Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Smile Like You Mean It: Lessons from Zambia

By Adam Flango
in Lusaka, Zambia

A child smiles outside the door of a traditional healer
The Zambian customs agent took a look at my passport picture, which featured my stoic head shot, and laughed. “You Americans, you look so serious in your photos,” he said, flashing a wide grin. After a 25 hour trip, the comment barely registered on my disoriented, jet-lagged radar. I thought, a smile is just a smile, a sign of happiness, nothing more. In the United States, they are a welcome reprieve from the hectic, stress-filled everyday lifestyle that shows Americans with expressionless mouths. I soon found that in Zambia, it is not the same.
As I began to explore the country throughout the first week, it dawned on me that smiling is simply second nature to Zambians. It is a country full of toothy grins, shy smirks, and heartwarming smiles. The customs agent was not an overtly friendly guy by Zambian standards. He was simply a Zambian, a title that carries with it an aura of happiness and contentment.
Most residents of the hardly metropolitan but surprisingly developed capital city of Lusaka walk between cars, on sides of roads, on university campuses and through markets. A wave to a shoeless child playing in dirt is typically met by eyes lighting up and a bright smile. Maybe it's out of fascination or confusion, but with each day it seems that the happy demeanor of Lusaka's residents is a standard that trumps any place I have visited.
When Americans ask each other questions, they look for the quickest response possible. Yet every time I ask a question to a Zambian, be it a naïve cultural query or a practical one, it is met simply by a smile and a genuine answer.
It may not seem like a lot. I understand Americans are not robots and do smile and laugh. But the pervasiveness of the seemingly happy expressions on Zambian faces has a different effect.
Zambians live in a developing country roughly the size of Texas. Nearly 14% of residents are afflicted with HIV/AIDS, one of the highest percentages in the world. Over 60% of the country lives in poverty.
Yet smiles still abound, both in the poverty-stricken sections of town and in the wealthy parts.
A child at the Kasisi Orphanage, just outside Lusaka

Behind the Smiles
But the smiles also harrowingly magnify the few frowns on the faces of those in the streets and economically depressed compounds. Frowns of children crying while mothers try to shield them from the early morning heat. Frowns of vendors at the Soweto market trying to survive by selling fly-covered dried caterpillars or fruit.
I am quickly learning that Zambians smile by nature. But while the smiles cheer you up, it is the frowns bring you back to reality.

Adam Flango 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.
He is a senior magazine journalism major.

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