Further Things I’m Learning in Zambia (II)

Lots of people have been laid off and things are a bit weird at Machaworks right now, but I’ll post more about that later, when the dust has settled. Meanwhile, I’d like to talk more about things I’ve been learning in Zambia.

To Just Drop By
We were told before coming that visiting is very casual in Zambia — in most ‘hot climate cultures,’ in fact. You don’t make an appointment, you don’t arrange to come beforehand, you just show up, and if you happen to show up over mealtime, your hosts ought to feed you.

I know this. I’ve been told it. I’ve seen it happen. It’s still really hard to do. All of my training goes against just walking up to the house of someone I don’t really know, calling “Hodi” at the open doorway, and settling down in their living room once I’m acknowledged. Still, that’s the way things work here, and if I waited for an invitation, I’d never go anywhere. (I still haven’t actually been inside the apartment next door. I know that I should just walk in . . . but it’s very difficult.) I am getting better at it, though, and I often find that when I can get over my trained inhibitions, these impromptu visits often feel like some of the best examples of the feeling I describe as why I’m really here.

How to Wait
I was warned about this, too. Life happens at a different pace in Zambia than it does in the US. Part of my answer to this is to carry knitting (and perhaps a book as well) whenever I leave my room, but there’s a more gradual attitude shift that’s also required. I’ve needed to learn to accept that I will occasionally have to wait half an hour or even an hour sitting on the porch of the office in the morning until the keys arrive. I frequently leave the house when I’ve told someone that I’ll arrive. One time I arrived at Monica’s house several hours after I said I’d be there, and she still wasn’t quite back from the morning’s trip to Choma — and this isn’t disrespect, it’s just the way timing works here. Two weeks ago I was expecting a (Zambian) visitor at 14 hours, and quite contentedly lingered over lunch with the neighbors until 14:30 at least, sure that my guest a) wasn’t there yet and b) would wait, if he, by some bizarre circumstance, arrived remotely when he’d said. And then it rained and he didn’t come at all.

Bra Stuffing
This may seem incongruous: those of you who know me probably consider me one of the last people you know who would care enough to stuff my bra, and rural Zambia seems an unlikely place to learn to do it. But women wear skirts in rural Zambia. I have not worn trousers out of the house (and only once even in the house, and most of that with a chitenge over them) since 3 September or thereabouts. For the most part, I don’t miss them. But I do miss pockets. Some of my skirts have pockets, but not nearly enough. What with the fact that Zambian toilets and latrines (even in private homes) cannot necessarily be relied upon to contain any toilet paper tissue one did not necessarily bring oneself, it becomes necessary to store a stash of tissue somewhere upon one’s person . . .

To Drink Fanta
I don’t like soda. I don’t like pop. Carbonated beverages by any other name are still as unpleasant. But water in Zambia cannot always be trusted, and carbonated beverages are more readily available than tea (which has, by nature of its preparation, been boiled), and cheaper / more common than the excellent fruit juices, and I occasionally find myself stranded somewhere without my water bottle. Lacking any other options, I’ll drink Fanta as the least of the available evils. Pineapple Fanta (particular to this part of the world, I’m told) might even be half-decent if it weren’t carbonated, but when I’m reduced to drinking Fanta, usually I lack the resources to de-carbonate my beverages.

To Sort Beans and Lentils
Ever since I was old enough to read recipes on my own, I’ve been aware that there are things the cookbooks say to do that we didn’t. Rinse rice. Sort beans before soaking. Before coming here, I’m not even sure that I would have known what I was looking for when sorting legumes. I’d certainly never washed an egg before I got here. Now I know better.

All of those lentils fit in this container.  And all of this random junk is the stuff I picked out of the lentils while I was sorting them.  Beans have fewer stones and many fewer random bits of stuff, but more half-eaten and/or rotten beans.

All of those lentils fit in this container. And all of this random junk is the stuff I picked out of the lentils while I was sorting them. Beans have fewer stones and many fewer random bits of stuff, but more half-eaten and/or rotten beans.

How Not To Care That People Think I’m Incompetent
This one is interesting. I like to say that I don’t care what people think of me. This is not true, because not only do I care about what people think, I don’t believe that I would want to be the sort of person who entirely did not care about what other people think. But I think that it is true that there are a lot of ways that I care less about what people think than the average young American woman, especially when by ‘people’ we really mean ‘random strangers on the street.’

I also don’t care about making a fool of myself. You need someone to get up and be the only white person standing with the choir, doing dances she’s never done while singing songs she doesn’t know in a language that she has only a rudimentary grasp of? I’m your gal (though I could really have done without the song that we sang while holding a knees-together low crouch that’s perfectly comfortable for Zambians but is, within a very short period of time, downright painful for this particular American).

One thing I do care about, however, is other people thinking that I’m incompetent. (Possibly ‘looking like a fool’ consists of anything that makes one seem more human and approachable, whereas ‘looking incompetent’ consists of anything that makes one seem like a useless human being — even if only in a very specific context.) Even worse that people thinking I’m incompetent is actually being incompetent, or feeling like I am — what Maddie Brodatt would describe as “letting people down.”

And the simple truth is that here in Zambia, a lot of people think I’m incompetent. By Zambian standards, I am incompetent in all sorts of things. Any ten-year-old girl in Macha can wash her clothes better than I can, cook (Zambian food) better than I can, speak Tonga better than I can, tie a baby to her back better than I can . . . any of a thousand things, half of which I don’t even know I’m bad at. And half of the ones I know I’m bad at, I simply don’t care enough to be good at, or don’t care about at all. (Yes, I could go through 750ml of cooking oil in a week. I could spend hours washing my clothing. But I don’t want to.)

I have accepted my incompetence, and the general perception of my incompetence, and, for the most part, I don’t care. This is not my culture. I was not taught these things as a child. I could live here for sixty years, and at the end of the day, there would still be things that I wasn’t as good at as someone who grew up immersed in Zambian culture, and I’m okay with that. I don’t need to be good at everything, and I hope that that’s a conviction that I can bring with me when I return to the US.

How To Be Hungry
I have always been someone who needs regular meals that consist of real food. My mother needs regular meals even more than I do, and I was raised to expect them. Historically, when not fed, my mood plummets rapidly, and I can be unpleasant to hang out with. Delayed meals have proven the best method of making a camping trip significantly less enjoyable — more so than constant rain. Within the past few years, I’ve achieved enough poise, self-awareness, something, that I can sometimes realize that I’m getting grumpy because I’m too hungry, and to some extent mitigate that effect, but it takes a lot of work, and I don’t always notice or manage to do anything about that knowledge.

In Zambia, I’ve found myself hungry on a scale I’ve never encountered before. Spain operated on a drastically different food schedule than I was accustomed to, but Pepi was aware of this and as a result gave me more food than I was used to for every meal, plus at least one snack a day. I make my own food here, and to some extent set my own schedule, but there are times when things are out of my control. I was told upon arrival that the workday started at 8 and lunch break was at 12:30, so I learned to let five or sometimes six hours stretch between breakfast and lunch. When I went to the Lwiindi Ceremony, we got there at 9 or 10 in the morning, and at 16 hours we were still sitting watching people dance. I was desperately hungry, and had concluded that we just were not going to have lunch. (We did eventually eat around 16:30 — 4:30 for those who aren’t used to a 24-hour clock.) When I go to Monica’s, she usually feeds me supper, but on a Zambian schedule. Left to my own devices, I generally eat by 18:30 or 19 hours, because the power seems more reliable earlier in the evening, and because I’m used to eating then. Monica’s family usually eats by 20 hours, but one time it was after 21. Meals at Mboole can get pretty late. The last time we were there, we didn’t have lunch on day until after 15 hours. We’d been fed bananas and mangoes while visiting, but not lunch.

I think part of the difference here is that being hungry is, to some extent, a choice in these situations. I almost always have the option to throw a prima donna fit, declare that I am unbearably hungry, and demand that I be fed. There is usually some sort of food around — often it’s in the process of being prepared as I wait hungrily, and some portion of it is ready. My whiteness usually makes me an honored guest (one of these days I’ll give you a post about race as a white person in Zambia), and my hosts would be appalled that I was agonizingly hungry.

But, but, but — that would be rude. It would be privileged and spoiled. I have never in my life been as hungry as thousands of Zambians are every day. I’m not aware of having met anyone who can’t afford to eat three meals a day. But I know that not all Zambians do.

So escape is almost always an option, but one that I consider untenable, and therefore do not take. And I think that the deliberateness, the intentionality, of that choice has been the crucial element in teaching me that yes, I can be hungry. And somewhere along the way, the state of being hungry has mostly become disentangled from my mood and the way I interact with other people. And if I learned nothing else in Zambia, I think that the discovery that I can be hungry and nevertheless behave like a reasonable human being would be worth it.



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6 responses to “Further Things I’m Learning in Zambia (II)

  1. Thanks for all your stories, Miriam! Speaking of food, there is a good deal of it headed your way. ­čÖé

  2. Kenner

    Wow! Amazing things you are learning!

  3. R&R

    I love this post! I’m really impressed by the things you are learning and how eloquently you express them. You are gaining wisdom that so many people never get. So happy for you! And of course the bra stuffing part was hilarious!

  4. Arlene Grace

    WoW! Stuffing your bra! I haven’t heard that expression in years! When I was little, the neighborhood moms would do this all the time. With lugging kids and grocesries around, it was too inconvenient to carry a purse, so they used the next best thing – their boobs! Now I know where it came from. Hmm…maybe I should try it. NOT!!! I’m sticking with my handbag! I love your stories and you seem to be learning so much. Keep them coming!

    • Now that you mention it, I think every handbag I’ve seen in Zambia is enormous — either a woman carries a huge bag, or doesn’t carry one at all. You think I’m exaggerating, but I’ve finally figured out how to bring reusable bags into the grocery store in Choma: I have to check everything besides my handbag, but a month or so ago, I tried to give the clerk my (LARGE) canvas bag, and her response was, “Isn’t that a handbag? Oh, you have one already.” But if I bring that canvas bag empty, I can just stuff my purse inside it, and then pull out my purse and hand the bag to the bag-filler at the cash register.

      I do wonder what happens to the handbags when one needs to use the toilet. Maybe you just carry it on your head for the duration. Or possibly this isn’t usually an issue, since Zambians mostly don’t believe in hydration. (I don’t understand how that works, either. Maybe if you spend your entire life under-hydrated, you get better at eking every last drop out of a serving of nshima.)

  5. Valerie Glauser

    Miriam: I have been remiss in reading your blogs. I’ve read a couple that Ken shared when he was online. However, this most recent one reminded me so fondly, and painfully, of my stays in Italy as an au pair, and as an eco-tourist in Zambia and Botswana. I’m so happy for you that you are getting this experience. As challenging as I’m sure it is at times, it is also immeasurably valuable. Very few folks in the developed world have any clue of what you are learning and what perspective it offers. It’s also apparent that you are taking it all in with gusto, grace and authenticity. Brava! I hope you are making real friends to help- you through the lonely times. P.S. You are a terrific writer. I have some thoughts about what you can do with that skill when you return, if you are interested.

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