I am sitting in a circle on the floor with my neighbors, Ya Royda and Ya Lackwell. Between us is a giant bowl heaping with hot nshima. Surrounding it are several smaller bowls of boiled vegetables and beans. Lunch time.
We all dig in. Everyone waits for me to serve myself first. As the “guest”, no one will eat until I have taken a hearty portion. I insist that the hosts, my kid siblings, literally anyone else would be welcome to go first, but I’m fighting thousands of years of ingrained respect and tradition. Normally I’m an avid proponent of fighting the system, but the Ya Miyos here are way tougher than I am and so I take my lump of nshima in silence and start munching away.
We eat quietly, lips smacking with sticky nshima. Occasionally someone will attempt conversation with me in basic Mambwe, or occasionally I will ask a question and attempt to understand the response. More typically, we say things like:
Hannah: “The beans are very good today.”
Ya Royda: “Yes, I cooked them all day today.”
Hannah: “No, thank you. I don’t like okra.”
Ya Royda: “But it’s delicious!” *slurp slurp slurp*
Ya Lackwell: “Ya Annie (my village name), you must eat more.”
Hannah: “Ah, but I am full!”
Ya Lackwell: “But it is nshima!”
Hannah: “Ahh…okay.” *takes another lump*
Pretty basic. As my Mambwe skills develop our conversations grow in depth and clarity, but still focus on the basics of life: the weather, eating, working, family, and how hilarious it is that I have a dog an cat instead of actual children.
As we finish the meal, I stand up to take my leave.
“Nataizya sauna, Ya Miyo,” I say. Thank you very much. I turn to go.
“Awe,” I hear from behind me. No. I turn in surprise. A contradiction to a thank you? I go through my mental Mambwe conversation checklist:
1. Is the person even talking to me?
2. Did I hear them correctly?
3. Did they hear ME correctly?
4. What did I say wrong?
Ya Royda is shaking her head.
“Awe, Ya Hanah. Muli ulupwa. Mutakati nataizya. Muli kalibu yonsi.” No, Hannah. You are family. You don’t need to say thank you. You are always welcome.”
After getting her to repeat herself a few times in accordance with rule #2 (see above), I am taken aback. I try to explain that in America, you should always thank your host after a meal no matter how close you are to them. She stops me mid-sentence and reminds me that this isn’t America. This is Zambia, where to share food is a fundamental of life and thanks is not required from those you love. I blush.
“Well, then. Napita.” I am going. They smile at me. “Tumalolana.” See you later today.
I walk home pondering the experience. Though I’ve only been in my site for a week (at the time of this experience), my farmers have accepted me as part of their communal village family. After months of feeling an outsider and unwelcome in my home, this otherwise normal afternoon meal has put wings on my sandals. I’m home.