Wednesday, March 12, 2008


(photos added just below)

I like to learn. I like to learn that someone figured out a better way to do something, and there is this miracle that exists which allows me to do this new something, maybe its the miracle of literature, or television or radio...or maybe its how to call home from Zambia.

I like to learn that I'm wrong about something too. Each time this happens, I become better at avoiding being wrong in the same way again.

I also like knowing what to learn, and I don't like not-knowing what I don't know. (an unconscious incompetence)

The other day I was at a pretty fancy grocery store, there was no one in line at one of the cashiers so I chose to go there. After ringing everything through, the young girl told me what I owed and I fumbled through my pocket to pull out the right bills to pay. In Zambia there are no coins, so I had to gather about 5 or 6 different bills to pay her. As I placed them one by one on the counter to build the pile, the clerk reached over and said 'can you put it in my hand?'.

I instantly assumed she was talking about the thick stack of money that was I was holding onto because I was a white man (muzungu) and she was the typical poor girl in Africa. It took about 10 seconds before I asked her what she meant, and she told me that she didn't want to reach out and take the money that was stacked on the counter. Instantly my mind flashed back to a time at the cheese shop in Calgary when an Italian lady clearly described to me how she had grown up knowing that it was rude to put change on the counter and make someone pick it up. Almost like it was a step towards throwing money on the ground and letting the beggars stoop to gather it.


I apologized to the cashier and walked away with a cramp in my chest from the idiocy that I had internally experienced. I was humbled because I didn't want to be on a white person's pedastool, I really want to show respect. Meanwhile, it can be easier to understand situations when you know how you are viewed. But not knowing how to distinguish between a young girl who is employed at an upper class grocery store from a girl that is walking down the street without any shoes is a tough lesson to learn.

At this moment I feel that was just like a crack of light escaping below the door and I'm about to open the door to discover how little I know about a culture so different from my own. Where I come from, I at least know the light is produced by electricity, in this new world I have yet to know something as fundamental as how the light is made let alone the details of what is in the room.

The one peace of advice that I've received and hold onto for dear life is that, no matter what, be "humble".

(still 10 days before I head to the rural NW corner of Zambia to life in the bush)


hans said...

Hey Mark,

Interesting vignette - I've also been in the position of moving to a new country/continent and suddenly being aware that all norms are different here, including such subtleties as body language.

The cheap solution is to impose your own cultural concensus reality on the situation. However I believe that accepting and internalizing new cultural norms will do you better in the long run - by enabling you to understand the nature of people better (and understand what's really happening) in all sorts of situations you may not expect.

PS: you may be happy to hear my honey mead has turned out pretty well. Should be aged just about right by the time you make it back.


Mark Hemsworth said...

save some mead for me. I had some in Ontario and totally enjoyed it, such a different tasting alcohol, but in a good way. I've heard there is a lot up in Mwininlunga, thats what they do with the honey that is of poor quality.

Take care. Hope you get out to the Romeo Dallaire event at the EWB conference in Calgary Sunday

Anonymous said...

Hey Mark!

That's so great you're taking harmonica lessons! Can't wait to jam with you when you get back and you can teach me how to play to :) Have your heard a lot of music there?

Hope you're enjoying the easter weekend in Zambia.