journey to local businessman involved an interesting blend of old and new. As the seventh of 12 children and the son of a teacher, George knew money for secondary school would not stretch far enough to include him. So George, at the age of 12, began plotting his educational path.
His grandparents had gifted him two hectares of land (4.9 acres) that he sold to buy a cow. By the time he was ready for year nine of school, that cow had birthed a second cow. He sold the first and used the money to pay his fees to Zambezi Boarding School.
After year 12 of school, George knew his family did not have the money for college, so he sold the second cow and began buying small quantities of bush meats–impalas and warthogs–to sell in Zambezi. He used the profits to buy larger quantities of meat. Eventually, he began asking friends traveling to bigger cities such as Solwezi or Lusaka to pick up items hard to come by in his town–chocolates, sweet biscuits, tobacco. He sold them for a small profit and bought more.
“It started growing, little by little,” he says, his grin broadening into a full-faced smile.
Eventually, he socked away enough kwachas (Zambia’s currency) to rent a truck and fill it with goods from Lusaka such as children’s clothes, postcards, and lotions.
“Once you bring it, you find there is a demand,” George says. Eventually, people started asking for specific items. “Can you bring me this or that? I just kept on.”
His entrepreneurial gifts earned him a rental space in the old market, then a bigger one. Eventually, he owned a plot of land with his own building on it.
At 39, with a wife and three kids ranging in ages from 2 to 17, George would like for his business to grow, but he says his country has an uncertain future. People are losing their jobs, and prices are increasing, including the cost of a truck full of general goods from Lusaka.
“The people are getting poorer,” he says. “They don’t have money.”
For now, he is content to share his people’s past and present from his post behind the counter.