What I’ve Learned in Zambia

This past week, my family visited me in Zambia, which was an incredible experience. Not only was it amazing to see them again after 9 months but it meant a lot to me that they got to meet my host family, worship at my church, and meet the people who form my community.

But one of the things I couldn’t help noticing when my family was here was that I no longer identified with some of the American values reflected in my family. Instead, I saw myself becoming defensive of the Zambian values I’ve slowly adopted during my YAV year. Somehow, I felt like I was a member of my family but that I belonged with Zambians.

This is what people have been telling me since the day I arrived in Zambia: there will come a time when you feel like you don’t really belong anywhere. You form a life here and establish roots in a foreign country, which is an incredibly valuable experience. But those roots become stronger and deeper the more time you spend here, and (because you’re so immersed) you begin to lose yourself in the culture. You live in between worlds, residing in this gray area where you don’t really know which culture you belong to or which one you prefer most.

When I first felt this internal struggle, I was terrified. It’s unsettling to think that one day I will return to a country that doesn’t feel like home anymore. Maybe I won’t feel as comfortable in the US as I did before. Maybe I’ll find that I don’t belong there at all. But there are certain values in Zambian culture that have become a part of who I am, and I feel like I’m a more whole and realized person because of them.

Some of these incredible cultural values include:

  1. No one gets left behind

A friend of mine who’s a volunteer in Zambia commented that there are no homeless children in the village where he lives. That’s because, if a child’s parents die, then extended family adopts the child. If a child has no family, then neighbors adopt the child. If a child doesn’t have neighbors, then the community surrounding that child rallies, and makes sure that he or she has a home. There is a cultural belief that you need to look out for other people, especially during difficult times. This translates to children being adopted by strangers, church members making sure their pastor has enough food to eat, a newborn baby being given clothes to last through the cold season, and other remarkable acts of kindness.

  1. You give everything you have (even though there might not be much to give)

In my host family, there are nine people (including a year old baby) living under one roof. This isn’t because the Lupiya family happens to have a lot of children. It’s because they have three daughters (Lina, Tiza, and Deborah) and they’ve also opened their home to their relative’s children. Prince, Gilbert, Ruth, and myself are not their biological children but they have adopted us like we have belonged to them our entire lives. They fill every inch of their house with people who need a place to live, need to go to school close by, or need to be taken care of by a family who has the means to do so. The Lupiya family, and many other Zambians I know, work incredibly hard to provide for everyone who lives with them and to share their blessings.

  1. Belongings belong to everyone

This was the cultural belief I challenged the most when I first entered Zambia. Your belongings aren’t meant to just belong to you. What you have should be shared; everything you own should have a communal nature. In the beginning, I wanted my stuff to only be mine because I thought that would protect my American identity. My possessions meant so much to me in September and now I couldn’t care less about them. Now, I want to share my coloring book with my host family so that they can color with me when we watch TV. I want to share all of the medicine I have even though I might need it in the future. I want to share everything in my life because that brings me closer to the people in my life.

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  1. It’s about the little things

This is, by far, the most important value I’ve adopted since living in Zambia. I am so much more aware of the little things in my life that make me happy. Zambians are constantly thanking God for giving them another year to live, for protecting their loved ones, for blessing them with food, for providing them with shelter. When life feels tenuous and unpredictable, it’s the little things you remember and hold onto the most. It feels like there’s been a fog around me until this point. How could I not be grateful for the grace of others, a bond with an infant, a community’s understanding, slowly formed but important relationships, lessons learned from mistakes, and everything else Zambia has given me? How could I have ever thought I needed to “make a difference” for this year to be worthwhile? When I look back on my YAV year, I’m going to remember (and cherish) the little things.

These values are just one of the reasons I respect Zambians so immensely and why I’ve truly appreciated the time I’ve had in this country. When I leave in July, I am determined to bring these values with me when I return home and keep them as important parts of my identity.

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