Fire guts Zambian market

One of the stalls was his, the source of his livelihood. At least, he had been able to salvage a few of his wares before inferno reduced the stand to a smoldering heap.

Hundreds others were not so lucky. They lost goods worth millions of kwacha when a fire swept through Lusaka’s town centre market on Thursday.

The fire, said to have started as early as 4am, was still raging by mid-morning. Traders reporting for business watched helplessly as their merchandise went up in flames while three teams of fire-fighters battled the blaze.

But when the fire trucks ran out of water, hopelessness turned into anger and some vendors had to be restrained from attacking the firefighters.

The market, one of the busiest in Lusaka sits in the centre of the business district, straddling Freedom Way and Chachacha road and occupies roughly the size of three football fields.

Much of the damage was done to the old section, a jungle of ramshackle wooden stalls where scores of traders vend all manner of wares, from second-hand books to clothes, cellular phones to hardware, vegetables to electronics.

The new, modern section of the market was barely touched by the fire but even there, the shops remained closed, their owners wary of lurking bands of potential looters.

Police spokesperson Danny Kapeso said initial suspicions were that the inferno was ignited by an electrical fault.

Coming at a time of heightened political tensions as the country heads towards general elections on September 28, there were other theories in the air, but fortunately perhaps, nobody voiced these too loudly.

Markets are political hotbeds in Zambia, as witnessed by all the repeated visits by almost all the five presidential candidates.

Chungu said the fire was always a tragedy waiting to happen.

“Town Centre market to me has always been a ticking time bomb. This was bound to happen sooner or later. There is just no way that so many people who sell a variety of merchandise can be put in such a small place. We have people cooking food, the next stall has someone selling clothes, the next alcohol. How can you not expect something like this to happen?” he asked.

Most traders blamed the government for failing to complete the modernisation it started a few years ago.

“We were forced to trade in this small area because government promised that once they finished building the market, we would all be accommodated. But when half the market was completed it was given to foreigners or the rentals made too expensive for us to afford. Government has to find ways of feeding us,” bemoaned Lizzy Kangwa, who says she lost K7 million (US$1 = K4,100) worth of goods which included cell phones, alcohol, clothes and hair products.

For Maggie Sakala, the stall she held at the market was her only means of survival after the death of her husband in 2002.”How am I going to feed my children and pay for their education?” she said plaintively.

Last year, another fire broke out at the same market sweeping through 15 shops.

Traders at Kitwe ‘s Chisokone market know only too well the anguish going through the minds of traders in Lusaka.

In five years, the market has been gutted four times. And all those times the fire fighters only managed to extinguish the fire after all their goods had been burnt to ashes.

Police say they are still assessing the damage before releasing any figures.

September 2006
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