Things I’ve observed in my first week in Zambia

  • “How are you?” is a standard part of the greeting ritual, even in contexts such as shops where English custom is barely to acknowledge a greeting. For all that, the greeting is no less ritualised than in England, and any non-positive response to the question seems like it would generate surprise. In fact, the protocol is sufficiently habituated that even if your responses come out of order, it barely seems to derail things.
  • The roads vary from bad to terrible to “pretty much just a matter of convention”. This is made more difficult by the large numbers of pedestrians, and at night by the almost complete lack of street lighting. Much as I hate driving with an automatic transmission on the open road, given the constant speeding up and slowing down to weave round pedestrians, pot-holes and speed bumps not worrying about changing gear is actually a benefit. The speed bumps are often unmarked, and the easiest way to spot them is that men tend to stand in the middle of them, taking advantage of the slowing down of traffic to sell you mobile phone top-ups.
  • Speaking of mobile phones, I think the growth in mobile phone usage surprised even the mobile phone industry. On the surface of it you might assume that people who struggle to afford to eat wouldn’t be bothering with phones, but they are big business over here, and not just among the middle classes. The prevalence of pay as you go credit sold in tiny amounts and of extremely cheap handsets (I’m using a $10 handset for the duration of my stay, and it’s as good as my old Nokia 3310 of a decade ago) has meant that owning a phone is the rule and not the exception.
  • There’s a class hierarchy that I find it hard to get used to. For sure, England has rich and poor people, but middle-class guilt and inverted snobbery mean that class is almost never explicitly referred to. I’ll have more to say on this later, as I feel it’s worth a whole post in itself.
  • The money takes some getting used to. Like many developing countries, Zambia has had its problems with inflation, to the point where 5,000 kwacha will just about buy $1 US. When inflation first started to bite, products were starting to be priced in the thousands but the largest banknote available was still a 20. People took to pinning notes in bundles of 1000 kwacha, hence “pin” remained as slang for 1000 kwacha. Even now, 50,000 (roughly $10 US) is the largest note and I genuinely have trouble closing my wallet.

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