It’s a love-hate thing: a brief assessment of my half-year living and working in my home country

home sweet home the odyssey online
Photo credit: CIEE

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.

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How the game Sleeping Dogs inspired a change in my perspective on “coming home” 

So it’s official, the one thing I never imagined I would ever do is happening…I’m living and working in Zambia. After countless unsuccessful job applications and an abundance of frustration with looking for permanent employment, I landed a human rights consultancy gig which will keep me in my passport country until December. Let’s hope the next nine months are kind to me!

Source: http://ichef.bbci.co.uk

Growing up outside my home country, I never once thought I would end up living here and never really felt a strong urge to do so. Of all the places I’ve been in my young life, not one of them ever really felt like home to me, including my country of origin, as strange as that may seem to some. And anyone who is very close to me knows how weird it feels for me to say I’m a Zambian. Not that I feel much like any other particular nationality but I’ve always felt most like a foreigner in Zambia. But here I am. I’ll be here for quite a while and I’m going to try and make the most out of the experience.

You never know until you try really. As a child, I only ever lived in Zambia for very short periods of time and if I’m honest, didn’t always find it particularly enjoyable. However, I might just find that it’s more of an exciting experience living here as a working adult. Living and studying in Kampala – which is a lot livelier, more foreign and more chaotic than Lusaka – for four months last year, may have, to some extent, made me more inclined to give working here a try. If I could adjust to life there, albeit for a short period of time, surely I could adjust to life in Lusaka?

In many ways, I’ve likened my experience to that of Wei Shen, the main protagonist in the 2012 game Sleeping Dogs, which has also changed my perspective on “coming home.” I completed the game just before arriving in Zambia earlier this month and enjoyed it immensely – setting, soundtrack, missions, cast, characters and most of all, the storyline. However, the emotional journey of the main character was one particular aspect of the game that really resonated with me. Officer Wei Shen was born in Hong Kong but moved to the USA with his mother and sister as a pre-teen. He transitioned into an adult while still in the US and became a police officer with the San Francisco PD, graduating top of his class. He returns to Hong Kong after being transferred to the HKPD and is assigned to go undercover to infiltrate and bring down the Sun-on-Yee Triads. While undertaking this assignment Wei is faced with many of the challenges experienced by cultural nomads or third culture kids when it comes to our identity. These challenges are magnified by the fact that he is undercover.

Having spent his adolescence in in the US, Wei grows up to become torn between two different worlds and although some of his friends, acquaintances and fellow gang members are comfortable with his status as an Asian-American others regard him as an untrustworthy outsider despite his being a Hong Kong native. Adding to their suspicions is the fact that he seems to behave too much like a cop . While Wei adapts quite quickly to his situation, like a typical cultural chameleon, and does well to gain the trust of his Sun-on-Yee brothers (and sisters) through various acts of loyalty, his emotional well-being, from constantly playing two sides (cop vs gangster, Asian-American vs Chinese), is severely tested.

Source: http://vignette4.wikia.nocookie.net and http://download.gamezone.com

Wei’s handlers become concerned that the very same chameleon-like tendencies that make him the perfect candidate for the undercover job also make him the worst as it can happen, as it did in the game, that being embedded within one cultural setting for so long while lacking strong ties to a particular cultural identity occasionally makes him lose his sense of self and forget the true purpose of the mission. One thing I’ve always been good at is adapting and adjusting to very different cultural settings and like Wei it’s happened that I’ve committed so much to acclimatising to one particular setting that I sometimes go through periodic identity crises. I’m interested to see how being in Zambia for ten months, now that I’m self-aware and fully conscious of my multiple ‘cultural personalities’ so to speak, will affect how I see myself and how it may influence the decisions I make about where I would like to settle in the future. I might adapt to life in Lusaka to the point where it finally starts to feel like home or maybe I’ll go back to my physical home in South Africa feeling like just as much of a outsider as I did going into Zambia. Only time will tell but I’m going in with an open mind, eager to discover more about the land of my origin.

For me, another very interesting aspect of the Sleeping Dogs storyline was the fact that Wei doesn’t speak Cantonese throughout the game even when it’s spoken directly to him. Whether this was done to cater to an international audience or was a deliberate move on the part of the writers to add more depth to the character, I think it was a good additional layer to Wei’s personality which speaks to the experience of many people who share his childhood experience. It is clear, through his interactions with various characters who converse with him in the vernacular or mix it with English, that Wei can understand Cantonese very well. However, conversations with characters like Mrs. Chu, for example, who only speak in Chinese often appear awkward and stilted as Wei simply responds in English. This has been my typical experience of visits home. It’s not for want of trying but I struggle to speak my mother’s language, Bemba, despite my being able to understand it quite well. In spite of mum’s infrequent Bemba lessons, I never picked it up as a child. Usually when someone speaks to me in Bemba I’ll try respond with one or two phrases but often find myself reverting to English. Some of my family members have given up and accept that that’s how I am, others are neither sympathetic nor patient and a few can’t speak English at all. My reluctance to communicate in Bemba was further heightened by some of my relatives and friends mocking my heavily accented attempts at speaking Bemba. It was never really part of my plan to become fluent in Bemba, Nyanja or any other Zambian language this year but I might give it whirl. There’s never any harm in picking up an extra language or two.

A wise family member told me that there are times when you may be positioned in exactly the right station of your life in order to accomplish your goals in the future, even if it doesn’t feel that way in the present. So although I never saw myself living and working in Zambia, taking this job just felt like the right move to make at this point in time. It’s a short-term contract and could very well help me get to where I want to be career-wise. I might just find that life in Lusaka is not as daunting or alien as I thought. I’m about 3 weeks into my work here and so far, so good. I’m not on a mission to become inculcated with any particular cultural norms and values or become fluent in any local language in an attempt to be “more” Zambian. But I am embracing this work opportunity for what it can give me – good work experience, a chance to get to know my extended family, a better understanding of my home country, an opportunity to learn my parents’ languages and the ability to make a contribution to helping my home country fulfil some of her human rights obligations.

Master class: how studying towards a masters helped me discover my identity

In 2016 I accomplished one of my career goals – earning a masters degree in law. While I gained a wealth of knowledge  and practical skills that will no doubt be invaluable to me in my professional endeavours going forward, the life lessons I learned inside and outside the classroom in Pretoria and Kampala have enriched my existence immensely and for me, are the biggest gains from studying towards this degree.

I expounded on these sentiments in the piece I submitted for the Dean’s Essay Competition for 2016. Every year, the Dean of the Faculty of Law at the University of Pretoria invites students from the LLM in Human Rights and Democratisation in Africa class to submit essays in which they reflect on their experiences during the programme. At graduation, a  prize is awarded for the top three essays. I didn’t expect it at all, but I was placed first in the competition.  Considering I was up against two brilliant creative minds, I’m pretty darn chuffed that I managed to scoop first. I thought I’d share the piece below especially as it pertains to the central theme of this blog. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I loved writing it…

 

 

I’ve always believed that there is great value in education, particularly higher education which is a privilege granted only to a lucky few. I don’t value my legal education for the monetary gains or prestige that it can bring but rather, for the skills it has equipped me with to make a career out of ‘making a difference’  as well as the lessons it has taught me about life, love, sexuality, spirituality, relationships, family, careers and human behaviour. 

 

After roughly two years of seemingly never-ending masters and scholarship applications and taking the time to get some ‘real world’ experience, I was finally set to embark on my 1-year LLM journey. While my real world experience provided  me with a great deal of perspective and insight into where I see myself in the near future, the last ten months have had the most profound impact on me in a way that I could not have possibly imagined.

Never in my life have I experienced anything as academically stimulating, highly demanding and mentally-challenging as this academic programme. I knew doing a masters degree would be tough but I must have taken for granted just how much. After the intensity of the first semester subsided and we made it through relatively unscathed, I had time to reflect on the half-year that was and revisit some of the hobbies I’d neglected in order to get through it. It’s been exceptionally taxing but I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything because it’s helped me reshape my professional and personal goals and understand exactly what I’d like my legacy to be.

Last year, I started two blogs: one on fashion and the other on the theme of identity, but more specifically on how growing up away from my ancestral culture has affected my developing a sense of identity in my teens and early adulthood. I was born in the UK to Zambian parents, I hold a Zambian passport and have spent my formative years between Australia, Swaziland, Zambia and South Africa (where I’ve completed the bulk of my education and have been permanently resident for the past ten years or so).It’s not a particularly novel thing to go through a bit of an identity crisis when you’ve spent a significant portion of your developmental years outside your country of origin but it’s a subject that’s very personal to me and, as I came to discover, something that affects many people across the world. A surprising consequence of my LLM studies is that I’ve once again become hyper-aware of my cultural identity (or lack thereof). In a programme that emphasises acquiring skills and knowledge to improve the human rights situation in one’s ‘home’ country, feeling like I don’t have a home makes for a great opportunity to learn from my classmates but at the same time makes me feel disconnected from my passport country and the African continent generally.

My classmates and I introduced ourselves countless times while attending short courses, lectures and some special events. The introductions have been rather exhausting for the entire class but I came to regard the exercise as a bit of anathema because I was constantly confronted with a question that I do not particularly enjoy answering: ‘where do you come from?’ Initially, I would give my go-to responses: ‘I’m Zambian but I live in South Africa’ or ‘I’m ‘originally’ Zambian’ but five introductory speeches in, I grew tired of adding the qualification to my answer and would simply respond ‘I’m Zambian.’ I would then pray to my creator that I wouldn’t be called upon to educate the class about the political, legal or human rights situation in Zambia of which I had very limited knowledge when I first started the programme. It may seem strange or even comical that a question as simple as ‘any Zambians in the class?’ could make my palms clammy and my heart start racing for fear of being exposed as a ‘fake’ Zambian but it made me incredibly anxious until I decided to steer into the skid and focus on my studies. The wonderful thing about human rights issues is that they affect all people the world over regardless of background, age, race, status, religious affiliation or orientation. Moreover, there are so many different capacities in which every person on the planet can contribute to the advancement of human rights. I believe this is what drew me to the field in the first place, especially being someone who comes from everywhere and nowhere at the same time.

 

Linked to my identity, for the longest time the ‘feminist’ label bothered me immensely. The programme has, however, led to a change within me and I now wear the badge with great pride. While I’m more inclined to the business and human rights side of things – a passion which the programme helped me nurture through clinic work, a short course and my dissertation – I developed a deep interest in women’s rights advocacy. Two or three years ago, if someone had asked me if I consider myself a feminist I would most likely have said no. Painfully ironic considering I strongly believe in equal rights and opportunities for all people, staunchly advocate women’s empowerment and fiercely defend women’s rights. I’m ashamed to admit that I naively bought into ridiculous feminist stereotypes of the radical, man-hating, bra-burning, perpetual spinsters and felt unworthy to put myself in the same class as distinguished and seemingly elitist Germaine Greer-type feminist scholars and philosophers. But I believe I rejected the label primarily because I used to be uncomfortable with the inherently divisive nature of labelling people. This discomfort also stems from my inability to develop a firm grasp on a linguistic and cultural identity connected to my country of origin.

My opinions on feminism were altered during the thematic week on Gender, particularly when I attended a lecture delivered by Professor Sylvia Tamale. I immediately took a liking to her. It’s incredible how another human being can make such an impression on you at your first-ever meeting but this is the effect Prof. Tamale had on me and part of the reason I chose Makerere University as my second semester destination. As a Zambian woman who has lived amongst a range of different cultural groupings for most of her life but whose parents continually imbued her with some of their cultural values and did not wholly abandon many of their cultures’ practices, I straddle different sides like many African women my age. I try as much as possible to harmonise all facets of my cultural identity but they are often at odds with each other. In some measure, Prof. Tamale’s teaching and writings taught me that I don’t necessarily have to break one down in favour of the other as they are all-encompassing of my identity. I had the privilege of attending her inaugural lecture, Nudity, Protests and the Law, in which she reflected upon the internal moral dilemmas she wrestled with when her friend and colleague Dr. Stella Nyanzi carried out a nude protest earlier this year. Her openness and honesty about fighting to retain her feminist identity in the wake of such a shocking event so close to home and what it said about the objectification and sexualisation of the female form further ignited my new-found passion for feminist activism. 

 

I now realise that it is incumbent upon me as an African human rights defender from a privileged background to become actively involved in combating the many injustices that myself and my sisters on the continent face daily. Not only will I be doing this in my professional life but in my creative endeavours as well. Blogging is my art and a medium through which I have found my voice. I’ve truly been inspired by our lectures on art and human rights taught  by the quirky Marissa Gutièrrez and those on human rights advocacy by the brilliant Professor Liz Griffin to transform my blogging into a platform for pushing my activist agenda. My fashion blog has already been a platform for me to discuss a variety of subjects including history, race, art, sexuality, culture and feminism to some extent. I have come up with a variety of new pieces and ideas for both of my blogs, stimulated by my LLM studies, for my audience to enjoy, be inspired by and reflect critically on pressing human rights issues. I will continue in this spirit going forward.

 

It’s a bittersweet moment for me as my long and difficult LLM journey comes to an end but it’s been the most enriching experience, allowing me to forge wonderful friendships, hone important professional skills, travel and learn two new languages. Most importantly, the programme has helped me discover the identity I’ve been searching for since adolescence. I’m no longer afraid to label myself. I’m Zambian, African, feminist, activist, a blogger and significantly, I’m a graduate of the LLM in HRDA programme 2016.

 

Thanks for reading!

You only get what you give

Hello 2017 and Happy New Year, dear readers! After taking a bit of a hiatus due to a serious case of writer’s block, I’m ready to get back into the blogging game!

As I sat down to draft this post, my first in a while and my first of 2017, I looked back on the previous year with great fondness, the good and the bad. I like to think of 2016 as the year that made me. I explored parts of East and Southern Africa for the first time in my life, learnt two new languages, met some fascinating individuals, made wonderful friends and came across an unexpected source of inspiration for my blogging and my life in general. After feeling lost, confused and rudderless for a long period of time, I’ve rediscovered my passion and found my calling. Well, I feel like I’m at least a quarter of the way there.  

The pivotal moment of 2016 which renewed my hope for the future was a talk I had with my mum’s youngest sister over the Christmas period. I’d had another panic attack and anyone who’s experienced this knows what a terrifying ordeal it can be. My heart was racing, my chest felt tight, I couldn’t breathe and I was absolutely hysterical. I was on the verge of driving myself to the hospital when aunty took me aside, helped calm me down and took me for a walk. As we walked through the neighborhood, she shared many things with me that made things look a little less bleak. I learnt about both the struggles and triumphs she faced in her early 20s, I got some insightful home truths and received great relationship advice. I can’t say that it was any one particular thing aunty said that got me through my episode, just that our little chat was just the cathartic release I needed. It helped me put things in perspective and suddenly, I had figured out exactly what it is that I want (and need). I finally feel like I’m at peace and significantly, I’ve found the thing I’d lost a while back…hope.  

For many people, myself included, a new year implies new opportunities for a fresh start. So although I’m not the type to make New Year’s resolutions per se, whenever a new year dawns I’m inspired by this idea of hitting refresh, so to speak. While I don’t believe in giving the entire game plan away, I will share a little bit about my goals for 2017. As the ‘happy new year’ messages, tweets and the like began streaming in I came across this awesome Vern McLellan quote above which aptly encapsulates the attitude I’m adopting this year. Spurred on by the difficulties I’ve faced in my personal life and the enduring love and support of friends and family, I’m doubling my efforts as far as my creative endeavours and business ventures are concerned as well as getting more involved in philanthropy and feminist activism. My mother constantly reminds me that negative thoughts stunt one’s progression through life and that if you do things in a spirit of optimism, you’re most likely going to yield positive returns ten-fold. It is with this in mind that I will put in as much effort as possible into quelling bad habits and seizing every opportunity I get to learn and grow.

For the first time in a while, I feel a sense of purpose. I’m fired up and raring to get back on the proverbial horse. I pride myself on being a realist though so I’m allowing myself some margin for error. As always, I remain hopeful that things pan out as I envision. If not, I’ll keep soldiering on until it does.

To my beloved friends, family, readers and followers, I wish you all the best for 2017. May the work you put in this year yield exceptional returns.

Here’s to a purposeful, productive and prosperous year ahead!

Harness the good energy, block the bad

I’m no longer ashamed to admit that I suffer from anxiety and depression. Lately, I’ve been feeling particularly out of sorts. I’ve been feeling lost, stressed, helpless, fearful, agitated, confused and most days, just downright miserable. Very unlike the person I was a few years ago. My physical well-being has suffered terribly, I’ve barely been able to focus and I’ve made some really poor decisions. Yesterday I had a terrible fight with someone I love and cherish deeply. Many harsh words were exchanged but since the argument, I feel something I haven’t felt in ages….clarity.

As easy as it is to blame other people for some of the mistakes I’ve made and the emotional stress I’ve been under, really, I blame myself for not trusting my instincts and sticking to my convictions. I opened up to the wrong people, isolated myself from the right ones and gave of my time to people who pretended to give a damn about me. I’ve since forgiven myself for these mistakes though. Of the decisions I’ve made over the past few weeks that have cost me my sanity and peace of mind, I finally made one that’s yielded a positive result. I broke free of something that’s been holding me back for ages. Sometimes in life you have to cut your losses and excise the metaphorical tumor that’s been sucking your life force. When something feels wrong, it probably is and the healthy thing to do is to step away from it. It’s better than lying to yourself that you’re OK with something when it’s clearly a source of so much pain. I’ve finally moved on and couldn’t be prouder of myself for it.

Say what you want about me but I always stand in my truth. I embrace my mistakes and always turn negative experiences into positive life lessons. I’m grateful to all those who have stood by me, believed in me and loved every bit of me. And I’m also grateful to the people who tried to bring me down and hurt me because even that has contributed positively to my personal growth. All the times I said no instead of yes, the times I stayed when I should have gone, the times I turned right instead of left…all of these decisions and experiences have made into the woman I am today. I have zero regrets.

Now that I’ve moved past the bullshit, I feel empowered and I’m ready to continue on my journey to achieving all that my heart desires. I’m refocusing my energy on the things that bring me joy and serenity. It’s been really rough but the immense relief I feel right now trumps all the negativity. As far as dealing with my anxiety and depression is concerned, I’m taking it one day at a time and living in hope that one day I will conquer it.

With one small step, I’ve taken several leaps forward. 2015 was a bad year for me but 2016 has been a slight improvement so far. With all the horrible stuff that’s happened I’m convinced that I can end this year on an epic note. No jinxes though. I’m still expecting the worst, but hoping for the best. A very cynical motto for some but it’s gotten me through some of the worst of times. I am in charge of my own happiness and I’m determined not to let anyone or anything get in the way of that.

If you’re reading this, first of all, thanks for visiting this page. Second, I hope you take some inspiration from this if you’re going through a tough time. I hope you find the strength to move on to better things. Don’t let other people hold you back from being the very best version of yourself. They’re not worth it but you are. Stand in your truth, embrace the learning experiences that come from the mistakes you’ve made and most importantly, never give up on yourself.