Published: June 9th 2010June 9th 2010
One of the advantages of doing very little background research before arriving in a place is that everything is new and exciting. In the course of my first 72 hours here I have, therefore, learned and experienced a great many things about Zambia that I would never have expected.
One of the greatest surprises I’ve encountered is the population’s general fluency with English. Literally everyone (at least in Lusaka) that I have interacted with down to the bathroom guard at the shopping plaza speaks perfect English. This is, it turns out, because English is the only official national language (which I will admit I did not know) and the language of instruction in all public schools. Of course this is a remnant of the British era, but also a fairly practical choice. There are 72 other officially recognized languages in Zambia, so I suppose it makes a great deal of sense to choose a globally functional language to promote as the common denominator.
Another interesting fact I’ve discovered (although, again, this is clearly something I could have figured out by taking 5 minutes to look into the country before I moved here for the summer) is that Zambia is
Turns out I'm not the only one who has fun playing with the country's name.
bordered by no less than seven countries: Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Malawi, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic Congo. I’ve been told that in the Eastern Province (where I will be based) there are tribal leaders whose jurisdiction covers citizens of multiple countries (either Zambia and Malawi or Zambia and Mozambique). Despite sharing borders with a multitude of other countries (some of which have experienced or are experiencing their share of political stability), Zambia prides itself on having a peaceful post-independence political record. What’s more, Zambians’ unmistakably positive interpretation of this traditionally less than ideal situation stresses the benefits of having multiple neighbors. I was recently told that Zambians have rejected the term “land-locked” and instead opted to describe their country as “land-linked,” emphasizing opportunities for trade and regional solidarity. This is a country that may have invented the concept of the silver lining.
By far the most remarkable thing about Zambia that I’ve discovered so far is the incredible willingness and frequency with which people smile. I’m sure it’s been said before, but I suspect that the national pastime could officially be declared smiling. I’ve noticed this in my dealings with just about everyone, from the two men at
breakfast on my first day who stopped their own conversation to simply smile and say “Hello” to me as I walked past (I was so unaccustomed to this kind of unprompted friendliness that I awkwardly stopped at their table expecting them to ask me something; they just smiled at me until I returned their greetings and walked away) to the passersby on sidewalks who erupt into warm smiles upon seeing me and bid me a “good evening” as if we’ve known each other for ages. At one point I considered tallying how many complete strangers ask me how I am doing on a given day, but I fear that I would get so caught up in trying to keep a running count that it would detract from the incredible joy I feel every time I get to beam right back at someone.
Perhaps my favorite person I’ve met so far is a CARE driver by the name of Edward. He is one of the happiest, friendliest and most helpful and open people I have ever met. On each of my first two days in Lusaka we spent a bit of time together as he helped me track down everything
from a power adapter to a hairbrush. Not only does he patiently and quite willingly put up with the endless (and sometimes absurd) questions I’ve so far asked him (“How many wives does your father have?” “How many foreigners live in Zambia?”), but he comes right back with a number of his own (“What kind of vegetarian are you—strict or lacto-ovo?” “What do you mean you don’t believe in any religion?”). He seems to genuinely love sharing information, and has given me long unprompted speeches about a variety of subjects ranging from his personal views on health (for 7 years he was a vegetarian in a country that serves 12 different trays of meet at the lunch buffet) to the consequences of polygamy on children’s health and development. Granted I clearly don’t know him (or Zambia) that well, but he seems to me the poster child of everything I like about this country at first glance. He is, after all, the one who turned to me on my first day and—with a big grin—taught me my favorite thing I’ve learned about this country so far: “The cheapest thing you can find in Zambia is a smile.”
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