From learning “African time” to accepting a total lack of privacy in the doctor’s surgery: expat Bryony Rheam on how she got used to some of Zambia’s more peculiar traits
Every country has traits and characteristics peculiar to it, whether it be a way of doing something or a way of talking. Before I came to Zambia, I didn’t use the 24-hour clock. It was taken for granted that if you arranged to meet someone at 2:30, in all likelihood you didn’t mean in the morning. Here in Zambia, tell someone you’ll see them at four o’clock, and you’ll get a look of horrified surprise. You have to be specific. It’s not even a question of adding am or pm onto the time, you have to say 16 hours or 18:30. The suffix “hours” is even used when talking of time pre-noon. You might, for instance, arrange a meeting at 10 hours or an appointment at zero-eight-fifteen.
Chances are though, that you won’t be making an appointment: that’s another Zambian characteristic. Want to see the doctor? Just turn up and wait. Sometimes you can be lucky and no one else is there, or else you can join a queue which, more often than not, does not follow usual queue etiquette.
The idea of privacy is also something of an unknown where a visit to the doctor’s is concerned. While explaining your ailment, you may be interrupted by a knock at the door because someone has come to pick up their tablets (these are dispensed from a cupboard in the doctor’s surgery, not a chemist). Or perhaps a salesman has arrived and wants to show the doctor what type of antibiotics he has this month, or maybe it’s the lab technician from the hospital with blood test results and he wants to be paid before he leaves. Though frustrating, it’s not as bad as when you are visiting the gynaecologist for an internal examination and her teenage son comes in to collect his pocket money.
Lack of privacy is not confined to the doctor’s surgery. Beauty salons are usually places of great discretion. Therapists practise behind drawn curtains and most operate a “do not disturb” policy while they are seeing a client. Most ladies don’t want their partners and husbands to know that they have their chins plucked and their moustaches regularly removed, never mind half the population of the town. Not in Zambia.
The most interesting experience I had in this regard was when another client turned up while I was having my legs waxed. I was told that she had made an appointment before I had (appointment? What appointment?) and therefore would I mind waiting outside for a moment. So, covered with little sticky bits of wax, I removed myself to the waiting area. The client, who was a young girl of 13 or 14, went inside to have her armpits waxed, while her mother apologized profusely to me. I eventually had my turn again, and when leaving the salon was surprised to see the mother and daughter still there. They had been in no hurry at all and were waiting to have tea with the beautician!
The idea of keeping quiet during play performances, musical concerts and church services is also a foreign one, as people talk on their phones and greet each other with apparently no sense of where they are or who they may be disturbing. The chewing of gum is a national pastime, at all times and in all places. My partner, who is a teacher, had to ask a parent to remove a piece of gum from her mouth as he couldn’t understand what she was talking about.
Zambia is indeed a country of contradictions. The driving is horrendous, and yet drivers hoot at each other for the smallest misdemeanors. Everybody has a mobile phone, yet no one rings you back, even though they say they will. And despite all the emphasis on getting the time exactly right, everybody is constantly late. Whether it’s a 12- or 24- hour clock, we’re on African time here.
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