What Good Is Etiquette? Understanding the Norms of Good Behavior in Zambia

By Tembo, Mwizenge S. | The World and I, November 2002 | Go to article overview
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What Good Is Etiquette? Understanding the Norms of Good Behavior in Zambia


Tembo, Mwizenge S., The World and I


An American woman was a foreign aid worker in a Near Eastern country in the 1970s. One day, the indigenous aid employees and their foreign counterparts were holding a workshop at a hotel. They were all taking a break, relaxing and swimming in the pool, when the American dove into the water. To her amazement and embarrassment, everyone instantly scrambled out, as if a shark had been spotted.

It turned out that, according to the etiquette of this country, men and women do practically nothing together in public, let alone swim. The men had to leave the pool because a woman had jumped into it.

A young African-American graduate student was conducting research fieldwork in Ghana during the 1960s. After boarding a crowded city bus, she handed the driver her fare with her left hand. The driver angrily berated her for her gross disrespect and impudence. The stunned student later learned that, in Ghana, it is an insult to hand anyone anything with your left hand. You cannot even wave good-bye with it.

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

Banda asked Stevenson to wash his hands in a basin of water. The American visitor immersed his fingertips for a few seconds, then pulled them out. This both surprised and appalled the host. In his eyes, it meant that his guest was going to eat nshima with essentially dirty hands.

Later, when Stevenson tried to pick up a lump of nshima with his right hand, it was so hot that he dropped it. He stood up in agitation and licked his fingers swiftly. Sitting back down, he tried again to take a piece of nshima. It was still too hot for him, and he tried to use both hands. He dropped it again.

This time, Stevenson dipped both hands into the basin of water to cool them.

Concerned, Banda offered his guest a fork and knife but Stevenson refused them. He insisted that he wanted to try eating the Zambian meal in the traditional way. Banda was flustered. There was a visible awkwardness between host and guest as both tried to maintain some dignity.

After eating as much nshima with chicken as he could, Stevenson declared he was full; he could only drink his cup of tea without sugar and milk. He refused even a bite of the bread. Then, as Mrs. Banda was clearing the dishes, the young guest thanked his hosts profusely for the delicious meal. The Bandas felt so embarrassed and awkward that, if they had been white, they would have been blushing beet red.

Stevenson was guilty of several errors of etiquette. First, he should not have thanked the hosts directly for the meal he had eaten. Also, most Zambian families expect their guests to drink tea with milk and sugar. Even if a guest is full, he is expected to eat a little of each course to show respect. Finally, Stevenson should have washed his hands properly and accepted the use of a knife and fork to maintain decorum.

These anecdotes are classic cases of people from different cultures trying to share experiences. Errors in decorum marred these experiences, which ended up being less than gratifying for either side. Stevenson, for example, was not familiar with Zambian etiquette. The two other Americans also failed to comprehend the nuances of conduct expected in their host societies.

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