Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Cultural Learnings

*this was actually written in March, I just never got around to posting it.... 

I’m 7 weeks into my year in Zambia and thus far it has been a wholly pleasant experience, however, I’m fully expecting a dip to come where I’m thinking “fuck am I doing here”. In our pre-departure training they told us there’s usually a three month period of elation, followed by a two month low, once the initial buzz has worn off.  I’m pretty much expecting to develop bi-polarity in my time here.  Organising trips away will be remedy/preventative measure.  Nothing quite like a bit of escapism to avoid having to deal with life’s issues !

The following are a few of the peculiarities of Zambia life that I’ve picked up on without necessarily having to scratch beneath the surface, and a few other early observations about life here so far:

The staple food here is a thing called Nshima.  It’s a mixture of pulped maize and water and kinda tastes like really stodgy porridge.  It’s pretty ordinary and comes with EVERY meal.  On rare occasions (mainly in the one or two ‘upmarket’ joints) you can be very lucky and get rice or potatoes but basically I eat this crap 5-6 days a week.

Every restaurant has pretty much the same offering (to varying standards) as accompaniments (or relishes as they are strangely called here) to Nshima: fried bream, t-bone steak (in a way that makes me think its cooked in a volcano – medium rare is not comprehendible), beef stew, chicken, liver and offals.  These come with one helping of vegetable, usually rape but sometimes pumpkin/sweet potato leaves or a yellow aubergine thing that’s mank.

Typical Meal
I have my lunch in a restaurant every day. What’s really strange is this country produces some of the most fantastic vegetables I’ve ever eaten but no one are EVER on offer in a restaurant.  For the first time in my life I now officially like tomatoes.  The onions ooze juice when you cut them.  The avocado trees in our garden (I nearly wept when I saw them) produce the finest I’ve ever eaten.

The mangoes: Jaaaaaysus! Immense. My devouring of the things is not dissimilar to the way the foxes in The Fantastic Mr Fox eat their food.  I then sit there with bits of mango smeared all over my face like a 2 year old child after nailing an ice-cream.

There are pineapples too which are phenomenally good.  All these fruit and vegetables grown on small holder farms and peoples gardens and taste like the purest things nature has created.

Eating Habits
Before your food arrives you wash your hands at one of the water stations available (basically a big tankard of water with a tap at the bottom and a basin with soap).  Reason being, there ain’t no cutlery.  Eating is done with your paws.

You grab a handful nshima, ball it up and roll it with your right hand, then get some meat to accompany it and into your gob it goes.  As you can imagine I’m fucking appalling at this and the shit goes everywhere.  Apart from Palawan in the Philippines, I’d never eaten with my hands before.  A work in progress let us say.

Hand Holding
When greeting someone its practice to shake hands with them.  It’s a three staged thing: hand grab; thumb grab; hand again – gangsta style.  African influence in the US extends much further than I’d imagined.  What happens then is the delayed release – “Eh why are you still holding my hand man?”. You could be standing there for 20 seconds with some fella you just met still with a grab of your hand.  At first it was fairly fuckin awkward, slowly I’m getting used to it.  Kinda like holding your breath under the water, I try to go longer each time before eventually retrieving my hand from the embrace.

It’s pretty common to see guys holding hands in public.  Like many African countries being gay is illegal in Zambia so men holding hands is perfectly normal because homosexuality is only for demonised and sick people and therefore doesn’t exist, obviously !

Getting used to kissing my male friends on the cheek took a bit of getting used to with living in Argentina but became perfectly normal after a few weeks so this should become more natural after a while.

Listening Noises
Varying from person to person, a whole range of noises can be expected to be hummed from your listener in a conversation.  Kinda like what you’d hear from the congregation of a Baptist Church in some American movie.  You could be talking about something as banal as how often it rains in October and the fucker you’re talking with sounds as though he’s about to self-combust or even take-off like a shuttle being launched into space !

Saying Sorry
People here say sorry for things they’ve got absolutely zero responsibility for.  It really confused the shite out of me the first few times but again getting used to it slowly.  You could drop your cup of tea on yourself and someone sitting on the other side of the room will say sorry – wha?!

Country and Western Music
Yup, they love the shit! And I’m not talking about Johnny Cash now or some cool bluegrass stuff but some of the most god awful tripe you could find on Country Music TV. Kind ironic because the very artists they listen to, you could imagine in full on Klan regalia!  Another love of their’s is reggae, on the bus the other day I heard a reggae/country band, basically some girl whining on about how here sweetheart left here, on top of a the chink chink of reggae guitar. Innovation wha !

Class Orientated Society
Probably a legacy of colonial times and probably to do with the mantra of “the bullied bully” but Zambia appears to be quite a class-based society, most especially noticeable in Lusaka. It’s very common for the middle-classes to have gardeners and maids in their houses and generally treat those unskilled people very very differently to their ‘peers’.

The Coloniser and the Slave
In our pre-departure training they’d talked about the possibility of us hiring local people to act as night guards, cleaners, gardeners etc.  I felt instantly repulsed by the idea of me being a white guy living in Africa having some Zambian person as my ‘staff’.  To me the next step on from this would be me spending my spare time on the veranda of the Hunting Club sipping pimms every weekend.

What I saw as the retrenching of colonial norms was something I felt pretty uncomfortable about.  I would be providing a local person with a job they said. “Na”. “A night guard perhaps?” “It’s not South Africa I’m going to. Na” “A gardener maybe?” “Sure we can do that ourselves. Na”. “A cleaner?” “No chance” “What about washing your clothes?” “You kidding me, sure I can do that myself, I’ve done it for years. Nope.” “You’re going to wash them all yourself?” “Course I am. Sure I’ll just them in the washing machiiii……..ooooh, there’s no washing machine is there? Sooo how do I …….handing washing?? Faaaak that. A cleaner it is then!”

So I get my clothes washed every week or so, that is all except for my jocks.  Having someone wash your underwear is completely unacceptable in Zambia.  So that I do myself.

Public Displays of Breastage
What IS culturally acceptable in Zambia is breast feeding in public. As it should rightly be.  I don’t understand people who get squeamish about it, it’s the most natural thing for a mother and child to do.  That being said, the actual act of covering up after feeding time is something very casually practised in Zambia.  You could be trying to negotiate the price of fruit and yer would have her udders hanging out (!!), the kid would probably be asleep AND strapped to her back, far away from any possible feeding!

Gender Matters
In seriousness though the main reason these situations occur is that women do most of the work here.  They are Trojans.  For example, at any market the majority of the women will have a child strapped to her back (they make a sling from a chitenge – similar to a sarong) for the full day of work and often will have also have another one in the oven.  They can be ridiculously young too, probably back to work a few weeks after the birth too I’m guessing.

And it’s not like they do just ‘women’s’ work, women do most of the farming too.  Very common to see a group of women tilling a field, again with baby on back.  Where men do seem to play a major role is in cushy well-paid government jobs.  Among unskilled men there’s a serious alcohol problem.  Absolute drunks they are. And they like to kick off early.  I usually rock up to the market at about 11-12 at weekends and a load of them would be plastered by that stage.  It is likely that their wives are the ones selling fruit+veg at the markets and the lads just pissing away the funds.  Women in Zambia most certainly got it tough.

Water Issues
In rural areas women may have to walk an hour to get fresh water.  In my area we have water piped to the house.  In order to drink, it needs to be boiled, cooled and then put through a filter.  You could be in for a bad dose of the gallops otherwise!

Seriously though, diarrhoea is a major health issue here and there are plenty of other water borne diseases on offer from drinking contaminated water or simply not washing hands properly.  Guy I know in the Irish Embassy got sent home recently after contracting typhoid.  Awful dose of a thing.  Spent three weeks recovering.

We have running water most days, well, until about 6pm that is.  Then it often stops. Water pressure apparently. So teeth brushing and dish washing become a problem.  Showering is done using a bucket of water and an empty butter container which I use to scoop the water over myself.  I have a shower but when the pressure goes (3 weeks with no water was the worst it got, have to fill from the neighbours well).  All cold water obviously.  On the rare occasions the hot water works and the shower has enough pressure, well those are to be relished.  The simple pleasures…

A few peculiarities here too.  The 24 hour clock is strictly enforced.  Even verbally.  Six o clock is ‘18 hours’ or in the morning ‘Zero Six’.  Takes a bit of getting used to.
‘R’ and ‘l’ are swapped.  They don’t fly their lice here but a prate of lice is a nice change from nshima.  Really confused me when a guy started referring to the Tanzanian city of Dar Es Salaam as Dal Es Saraam.

When I heard Mulenga (the girl I share an office with) pronounce 60 I thought she’d some real bad speech impediment but then I realised everyone else says ‘sistecky’ as well.  Still baffled by that one, it’s kind of endearing though.

Time. Jaysus. Even after what I’d heard before I certainly wasn’t prepared for Africa Time.  Someone here explained to me that ‘time is made in Europe and spent in Africa’.  As far as I can make out there’s only three times in Zambia: Sunrise, Sunset and Going Home Time. Seconds, minutes and hours are all merely means of describing what happens between dawn and dusk.  Time here is elastic; you can stretch it and squeeze it to your heart’s content.  Absolutely nobody is in a rush.  That phrase about having no concept of time, I’m certain was referring to Africa.  They really don’t actually think about it.  For example if I ask someone how long it would take to get from A to B, they wouldn’t have a notion.  Then they’d think about it say ‘well if you leave at 06 you’ll get there about 14 hours’. ‘So 8 hours yeah?’, they think about it and go ‘eh ya’.

Also, speeding things up can be taken as being quite rude here.  If you meet someone they’ll ask you about 14 questions about yourself, your family, how you slept, whether you’ve eaten etc before the subject of the day can be discussed.  It’s how it’s done here.  I wasn’t long getting used to it, it certainly makes for more endearing encounters but if you were in a rush, well, you just can’t be in a rush in Africa !

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