One of the great challenges I found when coming to the UK was explaining the variety and differences in culture to people who had only ever lived in one place. I have lived across several cultures and am still regularly surprised and humbled at the scope and breadth of cultural differences. I really wanted my friends to understand my reality and perspective but really struggled to articulate them.
A couple of years ago one of my friends made a transition in reverse to me. she was going from the West to Sub-Sahara Africa. Whilst Zambia is very different that Kenya, I loved reading her email recently where she analysed the culture from a different perspective. She does an excellent job discussing cultural mores and nuances.
I asked if I could steal it and got her to introduce herself.
“I grew up in the Hudson Valley, New York and went on to attend the University of St Andrews, Scotland to study Sustainable Development. From there I’ve worked several jobs ranging from forest mapping to ranching. In 2016, I joined the US Peace Corps in Zambia for two years and have stayed to work with another organization on a food security initiative. I’ll be here at least another couple years!”
And here is what she wrote
“As the rest of the world continues to get their social fix via Zoom and other media platforms, I’ve spent time recently dissecting my rather different daily social life. Learning how to interact with my neighbors in a Bemba village took some getting used to, as did learning to treat all spaces in the village as an extension of my own home. It was also a definite wake up call realizing that everyone else around me was going to treat my home as an extension of theirs as well. No fences. No gates. No obvious boundaries. There are technically boundaries that are defined by a village committee (you pay 50 kwacha to change a boundary with permission from the group and headman), but they don’t exist on paper- only in an oral agreement from the land owner and committee. I don’t actually know where my house boundaries are supposed to be- I found out after the fact that my garden is actually planted on two of my neighbors’ land but they kindly told me they weren’t using it anyway. There is sometimes less than 6 ft between houses. People can literally stare into my house and see everything going on simply by walking past on their way to our farm. People, especially children, are free to range wherever and follow general rules of politeness when approaching a house. Polite protocol is to stop at least 10 ft from the house and call “odi?” (hello? anyone home?) and wait for someone to say “kalibu” (come in!). That doesn’t mean you enter their house- it just means you can now approach up to the porch or cooking area and then greet everyone there. You’ll get offered a place to sit after all the greetings and then and only then can you actually state the reason for visiting. There’s an unwritten hierarchy of acceptable seating to offer a visitor and forgetting to offer a seat is baseline rude. Top of the seating list are actual chairs and stools, next best option would be an overturned bucket, if none of that is available, then a sack or a brick, and if really nothing is available, the porch itself. If you show up as people are eating or preparing to eat, you are guaranteed to be asked to join the meal (though knowing which meals to politely turn down and which meals to roll your sleeves up and dig in to could fill a book). Other house related rules include never wearing shoes in someone else’s house- they get taken off at the door. It’s a sign that my brothers belong in my house since they don’t take their shoes off until they are inside and then they put them in the corner- meaning that it’s also their house. Entering into someone’s bedroom is also very inappropriate except under extreme situations (basically if you are on your deathbed and only then).
Anyone can feel free at any time of the day (or night really) to show up and hang out. I sometimes can hear the surprise in people’s voices when I’m calling people back in the States and I hear the hesitant question mark when they comment on “I can still hear people in your house…at this time of night?” It’s less weird when you factor in that I do the same thing in other people’s houses- sometimes showing up in the dark for a chat and then leaving hours later. People feel perfectly comfortable sleeping in whatever house they want for the night and I know several kids that very rarely sleep in their parent’s house and just end up sleeping in friend’s or extended family’s houses because its more convenient not to walk home in the dark. I am one of two households that actually verbally send people away at night (the other house being Jeremy and Bethany). It probably sounds like parental negligence not to worry when your kids don’t come home several night in a row, but it ties into the concept of “it takes a village to raise a child”. The reality is simply to assume someone else is looking after your kid because you are at that same moment probably keeping an eye on some child that isn’t related to you.
I love the fact that dropping by someone’s house just to greet them isn’t considered rude- it’s actually encouraged here and Zambian hospitality extends to anyone no matter how someone is dressed, or the state of the house, or the quality of the food prepared. After my years in America and Scotland of panicking over visitors seeing a messy house, or clothing out, or dirty dishes and then worrying about that rather than enjoying their visit, there’s something very freeing for me in people not expecting anything other than the pleasure of my company. That’s not to say that I don’t appreciate when people take the time to clean their hour or prepare nice food for my visit- quite the opposite- but I enjoy being in a space where the social call is welcomed regardless of circumstances and never feeling like I’ve embarrassed or inconvenienced someone by my unexpected presence. To put into context, I have shown up to a house where a woman was sweeping her house completely nude from waist up and had an entire conversation with her and then left without any indication from me or her that that was weird or rude. Sitting at someone’s house in silence is also totally acceptable and 100% of the time is a guaranteed way to freak out American visitors who feel obligated to make polite conversation and small talk. Way back when I couldn’t really speak much Bemba, what saved me was the fact that you can go to someone’s house here, greet them, and then sit and not talk (sometimes for hours), and then leave and that qualifies as a perfectly acceptable visit. People will just keep working on whatever they are doing. I sometimes get random people come to sit on my porch and we don’t talk- they just want to sit and be present with me. Again, it’s a cultural focus on visiting the person themselves and not about what they have to offer and it’s been really good for me to learn how to drop my phone or whatever work I’m doing and go really spend time with people and hear and feel what they have to say. As I sit here writing this, I have five kids playing Connect Four on my porch and another three who have been sitting on my couch in silence doing nothing for the past hour. I appreciate that they spend the same amount of time doing that each day with me regardless of whether I offer them a game or a movie or something exciting. So while the rest of the world is adjusting to this new virtual work and social environment, I am still at 100% people 100% of the time and my adjustments include washing hands before entering someone’s house and tapping elbows or feet instead of shaking hands. And we will continue to adjust as Covid cases rise in Zambia but I feel confident that we will find a way to keep the important aspects of our social community here. I just don’t know exactly what it will look like.
Rainy season is officially over and a very early harvest has begun. I’m always amazed at how quickly the earth dries up after the rain stops- we won’t see any more rain until November. The hard work of hauling buckets of water around twice a day to keep gardens and fruit trees watered has started. They are about half way through putting a tap for water in my back yard and I’m looking forward to easy access water, though I’ll have to make sure I keep visiting my neighbor’s house regularly after it goes in since my prime time to visit with that family is when I’m fetching water from that house. We sit and chat while the buckets are filling and while they wash dishes and clothing and put cassava out to dry. I have also been making sure that everyone keeps their gardens going as we enter into dry season- it’s going to be important as food prices continue to skyrocket across the country. One of my neighbors looked at me last week and said “it’s getting too expensive to eat these days, let alone eat nice foods”. I will continue to try and mitigate that as we move forward.
I hope this email finds you all safe and sane during these Covid times. I’m sure you are all in various states of confinement or lock down and my thoughts go out to you. Please stay well everyone! Umutende.”
I loved reading it and hoped that it gives a bit of an insight into another part of the world.