“Hello, how are you?”
“I’m doing well, thank you, how are you?”
“Ahh, fine, I am fine. You are welcome. You are very welcome.”
Here, I present to you, roughly, the typical greeting the YAVs receive when meeting a Zambian. When I first experienced it, I’ll be honest, I was a little confused. Was the “you’re welcome” a response to my “thank you?” Or was it truly a welcome to their house, their church, their compound, their country? At the time, it seemed like a trite question to ask, so I kept it to myself. Luckily, as we received more and more greetings, the answer became clearer. Frequently, Zambians will say, “You are welcome, you are welcome here,” so I came to understand the response to your well-being as a genuine welcome into their space and, consequently, their life. It was strange at first to not be simply welcomed by the word “welcome” standing on its own, or perhaps followed by the place we were being welcomed into. Most of the welcomes I’ve heard back home are constructed: “Welcome to fill in the blank .” And while there is absolutely nothing wrong with that welcome—I’m sure I will still use it for the rest of my life—there’s something special about the change in emphasis within the welcome here in Zambia. Instead of reinforcing the mindset that newcomers are outsiders moving into a space which is not their own, a space that belongs to someone else, the Zambian welcome emphasizes who it is that is welcome—that it is you.
However, in the past two months, we have become painfully aware of how much we stick out here in Zambia, how obvious it is that we are not in a space of our own. Our skin and hair are the most obvious indicators of our foreignness, but other things, such as our greater amount of mobility due to Sherri’s car, our personal computers and smart phones, our lack of knowledge on how to properly and respectfully greet others, especially elders, and our inability to communicate in anything other than English, remind us and others that we are very white, very American, and very privileged. Our differences have garnered us all kinds of looks—looks of envy, of resentment, looks of awe, of surprise, looks of excitement, and even looks of fear (mostly from babies,thankfully). Many places we go we are followed by pointing fingers and the sound of “mzungu, mzungu!” or “white person, foreigner!” It’s impossible to feel like you fit in when the things that make you different are so obvious. And yet, you are welcome. I am welcome.
One of the greatest worries that I, as well as Olivia, Kim, and John, have about our year in Zambia is that simply our presence here as privileged white Americans will perpetuate the “white savior” concept, birthed by colonialism and developed into the conceited and vicious adult it is today. We’ve been constantly asking ourselves the question, “how do we live as volunteers in a developing African nation without reinforcing the colonial idea that our skin color, language, nationality, and wealth give us the right to go into spaces that are not our own and tell people how to live their lives or to help people in a way we see fit without questioning the desire for or sustainability of our aid?” I think this is something we will struggle with the entire year, but I’m reminded of what YAV director Richard Williams told us on our first day of orientation: “In each of your placements, you are not needed, but you are wanted.”
Many us in the YAV program signed up for our year of service with the mindset that we would be the ones doing the helping, that we would be making a difference—it’s us serving them. What many of us didn’t consider is that this mindset in and of itself creates a power dynamic completely unconducive to fostering strong relationships and healthy growth. Luckily, it looks as if our YAV year will teach, or remind us, that true service is a two-way street. It is wonderful to help others, but we must always remember to allow others to help us. We can suggest ideas and share our thoughts, but only after we listen to the thoughts and ideas of those around us, remembering all the while that they are the ones who know their community and situation best. Sometimes, simply walking beside someone and giving them an ear to listen to their story and a mind to be taught new things is the greatest service we can provide.
A week or so before we moved in with our host families, Sherri took the Zambia YAVs to meet Abusa Ngambi, the head of the Church Youth Fellowship (CYF) of the CCAP (and my next door neighbor in Chilenje). After introducing himself and greeting us with a “You are welcome here,” he showed us into his house and then office, commenting (joking?) “soon you will be Zambian!” He was happy to tell us all about the CYF and its role as one of the three pillars of the denomination. “The youth, the women, and the men are equal and strong parts of our church. Some pillars are not spectators while the others take charge—no, all are welcomed and encouraged to participate and to lead.” Later, he welcomed us again, this time as new members of the church. “You are a gift,” he said. Not because of where we come from, the color of our skin, and the resources we may bring, but because we are children of God and we will be able to share our God-given gifts with a community who is already sharing and discovering their own gifts. We will each join a community that will teach us and guide us and share with us and comfort us and help us and welcome us. The congregations would get along without us, but our gifts will add to the many gifts already there, creating a space to learn and grow and walk together in faith. Thanks be to God for a love that covers all nations, a peace that passes all understanding, and a welcome that embraces all who seek it.
(The signs made by my host family to welcome me to my new home–they’re still hanging up around the house a month later!)