Thursday, December 13, 2012


(begun 5 October 2012, finished 13 December 2012)

I'm not sure what it was.  The way the light hit, already high in the sky at half past six.  Maybe the way Ba Aggie asked if the friend whose wedding I'm attending tomorrow is "black, black," pinching her own forearm, "or mizungu (white)?"  When I responded that the bride is Zambian, she still wasn't convinced.  "Zambian Zambian?" she asked, seeking clarification, as opposed to non-black Zambians, whose number is few.

Maybe it was my big hiking backpack, half-empty to leave room for groceries on my return; the large bag feels more ridiculous on every trip because no one else has anything like it.  Perhaps it was just the last few weeks of thoughts: knowing that I have six months left here and wondering if I have accomplished any of the things I'd sought out to do.

There I stood on the side of the tarmac, awaiting the inevitable passage of a bus or private vehicle, thinking, "They will always see me as different."

I've gone through the bulky cultural handbook that is Peace Corps standard issue, some of it many times over.  One of the parts of adjusting to any culture, it claims, is the eventual realization that people are fundamentally different.  That culture is more than food and fashion preferences.  That we are shaped in profound ways by the setting in which we are raised.  That we view the world through different lenses, that our foundational beliefs and assumptions are not the same.  I've had my own lightbulb moments, too: a vivid one was when I stepped out of a school workshop to help the women teachers finish preparing and serving food and realized that they didn't feel put upon or discriminated against--they actually preferred cooking to sitting in an endless meeting.  I had a revelation then that any advocacy I do must be based on what people themselves want, not what I assume they want, though sometimes those assumptions are so deeply engrained in my being that I have to step outside myself to see them for what they are.

I came to the conclusion early on that it is possible to live here for two years and never really become integrated into the community.  I was dismayed.  As time has passed, I've had to constantly ask myself what I want to change to match Zambian culture (e.g., taking time to greet people and observe formalities), what I need to keep to be true to myself (e.g. reading a lot), and what I can blend to find an equilibrium (e.g. wearing dresses made by local tailors from traditional material, but in more Western dress styles.)  I've tried to respect the value of speaking the vernacular, as my experience so far has shown that language is the key that opens every door.  As I've entered the last quarter of my service and re-evaluated what I hope to achieve here, I've reminded myself that one of my "roles in development" is that of learner, and that I want to spend much of the next few months as a sponge--soaking in the rhythm of the village, savoring relationships, discovering as much as I can.

Because we are, fundamentally, different.  Nonetheless, we share many things in common, and these things can--and must--overrule our differences.  As President John F. Kennedy said in an address at The American University in June of 1963, "If we cannot end now our differences, at least we can make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal."  Our lives and pursuits look different, but the core of our existence is the same.

I will never be a Zambian woman.  I don't want to be.  I decorate my house as I want to, not following local trends, and since there are plenty of beans and leafy greens around, I've had no desire to acclimate my palate to dried fish and caterpillars.  But these things exist on the surface.  When I go to a funeral, I can't summon the wails that my fellow women deliver.  It feels artificial to me; we don't grieve in the same way.  But we all grieve, and mindful of cultural expectation, I can enter the home and sit with these women, silently paying respect, and when we gather en masse as the coffin is lowered and dirt shoveled back in place, my own tears flow unbidden, matching those around me.  We are not the same.  Integration is work and requires effort and intention.  I haven't yet reached the level of integration I had hoped for, and perhaps I never will.  Nonetheless, the fact that I can get anywhere close is incredible.  That little Zambian girls can see me as a big sister and know my moods and idiosyncracies is a miracle.  To some I am and will always be an outsider.  But a few of the people I'm close to will agree, I hope, with what artist Collin Raye says when he sings: "I laugh, I love, I hope, I try. I hurt, I need, I fear, I cry. And I know you do the same things, too. So we're really not that different, me and you."  Differences are more than skin deep, but so is our shared humanity. 

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