Getting Ready

On Monday, I mailed the last of my forms. Last week I received my mailing address (but not my housing assignment). In less than a month, I leave for orientation. A week after that, I leave the country. I’m doing last things, intentionally meeting up with people I haven’t seen for a while, and starting to seriously consider what I will bring.

I finished the last of my Zambia books, too.
That’s not entirely true. I have read as much as I will read of any of my Zambia books, and they have all been returned to the library.

The Fractured Community: Landscapes of Power and Gender in Rural Zambia, by Kate Crehan

This book was both dense and interesting. I was pretty worried by the introduction, which was prosy in a very academic sort of way, and kept referencing anthropologists that I’d never heard of. I slogged onwards, though, hoping that it would get better, and assuming that I would need at least a basic understanding of the technical bits in the introduction to understand the rest of it.

It did get better. I don’t think I really needed to read most of the introduction, though, and it took nearly a hundred pages to start talking about gender. Once she started, she did talk about it, but I spent a while going, “So, she’s said it’s a matrilineal (but still male-dominated) society, but where’s the gender come into it?”

I’m not sure how applicable this book was, since it focused on a different part of Zambia and a different language group than the area I’ll be in, but I found it interesting nevertheless. For example, Kaonde (and possibly that should have a prefix to denote language and not people, but I’ve given up on prefixes) specifies whether a sibling is older or younger, but not gender (at least, not without extra work). The Kaonde way to talk about my brother would be my “younger.” I could specify a male younger sibling, but quite possibly wouldn’t, the way that I could specify that he’s my younger brother, but usually don’t. The terms “younger” and “older” refer to cousins, too, but they refer to the relationship of our parents, not our actual age — so if my mother had an older sister whose children were younger than me, they would be my “olders,” too.

In other linguistic tidbits, the English word “to farm” has become Kaondesized (something like mwafwamu, with a disclaimer that I took the book back to the library and am not checking any of the specifics), and means to grow maize, soybeans, or other cash crops for sale to urban markets. This results in several quotes in the book to the effect of, “Women don’t like to farm; they just want to cultivate sorghum all the time.” (Sorghum being the main subsistence crop in the Northwestern Province.)

I found this book fascinating (when I wasn’t getting bogged down in it), not necessarily in a this-is-a-preparation-for-going-to-Zambia kind of way, but as a thought experiment considering the ways other people experience, think about, and codify (lexify?) the world. Full disclosure, though: I skipped bits of it.

A Political History of Zambia: from Colonial Period to the Third Republic, by Bizeck Jube Phiri

I didn’t actually read this book. I read a paragraph or two at the beginning of most chapters and decided that I was not going to absorb the crazy-complex politics contained therein. Possibly I would’ve had slightly better luck with it if I’d read it before The Fractured Community, but I only have so much patience for dense academic writing, and I’d spent most of it already.

It did raise a question for me, though: What do Zambians learn about their history? I would say that Americans of my generation, as a rule, are most ignorant about the past 50 years of our country’s recorded history. All of Zambia’s history as an independent country fits within that time frame. Is the dynamic different?

I remember reading Jamaica Kincaid’s “On Seeing England for the First Time” in high school, and the significance of a map of England, something more important than any test she would ever take. Wikipedia tells me that the British West Indies gained independence when Kincaid was 9 to thirteen. I can only imagine that Caribbean schools have changed, but how much? How much have Zambian schools changed?

Globetrotter Zambia and Victoria Falls, by William Gray

I was more than a little disgusted with this book. So far as I could tell, it divided the country into random squares of territory in order to talk about it, squares that had no relation to any geographic or political realities on the ground, and did not, in fact, actually cover all of the country. Macha was one of the areas it didn’t consider worthy of mentioning. I realize that it’s hardly a destination, but it wasn’t even inside any of the squares that the book talked about. Besides that, it felt very touristy. Possibly this book would be useful when looking for things to do in Zambia, but I didn’t feel that there was any point in reading it before going.

The map was nice, though. This was the first chance I had to look at a big paper map of Zambia. I’m very fond of maps. I also discovered that Macha is relatively fairly close to Kafue National Park. Goodness knows if relative geographic proximity actually facilitates travel, but it’s a cool idea.

Quills of Desire, by Binwell Sinyangwe

One of the earlier books I read mentioned Binwell Sinyangwe as a Zambian novelist whose work is published outside the country, so I went to some effort to track down one of his books. I quite enjoyed this one, up until the end, which I found depressing. (I’m not sure if that’s a commentary on Sinyangwe, Zambian literature, post-colonial literature in general, or The Modern Novel. Possibly I will be better able to judge when I’ve encountered a larger sample set of Zambian literature.)

Reading a novel is a different way to encounter a culture than reading nonfiction about the culture. I’m glad I read this one, depressing or not. I did again find myself wondering how much has changed — Quills of Desire is clearly set pre-1991. One example that springs to mind: there is a period of sanctioned hazing at the beginning of the school year, which permitted quite harsh humiliation and physical violence. Coming from Smith, where every funded student organization has to read the Hazing Policy (“You can’t haze people. This is what hazing is.”) at their first meeting, a world within the past 25 or 30 years where it’s okay to beat people up if they’re new students is a bizarre concept.

I am also very sure that I do not understand the Zambian school system at all. It may or may not be the same as the British school system (which I also don’t understand), but I don’t even have enough of a grasp of either of them to make an informed judgement. Forms? Standards? Junior and Senior Secondary? (Do the British find American schools this confusing? Our system seems to make sense to me.) Also, boarding school is a foreign country. They do things differently there.


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