01 November 2011

What's Zambia like?

A few weeks ago I responded to an e-mail asking me if I would e-mail with a student in a geography class at Culver-Stockton College about my experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in Zambia.

No problem, I replied. I love the study of geography as much as the next spatially inclined American.
I forgot about the exchange until I recently got an e-mail from student Jose Salas. Below are Jose's thoughtful questions and the best answers I could muster.


Jose's e-mail:
I'd like to help me with my assignment, which is to type a paper and do a presentation about Zambia. So, the more information you can share, the better. I would like to know how it is living in Zambia,

I have seen that Zambia is a small country with a population of around 13 millions, and an economy that has been increasing based on copper. I am pretty sure you know much more about ZAmbia.
I would appreciate your time and help.

Thank you

Jose Salas
And my response to Jose:

I am glad to answer your questions. Read on. Let me know what questions you have after you read my words below.


What is the difference between Zambia and the United States?

There are many differences. The major difference comes in hard infrastructure. Here in the US we consider paved streets and working toilets to be standard. Not so in Zambia. There are few paved roads. There are limited places to find a flush toilet (or often a pit latrine for that matter.) Water goes out. Electricity is inconsistent since the Zambian national electric company sells its power first to Malawi and other neighbors who will pay more for it than will Zambians. (Are those some out-of-whack priorities or what?)

Difference in living conditions?

Most rural Zambians are subsistence farmers who live in mud brick huts with grass roofs. Against this backdrop many have mobile phones and I even saw a few times a solar panel and satellite dish on the grass roof of a hut many kilometers (they being a former British colony adopted the British or metric system of measurement.) There is no indoor plumbing or heating in these huts. There definitely isn't air conditioning. Most Americans would run away screaming from such conditions. Zambians deal with it. It is what they know.

Difference in people?

Well, the Zambians are I think 95% Bantu origin. This means their skin is black and their hair is tightly curled. Minorities in Zambia are those of Indian descent. These Zambians were born and raised in Zambia and are often highly successful investors and businesspeople. Their exists some tension between the Bantu and the Zambians of Indian descent.

Difference in economy?

There is a limited middle class. The majority of Zambians are susbsistance farmers or fisherpeople. Formal jobs just are not available. Many Zambians do piece work, that is, they work in a neighbor's field for a day or a week for a wage. There is a fair amount of transactional sex that goes on, that is, where women have sex as a way to get money. These women do not identify as prostitutes since they engage in this behaviour rarely. Engaging in transactional sex increases the spread of HIV, which was 16% in Eastern Province where I lived from 2008-2010. Among truckers and prostitutes rates of HIV infection  can be upwards of 40%.

There is a fair amount of copper extraction going on in Zambia to feed the Chinese economy. Wages are poor and the environmental impact from mining is significant in Zambia's CopperBelt. Zambia makes the news sometimes of late when workers at Chinese-owned mines riot for better conditions.

Difference in opportunities?

There can be no comparison between the opportunities we have here in the US and what is available in Zambia. Most Zambians are aware of this because they observe Western lifestyles on TV and in movies. A child born in Zambia today is more exposed than ever before to images of the West and a world that they will likely never be able to access. The Zambians know that they are very poor. I was often asked while I was there what Zambians can do to raise themselves up from poverty. My standard answer was to not have so many babies. And keep growing all the food that they possibly can.

Differences between Zambia and other African countries?

There are fewer people spread across more area in Zambia than in other East and Southern African countries like South Africa and Malawi. Also, most Zambians are Christian who do some worshiping of ancestors. A much smaller percent are Muslim. More Africans are Muslim as one heads North and East from Zambia. We encountered lots more Muslim culture and faith in Tanzania while on vacation. South Africa has more white citizens since the colonizers were able to get the largest toehold there.

How was your experience in there?

Great. I wouldn't change it for anything. My wife and I spent one year in the bush and one year in town. I worked with farmers on conservation farming techniques in year one. Year two found me working with an environmental group to publish a tree planting guide for teachers. I also grew a lot of trees from seed with several student environmental groups. I worked with some indigenous non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to improve their organizational capacity.

While there I made great American and Zambian friends. I got a lot closer with my wife with whom I was already close.

The Zambians with whom I worked were grateful. I still keep in touch with a few of them.

How was the food?

There are not a lot of choices. We have amazing choice here. The world at our fingertips. The Zambians' staple food is nshima, a corn paste eaten with fingers to pick up various side dishes or relishes such as greens, beans and occasionally meat. To a Zambian a meal without nshima is not a meal. Don't even bother.

Describe the culture.

Rural, undeveloped, quiet, slow-moving, peaceful, paradise. How do those words sum it up?

What are the Zambian's customs?

They are more socially formal that I expected they would be. This is due to the influence of the colonizers. Locally, Zambians who are ethnically ChiCheowa practice nyau, a series of fertility rites. This involves costumes and dancing and drums as a celebration when a boy or girl reaches puberty. Rural Zambians participate fully. Some urban Zambians think the nyau rituals are backwards and should be abandoned.

What are Zambian's beliefs?

As I wrote, they are Christian but retain plenty of their earlier animist culture.

It is not uncommon for a Zambian person with spiritual leanings (and there are many people like that) to pray to Jesus and at the same time to a dead sister or grandparent for intervention.

What did you found weird about Zambians?

What was weird? Nothing. Seriously. Zambians acted exactly as one would expect citizens in a maldeveloped, rural African nation to act. Despite having a deck stacked against them the Zambians are generally kind, curious, relaxed and extremely hard-working. There is a widespread problem however with alcoholism.

 Was it easy to interact with the people there?

Sure, most Zambians speak some English and the Peace Corps trains all volunteers in a local language. I learned ChiNyanja or ChiCheowa.

What they have that we do not?

Food security in rural areas. Community. Extended families dwelling together. Smiles all around. Everyone who can afford it is on a bicycle.

What they lack that we do not?

Food security in cities especially among the newly urban. Independent media. Cars.

How's that do it for you?

Some websites that may be of interest to you are:

www.TravelsWithTrevor.blogspot.com: my wife's blog while we were in Zambia.
BBC's Zambia page
The US State Department's Zambia page

Thanks for asking me about Zambia,
Trevor Harris

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