That loud crashing noise you hear? That’s the sound of age-old traditions and stereotypes being smashed and broken.
I don’t think it’s a bad sound. Ben and Lily don’t think so either.
Those aren’t their real names, by the way.
But, first, let me tell you what Ben and Lily have to deal with.
About 90% of the population of Zambia is Christian but it’s a Christianity that’s been mixed with centuries-old customs, practices and traditions. The mix goes increasingly in the favor of tradition as you go further into the rural districts.
Cattle ownership is the traditional form of wealth. Men's prestige and the respect they command is related to the number of women they own. Sorry, did I say women? I meant cattle. Anyway, as far as Zambian tradition goes, there doesn’t seem to be much difference.
Women in the rural areas are the ones responsible for working the lands that they are prohibited from owning. Come harvest time, its the men-folk who have absolute power to decide how the crops are used or distributed. When a woman becomes widowed, she loses whatever assets she may have earned in the name of her husband. His relatives come over to take everything, even her children. Even worse, she becomes subject to “sexual healing”, and not the kind that Marvin Gaye had in mind either. An elder male in her dead husband’s family has every right to take her to bed saying he has to cleanse and free her of the dead husband’s spirit. Nice. Some men will say anything to get laid.
That brings us back to Ben and Lily.
Ben works for the Kalomo branch office of a big freight forwarding company (not his real job either but everything else that follows is true). Ben is tall and lanky. You can imagine him as a track and field runner. He's the type who'd be grinning goofily as he crosses the finish line just because he's super happy that he's done it.
Ben helped me sort out some stuff during my first week here. He knew I was new in town and didn’t know a lot of people. He asked where I was staying. He said he would come to visit. So, ok, whatever.
But he did. The following night, he came by. He said he just wanted to check where I was staying and how I was.(Note: I would find out later that this kind of gesture is par for the course for Ben. He’s the kind of person who would get off his car to help a stranger take care of a flat tire). He said he would pick me up the following week-end to show me around the small town and introduce me to his family.
I warmed up to Ben quickly. He sort of reminds me of my Dad. When I was young, my Dad would bring a progression of foreign visitors he had met somewhere to our house (this was of course during much simpler, more innocent times). He thought they were interesting and I guess he wanted to expose us to different cultures since we couldn’t afford to travel ourselves. So, no, I didn’t think it was especially strange that I was being invited to Ben’s house quite so soon.
Last week-end, he came to fetch me at the exact time that we agreed (CRASH! I was warned about how unconscious of time Zambians can be). Ben was wearing a red blazer and a red tie. I have an orange blazer (which hopefully will fit me again when I get back home) so I didn’t think this was strange. It turns out that the red blazer is his Sunday uniform He is an elder in the Church where he worships and he had come straight from some official function.
He was driving his own car, a white Toyota that was several models old but obviously well-kept and maintained. He knows somebody who knows somebody else who helped him get it at a good price from a dealer who imports used cars from Japan.
He showed me around town. It was a short trip. There really isn’t much to see. I had a memory flash of doing the sand dune buggy ride in Dubai. Very few of Kalomo’s roads are paved.
As we approached his neighborhood, he singled out points of interest to me. That neighbor just had his house painted. That hospital is new. That’s the school where his children go.
We stopped in front of his house. It wasn’t a big house. One storey. An outhouse in the front. Clean yard. But with the dust from the unpaved roads and the unpainted outside walls, my impression was that everything seemed brown.
The inside of the house was a totally different story . The sofa was covered in bright, unfaded red slip covers. There was a huge , colourful calendar advertising Ben’s company hanging by a wall. The furniture seemed like it had seen better days but, like the outside, everything was neat and orderly. This was exactly like the kind of house I grew up in. There was a television set and a CD player. There was even what looked liked the casing of a PC CPU. It was just the casing though. Nothing inside.
Oh, did I mention that the entire neighborhood doesn’t have electricity yet? But Ben knows that they will. Very soon. Just wait and see, he says.
There was a jug of juice concentrate , a jar of water and some glasses on the table. Ben said they didn’t have a refrigerator yet but the water was cold He wasn’t apologizing, just stating a fact. Setting aside thoughts of parasites - I mixed myself a drink , said a short prayer to the Patron Saint of Clean Water and Sanitation, took a tentative sip. A couple of days later, I haven’t had the runs and I’m still alive (CRASH!. My briefing documents say that water from unknown sources will kill you!!)
His wife came out to greet me. Lily was very pretty but seemed shy. Like most women I’ve met in Zambia, she had a chitenga wrapped around her waist. Another chitenga wrapped across her upper body supported a 5 month old baby that was slung on her back. Remembering all I had read about women in Zambian culture, I thought – poor girl
Well, not really. Lily is an entrepreneur. She buys and sells “salaula” (very much like the ukay-ukay used clothes sales popular in the Philippines). Ben and Lily have decided that whatever she earns from her business ventures goes to the maintenance of their daily household expenses. As Ben and I spoke, Lily was sorting thru movie and song CDs which I assumed she would sell to diversity her product line.
After seeing how the wealth of some of his relatives were completely wiped out when disease struck their cattle , Ben promised himself that, if he had the opportunity, he would invest in property instead.
Ben’s salary goes to what he calls their “projects”. They are building a much bigger house right next door. The house will be under Lily’s name so that should anything happen to Ben, none of his relatives can claim any right over it. The second house still needs a lot of work to be completed. Ben said that, as money becomes available, he’ll have work on the house continued little by little. Once done, they are going to have this house rented out. There are a lot of people from all over coming into Kalomo. He believes that any one of them would willing to pay a good price to rent a nice house like this. The good times are just around the corner.
Ben also has a second car. That one is used as a taxi service. The earnings are invested on the completion of the second house and “other projects”. These will keep his family secure and protected. Healing, schmealing.
Higher education is expensive in Zambia. But Ben is confident that his children would have the opportunity to study. If for whatever reason, he could not send them thru school, he knows that they would find a way themselves. He’s been there. His father could support his studies only up to a point. Ben took care of the rest by working and studying at the same time.
I asked Ben how he and Lily decide how their money should be spent and which projects to invest in. He said they always discuss it carefully between the two of them, weighing the pros and cons. I asked him whether that kind of relationship was unique in Zambian culture. He said that he thought this was the norm among his circle of friends (CRASH. CRASH)
I asked him if he had any plans of seeking better opportunities outside of Zambia. He seemed surprised at the question. He did not. He said there were enough opportunities in Zambia for someone who works hard.
Lily didn’t seem comfortable speaking in English and didn’t talk much. But as I was saying goodbye – in easy confident tones - she told Ben something which Ben translated for me. I was invited to a meal sometime soon and Lily wanted to know what kind of food I like.
Ben dropped me off at the guest house. He had to go back home to attend a neighbourhood council meeting. We made plans to meet again. I waved goodbye from the gate as he drove his trusty, white car into the horizon of the fading afternoon.
I stood there a bit longer gazing at the slow descent of the red-orange sun.
I have met many intelligent, strong women in positions of leadership not only in Lusaka but also here in Kalomo. And of the Zambian brothers, I’ve met - My brother is not a chauvinist pig! My brother is not a chauvinist pig! (For the last sentence to be even mildly amusing to you, you have to be Filipino and of a certain age). However, while great strides seem to have been taken by the Zambians in the areas of gender equality and women’s rights, this is not to negate the fact that a lot of the traditions are still very much prevalent in other parts of the country.
That other loud sound you’re hearing? That’s my tummy grumbling. Subject of another blog post.