the zambian way: taking it one day at a time

A guest post by Janny Chang

Self-help means we can help ourselves and magically feel better. The fact is there is no easy answer. And sometimes, we don’t feel better – at least not right away.

It took me a long time to write this article because I had to wrap my head around this vague and seemingly elusive notion of “happiness.”

I spent 13 months in Zambia and had some of the happiest moments in my life – happiest because I was doing what I loved and made incredible friends while pursuing my dream. Plus, I’m a natural adventurer, excited to soak in the ecstasy of every new experience heightened by the thrill of being abroad.

While the highs were highs, the lows were also very low.

It was hard to witness the best and worst of worlds, side by side. With only an estimated 20 percent formal employment in the country, many of my Zambian friends were jobless and constantly broke. It was not uncommon to see streetkids loitering in the streets, begging tourists for money. Death was common and it seemed as if members of my host family were frequently attending funerals.

I will always remember a gentle yet fiercely strong lady whose teenage daughter I befriended on the bus. She was attending boarding school in the next town and harbored dreams of becoming a medical doctor. When I asked her about the future, she said matter-of-factly, “My career comes first. I want it to be stable before I have a family.”

She and her parens invited me to their home and showed me where they planned on building a pool and expanding the house. It took a couple of visits before I felt comfortable enough to ask about the rest of their family. Because I had only met the daughter and never saw any other children in the house, I was curious whether she was an only child, as this is extremely rare in Zambia. When I asked, a wave of sadness moved over the mother’s face and she said that she had two other kids, but they died in a bus accident.

“My husband and I thank the Lord everyday we still have our one child,” she said.

Sadly, this is not uncommon in Zambia. With poorly maintained roads and vehicles, accidents occur often. Although it seems the elderly lived a long life in the villages, the younger generation’s habits of eating an unhealthy Western diet, accompanied by higher risk of road accidents, stress, faster pace of life and risk of HIV infection, contribute to a reduced life span.

Despite the hardships many Zambians face everyday, I was in awe of their strength and spirit in the face of struggle.

This is not to say depression or suicides do not exist. In fact, they do. Occasionally, I would hear about a friend of a friend who committed suicide or was suffering from depression.

However, on average, Zambians have remarkable resilience.

During my stay, I tried to figure out why. As someone who dabbled in literature on self-help and positive psychology, I am always interested in how individuals deal with hardships.

Faith is definitely an important factor. When faced with challenges, my Zambian friends said relying on Jesus and God restored their faith that everything would be okay. Church also provided a strong support system. In times of need, church members helped each other through prayer, donations and gatherings.

It’s this faith that also spurs a unique combination of patience and joie de vivre among my Zambian friends. It’s not that they didn’t feel pain. It’s simply that they didn’t expect a cure or solution overnight. No quick-fixes. Resilience is a cumulation of getting over everyday hurdles, not a roaring I-am-strong-so-flex-my-muscle type of attitude.

While I rarely heard people talk about positive thinking, my friends often talked about hope. Hope for the future. Hope for their children. Hope for change. Hope as a panacea to suffering.

“Our people have suffered.” This was something I often heard. My friend recently told me, “I don’t like to see people suffer anywhere.” Yet I rarely saw this acknowledgement of suffer devoid of hope. Even in the worst of moments, a flicker of hope remained.

Sometimes, getting over the everyday hurdle involved dealing with the here and now and living in the present. For the younger generation, this means going out dancing, drinking beer and chatting with friends. I think having a joie de vivre in the present moment helps people deal with negative emotions. Instant gratification, while in some circles is seen negatively, is a virtue in Zambia. It’s a compliment if someone says you know how to have fun — socializing with friends, laughing, going out and having a good time. Simple as that.

That and a strong joking culture. There are 73 ethnic groups in Zambia and the dominant groups have a history of warring with each other. The groups that warred with each other in the past eventually lived side by side and intermarried. Now they’re called “tribal cousins.” Tribal cousins have to tease each other.

For example, when Tongas meet Lozis, they have to make fun of each other, sometimes even to the point of harassment – all in good fun. This joking culture is present in everyday interactions and all types of professional settings. I believe this joking culture actually helps alleviate stress and depression arising from difficulties in life.

Life’s challenges are universal. Death, aging, and illness occur everywhere. A mother caring for her sick infant in the US experiences similar turmoil as a mother caring for her sick infant in Zambia. That’s why I’m reluctant to use “culture” as a catch-all explanation of differences in how people cope with life’s challenges.

While in some respects, life is harder in underdeveloped countries – lack of infrastructure and solid health care and educational systems – these problems are mitigated by stronger support systems, faith and hope that everything will be okay and an orientation towards life which values enjoying the present moment.

This is not to say depression doesn’t exist. It does and should not be treated lightly. But, on average, the rates are lower and people possess incredible resilience given the hardships many face on an everyday basis. If anything, I’m convinced there is much we can learn from Zambians about the ways they deal with adversities in life and maintain equanimity and hope amid moments of despair.

About the Author

Janny Chang is a doctoral candidate at Columbia University. In her spare time, she loves to read and write about the simpler life — bliss, contentment, meaning and peace.                                

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