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  • Writer's pictureAbby

Sister places: Wyoming and Zambia

When I explain the city of in Ndola, where I live in Zambia, I usually say it’s a small town. However, it’s over half a million, about the same size of the entire population in the state of Wyoming. Although Ndola is a larger town, it also has a very small town feel similar to that of Wyoming towns and even the whole state at large.

For instance, I joined a running group in Ndola, and David knew many of the people I randomly met through the group. You say your last name, and usually the person knows the reputation of the family name or the family personally. Your name matters in a way where people personally know you and your family. Similarly, anytime I have been in Wyoming, if I mention our name, people know my grandmother and/or cousin, maybe they went to high school with my mom, or often they are somehow related to a family member of ours. At my cousin’s wedding this weekend, I met biological cousins and aunts and uncles for the first time. Our name matters; it has a face and a reputation, just as in Ndola, Zambia. 

Along with the small town feel, comes the communal understanding. I think a lot of agreements and situations involve the people more than the system. Of course Wyoming isn’t known for corruption, but it does seem that there are more handshake agreements. For example, when visiting our mountain cabin, we take a shortcut and “trespass” through private property, but the neighbors have agreed to let us go onto their property rather than us driving the farther way around, the proper way. There is no legal agreement, but person to person, there is an understanding. Many times in Zambia some of the corruption comes from people helping one another out in a way that the system can’t provide for it’s people. If a citizen is pulled over for speeding, but he can’t feed his family, the officer may know him, take pity on him and let him pay half the price. This money will then go to the officer instead of the government, because he too is struggling to provide for his family. 

With knowing most people in your community comes a surprise to outsiders, especially when they look different than you. At my cousin's wedding this weekend, the groomsmen were talking about what happens when a black person walks into one of the bars, all heads turn and eyes stare. I can directly relate with this in the exact opposite way in Zambia. Necks just about break to unapologetically stare when I walk into most establishments in the smaller towns. Zambians take it a step further in that when we lock eyes, the stares don’t go anywhere. Whereas in the states and even Wyoming, we are taught it is rude to stare and the locals would take their eyes off of the person who looks different from the homogenous group.

When you live in a small town and somewhere without a lot of mainstream activities, what do people do? Most would agree that the activity becomes a favorite waterhole; drinking, often heavy drinking. Whether it’s moonshine, junta, or expensive alcohol, people of Zambia and Wyoming would find a great similarity in drinking. Within this common activity, even more is the the style of drinking: homemade whiskey. Growing up in Seattle and Chicago, I never saw moonshine or any type of alcohol that was not a well known name brand. Then I moved to Zambia where I heard about the something referred to as “junta.” This is a cheap homemade unregulated type of whiskey. They put a percentage of alcohol on the label, but each batch is different. Then I go back to Wyoming for a wedding, and the groomsmen pull out moonshine, the american equivalent to junta, if not even more unregulated. A bottle with no label, cowboys and cowgirls with no glasses, and the moonshine is passed around. They did have variety and flavors, such as the apple pie moonshine that tasted like spiced apple cider. So not only do both Wyoming and Zambia have a common denominator with drinking, they also have a similar style of specific under the table whiskey.

As I heard some of the bridesmaids discussing their cell phone and internet providers, I thought, “this isn’t much different from rural Zambia.” Internet that cuts out or slows down after a certain amount of GB usage, that’s worse and slower than the internet we have in Ndola, though it is certainly less expensive. In Zambia, the market for internet just isn’t there yet to make it readily available and affordable. In rural parts of Wyoming, it seems the market - enough people - isn’t there to improve the internet situation. In Wyoming, the houses outside of town don’t receive cell reception, even just 20 minutes out of town. Again, Zambia seems to be better in regard to cell phone service, until you get very, very remote, it may be worse than I know. Therefore I found similarities in internet and telecommunication availability. 

Growing up in the greater Seattle area, we always state our parents as possessive to us. “My mom” and “My dad” so much so that I catch myself talking about “my mom” even with my sister. In Zambia, mom and dad are general words with friends and family. Parents are more communal so most people don’t feel the need to distinguish the fact that it is his or her dad. We just say, “dad says....” or “mom thinks...” It is more extreme in Zambia in that even other people will refer to another person’s parents as mom or dad as a term of respect and honor. Although Wyoming does not use mom and dad quite as liberally, I noticed a great difference between growing up in Seattle and growing up in Wyoming. For the longest time I just thought it was specifically my cousin who never possessed her parents, until I heard her bridesmaids and most everyone else talk about their parents. Each time I heard mom or dad without the possessive term, I kept thinking, “everyone sounds so Zambian!”

Naming is a little tricky one to talk about. Overall, there are some very unique English names in Zambia that most americans or europeans would agree sound strange. Some examples are “princess” or "essence." Then I was in Wyoming and heard names like “champ” and “lane” and thought, “this really isn’t all that different!” I’ve also noticed how creative parents get with their spelling when they are in naming mode. About half or more of every “y” or “ie” name end in solely “i” For example, I was putting someone’s number in my phone whose name is Bailey. I asked if it was “ey” or just ‘y” and she said, “it’s so different, just choose any spelling you’d like.” It seems many people from Wyoming and Zambia have a commonality in their uniqueness and creativity when it comes to naming.

The last similarity I wanted to share is others’ perceptions of both Zambia “Africa” and Wyoming. First of all, I believe both places have been deeply misrepresented by the general population. As a child, every time I talked about visiting Wyoming people often gave me confused looks and asked partially sarcastically if people actually live there. They didn’t understand why I would visit and what we would do there. I often still get the same blank stares and ignorant questions when I talk about moving to Zambia, though usually they are more concealed in political correctness and uncertainty than 20 years ago. One of the bridesmaids was telling me that she went to Florida for a wedding and was asked if in Wyoming they have running water, if they just ride horses everywhere, and if they have to fight with indians. This is almost an exact parallel to the “Africa” many americans imagine. 

So how and why do Ndola, Zambia and Wyoming have so many similarities? I believe the biggest common denominators are size and location. Any time you are in a town or city with a relatively small population, a lot of these tendencies are going to be common. Secondly, both places are landlocked. Diversity in activities and people are very limited in many landlocked locations. Size and location also lead to less resources comparatively to large and competitive cities. Both Zambia and Wyoming are more rich in land and natural resources which translate into a different culture than large developing cities. 

The teacher in me began to make a venn diagram of Zambia and Wyoming... then I just left it will the similarities...

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