Zambia, to me, is my childhood suspended in time

Naomi Linehan: We are old friends, the Zambians and the Irish. There is something inherently similar in our cultures: we have the same laughter and love of dance; the same striving for a future for our children by the banks of the Shannon and the Zambezi

Naomi Linehan on a recent trip back to visit Zambia

Naomi Linehan on a recent trip back to visit Zambia

 

Inside out logoWhen people ask me where I’m from, I’m never quite sure what to say. I’m Irish, but I grew up in Zambia. It was my home for the first sixteen years of my life.

Zambia, to me, is my childhood suspended in time. The light and air are different. The colours are bright and the days endless – playing in trees and exploring the African surrounds: red dust, elephant spotting, flesh red tomatoes piled high in pyramids on grass mats at market stalls, maize fields, school days, bare feet and colourful Chitenge cloths. 

My parents, Shay and Teresa, emigrated to Zambia in 1980 – two fresh-faced teachers in their early twenties. It was a big decision. Things were different then. If you were emigrating to Africa, you were heading into the unknown. No Twitter. No Facebook. And a lot of the time, no phone lines either. Just hand-written letters.

They lived in a rural part of Zambia called Kasama, teaching in various secondary schools. Every week they looked forward to the postal delivery. My grandmother dutifully sent Saturday’s Irish Times and two Club Milk chocolate bars across the world, from the green post box outside her house in Walkinstown, all the way to central Africa, with news of home. But as time went on, they settled into the Zambian way of life. They had intended to stay for a year or two. They stayed for 25 years, and Zambia became their home. And that is where my sister Laura and I grew up.

Some of the over-riding memories from my childhood are the brief visits to Ireland – a few days over Christmas or two weeks in the summer to see the extended family. To me, Ireland was a foreign place but I felt a strong connection to it all the same. The cold air and the green Irish countryside were so different from the Zambian bush I was accustomed to. I felt lucky to know both lands - the soft sunrise over the Shannon and the dramatic sunset on the Zambezi - the firey orange ball melting into the waters, as Kingfishers hovered and hippos grunted, and fishermen canoed their way back to land. The Irish Ceili and the Zambian drumbeat were different rhythms from different worlds, and yet, both had a place in my heart.

And so, when I was given an opportunity to go back to Zambia last year with the Alan Kerins Projects to make a documentary for Newstalk radio, I jumped at the chance. I wanted to see it again, as an adult. I hoped to discover a new Zambia. It had been ten years since I left. I had heard there had been great progress. I hoped that people’s lives had become a little easier.

When I arrived, the Zambia I saw was familiar, and yet, so much had changed. Zambian people are among the friendliest in the world. I remember when I was young, if I came across Zambian friends eating, though they had little, they would always offer to share what they had. They would invite me to sit with them, and we would eat Nshima together. And there was always laughter. It was that laughter again that made me feel at home the moment I arrived back in Lusaka.

And as we travelled through the city, there was the hooting of minibuses. ‘Fastele, fastele,’ a man yelled, leaning out the window of his bus as it careened through the now busy streets. ‘Fast, fast.’ And Zambia, it seemed, had been moving fast.

Now there were shopping malls, traffic, and cell phones. Everyone in Lusaka seemed to have a phone. One night I sat in the middle of the bush in Western Province, talking to a man around a charcoal fire. We were discussing something, and then, quite unexpectedly, he produced an iPad from his backpack to check something online. I smiled to myself. This was a very different Zambia to the one I had grown up in.

But were things really better for people? On the surface they seemed to be. But in reality there is a long way to go. There is still much poverty, and a gaping urban-rural divide. There are still young girls raising families, parents dying of HIV-Aids, children struggling to go to school. A shocking proportion of the population still live under the poverty line.

I met with an old friend in Lusaka, a journalist named Benne Banda. He made the point that while there was economic growth and there were new cars on the road, and shopping malls being built, the wealth was not always benefiting the poorest in society. He believes it is important that the country not develop purely in terms of Western ideals, but rather in the African context of development. He wants to see more avenues for Zambian entrepreneurship and culture. He feels that ordinary Zambian people need to be at the centre of the discussion on change if the country is going to make real progress.

But hopefully things are moving in that direction. Even though Zambia is still one of the poorest countries in Africa, technology is making a positive impact. These days I follow Mwebantu New Media on Facebook. It’s an online news service for everything Zambian. I’ve been watching the run up to the Zambian Presidential election with great interest. But what I enjoy most of all is the discourse that is happening online - the comments sections below the news hits on these forums where people engage in debate. This for me is progress.

When I was a child it was dangerous to talk about politics in Zambia. It was better to stay quiet. This was the reality. But now, every day, I see people responding to news stories. They have access to what is happening. They give their honest opinions about election candidates. They have a say in the kind of country they want to have and hold politicians to account. This is democracy in action. It is information and empowerment coming together.

These days, Zambia no longer exists just in the recesses of my mind – in bright memories of Jacaranda trees, blue skies, and buffalos. It’s a real world. I have been back to see it, and I can see it every day in front of me, online. I can keep up with what is happening there. I can stay connected to what people are experiencing and how they feel about things.

In Zambia, when you greet someone, they often ask where you are from. ‘Ireland,’ I tell them. Immediately the reception is warm. ‘You are Irish?’ The formalities immediately fall away. In Ireland, when people ask, I say, ‘Zambia.’ ‘Zambia?’ they say. They usually have a cousin, or brother, or friend who has lived or worked in Zambia.

We are old friends, the Zambians and the Irish. There is something inherently similar in our cultures: we have the same laughter and love of dance; the same striving for a future for our children by the banks of the Shannon and the Zambezi.

And that is why the European Year for Development, which launches in Ireland this week, is so important. It’s about staying connected. About celebrating that shared quest for a better world between old friends. And every person is a part of that.

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