So I’ve been living and working in Zambia, my country of origin, for over 6 months now and…it’s been (slightly) better than I expected. I wouldn’t say that I’m having an absolute blast here but I can’t say I’m completely miserable either. Since I arrived in Zambia to start work, there have been many times when I’ve felt like a complete stranger in what is supposed to be my ‘home.’ But, surprisingly, there have also been rare occasions when I’ve felt like this is exactly where I belong and need to be at this point in my life. It has been quite frustrating trying to navigate this place that I know very well yet don’t know at all and I haven’t quite gotten used to eating nshima (our staple food) every second day. Plus, my anxiety has sometimes threatened to destroy some of the joy I have experienced since being here. However, with each new day that comes I’m adjusting more to life in Lusaka. I haven’t quite gotten over my reverse culture shock but I have come to view living and working here as a unique opportunity to learn more about myself. And a great deal I have learnt so far.
Growing up outside my country of origin and knowing only my immediate family very well, I’ve been largely out of touch with many of my family’s customs, traditional beliefs and cultural practices. I also haven’t really learnt either of my parents’ languages very well. The cultures of each tribal group in Zambia and the Christian religion are embedded in the country’s national identity. When I think about my own cultural (and religious identity) I go blank. I don’t believe I really developed a solid grasp on one. It’s something I’ve grown up without. I’ve gotten used to the stern warnings from my older relatives to learn a Zambian language, eat more traditional foods and immerse myself more in my parents’ cultures lest I lose touch with my cultural identity. I’ve also grown accustomed to the jokes that friends, family and acquaintances have sometimes made about my inability to speak a Zambian language properly. These days I take it in stride, laugh it off and move on. It doesn’t irritate or sadden me as much as it used to. Having a greater appreciation of how my upbringing has affected my sense of identity has given me great clarity and peace of mind. I won’t be packing my bags to go ku mushi (to the village) any time soon and I doubt very much that I will be sampling mopane worms but I am, and have always been, open to learning as much about my ‘culture(s)’ as possible. So far, the experience of living here without the immediate family has taught me so much about myself as I continue to embark on this path to self-discovery. I accept myself for who I am and what I have become There is no monopoly on what it means to be a Zambian so I should be allowed to proudly label myself as such even though I can’t speak the languages well, aren’t deeply religious or disagree with some traditional norms and practices.
One thing I’ve always found particularly vexing about living in my home country (a self-proclaimed ‘Christian nation’ according to the Preamble of our Constitution) is the conservative nature of Zambian society as well as the prejudices, patriarchy and misogyny that sometimes comes with it. Of course, women around the world face many hindrances to our being treated equally, in fact, to men and there are many places in the world that are infinitely more overly religious and culturally conservative than Zambia. However, I’m used to being in a slightly more liberal space where I can, to a greater extent than here, express myself freely without facing judgment, condemnation or even violence for something as mundane as wearing (not too short) short shorts or a mini dress on a scorching hot day or openly stating that all people; gay, straight, trans, bisexual, black or white are entitled to be treated with respect and dignity. Now that I’ve lived and worked here for some time, I’m starting to understand Zambian society more and I’ve been able to adapt accordingly so I can still be myself while being respectful of the values held dear by the majority of Zambian people. Also, having a few friends and family who are more liberal or share my childhood experience and can thus empathize with some of my frustrations has been of a source of great comfort to me.
While I may sometimes have to grapple with feeling stifled by cultural conservatism and getting used to life here, I’ve also been exposed to another side of Zambia that has given me some hope that this place could actually feel like home someday. I’m hoping that, over time, should I decide to settle here indefinitely, I can continue to meet more like-minded people with whom I really click and perhaps carve out a nice little niche for myself in which I can develop my own business(es) and career as well as build a home.
Since I arrived in Zambia, I’ve more often than not had moments where I question my decision to take up work here and at times have felt profoundly homesick even though I haven’t quite been able to figure out exactly what I’m homesick for. Nonetheless, I constantly try to remind myself of the many wonderful things that have happened to me since I came and the opportunities for personal and professional growth that being here has presented to me. I’m in a place that’s so familiar yet so foreign to me which has been thrilling, exhausting, sad, and inspiring, all at the same time. At times, I love it, other times I hate it, but to some extent, I have adjusted to life here and although I don’t think I’ll feel like a proper local by the time my consultancy is over, I’m certainly going to have an even better understanding of who I am and where I could settle down in the future.