The Zambia YAVs have been in the country for about three weeks now and we’ve had some pretty interesting cultural experiences. But this blog post is going to be about one particular experience that had a strong impact on all of us. Last week, we stayed in the village of Chimwangombe with the Sakala family in order to observe and participate in traditional Zambian village life. I entered the experience thinking that we were meant to compare standards of living between a developing, increasingly Western city (like Lusaka) and an isolated, rural village. We did observe drastically different standards of living between the two locations. But there were also several cultural and social differences between Zambian village life and city life that left us emotionally and physically drained.
The first thing we noticed was that the color of our skin had an enormous impact on how we were treated and how people viewed us. The word Zambians use to describe us is “muzungu,” meaning foreigner or white person. When we arrived at the village, people immediately identified us as “muzungus,” and they seemed intrigued, excited, and (in some instances) scared by our presence. Several children even cried when their parents brought them to see us.
It wasn’t just the unexpected reactions or being called “muzungu” that left us culture shocked. When the word had spread that we were staying with the Sakala family, villagers from all over the area walked several miles to come and see us. We had a church choir show up one evening to sing for us. We were given three live chickens as signs of respect from several different families, including our host family. Groups of mothers with their children came to shake our hands and touch our hair because they had never seen “muzungus” before. All the attention and hospitality we received made us incredibly uncomfortable because it reminded us that our skin color came with privilege and demanded respect in cultures like Zambia. We did not want to be treated as special or seen as better than the people who were gracious enough to open their home to us. But we were treated that way, and we had to wrestle with that fact. We had to accept that, because we were white, we were going to be perceived as rich foreigners who had to be respected (even when we didn’t feel like we should be respected).
For the majority of our group, one of the most difficult experiences we had in the village was experiencing how women were treated in a traditional, rural village. The female YAVs experienced and observed this ourselves because we were expected to participate in traditionally female chores with the women of the family. Every morning, we attempted chores such as sweeping, fetching water, collecting firewood, doing dishes, and preparing food. We were expected to serve the men their food, sit on reed mats while the men sat on stools, and rise early to prepare breakfast before anyone else was awake. By working with the women, we came to know them as incredibly hard working, selfless, and determined individuals who struggled earnestly to provide for their families.
But being a woman in a traditional, rural setting brings its own challenges; challenges that may not be present in an urban setting like Lusaka or in a Western country like America. For example, our cultural interpreter, Mabuchi, explained to us that forced marriages may happen in traditional villages. If a girl is impregnated, then her family may want her to marry the father even if she does not wish to do so. If a man proposes to a girl and he comes from a good family, the girl’s family might force her to accept his proposal. At the village, we even met teenage girls who disclosed to Mabuchi that they were currently in forced marriages. When we met them, it was difficult to comprehend that this was their reality; a reality that we would never have to experience.
During the village visit, we had to learn how to walk the very fine line of trying to listen and learn about cultural practices but being uncomfortable with what we were hearing. We did not want to criticize, demean, or judge anything we observed or heard. We did not want to force the villagers to have more egalitarian traditions or tell them that their traditions hurt the people who had to abide by them. But how do we, as members of a different culture, observe what we see without wanting to “fix” the traditions we don’t like? How do we not feel like we have an obligation to address what we deem to be unfair?
We will encounter race and gender issues that make us uncomfortable throughout the year so we will be forced to walk this fine line. We might never feel comfortable walking it but at least we’re recognizing that the line exists. I hope that walking the line will help us create lasting relationships with the people we meet and teach us to accept cultural differences in a place that is very much different from our home.