Things I am learning in Zambia

In no particular order:

Tonga, slowly. I expect that I would make better progress if I had more ability to faithfully study my flash cards, but I find it very difficult because no one is checking up on me regularly. I’ve discovered that there are Tonga classes at the MICS school, and hope to sit in on them when school starts again next year. Perhaps sitting with a bunch of (for the most part) native speakers learning grammar, or whatever they’re doing, is not the best plan, but what I’m doing right now isn’t working terribly well, and Craig Davis always says that “social adrenaline is the key to linguistic form,” (that is, people learn language to keep from looking stupid in front of other people), so perhaps the prospect of looking foolish in front of third graders will provide the goad that infrequent visits to Mboole do not.

I’m getting very good at greetings, though. And I can sometimes see other ways that I’m making progress, but it goes slowly.

Zambian English
When I first got here, I frequently had the experience I would be talking to someone, and both of us spoke English, but neither of us could understand the other. It happens much less frequently, and I’m aware that I’m acquiring a Zambian accent, at least while talking to Zambians. (Sometimes in mixed groups of Zambians and expats, the Dutch kids won’t understand something a Zambian says, I repeat it with slightly more explanation, but in my Zambian accent, so they still don’t get it until I say it again in an American accent.)
I don’t really know how much of it is British English and how much is particularly Zambian, although it is clearly a mixture. It’s not just the stuff I was warned about, like pants and napkins, or things that I knew if I thought about it, like zed instead of zee. It’s ‘grade three,’ ‘bath’ instead of ‘bathe,’ and ‘just a minute’ means ‘can you come here for a minute?’ and ‘feel free’ means ‘make yourself at home’ and ‘Sorry! Sorry!’ is not an apology but instead sympathy, a reaction as automatic as ‘bless you’ after a sneeze is at home. (I’ve learned to not say bless you — or gesundheit, which is worse — but I still feel like I ought to.) And even educated people will say he when they mean she, and the other way around. ‘Footing’ instead of ‘walking,’ ‘pick me’ or ‘drop me’ for ‘pick me up’ and ‘drop me off,’ and the answer to ‘How are you?’ is ‘I am fine.’ ‘She said no’ is more frequently ‘she is refusing me,’ although I think that applying this to inanimate objects, for example, ‘It is refusing me!’ when the remote is not working, is particular to Monica’s son Junior.

(He is SO CUTE. The other night he’d gotten ahold of a pair of black rain boots/gum boots/gumbos that fit him like waders and was clomping around in them before supper, but had to take them off to get into the chair to eat with us. After supper,
“Don’t put the gumbos on.”
“They like me!” As he climbs back into them.
Luckily his parents think that he’s as hilarious as I do, so it’s acceptable to laugh out loud at his antics and I’m not in danger of keeling over from an excess of smothered laughter.
It’s also very nice that Monica is a nurse and has enough education that if I comment on the sort of thing that frazzles my nerves around young children (“Are you bouncing around like that with masuku in your mouth?”) she is on him like that. (“Junior, spit it out so you don’t choke!”))

Mind you, what was very peculiar was the Learn Maths At Home! tv show that I caught the tail end of the other day, where the (implied Zambian) sample student had an accent exactly like Hermione Granger’s in the Harry Potter movies. I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising that the posh accent here is British, but it was weird. Zambians don’t talk like that, at least not the ones I know. And it made it even more difficult for me to believe that she was honestly asking questions from her heart about regression analysis and lines of best fit.

Water Conservation
I don’t know that I’m learning water conservation from Zambians, who don’t practice it, at least not the way all(?) American children are taught when they are small. We don’t pay for the water coming out of our tap (when so many taps are outdoor communal, it would be nearly impossible to set up a system), and I would guess that most of my neighbors grew up with bore holes that needed to be pumped by hand, not taps that keep running until you turn them off, so DON’T LEAVE THE WATER RUNNING is not necessarily the same instinctive reaction that it is for me (especially not with a slow tap and a big bucket, where it can take a very long time to fill up and people may wander off. Usually there’s someone around to see if it’s overflowing), and Zambia is not one of those places you were told about as a child where they bathe in half a cup of water. At the same time, I have yet to meet a Zambian with a washing machine (Zambian women wash impressive amounts of clothing to impressive states of whiteness in incredibly dirty water), have not seen a dishwashing machine in the entire country, and bucket bathing does use less water than showering, pit latrines use less water than flush toilets, and flush toilets don’t use that much water if there’s no water to flush them with.

I guess you could say that it’s the environment that’s teaching me water conservation. The rains have not improved the water situation – there hasn’t been running water in the house in over a month, and for most of that time we haven’t had running water out back, either. Possibly we haven’t gotten enough rain. It only rained one day last week, and not that much, either. There were a few days when none of the taps had running water at all for a couple of hours. But it did rain last night, and this morning there was water at the tap next to Zambezi House, which there hasn’t been in a long time. And when all the water has to be hauled from some distance away, one is naturally more careful with it.

I’ve started measuring dishwashing water by the mug-full: my personal record is one (fairly dirty) plastic container, one (fairly dirty) pan, a plate, utensils, and a cup washed and rinsed in half a mug of water (of course, then I used the other half trying to rinse out the scrubbing pad), although two dirty pans, two plates, a cup and assorted utensils in two and a half mugs of water is also pretty good.

I’ve become an avid graywater collector, because no way am I going to use some of our limited supply of clean water, fetched from some distance away, to make the toilet flush, but it really does get gross. I collect rainwater and now see it as a free gift from the sky. I’ve learned to skim the dead bugs off the top of my bathwater and be glad that it fell off of the roof and I didn’t have to carry it, same for water for washing clothes. Yesterday I got soaked, walking home in the rain, so that I would get home before it stopped raining to collect water to bath with. I can wash hair and self in the small blue basin (six liters? eight liters? I don’t really know).

To Carry Water
The first time I tried to carry a basin of water on my head, it splashed all over my skirt and the ground, and I found it very difficult. I used a smaller basin to water my garden, which I could lift easily, but still sometimes spilled while lifting onto or off of my head. Since we haven’t had water, I’ve been using a 20-liter bucket (which I can’t fill too full or I can’t manage it, but luckily there’s usually someone around at the house to help the foolish muguwa who doesn’t know how much water she can lift get it back off her head again, but I estimate that I can manage 15 or 17 liters without too much trouble) at least twice a week, and I was very pleased to discover, while fetching water in the blue basin, that it was not only manageable, but easy. I could probably handle the red basin I had so much trouble with the first time, too, but I haven’t tried. (I should note that this is not hands-free water carrying; I don’t have a suitable piece of chitenge cloth to make the pad that helps to balance a bucket or basin, and I’m certainly not skilled enough to try even the blue basin without, but the balance and muscles are similar, so by the time I go home, I ought to be able to co-opt my mother’s parlor trick of balancing a cup of water on her head.)

To Eat Nshima
I’ll admit that I never found eating nshima to be particularly difficult. I don’t mind eating with my hands, and I’ve done enough work with clay that ‘roll it into a ball with one hand and then flatten it with a thumb-imprint’ is not a particularly difficult instruction to follow, and the flavor is somewhere between cornmeal mush and cream of wheat, which is to say, entirely unobjectionable. I had been puzzled as to how most Zambians seem to wind up with less nshima-residue on their hands at the end of a meal, but I’ve learned that the trick is to not dry your hands after washing them, and then it sticks much less. Still somewhat, but less, and while the feeling is somewhat unpleasant, it’s not that difficult to wash off.

When I’d been here for perhaps a month, N, who is perhaps four or five, showed up outside my room one day and announced, “White people don’t eat nshima.”
“I eat nshima,” I told her. “And I’m white.”
She was not convinced, and we had variations on this discussion several times in the weeks that followed. I came to the conclusion that the only solution would be to eat nshima in front of her, if that, and more or less gave up.
Last week I went to the Christmas pageant put on by the MICS school (where I guess she’s in daycare, or kindergarten, or something to that effect), and I passed N and some of her classmates in the yard. She pointed me out to her peers, and then to the teacher.
“Teacher, Teacher! You know this one? She eats nshima!
Booyah.

Cooking nshima
Eating nshima is easy (though I don’t eat it like a Zambian; I can only manage one or perhaps one and a half lumps, whereas a Zambian might eat between four and seven). Cooking nshima, though, that’s hard. By the time I leave, I hope to have attained sufficient skill that I do not inspire every woman in sight with a desire to grab the stick out of my hand and stir it properly. I console myself with the thought that none of them know how to stir batter.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “Things I am learning in Zambia

  1. Ken

    Oh, my! Your water conservation puts my efforts to shame. All I’m managing is to siphon my shower gray water down to the garden.

    • Well, there was a while when I was just collecting gray water without soap to dump on my garden because I couldn’t justify using clean water just for plants when there was so little to go around, but my garden suffered a good bit when we had no water, and after the rains started I just left it to its own devices, and then Fred etc dug it up to restart properly (except for the watermelons, which they left, and which are currently producing a decent-sized watermelon), which was really just as well because by that point I wanted the gray water to flush the toilet, anyway.

  2. Every time I leave the water running for any length of time I think of places in the world where water is difficult to get. I hate having to run the water just to get to the hot part. I do that mostly to prepare the new dehydrated dog food for Thalion.

    • Well, I can say that you spend a lot less time running water hot when there’s no hot water ever (and no running water in the house, for that matter). I use less hot water in general here, even with the hot pot, now that I have to heat it myself.

  3. Esther

    the appreciation of the children is unadulterated approval – wallow in it.
    As for gray water, you will put us all to shame when you return and can take a bath, wash a full washer sized load of clothes as well as dishes for a Philadelphia type potluck meal in a tea cup of the stuff.

    • No, no, when I return, I will take LONG, HOT showers. And wash dishes with enough water to immerse my hands. And revel in the washing machine, and in not having to iron all my line-dry clothing to kill the fly eggs in it.

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