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Conversations With Cultural Differences

"Do you have a boyfriend?” The very young man sitting across from my desk asked. It was silent, except for the rain pouring down; a very damp, grey Tuesday afternoon, and it reminded me of autumn back home. Our yard had started to flood, I noticed. I kept typing, and thought for a moment. Usually my standard lie would’ve been along the lines of “yes, I do, he’s back home in England/Finland, and when I get home, we’ll get married”, but for some reason, I wanted to see where this was going. The question seemed reasonable; not flirty, as he was almost young enough to be my son, but genuinely interested. I snapped the lid of the laptop shut and looked at him."No, I don’t”
"Really?”
"Really."
"I think you should."
"I think I should too."
"Well, why not?"
I thought about this for a while. “There’re not really that many decent single men in London. Really. I’m just the age where most guys are either already married, or have girlfriends. Or if they are single, there’s something wrong with them.”

He thought for a moment. "But you seem like a nice girl, and there's nothing wrong with you!"
"Actually, I’m a bit of a bitch, totally neurotic and argumentative. And I’m not a girl- I’m a woman pushing thirty”
He laughed. Maybe he thought I was joking.
"And do you have children?”
"No I don’t”, I said. He looked astonished.
"No one’s wanted to have children with you?”
I laughed. In Zambia, everyone wants children, all men, and all women. Preferably many, as anything less than three is just pitiful; a person over the age of twenty-five being childless is just unheard of. Many families have children from previous relationships, and even single women all have at least one child, after a “certain age”. I tried to explain.

"See, a lot of men don’t particularly want children. We live in a city where there’s just too much to do; they don’t want to come straight home from work and start changing nappies. They want to down pints with their mates in the pub. Or if they do wants kids, then they put it off so long that their girlfriends, who are around the same age group as they, leave them for someone who does want children with them, and then the men hit forty, realise that they do need to start thinking about having kids, panic, and have them with a twenty-five year-old who is never going to get them.”

He looked confused. Poor boy, he was probably sixteen, seventeen at most, he’d never left Lusaka, and although he was a bright kid, my rant had just confused him even more. He digested the information for a bit, and spoke.

"Here in Zambia, if a girl and a boy like each other, they get married and have children. This is what we do. So it is not like that?”
"No, it’s not”
"But why not? What else do you need?”
What else indeed? I had no idea; I was the worst person to ask. All I had were a few broken relationships, and most of them years ago, from another era when I was still a bit more optimistic about life.
"You need a lot of things. You need to want the same things. Like, if the other person wants a family of six and a house in Watford with a vegetable garden, and the other a flat filled with flat-screen TV’s and wine racks in Mayfair, then really, it’s not going to work.”

And then I felt bad. Most of these kids can’t really decide where they’re going to live, or what job they’re going to take, let alone choose between vegetable gardens or wine racks. Most of them had no options; I felt like an idiot. I forgot who I was talking to; I could’ve quite as well been in All Bar One with Marianne or Kate and preach to them.

But he looked at me, beaming.

"Well, I know who I want to marry. In a few years, that is. I want children, but not too many. Maybe three, or four, if my wife wants four.”
I smiled. “I hope it works out for you”
"Yes. I just want to finish this course, and get a good job, maybe at one of the hotels.” He stared out of the window and into the rain. “Maybe as a waiter. Maybe someday I could be the head waiter. But anyway,” he shook himself and got up, “I hope you don’t have to deal with so many choices in the future.

It was a peculiar thing to say, but after he left, and I watched him get soaked as he trudged across our school compound, it made sense. I thought about all my friends, and their jobs and boyfriends and husbands and their kids; their problems in finding a place to live, or indeed, choosing where to live, and all the problems that went with having a life in England. I knew it wouldn’t last very long, but for a while I felt envious of this young boy with a straightforward future ahead of him. I watched him disappear around the corner.

I flicked my laptop back on. I had some work to do, so I could finally leave Lusaka one day, go back to my wine bars and to the people who looked straight past you on the street and to the conversations with Kate and Marianne. I smiled to myself and drew up the curtains. And just like that, I got over it.

Posted by Ofelia 02:02 Archived in Zambia Tagged volunteer

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