Tag Archives: Zambia

Let’s talk about culture shock

To be honest, of all the culture shock (and reverse culture shock) I’ve experienced in the past few years, I have to say that the culture shock of interacting with my students — inner-city former high school dropouts, mostly African-American — has been greater than Zambia, greater than Spain, greater than coming back home.  It’s funny, because they’re only about five years younger than I am, and most of us grew up in the same city, some in the same neighborhoods, and one would think that they are not so different from the children I went to elementary school with — but somehow it is.  I don’t know if the differences are more apparent as we get older, or if I just wasn’t paying attention back then, or if somehow it is different.

Part of what makes it harder, I think, is that culture shock is expected when moving from country to country.  Who expects it a 20-minute bus ride away, or even just a walk of a few blocks?

When I arrived in Zambia, I effectively had the skills of a three-year-old.  I couldn’t talk, I couldn’t cook, I couldn’t wash my clothing.  I didn’t know how to get water.  I stumbled over the most basic human interactions.  I could barely wash myself.  But this was normal — this was expected — this was accepted.  The people I interacted with understood that Ba Miriam did not know how to be a Zambian because she had lived all her life somewhere else, and accepted that I had the skills needed to behave as an adult in my own society, but would require time to learn them in  Zambian culture.

The cultural differences between my students and I are not nearly that large, but no one sees that they are there.  Many of my students have barely been outside their neighborhoods in any significant kind of way, and often have no concept that there might be more than one way to live one’s life, and that just because I don’t do things their way doesn’t mean that the way I do them is wrong.

As I child, I was taught that you measure water and rice, bring the water to a boil, add the rice, stir, and then cover it for twenty minutes.  (You can also do it in the oven, if you have lots of time, or some people use a rice cooker, but we’re not fancy like that.)  But you MUST NOT stir the rice after that first time, or even lift the lid, or you’ll ruin the rice.  I didn’t really understand what that entailed, but it would be RUINED.

And yet, in Spain, my host mother stirred rice the whole time she was cooking it.  (And made really good rice.)  Her idea of plain white rice was rice cooked in chicken broth (and stirred the whole time); she could not conceive of something more plain than that.  In Zambia, no one measures; you just put rice and water in a pan and stir it sometimes, and if you run out of water, you add more.

Maybe I’m a rice Philistine, but I have to admit that I can’t really tell the difference (though both the oven rice and the chicken broth rice taste better).  It was pretty shocking to me to realize that you COULD stir rice while it was cooking without the kitchen exploding or something, but Pepi clearly knew what she was doing, so I kept my mouth shut and learned.  I’ve become pretty blase about cooking rice, and these days I mostly just dump rice and water into a pan and measure Chinese-style, with my finger.

While I was in Puerto Rico with my students, I tried to cook rice — and was immediately shouted down for not putting oil in with the rice and water.  (Apparently you CAN’T cook rice without oil.  Who knew?  Certainly not me, or the Spaniards, or the Zambians.)  And rice isn’t the only place I see it, although food is where it comes up most: there is One Right Way to Cook X, and generally I’m doing it wrong.  We bumped into that a lot on that trip: the bacon was cooked wrong; we didn’t put Sazón with the chicken; the students can’t eat x without y . . .

“Why did you dump the pan scrapings on the eggs?”  (Clearly implied: I had RUINED them; they were now unfit to eat.)

“Well, some people like them,” I floundered.  “Take from this side, where there aren’t any.”  It wasn’t until hours later that I realized that it wasn’t about liking or disliking; it’s a habit learned from my mother, learned from her parents who grew up during the Great Depression: I don’t waste food.

It even comes up when talking about my lunches: something that I consider as normal as veggies with peanut sauce is a foreign concept to my students, and probably not edible.  Forget tatsoi or quinoa or goat cheese anything with a name in a language other than English.

I think the amount of judgement from is part of what makes it difficult.  In other countries, I am strange, yes, but I’m a strange foreigner, which gives me a certain amount of license to be strange, and means that most of the people involved expect that I will be experiencing culture shock.  Most of my students see me as unreasonably strange, existing in some sort of weird incomprehensible lifestyle that maybe isn’t even possible.  It’s an odd thing, to interact daily with people who view you as an impossibility.

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The Lilies of the Field

I’m not in Zambia anymore. Now I can talk about the things that I didn’t talk about while I was there, the things that I didn’t want to people at home to worry about. The things that I didn’t want me to worry about.

The prospect of drought was the scariest thing in Zambia.

Don’t get me wrong; there were lots of scary things in Zambia. Snakes were scary. (And I like snakes.) There was a snake killed in what was essentially my back yard whose poison is so lethal that you die within five days, and there is no antidote. Because it is non-agressive, this snake is not particularly high on the list of snakes people worry about.

AIDS was scary. (AIDS is still scary, in a more immediate way than snakes, whose ability to terrify has faded with distance. But then, AIDS is here, too.) I think that few service workers would argue with the assertion that AIDS is the biggest social problem facing Zambia today, and it really deserves to be the topic of its own post (come to think of it, snakes may, as well). Twenty-five percent of the Zambia population is HIV positive. One in four. A full-but-not-completely-overloaded minibus holds 18 or 20 people; I remember a piece of art at the National Museum, part of an AIDS awareness campaign, highlighting the fact that four or five people on the average minibus are HIV positive. It was Alison, commuting about two hours a day on minibuses, who came up with the idea that if that minibus got into an accident, even someone who walked away relatively unscathed would probably be exposed to the virus. And getting into a motorized vehicle in Zambia was terrifying enough even without that. Traffic in third-world countries is probably the greatest serious threat to physical well-being faced by most SALTers. One of the Zambia MCC workers was involved in a bad road accident while I was there, and considering what happened to her vehicle, it is miraculous that scrapes and cuts and broken bones are all that anyone received.

Drought was scarier. This isn’t to say that I spent more time thinking about drought than I did about any of these things, because I didn’t. Drought is only a seasonal threat, and normal weather in Zambia would look an awful lot like drought to most Americans. And I can’t say that drought was terrifying in quite the same personally-relevant way as snakes or AIDS (oddly enough, aside from AIDS statistics, it was much easier to not think about traffic. Quite possibly I couldn’t think about the risk and still be able to function, so I didn’t think about it. We don’t think about the risks of getting in a car here, either). But the worst thing that a snake or traffic accident could do would be to kill me or someone I cared about. And AIDS is a sweeping societal problem, but it’s a sweeping societal problem that people live and cope with, and will continue to do so as long as rich countries are willing to continue subsidizing anti-retroviral treatment.

Drought is bigger than that. Southern Province, of which Macha is a part, is the breadbasket (nshima pot?) of Zambia. And if the rains don’t come, or they come too late, or they come and then they stop for a bit, there is a bad harvest. (One of the fellows who worked in food security told me that maize is a terrible staple crop for Zambia, because it’s not sufficiently drought-resistant. Millet would be better, or I think sorghum (which is eaten some in the northern part of Zambia), because they do not require the same steady water input, but most Zambians want maize, and so maize is the crop upon which farming in Zambia rests, much like the US and corn.) And then people die. Lots of people. (More than usual.) Many of them children. And that’s just the way it would be.

This isn’t just a thought experiment. While Zambia has had some exceptionally good harvests in recent years, there have also been years when the rains have not come just so, and the crop has failed. One of MCC’s responsibilities in Zambia is that if there is a drought, they are responsible for the distribution of the government’s maize reserve in Southern Province. (The government of Zambia, to its credit, is working really hard to buy surplus grain to put aside. But even in an optimal scenario, Zambia is just so sprawling, and so very, very rural over large portions of it, that I simply cannot imagine how food would be distributed to everyone who needed it. During dry season, it takes an hour and a half to drive from Macha to Chikanta, forty kilometers away. In rainy season longer. And Chikanta is close and the roads are pretty good. Transport becomes more and more difficult the further you get from numbered routes and paved roads.) I don’t know if I would have been pulled into that responsibility or not. And I was not concerned that drought would mean that I was without food, though it would doubtless make stretching my food budget a more interesting proposition. But somehow it is scarier than death or injury or illness to think that neighbors would be starving while I had plenty — but not enough to be able to share with everyone. (And yet this happens every day in America, too. We’re just very good at not looking.)

And current predictions for global climate change indicate that Zambia — that much of sub-Saharan Africa — will become unfarmably arid within my lifetime.

Recently I’ve been thinking about drought, and about rain and harvests, because I just got back from Iowa, where we stayed with farmers, friends of my maternal grandmother. In case you pay even less attention to the news than I do, the midwestern United States is currently experiencing a drought, and the harvest is suffering. One of the farmers involved in Constance’s CSA* told her that Virginia is the only state in the US not suffering from drought. I don’t know if that’s true. When I visited the farm Emily works on in Massachusetts, they did not seem particularly troubled by drought.

Onions at Simple Gifts Farm, Amherst, Massachusetts

Onions at Simple Gifts Farm, Amherst, Massachusetts

In fact, a number of the tomatoes were suffering from blight, a problem that I had always understood to be related to wet years. But perhaps it is just the nature of things for tomato plants in Massachusetts to be sorry-looking by the end of September. What I do know is that when I came back to Pennsylvania after eleven months in Zambia, even as I was struck by how wonderfully GREEN everything looked (recall that dry season started at the beginning of April, and will not end until November or perhaps December), I was also struck by how brown the grass was, and the funny dried-out way the corn looked, and how many fields were not nearly as tall as they ought to be.

Soybeans in Illinois

Soybeans in Illinois

And when I took the train south to Virginia, the land around me got greener, in a shift as obvious as the transition from Zambia in dry season to Zambia in rainy season.

Iowa is pretty brown right now. Hay is still green, if it hasn’t been cut recently, but soybeans are gray-brown and corn is yellow-brown, or the crop has already been harvested, leaving a wilderness of husks and broken stalks. I’m not really sure what Iowa is supposed to look like right now. Corn does die and get yellow in the fall. But the plants seem thinner and more bleached-looking, and everything is completely bone dry in a way that I do not remember from autumn in Pennsylvania.

Harvested cornfield near Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge, Illinois

Harvested cornfield near Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge, Illinois

Our hostess told us that corn should be less than 16 percent moisture, but that they want it to be at least 14 percent. Right now it’s at ten, and not only do they have a smaller-than-usual crop, they’re losing out again because the corn is so dry that it’s not as heavy (and it’s sold by weight). She said that their farm’s usual yield is upwards of 140 bushels an acre, but that this year they’re expecting closer to 50 bushels an acre. I didn’t get the sense that farmers are skirting starvation, as would be true in Zambia, but that doesn’t mean things are easy, either.

Maize storage in an elevated "silo" in Mboole, Southern Province, Zambia

Maize storage in an elevated “silo” in Mboole, Southern Province, Zambia

*Community Supported Agriculture, a system in which members of the community buy shares of the year’s harvest, and receive a portion of whatever bounty the farm produces that year

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