I’m four months in to my six-month stint in Zambia and just realized that I’ve only posted on here once…oops! (In my defense, I’ve shared regular updates via email so please comment if you’d like to be added to my mailing list!)
Here are 5 lessons I’ve been learning from the Zambian culture thus far:
In Zambia, you are born into a culture where sharing is a given. Because it is a collective culture (and not individual like the U.S.), people are more concerned about the group’s needs as a whole than the individual’s needs.
Source: The Economist
That means if you are walking into a group setting and have any kind of food in hand, it is better for you to either finish it before you enter the group setting or make sure you have enough to share with everyone than to walk in eating your food. Similarly, if you’re already out with a group and become hungry, you should either stop and buy food for the whole group or not eat at all. It would be better for you to endure the hunger pangs with everyone else than to pull out your own little snack and eat it in the presence of others (unless you have enough to share with everyone else).
If someone stops by your home, you should offer them whatever you have in the house to eat. If you don’t have any food, the least you can do is to offer them a cup of water. This out-of-the-way generosity is exemplified even more in Tanzania, where people are known to invite passers-by over to share meals with their families if they pass by during meal time.
When you invite a friend out for a meal or an event, it is automatically assumed that you are treating them. Not everyone has disposable income to spend on luxuries like eating out or going to the movies, so you’d better make sure you have enough money to pay your friend’s way before inviting him to join you! An exception to this is if you discuss it beforehand and agree that everyone will chip in a certain amount of money for the event…but even then, you are equally sharing the bill. Splitting bills isn’t even an option here!
I’ve been on the receiving end of this type of generosity from many Zambians and it is always so challenging and convicting to see some of them offer me the best of what they have. If the whole family is eating a meal, they will give me double the portion of meat than everyone else. If they only have a few chairs in their house, they will get up and offer one to me. If I stop by to say hi and they’ve just made some food, they will insist that I stay and eat with them or pack me some to-go if I can’t stay.
Whatever little they have, they share with others.
I’ve been trying to exercise this level of generosity with those I’ve met here, and it has truly been rewarding to give and to share from what I have. Admittedly, I’ve found it a little easier to give here since $1 USD = 10 ZMK, but I’ve been challenged by my Zambian friends’ quickness to give from their lack instead of from their abundance. Would I still be willing to give this generously if I was back in the States??
Jesus said, “It is better to give than to receive,” and I think the Zambians are onto something with their generosity!
People here spend time together…in person!! Whaddya know. Maybe it’s because not everyone has a smart phone yet or that internet is expensive, but people are often found sitting outside chatting or playing games with each other! Since everyone knows and trusts their neighbors, children are able to freely roam around without parental supervision. The community takes care of itself.
This sense of community is especially evident during funerals. Sadly, death is much more commonplace in third-world countries, where people often pass away from ailments or illnesses that would be easily treated in first-world countries. Sometimes it seems like there is a funeral every day–I went to three in two months and saw firsthand how the community comes together to support its members.
View from inside a funeral house while others are singing praise songs outside.
A funeral here typically lasts three days–the first day for visiting the family, the second day for the burial and ceremonial tributes, and the third day for the immediate family to get together and discuss family matters. During the first and second days, friends, family, and members of the community all intentionally take time out of their schedules to visit the grieving family at a designated “funeral house,” one of the family members’ homes. The women gather with the family of the deceased in a mourning room where loud cries and wails are rampant (and almost expected). Though sometimes it does feel a little disingenuous because people are laughing one second and wailing the next (without tears), I can’t help but think about how Romans 12:15 says to “weep with those who weep,” or in other translations, to “mourn with those who mourn.” This, compared to the sterile and structured funeral homes in the U.S., seems like a more natural and comforting way to share the pain and burden with the grieving family.
At the burial site, the men of the community dig the grave and bury the casket, and then the women come to pack the dirt into the grave as an act of love. Then family members and close friends of the deceased pay their respects by planting flowers in the newly formed mound of dirt, which I think is a beautiful representation of new life found in Christ. Praise songs are sung throughout the whole ceremony and the crowds of people walk from the funeral house to the gravesite and back in song. It’s heartwarming to see the community comfort and support one another in this way. The power of presence is truly healing.
3. Relationship is King
In America, Time is King. In Africa, Relationship is King.
In Zambia, when someone makes plans with you at 11am, they really mean they are starting off at that time. I’ve found that Zambian time is at least 45 minutes–2 hours later than they tell you, which can be really frustrating for someone who comes from a culture that values punctuality and basically has Time as its main currency.
I think it’s safe to expect people to show up at least one hour later than they say they will in Zambia!
Apparently there is a two-hour grace window for being late to an appointment because everyone knows that life happens. After that two-hour window, it’s safe to say that your plans have been canceled. If you bump into a friend on your way to another appointment, your top priority is your relationship with the person in front of you. It doesn’t matter if you are running late to a work meeting, a hair appointment, or a meal with another friend. The person directly in front of you is more important than your schedule…even if your schedule involves other people!
Honestly, I struggle with this one because although I do see the value of putting relationship above one’s schedule (Americans could use a good reality check every once in a while when they freak out over being late or missing deadlines when no lives are actually at stake), we still need to get things accomplished and this approach to life seems inefficient for my western time table, not to mention disrespectful to the other people whose schedules are affected by your delay! Needless to say, I’ve had to learn a lot of patience here, ha!
4. Culture of Honor
Similar to Asian culture, the African culture is one of honor and respect. When greeting elders (or anybody in positions of authority), you’re supposed to curtsy and shake their hand while holding your forearm with the other hand. You do the same thing when receiving something from someone. Their language even has different pronouns you use when addressing those either older than you or higher than you in societal position! Something very different from the American culture where we call our elders by their first names!
Some of our students greeting the Headwoman and other leaders of a village they visited.
Romans 12:10 says to “outdo one another in showing honor,” and this automatic humbling of self is something that I think America could really benefit from…it creates a societal hierarchy that values and respects elders and leaders. Children don’t step all over their parents or teachers and are less likely to become the self-entitled brats that we so often see in the U. S. of A.
5. No Fat-Shaming!
This is one of my favorite things about Zambia…there is no fat-shaming! The word “fat” is solely a descriptive word and nothing more! It’s not an insult, it’s not offensive, it’s not negative in any way…it’s just the same as any other word you’d use to describe someone: “tall,” “short,” “young,” “old,” etc.
When I first heard people describing others as “fat” here, often in front of the person they were describing, I’d laugh in shock at the speaker’s bluntness. How rude! Strangely enough, nobody else ever seemed to react the way I did, including the person being described. When I asked if it was offensive, everyone responded in unison, “Not at all!” Huh!
I’ve noticed that it’s always a very matter-of-fact statement that some people are just bigger bodied and therefore, able to eat more or are more prone to tiredness than their smaller-bodied peers. In a country where probably half of the female population would be considered plus-size by U.S. standards, this is a great thing! They celebrate people exactly the way that God made them! God made people all uniquely and purposefully–some are tall, some are short, some are skinny, and some are fat! It’s just the way things are and there is no one body type that is better than another. To shame a whole percentage of the human population based on their body type is an insult to God Himself!
My initial reactions to these seemingly offensive fat comments showed me just how much of a problem it is that Americans have made it shameful and undesirable to be fat or big-bodied! How is it that we’ve allowed “fat” to become an insult? How is it that we’ve allowed Hollywood to dictate our standards of beauty? The highly enhanced and edited images that are thrown at us through the media are not real nor attainable and leave society reeling in insecurities and comparison issues. This is why so many people struggle with body image in the States! Interestingly enough, eating disorders are not prevalent in Africa. I attribute that in part to the lack of body shaming here, something I wish America could implement and embrace.
So there you have it!
Five lessons I’ve learned from four months in Zambia. What do you think? What are some things you’ve learned from being in another country??