Tag Archives: learning

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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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!

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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