Out of Bounds

GHC has been an amazing experience, both professionally and personally, although not free of challenges. Prior to moving to Zambia, I had never been to Africa, let alone spent a whole lot of time outside of America, so getting used to how things are done here took a while.

As I do not own a vehicle here in Lusaka, moving around can sometimes be tricky. Sometimes I get lucky and can get a lift with a workmate or friend, but by and large, I take the minibus and walk like countless other Lusakans. This experience has taught me a lot about myself. In fact, I would say that it has required quite a bit of thoughtful cultural realignment. For example, as an American, punctuality is a highly valued behavior. When I first arrived here, I continued to wear a watch as I generally did in the States to keep myself aware and “on-time.” But it got to the point that knowing the time, and how off schedule I was, would stress me out because punctuality is not of cultural nor social significance in this part of the world. Regardless of where one has to be, minibuses will not depart until they are full, and even then, they will find room for more passengers AND their assorted luggage. That process can take anywhere from five to thirty minutes; so in addition to navigating the congested city roads, a simple one or two mile trip can easily take over one hour.

I had to let go of the notion that things must start at the “scheduled time” and just let things happen the way they do here. As I cannot afford to take a taxi regularly, I have learned how to make changes in areas that are within my control. If I estimate a commute to take one hour, I will try to give myself an extra thirty minutes of buffer time. To avoid repeat trips, I try to plan what I will take with me before departing the house. My workmates joke about how large my backpack is – they call it my “traveling house” – and it’s true, I carry almost everything I need for a whole day: food, walking shoes, laptop, sweater, umbrella, ibuprofen, and countless other things that I don’t actually need frequently, but just in case. I have come to appreciate that without the minibuses, much of my existence here would come to a grinding halt. I have also come to accept and sometimes even embrace my minibus experiences, as crowded, and late, as many have been.

One of the most interesting things that happen on the minibus is the conversations that I have with other passengers. I have learned so much about people, the Zambian culture, and life in general. It is not uncommon to have absolute strangers ask questions such as “Are you married?” “Why not?” “What church do you go to?” “Do you have kids?” “Why don’t you have any kids?” “How old are you?” “How much money do you make?” “How much do you weigh?” etc.

If you are like me, you might find those questions to be – shall we say – a bit personal. I can guarantee you that if someone had asked me any of those (or several other questions I have received while being here) over six months ago, I might have given some sarcastic answer. It is not often that you would you hear an office colleague or a random person on public transport in the U.S. ask such questions. But here in Zambia, it is very different.

What I have also learned to accept (begrudgingly, at times, I’ll be honest) in the last ten or so months is that the social and physical boundaries between Africans and Westerners differ drastically. For example, here it is commonplace for two people of the same gender to hold hands as a symbol of friendship and it has no sexual connotation whatsoever. Sometimes a female coworker will give me a little kiss on the cheek along with a hug that lasts a bit longer than I would expect for a workmate. Regardless of societal or cultural norms, everyone has their own set of personal boundaries. What is deemed offensive or “too personal” in one culture may very well be “normal” or even the source of a fascinating conversation in another culture. It was a bit of a slower process, but I’ve also started to accept that most people here do not see their line of questioning as rude or intrusive – they see it as a way to get to know me.

So when people on the bus ask me questions of “too personal” a nature, I smile and give them the answer du jour, whether it is “Oh, I don’t know, I haven’t thought about that” or “Sometime pretty soon” or sometimes I’ll just divert to another topic entirely. And when a colleague indulges me in a hug/handshake a few minutes too long, I just take a deep breath, smile, and accept it as a symbol of friendship.