Zambian Etiquette and Customs

An American woman was a foreign Aid worker in a near East Asian country in the 1970s. Both the indigenous local Aid employees and their foreign counterparts were holding a workshop at a local hotel. They were all taking a break relaxing and swimming in the hotel pool when the American woman dove into the pool. As if a dangerous shark had just been spotted in the pool, everyone instantly scrambled out of the pool to the amazement  of and  embarrassment of the American woman. It turned out that in the etiquette of this country, men and women do practically nothing together in public let alone swim. The men had to scramble out of the pool because a woman had jumped into it.

A young African-American graduate female student was conducting research field work in the West African country of Ghana in the 1960s. After boarding a crowded public city local bus, she handed the driver her fare with her left hand. The driver angrily berated her for the insult, gross disrespect, and her impudence. The stunned student later learned that in Ghanaian etiquette and  custom, it was an insult to hand anyone anything with your left hand. You cannot even wave good bye using your left hand.

A young white middle class college American graduate from the Midwest, Joe Stevenson, was participating in a life-long dream: volunteer service abroad in a Third World Country. He was stationed in the Chipata rural provincial town in the Eastern Province of the Southern African country of Zambia. One day, Joe was a lunch guest of a rural African family. His host, Mr. Banda, was a schoolteacher. Mrs. Banda prepared the nshima (close to the consistency of mashed potatoes but cooked with cornmeal) Zambian traditional meal served with chicken and collard greens or what is known as repu in Zambia. Knowing that the special guest was white, she also served the lunch with hot black tea with milk, sugar, and slices of bread spread with sweet jam. After serving the meal on the dining room table, the wife retreated into the small kitchen to eat with the children.

Mr. Banda asked Joe to wash his hands in the basin of water. Joe barely immersed the tips of his fingers in the water in a straight perpendicular fashion for a few seconds and pulled them out. This both surprised and appalled the host because it meant Joe was going to eat nshima with essentially dirty or less than clean hands. When Joe tried to get a small lump of nshima with his right hand, it was so hot he dropped it as he stood up and desperately licked his fingers swiftly. He tried again to get a lump of the nshima, it was so hot that he had to use both hands and dropped it again. This time, Joe quickly dipped both hands into the basin of cold water to cool them. Mr. Banda offered Joe a fork and knife. Joe refused insisting he wanted to try eating the Zambian traditional meal in a traditional way. Mr. Banda was flustered. There was a visible awkwardness between host and guest as they both tried to maintain some dignity.

After eating as much nshima with chicken as he could, Joe declared he was so full he could only drink a cup of hot black tea but without the sugar, milk or even a bite of the bread. As Mrs. Banda was clearing the dishes after the meal, Joe thanked Mr. And Mrs. Banda profusely for the delicious meal. The hosts felt so embarrassed and awkward that if they had been white they would have been blushing beet red. First, Joe should not have thanked the hosts directly for the meal he had just eaten. Most Zambian families expect their guests to drink the tea with milk and sugar. Even if a guest is full, they are expected just to eat a little of the meal out of respect and being polite. Joe should have accepted the use of a knife and fork to maintain decorum.
Importance of Etiquette
These are classic cases of two sets of people from two different cultures trying to share experiences. But the experiences were rather marred and ended up not being completely gratifying for both of them because, for example, Joe as a guest was not familiar with the Zambian etiquette and so were the two other Americans unfamiliar with the nuances of the etiquette of their host societies. These are rules of good behavior and following customs that are expected and specific to each culture. If you are going to be a guest in any culture, knowing the basic rules of etiquette goes a along way in smoothing the social interaction such that your hosts will not think you are arrogant, uncouth, disrespectful, and contemptuous of them. You do not want your hosts to make unpleasant or negative assumptions about you.

If you were ever to visit the African country of Zambia, there are basic rules of etiquette and other customs that you have to practice or have to be aware of. Some element of the etiquette may have some variations if one is visiting someone in the urban area or the rural traditional environment. The Zambian etiquette applies to such issues as greetings, food and eating, gift giving, and conversation.

Greetings

  • Greetings always start with a handshake with the customary: “How are you?” “How did you leave your family or how was your journey?” Kissing and hugging a Zambian in public, as a form of greeting, especially by a total stranger creates obvious embarrassment and awkwardness.
  • When you are in Zambia be as patient as you can. For example, if you are visiting a home, you will receive a quick verbal greeting at the door as you walk in or arrive. But then the hosts will take time to find a chair, clear a couch, or send a child to get a stool, reed mat, or chair. Wait until you will be directed to a chair. Once you are seated, that’s when you will be given a proper greeting starting with a handshake.

Food and the Nshima Staple Meal

  • The Zambian staple meal of Nshima, which is cooked out of corn meal or mealie-meal, is eaten in virtually all homes twice per day in Zambia; for lunch and dinner. The nshima and the second smaller dish, relish, ndiwo, ndiyo, or umunani are always served together and placed in the middle of the table. The ndiwo can be fish, beans, chicken, beef, vegetables. The diners sit around the table. Zambians traditionally use hands when eating nshima. The diners will first wash their hands from a dish of clean water. The custom is that the guests, elders, older adults, younger people and children wash their hands in that order. It is considered rude for a young person to wash their hands first before the adults, older siblings and guests have done so. Young people help to serve the adults and guests at the table in passing the dish of water to wash the hands with. A younger person or child should not stop eating and wash hands first, let alone leave the dining table, before adults do. However, if an adult sees a younger person or guest who has obviously stopped eating because they are full, the adults or the host will graciously grant “permission” to the waiting person to wash their hands. It is considered good customary behavior for everyone to wait seated at the table until everyone has finished eating and washed their hands.
  • Eating is always with only the one right hand. Both hands are never used when eating nshima. Only small children and perhaps strangers unfamiliar with the culture will use both hands at the same time when eating nshima. Eating with both hands is regarded as highly insulting and shows utter disrespect for the hosts, the people, and the culture. Westerners and other foreign visitors will be given forks and knives if the host notices that the guest is facing difficulties as fresh cooked nshima is always sizzling hot. The right hand will get a lump of nshima, gently mold it with the one hand into a beautiful ball, and dip it into the ndiwo or relish before eating it. It is considered very dignified and enjoyable to eat nshima slowly while making and smoothening the lump carefully before eating it; making good casual and relaxed conversation in the process. Young people eat and listen and can participate in the conversation when asked a question. But generally a well-behaved young person is expected to listen and gain wisdom from the elders during these meal times.
  • Zambians ordinarily will not ask you if you want to eat something especially if you are visiting a home. The educated elite and the well off might ask if you want to eat or drink something and might give you a variety of choices. But generally a host family will offer you snacks like tea, soft drinks, beer and even a main meal of nshima; the Zambian staple meal, without asking for your permission. Traditionally, it is considered rude and perhaps even selfish and cruel if you ask your guests: “Are you hungry and should we cook  nshima for you?” According to custom, a guest who might be really hungry will say “No” out of shyness and embarrassment and they will then be expected to leave. It is assumed that as long as you are staying and having conversation, it’s considered courteous to offer you anything that the family may have for you to eat. Refusing to eat completely is considered rude unless you are close acquaintances or good friends with your hosts. Even if you are full, you can always eat a little. This is considered polite.
  • Avoid asking the host what ingredients are in the food just before you start eating at the table. Although your intentions may be innocent and normal in Western society, this may sound like you are questioning the host woman’s ability to cook,  or worse that you suspect the host is serving you poison; at least this is what it might sound like to your host. If you would like to know how to cook the food, the recipe, what type of food it is, or what ingredients are in it, ask at an appropriate time may be towards the end or after the meal. Make sure you mention that you are just curious or you liked the meal so much. Most Zambian food is bland not spicy at all, will not make you fat, or kill you unless of course you have some serious medical allergies to some foods like peanuts which are often an important common ingredient in most Zambia relishes. The author recommends that you look at the following web cite for a full description of the Zambian staple meal: Nshima.
    http://people.bridgewater.edu/~mtembo/menu/nshima/nshima.shtml.
  • Thanking your host profusely just after the meal creates awkwardness and embarrassment. The author once took an American friend to his parents’ house in rural Chipata. His mother cooked a special meal including nshima. Just after finishing eating, his friend thanked the author’s parents so much that if they were white, they would have been blushing extremely red with embarrassment. It’s alright to say thank you or “Zikomo” as you leave after your visit.

Common Nshima Do’s and Don’ts

There are several key dos and don’ts about customs surrounding how the nshima is traditionally served and eaten among Zambians.

  • Do not serve left over or half eaten nshima from a previous meal to any adult.
  • When eating, a younger person should never stop eating and begin washing hands first unless permitted by the older person.
  • Guests who suddenly arrive when you are eating should always be invited to join in sharing the meal.
  • A lone guest should never be served the meal alone. Another person, often a young reliable child, should always eat the nshima with the guest.
  • A guest should always leave some nshima on the plate at the end of the meal for the benefit of the household children who will clear the dishes after the meal.
  • Nshima with ndiwo is the most important meal. It is so important and embedded in the traditional culture of the people that it features very prominently in the languages, expressions, tales of hospitality and wisdom and folk tales.
  • A guest will say the hosts are very kind and generous if they cook him nshima with ndiwo which may be chicken, beef, goat, or many other types of meat ndiwos. A young man courting a young woman will think highly of her if she cooks and serves him nshima with delicious ndiwo especially chicken.

Most well cooked food especially nshima and water from faucets, taps, or concrete wells in rural areas are clean in Zambia. Medical alerts and precautions about possible wide spread contaminated food and “dirty” water are often exaggerated and create unnecessary worry and paranoia for the average Westerner or visitor. When this author first came to the United States as a student, he had diarrhea or loose stool for three months. Today it would have been called AIDS. When he first went to a Caribbean Island, he had constipation for two days and diarrhea for three days. When the author takes American students to the same Caribbean Island who have not traveled outside their home area in the United States let alone abroad before, many have diarrhea for a few days. Your body always adjusts for the first time to never before encountered bacteria in new food and water,  and often chemicals in Western foods if you have lived all your life eating unprocessed food in Third World countries. Your body will always tell you if you have serious illness of diarrhea, dysentery, and cholera from truly contaminated food or water. In which case, you would seek medical treatment immediately. This doesn’t mean you throw away all simple common sense hygiene precautions when you travel to Zambia or anywhere in the world for that matter.
Conversation

  • After greetings have been exchanged and you are just socializing, it is considered normal for a guest and host to sit quietly without any conversation for while. That silence may be torture to a Westerner but most Zambians find it normal. So don’t try to fill empty silent moments by just saying something because you are feeling uneasy or bored. For example, in the rural areas, greetings take time as host and guest have to exchange malonje after first greeting each other. Malonje is the traditional custom in which the guest describes in detail the purpose of their trip and the host responds and describes in detail the state of the family health and what every member of the family may be doing. It also takes hours to cook a chicken because it has to be chased and slaughtered before the meal is cooked. Take your time and be patient.
  • Both familiar and unfamiliar adults in Zambia always address each other as Mr. Banda or Mrs. Musonda using the person’s last name whether they are in the upper class, lower class, educated or uneducated, rich or poor, villager or urban dweller or the person is your employee, your taxi driver, waiter or waitress, boss or subordinate. In fact in the Eastern Province of Zambia among the Tumbuka, Ngoni, Chewa, and Nsenga people, there is a special term that is used to depict when an adult is called by their first or last name without the linguistic prefix “a” or  “ah” when addressing a man or “Nya” or “Na” when addressing a woman; it is known as kupepula which means insulting and belittling an adult. In circumstances of heated argument and disagreement, use of kupepula by one or both parties is often a clear prelude to a physical fight. Addressing or calling an adult aloud by their first name is considered disrespectful. You only call young children and adolescents by their first name. This comes directly from the Zambian traditional custom. If you are familiar with or close to the person, one of the most cherished ways to address an adult is to call them as father or mother of their child. For example: “Father of Musonda” or “Mother of Mutinta” or “Mother of Sibeso.
  • Unless it is an emergency, its considered rude and annoying to hastily call or shout to a strange adult by their first name beckoning and gesturing to the person while impatiently clicking your fingers for them to come quickly. However, you can send a child to call the person. If you have to shout you can wave and shout for example: “Mr. Mbewe ! Mr. Mbewe! Come here quickly!” or if you don’t know the person you can shout: “Imwe! Imwe! Come here quickly!” Which translates as the plural “You! You! Come here quickly” which is a sign  and gesture of respect when addressing another adult. (There will be local and regional linguistic variations)
  • Zambians are open, and foreigners may find that they enjoy a surprisingly good deal of freedom of expression in their conversations, and will discuss and joke with you about any political issue in Zambia and on the planet. The opposition parties, for example, thrive and are lively with these open criticisms, discussions and disagreements reported in the many Zambian daily newspapers.  Although Zambians among themselves and in the press may discuss the President and other political leaders in very critical and sometime unflattering terms, they are sensitive about foreigners insulting, belittling, being disrespectful, and otherwise openly mocking and making demeaning and humiliating remarks about the President and other top leaders of the country. When you are their guest especially in the home, they have expectations that their guest will discuss the country’s top political leaders especially the President with respect.
  • There was an incident reported in the local press during Zambia’s former President Kaunda’s rule that vividly illustrated this reality. A foreign cabaret singer was performing at a local top hotel one night in the capital city of Lusaka unaware of the unspoken etiquette. During his performance, he made some “funny” “mocking” remarks about the President that drew uneasy giggles and laughter from the audience. Twenty-four hours later, the performer was on a plane flying out of the country under deportation. At the same time Zambians at private parties in their homes often made fun and joked about the President’s well-known mannerisms, and his trials and tribulations with his political adversaries at the time. For example, many Zambians made humorous imitations of President Kaunda’s famous speeches, and some danced while clutching and waving in their hand the former President’s characteristic white handkerchief. Although the deportation of the foreign performer may sound draconian and hypocritical, but those are sometimes the rare but extreme consequences and  the possible power of breaking the rules of Zambian or any other culture’s unspoken rules of etiquette.

Love and Physical Intimacy

  • Men and women who are in love rarely kiss, hold hands or each other in intimate embraces in public parks, benches, street sidewalks, or bush paths. Such exhibits of intimacy are frowned down on in public as it causes awkwardness and embarrassments to others. On rare occasions that this happens, it is often among a couple who belong to the top elite and were raised predominantly West standards, or the couple is regarded as being immature or childish.
  • Courtship is a period in which breaking or following rules of etiquette can make or break a relationship. The traditional eating etiquette is that the woman should cook nshima and delicious chicken as much as possible to serve and impress her lover and future husband that she is generous and a good cook. The man must show restraint during the meals. For example, he must leave some nshima at the end to show consideration for the children who will clear the dishes.  The man must not eat too much of the full plate of the nshima, and must avoid crushing the chicken bones and sucking the bone marrow. In rural areas, this was a sure sign that the man might be a glutton and therefore the potential wife may be afraid expecting to spend endless hours by the fire cooking large meals for her husband above and beyond feeding her children. Besides, there is a strong cultural belief that men gluttons rarely make strong and hard working farmers.
  • One of the sharpest contrasts between Zambian and Western culture is breast-feeding of babies in public. The majority of Zambian women freely and openly breast feed their babies in public on side walks, in their homes, on bush paths, on buses, soccer stadiums, in the market, trains, restaurants, shopping centers. This is considered so normal that both men and women never stare or even notice it as everyone just goes about their business. In the West, breast-feeding is prohibited in public as it may be regarded as either very primitive or the female breast is so sexualized that it would create a scandal if a woman openly breast-fed her baby in public. Even in their own homes, Western women must breast feed secretly in their bedrooms or bathrooms.

Gift Giving

  • A dignified way to give a gift in Zambia is to first sit down with your hosts and greet each other and converse for a while. If it is at a home, find a young child and ask the child to take the gift to the parents; mommy or daddy. You can then say: “I brought something small to help you in the house, for children to share, clothing, the car, a kitchen utensil to help in the kitchen etc” depending on what the gift is meant for. Then your hosts can properly thank you sometimes with the traditional clap of the hands. It is considered rude or awkward to simply walk through the door of the house and within seconds hand the host a package or the gift. Some form of a small ritual or modest ceremony is expected when gift giving.
  • Gifts can be foods, household decorations, children’s books, kitchen utensils, car spare parts and seat covers if you know the make of the car, photo albums, generic clothing like t-shirts, toys for children should be something all the children can play with together like a ball or a small bag of sweets or candy. Infact since most Zambian households have many people including extended family living there, always get something that the whole family can enjoy or share. For example, if you buy toys for the host’s two children, there might be three or more other children in the household who might feel left out. Rural families appreciate first aid medication for sores, (such as antibiotic creams, and band aids) children’s picture books, simple pencils and exercise books for school going children to write in. Avoid giving Christmas, birthday, and other greeting cards, fresh flowers, exotic framed photographs even of famous people to lower class, poor, and rural families. They have very limited use for these items in their daily lives or households. Avoid giving gifts that are meant for one child or person in a family context. If you want to give money as a gift, it is considered very dignified to put the money in an envelope and give it to your host or head of the household at the very last minute when you leave with the message: “I am so embarrassed that I did not bring the family something. I thought this might help you in the house”. Then after the hand shake you end the visit by saying:  “Zikomo kwambiri” in Nyanja language and “Tatotela  Sana” in Bemba or “thank you very much for your generosity.”
  • The nature of the Zambian extended family can sometimes lead foreigners to make misleading and unfortunate assumptions. This author and a British friend were visiting the author’s sister’s family in rural Chipata in the Eastern part of Zambia. The author’s sister and her husband were schoolteachers who had six young children of their own and four other children from the extended family. When dinner was served, the British friend initially reluctant to eat because he said there were so many children in the household that he felt guilty eating because they would starve, as there wouldn’t be enough food to go around. He was persuaded to eat only after the author assured him that African families always plan such that feeding guests will not necessarily starve the children.

Conclusion
The best strategy to have when you go to Zambia is to be patient, either ask or look around, observe and wait and see how people do things or behave. Then you can try to do them the same way too. If you want to enjoy your new experience in the Zambian culture, it is always wise to follow the old adage: “When in Rome, do what the Romans”. But by all means avoid what some typical Western tourists do: “When you are in Zambia, do what the Westerners would do”. Zambians are some of the friendliest people in Africa and have a very subtle sense of humor. Enjoy your stay.

Reference

Chondoka, Yizenge A., Traditional Marriages in Zambia: A Study in Cultural History, Ndola: Mission Press, 1988.

Ngulube, Naboth M.J., Some Aspects of Growing Up in Zambia, Lusaka: Nalinga Consultancy/Sol-Consult A/S Ltd., 1989.

Skjonsberg, Else., Change in an African Village: Kefa Speaks, West Hartford, Connecticut: Kumarian Press, Inc., 1989.

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