Zambia gained its independence from the British on October 24th, 1964. Yet, there are still glimpses of the colonialism that shaped this country and we, as white Westerners, get to see that influence. One of the examples I have to explain Zambian’s construction of whiteness is my commute to work.
I leave the house at 7 am every morning and, immediately, people stare at me, ask me questions, or try to get my attention. The reason being is because I live in Chaisa. In Lusaka, there are areas called compounds, which have a reputation for being overcrowded, noisy, and relatively poor areas. Chaisa is the kind of compound that is composed primarily of poor families and refugees from other countries, like Somalia. My presence is instantly questioned and, when I tell people I live in Chaisa, I am met with disbelief. As I have been told many times, “whites don’t come to this compound.”
As I walk the roughly 20 minute trip to my bus stop, I am met with humorous smiles, curious looks, or furrowed brows. I receive questions, on a daily basis, like “muzungu, why are you walking?” In Zambia, white people don’t usually walk. Instead, they take a taxi or drive a car and, under no circumstances, do they take public transportation. I take three buses every morning to get to work (roughly an hour commute each way). Therefore, on every bus, people are amazed to see me sitting next to them. Every morning, bus drivers and conductors ask me if I’m getting on the bus and, when I reply yes, they laugh or look at me confused.
In Zambia, there are stereotypes about whiteness that have been taught by Western media and the legacy of colonialism. White people are perceived to be rich so there’s no need for them to walk, take buses, or live in Chaisa. White people are superior so they do not mingle, talk, or work for or with Zambians. White people only mix with other white people so it doesn’t make sense for me to have Zambian friends or visit a sick grandchild of one of my Zambian co-workers in the hospital. White people don’t speak Nyanja because English is the superior language.
One can say these are simple stereotypes of what it means to be a white person living in an African country. But, beneath the surface, there is a deeper, more sinister explanation. For years, colonial Zambia (or Northern Rhodesia, as the British called it) was told that whites were intellectually superior and more capable than the local population. Therefore, white people today are seen as intelligent, rich, powerful beings that can hand out jobs, money, and connections. We are seen as influential, bringing prosperity wherever we go. You might think that this stereotype is not so sinister because we are seen as the good, white people who come to countries to help others. But, with the influence and privilege given to us by colonialism, comes the dependency and inferiority given to people who suffered under colonialism.
I have seen this dependency and inferiority play out in several encounters with Zambians. One of the Zambians I met in my first week in Chaisa remarked “you whites are kind people. You come here to help us.” Many of my friends have told me that “whites have a lot of knowledge, more knowledge than us Zambians.” When I told someone I liked living in Zambia, they laughed and said “But everything is better in America.” When I tell Zambians I don’t know something, they are surprised because they expect me to know things like accounting, business, and statistics just because I’m white. In these encounters, the stereotype of the superior, intellectual, and wealthy foreigner are enforced, leaving me to wonder how I could possibly convince them that my culture and where I come from and what I look like is not superior in at all.
There are some Zambians I have met that (despite what they have been taught) treasure their culture and want other Zambians, especially their children, to believe that their traditions, languages, and history are worth preserving. I have met no better advocate for Zambia and its culture than my own host mother, Sarah Lupiya, who gave me permission to interview her for this blog post.
So you’ve told me before how Zambians are not as proud as they should be of their culture. Can you talk a little bit about that?
“As much as we know that we are human beings and that we are of different races, each race has its different culture. Much as each country can embrace other cultures, it has its own culture, which it has to hold onto. Now, with most Zambians, they are not proud of being Zambian. You go into a home [where] the mother and father are Tumbuka but they won’t speak Tumbuka. They will train all their children to only speak English. They won’t send their children to government schools because they would be taught [local Zambian] languages. These parents would prefer to send their children to private schools where they will only learn in English. They don’t embrace local languages. They say local languages are inferior. So, since this child has been brought up in that manner of inferiority relating to their local language, will that child embrace their culture?”
Where do you think people get the idea that English is superior to local languages?
“According to my own opinion, they get this because they feel that a white person is superior. You know, the British came to briefly rule us. They brought their own kind of ideas. When we go deeper, on the evolutionary ladder, the African is at the bottom in terms of having knowledge. We are seen as a race or a class of people that has no knowledge. People who received their education from missionaries, they learned that, when they learned English, they were superior. Ideally, missionaries came so that the word of God could be spread. But the people who colonized us, they also classified us. We are moving away from our own culture. Some say it is just modernization. But we’ve very much diluted our culture to the extent that our children do not respect it.”
How is it harmful to children when they learn their culture is inferior?
“The most disadvantageous part is that these children will not respect their family, their elders, or themselves. When we think of [Zambian] culture, we think of oneness. No man is an island. When I have a community, I am not alone. I have a big, big family because of my community, my church, my workplace. My load will be lightened because of the community around me. But, in the near future, there will not be that kind of oneness. Because children are learning that our culture is not important. They will not have that oneness.”
In many ways, my skin color gives me similar (if not the same) benefits in my own country. But what my skin color means in Zambia just seems so stark in comparison. And, at first, I was angry at the amount of attention I was receiving from the community. I did not want to be reminded on a daily basis of the privilege and power my skin gives me. But to deny the attention and treatment I am receiving is to deny the history and reality of this country. To deny what I am experiencing is to deny the fact that other countries believe that I deserve and know more than the people I have come to respect, admire, and cherish. To deny what is happening is to deny Zambia and its people the reverence and acknowledgment they deserve.