Monday, December 26, 2011

A step back in time

By Lindsay Boyle

In Lusaka, Zambia

For some U.S. citizens, some aspects of Zambian culture and development may seem immature, inappropriate or simply ignorant.

Zambia ~50 years post-independence

Though the United States is far from a global leader in education, Zambia is even worse than the U.S.; only 1.5 percent of their GDP is put toward education, according to The World Factbook, While the average American will attend public schooling for about 16 years and complete high school, the average Zambian is likely to go to school for just 7 years, receiving only an elementary level education.

At some “schools,” such as Shampande Middle Basic School, classrooms consist of nothing more than makeshift chairs composed of piles of bricks scattered under a tree that some children have to walk 10 to 15 miles (16.5 to 25 km) to get to*.

The disparity between the developed and undeveloped areas of Zambia is huge. In the heart of Lusaka, there is electricity, running water, limited Internet access, modern architecture and relatively better road infrastructure than the rural areas. Just on the outskirts of Lusaka as well as in more rural areas, however, little or none of the aforementioned basic infrastructure exists.

Ideology-wise, many Zambians are nowhere near accepting homosexuality and the like as acceptable lifestyles. In some areas, women are still considered lesser than men and are responsible for nearly all “household chores.” In Zambia, that term does not refer to simple cleaning and cooking, but also hard labor tasks such as food and water gathering, which often require spending many hours and traveling many miles.

Some U.S. citizens have expressed a desire to change the way countries in Africa, including Zambia, think about and approach the world, as though they are hopelessly wrong and behind the times.

Honestly, visiting Zambia is like taking a step back in time—the country just gained independence in 1964.

American ~50 years post-independence

Imagine the U.S. only 47 years after it gained independence, in the 1820s. Infrastructure was poor—Native American trails used where roads were not yet existent, plus canals and railroads were just being built.

Technology was not yet very advanced. Inventions such as telescopes, railroads (with horse-drawn cars), and typewriters did not exist until the end of the decade.

In the early 1820s, people in the U.S. were still feeling the effects of the Panic of 1819, a depression that occurred after the economic boom that followed the War of 1812 ended. The U.S. economy was based primarily on agriculture, and thus many people were merely poor farmers.

Society was dominated by white males—women weren’t able to vote or own property and were expected to focus on raising children and performing chores. African Americans (and sometimes other minorities) were condemned to slavery and unequal treatment in many aspects of life. Homosexuality was not considered an acceptable practice.

Even in the U.S., there was a time when the ways of life and thinking were much different than they are now. Becoming an industrialized egalitarian country is a process that takes time. Many critical developments in ideology, technology and infrastructure—including labor laws, methods of communication and inventions—did not occur until the early 1900s, more than one hundred years after gaining independence.

Before U.S. citizens try to tell Zambians the correct things to believe and ways to act, they should take note that post-independence Zambia is so far without any major political and ethno-political conflicts—an attribute the U.S. cannot claim.

Moving forward

It may seem slightly difficult to compare Zambia and the U.S. since they reached independence in different ways. However, they are similar in that they both broke away from colonial rule and were left with a lot of land to develop and opportunity for technological and ideological improvements.

It is apparent that technology, for example, is beginning to ease its way into the Zambian culture, especially in places such as Lusaka. It is already more Westernized than myself and many of my colleagues expected it to be and is likely to continue developing further. With technological improvement, better infrastructure and ideological open-mindedness usually follow.

Although some U.S. citizens would like to come from a point of further development and deliver some kind of revelation to Zambians, they need to realize that things do not work that way. For a truly flourished nation, Zambians will have to grow and learn at their own pace.

Even the U.S. is not yet an ideal nation. U.S. citizens have made their fair share of mistakes along the way and are still learning not to discriminate based on race, gender, orientation, socioeconomic status, religion and other characteristics.

Some people and nations relentlessly strive to develop and to become free from donor-dependency. Yes, there are still nations that seem to be underdeveloped in comparison to the U.S., but given time, some of them will get there.

*An organization called Fountain of Life donated 100 desks to Shampande after hearing of its condition, but other schools in similar situations have not been as fortunate.

Lindsay Boyle is one of 18 students from Ohio University, studying abroad in Zambia over winter intercession, about media, society, and governance, through the Institute for International Journalism.

She is a junior online journalism major with a minor in psychology.

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