Debbie told me the drive to her house from my hotel would just take fifteen minutes, but when I get into the taxi, which looks more like a teenager’s joy ride – no meter, no certificate – and give the driver the address, I have a feeling it will be a while longer. Despite the fact that he speaks fluent English, as do most Zambians, and I confidently converse with the man, he knows the general direction of my destination but not the street name. So we drive a few miles. Until he gets stuck. Where to now? He offers to ask a few guys on the side of the road – they are plenty – and jumps out. Meanwhile, still in the backseat, I pull out my iPhone and type the address in Googlemaps. I got this. When he returns though, my man takes off in the opposite direction. And I feel inclined to protest, like a New Yorker does best: “Sir! My GPS says it’s the other way! You have to go back!” He has no idea what I am talking about. GPS? When I finally convince him to follow my route, and we arrive at Debbie’s house unscathed, he’s flabbergasted: “Boy, I would love to have a phone like that!!” Well, you should have a phone like that! I encourage him and thank him with a nice tip and friendly instructions to come pick me up again in two hours. “On the dot?” I beg.
In just five hours I will on the plane back to New York, but I insist on squeezing in a shoot with Deborah Chuma this morning. She was hard to miss at my work shop days earlier: khaki shorts, brown booties, a boxy, embroidered sweatshirt, those wild, blonde 90s tresses gushing generously from a fedora, and her equally colorful girlfriend Nandi in fashionable tow. They both sat behind me, literally starstruck, because they had seen my fifteen second cameo on ‘House of DVF’ and couldn’t believe I was in their hometown. “The first few minutes of the workshop I couldn’t even pay attention!” she told me afterwards, pressing her flushed cheeks lavishly against mine for an assailment of selfies. I didn’t even know they had E! here. “We have DSTV,” she explains, “that you have to buy and pay for with a monthly subscription. It’s expensive for a low income family. It comes with so many channels. Us fashion lovers can Watch ‘House of DVF’ on E!, Fashion TV, ‘Fashion Bloggers’ and ‘Project Runway’ on Lifetime.” Today she’s supposed to be at Nandi’s graduation but the prospect of being featured on my website annihilated every promise. “Nooo, our friendship of ten years is strong!” she assures me when I send her a concerned message on WhatsApp. “I’ve bribed her. I will make up for it with lunch. Plus, she ditches me all the time too! LOL!”
Debbie is a talented, young designer. At 23, she is part of a new, fashion-forward generation that has the opportunity and ambition to look outside the borders of its sheltered country. Her work is interesting and shows great promise. Her esthetic and style are also unusual for Zambia. She mixes vintage fabrics with chitenge and her patterns are anything but traditional. The week leading up to my visit, for example, she made me a dress from her grandmother’s curtains, a vintage skirt she found at the market and a blouse she had lying around. “I didn’t go to college to study fashion and design,” she tells me, “because you see, in Zambia we don’t have fashion schools. Me and mum planned for me to study abroad but then the year I completed high school she got sick for a while and passed. I’ve always been a positive child. Mum might have died but these dreams of fashion designing won’t die.”
In Zambia, the closest thing to a being a fashion designer is learning how to tailor. And that’s what she eventually studied. “I work from home. My first work place was my bedroom. But now I’ve moved to the dining room.” She was raised by her grandparents – she was their first grandchild – and lives in the main house with her grandmother, an aunt and son Emmanuel and her grandmother’s father. “Yes!” she cheers. “My great grandpa his 102 years old. We are so blessed to have him. He’s such a joy with lots of stories.” Next door lives her uncle Chibuta and his family of five, which explains all the gutted cars in the driveway: “He’s a mechanic/Engineer so he’s now made our once-upon-a-time neat clean yard into his workshop…” There’s also a boarding house on the compound with seven bedrooms that are being rented to University students.
Vintage is big in Zambia, and Debbie loves it. But it’s not the kind we consider. “We don’t have thrift stores,” she explains. “We have second-hand clothes heaped together on the ground, sold alongside the road in a market place. It’s called “Salaula” and such business has boomed in Zambia. Odd clothes are sold as cheap as $1 or even 2 cents. You can find brands like Chanel for $2 or less. But you have to have patience.” Her earliest fashion memory involves a vintage Valentino shirt her late “Grandpa Mr. Chuma” gave her when she was 11-years old. “I never knew who Valentino was, but coincidentally the very night I am watching TV and this new show comes on that was profiling international designers and clips of their work and I noticed the same brand on my grandpa’s shirt. That night I watched my first runway show on TV and it was Valentino and I had a Valentino shirt.”
This visit is everything I hoped for, and more. Debbie has allowed me a rare glimpse into the real life of a Lusaka family. There are so many more questions I want to ask, like why she never mentions her father, or why all the houses in the city are fenced off and walled in, or how her mother died, but I don’t need to. I am so utterly grateful for the past two hours. I have come to know a girl with humble hopes and dreams, who loves Gospel music and poetry, whose childhood is “bittersweet” but tangled with memories of friendship and neighborhood games, who’s in love with a boy named Nathaniel, “my best friend, my gift” and who’s 5-year plan is to “provide employment and help put food on the table for my family and other Zambians.” As far as my driver goes, he never shows up. At least not when I asked him to. “You should always tell people to come half hour before you want them there,” Debbie laughs. “But don’t worry, my uncle will drive us.” And just in that second I realize, this is not just a young woman’s reality; this is how the world turns.