Zambians are the nicest people you will ever meet. Generally speaking they will drop everything to give you directions, go out of their way to chat with strangers and are good-hearted and genuine people. Despite my obvious foreignness, I feel oddly comfortable at work and even walking down the street. This overwhelming sense of “niceness” forces the mind to wonder if the polite words are a mere guise for secret gossip when you turn the corner. While this can be the case, I have found that Zambians genuinely want to know why you are here, how you like their country and how you left Obama.
A paralegal workshop in Kabwe in late March alerted me to a potential problem with the societal urge to be nice and polite. I consistently struggled with how to address the group because of the wide-range of educational levels and comfort with English. I got the sense that the trainees were nodding their heads because they should and not necessarily because they comprehended what I was saying. My co-worker, Chrispine indicated to me that my hunch was correct during the workshop. On a walk back from town, Chrispine remarked that when I end prayers no one else says “Amen.” Apparently this is because the participants had no idea that I had stopped praying. And why didn’t they laugh at my jokes (a greater concern for me); obviously they didn’t catch a thing that I was saying. In fact, Chrispine was sent by one of participants to ask what perfume I was wearing. She was too scared to ask me herself.
I am aware that I speak quickly, and am told often. At times I do a great job of slowing down my speech, but it seems I have a ways to go based on my rapid-fire remarks at the workshop. While I feel terrible that the participants couldn’t understand me, I have a stronger sense of frustration that no one told me. If one brave participant raised their hand or pulled me aside and gently said “Kyla, you are speaking 100km per minute and we don’t get a thing you are saying,” I would have repeated everything and slowed down! When I questioned Chrispine about this, he said simply “they didn’t want to offend you.” Of course. But when I think about how much the participants missed because they were concerned about my feelings, wouldn’t it be better to risk it in case I was saying something that mattered?
Since Zambians don’t make waves, it’s not surprising they are one of the few countries in Africa that attained independence without much violence. More importantly, there has been almost no violence to speak of since the British were sent home. Zambia was once a shining light in Southern Africa; however, things have been going slowly downhill for years. Money invested by foreign nations and donors goes mysteriously missing and the infrastructure continues to crumble. Lusaka streets that were vibrant, clean, and lined with Jacaranda trees now have a depressing look of something that “used to be great.”
I’ve often heard the phrase “peace at all costs” when it comes to the Zambian’s attitude towards their government. They put up with corruption, mudslinging, excessive wastefulness and monopolies because they fear what causing a stir may do. It’s difficult to blame them; looking at the civil wars and genocide that took place in Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Angola, Rwanda and most depressingly, the DRC, I would prefer peace as well.
The recent financial crisis put a strain on the deteriorating conditions and minimal resources within Zambia and estimates are that things will only get worse for the struggling South African country. It’s not surprising that Zambia was ranked number 7 on the list of countries likely to fall into civil unrest in the next year. One hopes and prays that peaceful change will come to Zambia and development will be allowed to continue. However, in a country where “peace at all costs” and has reigned supreme for years, you have to wonder if there isn’t something boiling behind all the smiling faces.