Zambians are noted for their friendliness and courtesy. There are certain customs that need to be learned when speaking with the locals if one wants to avoid appearing rude or boorish.
When starting a conversation, no matter how urgent the matter, it is expected that you will first greet the person and ask after their health and family. For instance, when speaking to the maintenance man, you would first say, “Hello, Mtwalo! How are you today? Is your sore throat better? And how is your wife feeling?” Then, after he had exchanged similar pleasantries with you, you could say, “My hot water pipe burst and my bathroom is flooded. Do you think you could come take a look at it?”
This holds true even in emails. You never just dive right into the conversation, but start off with “Hello! I hope you are well today!”
There are also certain phrases and colloquialisms to be learned here. You don’t “arrange” for things – you “organise” them. When I need a ride to the bus station, I ask the person in charge if she will “organise it” for me. When I was on a game drive and said that I would love to see a black mamba snake, my guide said he would “Organise a snake for me.”
“Only” is used as a modifier. When asking the price for goods or services (a taxi ride, a car repair, a box of mangos) the price is given followed by “only.”
“How much are you asking for half dozen avocados?” “50 kwacha only, madam.”
I am not sure if this is meant to show how cheap something is (as in “ONLY 50 kwacha”) or to reassure you that there will be no hidden fees involved (as in 50 kwacha, including tax and delivery)
Then there is the phrase “just now” as in “I am leaving for the store just now.” This does not mean, as one would assume, that leaving for the store is happening as we speak. It means “I may be leaving for the store within an hour or so” or even “I am thinking about leaving for the store at some point today.” If you want to be immediate, you would say “now now.” Time tends to be a bit more relaxed in Zambia anyway.
Last weekend, I unexpectedly bumped into someone who had been very kind to me in a time of great stress. You may remember my driving mishap, only three days after I bought my car. I had turned the wrong way onto to a divided highway and hit another car head-on. Luckily, both of us braked and no one was injured. However, I was frightened and a bit dazed and the Zambian man whose car I had damaged was ranting and raving and carrying on about how I was going to buy his car right this minute and he would make sure of it. I was standing there by my wrecked car, with tears running down my face. There I was, a white woman – an obvious foreigner in a strange African country being sworn at by a very angry man while a small and curious crowd gathered.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, another Zambian man stopped his car and got out. He came up to me and gently took me by the arm and led me a little bit away from the scene and over to the side of the road. “Now, madam,” he said to me. “First of all, are you all right?” When I nodded yes, he continued, “Well, now that’s good. You are not hurt, that is the most important thing.” He glanced over to where the other man was still fuming. “Do not speak to him. The police will be here soon to take a report. Do you have anyone you can call?” I nodded again and got out my phone to call the head of security at the school. My rescuer smiled encouragingly. “It was an accident. No one has been hurt. It will all be sorted out.”
And it was. And though I thanked him at the time, and he even gave me his card, I misplaced it and never got to really tell him how much his kind gesture meant to me. And then, as I was coming out of Game (a Walmart for Zambians) last weekend, I heard “Hey, I know you!” and saw him gesturing at me. “I remember you,” he said. “You were in an accident up on Independence Avenue.” And he smiled that very nice smile. I admit that I got a little teary as I told him that I had thought about him so many times and wanted to thank him for coming to my rescue. “It was nothing at all,” he responded, as I gave him a huge hug. He asked if I had gotten it all sorted out finally, and I told him I had and he walked away with a wave and another smile. “It was nothing,” he said again.
But it was something. It was kindness; kindness to a total stranger with nothing expected in return.
And that chance meeting reminded me once again of an incident that I wish I could forget. A time when I was not kind. A time when it would have cost me nothing to show kindness and…I didn’t.
It was a few years ago and I had gone into Boston to meet up with some friends and see a show. I remember that I was tired and a bit cranky after a full day of work and had gone into a local burger place for a bite to eat. All I wanted was to sit undisturbed for a little while. I had my food and a cup of coffee and had just sat down when I looked up to see a woman standing right in front of my table. She had long, unkempt hair and was wearing a nondescript cloth coat and what seemed to be slippers on her feet. She looked at me and said, “Hello, how are you this afternoon?” I assumed she was homeless and begging and I was annoyed at being disturbed inside a restaurant when all I wanted to do was be left in peace. So I said, “I don’t think you’re allowed to beg in here.” The woman blinked and then said, with some emphasis, “Well, I am not begging. I am selling.” It was then that I noticed that she was holding some beaded necklaces in one hand. Maybe she had made them. But all I could think about was my desire to just be left in piece, so I responded, quite sharply, “Well, I don’t think you’re allowed to sell in here, either.”
She blinked again, obviously startled and hurt. As she backed away from me she said, “That is so mean… Why don’t you…you….go and take a nap, you witch.” And she left the store.
And left me alone. And left me feeling horribly, horribly ashamed at what I had done.
How much would it have cost me to speak kindly to her? To answer her timid “How are you?” with a polite “Fine, thanks.” To look at her necklaces before declining? Maybe to even buy a necklace, for God’s sake. To treat her like a human being who needed help, instead of like an intrusion into my oh-so-important life. To just show some common courtesy.
I can never take that lack of kindness back. I can never find that woman and apologize. I can never make it right. I think unkindness to a stranger is even worse than being unkind to someone you know. You know you will see a friend or a relative again; you’ll have a chance to say you’re sorry, to explain how you were having a bad day, to admit you were being an ass. To ask forgiveness.
But you don’t get a second chance to be kind to a stranger.
Somehow, I think that’s an important thing to remember.