There’s a lot more to travel than knowing what to go see and booking a flight to get there. There are visa issues, of course, and those can be horrifying. Then there’s the whole food thing – what can you eat? And are you sure?
It boils down to this: if you know a little about the culture of the place you are going to visit, you can probably figure out a lot of stuff that might stymie a tourist who isn’t as interested in a spot of adventure.
And sometimes the best way to know what to do is to know what *NOT* to do.
Zambia is a gloriously beautiful African country. It has its problems – most African nations do, but despite those problems safety is more assured there than almost anywhere else on the continent. As their old slogan said, this is the REAL Africa.
To begin to understand the culture in Zambia, it’s best to start with something no Zambian would ever say:
“That’s none of my business.”
There is no Zambian of any ethnicity (there are 72 different tribes in Zambia, as well as thriving communities of people who have moved to Zambia from Europe, India, and the Middle East) who will ever, under any circumstances, tell you that something you do or say is not their business. If you understand this about Zambia, you will get along just fine in everything else.
Someone will most likely tell you that you are dressed inappropriately – whether the clothes are not conservative enough (lots of boobage, tight clothing, or bootie shorts are not a good bet) or just not well suited for a hike in the bush (yes, you need light sleeves and long pants). Don’t take it personally – it’s not about you. It’s not about the Zambian, either. Your clothes are wrong, it’s just a fact.
Comments will probably be made about your weight. You will be either too skinny or too fat. Don’t take this to heart, either – there is no fat shaming here and a skinny comment just means they want you to eat another helping of nshima.
Someone will try to order your food for you at least once. Zambians are proud of the multi-ethnic cuisine here, and if you are starving there is nothing you can say that will convince a Zambian that anything but nshima will fill you up. You will be offered samosas, curry, okra “relish” (the topping on nshima, which is sort of like polenta), and be expected to try it all.
There is no getting straight to the point in Zambia. Every interaction starts with, “Good morning, how are you?” “I’m fine, and you.” “I’m well, thank you. Isn’t the weather fine today?” “It is lovely.” “Aaaaiieee, yes. It is.” Because knowing what you think about these things is their business.
It is only after this that you may get down to whatever you are there to do, and if you try to speed these preliminaries up, more often than not the person you are speaking to will give you a kind-but-pointed look and continue along in the greeting until all particulars are observed. Case-in-point: I am well known at a certain market. Gradually, as I have picked up local lingo and become known, people have stopped quoting me ridiculous prices that I have to spend a very long time haggling down. At one point a gentleman I always buy from quoted me an initial price I thought was fair and I accepted it without any haggling.
The next week he quoted me an outrageous mzungu price yet again. Not haggling is simply unheard of, no matter how much you like the other person.
Most Zambians don’t bother with mosquito nets, even though malaria is endemic here. But YOU – the visitor – YOU will be bullied under a net by everyone you meet because it is their business. Tourists with malaria are just not good for business. Just sleep under the darn net. If you are going to be in the bush, you will need some kind of malarial prophylactic and you will be asked about it quite often. However, expect to hear folk remedies as well, and you might find yourself forced into drinking/eating/washing with some dreadful local concoction. Just do it, don’t argue. It is easier that way. No one will let you drink the local water, because tourists with gastrointestinal distress are also not good for business. Along with that, when the maid in charge of laundry irons your underwear, don’t argue, she’s preventing you from getting putzi flies in very uncomfortable places. The business of your particulars is her business, let it be.
People in Zambia get very frustrated sometimes – at traffic (worse than LA rush hour, and all day long), at the inefficiency (expect an hour to get your food served at restaurants), at shortages (gas is an issue right now, and people usually need to hit three stores to get 3/4 of their shopping list). But all-in-all people in Zambia tend to be very open and friendly. And that is why your business is their business – just treat it as though you are visiting a loud, raucous, extended bit of family. Remember that and you will enjoy your visit much, much more.
*Visit Zambia – visa information