A World That Is Not My Own
Editor's note: Courtney Morgan submitted this post from Zambia during the three-week global internship that she had there in the summer of 2017 as a member of our Women, Girls & Global Justice team.
WGGJ coming to you live from Lusaka, Zambia! My fellow intern, Augusta Durham, and I have been here since May 26th interning with Avencion Group's Global Leadership Program. Avencion works on a wide array of projects ranging from healthcare technology to youth empowerment. During our time here, we've had the chance to interview community organizations like Chikumbuso, meet international development professionals from USAID, FHI360, and Population Council, learn about projects at Avencion, and explore around Zambia a little!
We ended up here through a little bit of fortuitousness plus a lot of hard work and generosity from many individuals and organizations. This experience has been defined for us by the generosity of others. Our own Jaronda Miller-Bryant lived and worked in Zambia before joining the Women's Center, and her friendship with Greg Marchand of Avencion connected us to the organization. Greg and the rest of the company worked to organize and schedule our time here. Two of our co-workers at Avencion, Chi Chi and Melba, took a weekend trip with us to see Victoria Falls and visit a village near Monze.
Donny, a Peace Corps volunteer, and his adoptive family here hosted us in their village for a night. Ingrid Hakala and the Global Internships team at UVA played an integral role in making it financially possible for us to journey here and ensuring we make the most of our experience. Augusta and I are so grateful to everyone who contributed to getting us here, and feel so privileged to be interning with Avencion here in Zambia for these few weeks.
As one of our assignments for UVA's Global Internships program, we were asked to watch Chimamanda Adichie's TED talk, "The Danger of a Single Story." In it, she comments on the absurdity of Westerners' narrow vision of a uniform African culture and singular archetype of what an African "should" be. It's one of my favourite talks, but I watched it here with new experiences and friendships to inform my understanding of Adichie's words. Something I've been struck by here is the diversity of our experiences.
I roughly understand our interactions and experiences here as existing in three forms: Westernized/ex-pat, urban Zambian, and rural Zambian. These interactions show us different dimensions of life in Zambia and reveal to us new truths about ourselves and the US from different angles.
First: the Westerner ex-pats. We have found here that the most natural interactions, with people from the States or Europe, are typically the easiest but not our most memorable or rewarding. Yet somehow the Westerners here are magnetic--they gravitate toward one another. A Stanford grad student approached us at a rural bus station just to chat. A British man bounced over to say hey and acknowledge our shared Western-ness. The small talk came naturally, but the conversation left me with nothing new. About halfway through our time here in Zambia, we spent a weekend in Livingstone. We went white water rafting for a day with a boatload of fellow Americans. We were joined in our raft by four students from Colorado State University. Our interactions were easy--we shared an understanding of one another. We made fun of each other, laughed a lot, and left refreshed. (The rapids, on the other hand, were not easy. My UVA class ring now lives at the bottom of the Zambezi River, but that's a story for another day. RIP.) These interactions with fellow Westerners, though enjoyable as temporary respites from the more effortful existence another culture brings, did not give me the same fodder for thought or changed perspective that integration into a world that is not my own does. There is nothing inherently wrong or right about this difference, but it is perceptible.
Next: urban Zambia. This is the frame where most of our time has lived. Here in Lusaka, the capital city of Zambia, we live in the guest house of a family's suburban home. We're driven through traffic to work each day in a comfortable office. We've explored a museum, made a few runs to our local Shoprite (a Wal-Mart-esque establishment), and enjoyed a few meals out at nice restaurants. Here we've gotten to know our co-workers, their different personalities and music tastes and backgrounds. Lusaka feels relatable on the whole, but laced with little things that catch me by surprise or feel a little different. The upper middle class people, our family next door included, have maids and groundskeepers and nannies that are taken as much more normal than would be the case in America. The men and women tend to socialize separately, not in mixed groups. "Serious?" replaces "seriously?" and "inclined on" means something along the lines of "dealing with" or "related to". Stoplights, much to my amusement, are called robots. These differences are fun to explore, not terribly uncomfortable, and their simple newness reminds me that America's normal is not universal. This difference within degrees of familiarity leaves space for conversations with co-workers our age who share their perspectives on life with us. I've been struck by the similarity of the problems that express themselves differently in the US and Zambia. We talked extensively with a group of female co-workers about women's empowerment. The things they shared were all too familiar: stigmatized birth control, a painting of marriage and a successful career as mutually exclusive, gender based violence. Though the expressions of these threads are different in each country, the patterns are nonetheless present.
Finally: rural Zambia. Even among Zambians, there seems to be a strong divide between urban dwellers and rural villagers. And understandably so--our experiences in these two contexts could not have been more different. Transit was a challenge: suddenly our commute traffic in Lusaka seemed like nothing compared to the hour long bus ride from town to the village centre followed by an hour long walk to the compound where our hosts live. In our Lusaka backyard, the porch light illuminates the swimming pool all night long and the barbed wire topping the fence cuts off our sunsets early. Here in the village a glowing sunset stretching across every horizon gave way to a bright moon and an untainted sky scattered with stars. Here the nshima simmered over a carefully stoked fire and we ate with our hands not out of cultural assimilation, but because the nearest fork was likely miles and miles away. And here, no one spoke English to us but our Peace Corps volunteer host and the two co-workers who accompanied us. For the short time we spent there and our inability to communicate, I learned more than I can articulate from our time in the village.
Being in the village felt as though I had jumped into a board game that I had never seen played nor read the rulebook for. Things that I considered rude were taken as totally normal and things I never would have thought twice about were suddenly rude. Being an hour late for a bus full of commuters that detours just to pick you up? No problem. Failing to hold your elbow while shaking someone's hand or (worse) not bringing your hosts some live chickens and cooking oil? Terribly rude. The only things I knew to be appropriate were actions that my fellow English speakers told me to perform. "Kneel or squat to give the father the bread." "Make sure you dip down low when you greet the grandmother." "Cover your head when we sit around the fire." "Be sure to wear your Chitenge at all times." Any further attempt to put the village into writing would likely tarnish it with clichés, but just trust me on this--it was a really, really cool night.
One more scene from the trip to the village is worth sharing, though. When we arrived in town, we drew attention like I've never felt before: the only two white people in sight. Our group of 5 (made up of Augusta and myself, our two urbanized Zambian co-workers, and Donny--the Peace Corps volunteer hosting us who has lived there for almost a year now) journeyed through the market to buy the chickens we would bring to the family Donny stays with. As we walked, Donny, who is black and has learned the local language, mentioned that we should let him venture ahead to buy the chickens so the vendors wouldn't see us with him and raise the prices. Before he went on, our co-workers interjected, "So why don't we go instead?" "Oh true. I forgot there are levels to this," responded Donny in the most casual commentary on intersectionality I've ever witnessed. This exchange alerted me to the impossibility of traveling without attention to identity and its external implications.
On the whole, our time in Zambia has been enriching, challenging, illuminating, and (last but not least) tons of fun. Augusta and I are so grateful to the string of connections that began with the Women's Center and landed us here at Avencion in Lusaka, Zambia. Here we've met incredible people and encountered new ideas that will shape my thinking for years to come. Many thanks to everyone who made this happen!