Zambian life in the eyes of a Russian socialite

IF you wanted to see Julia Kuznetsova three years ago, you would probably have had to go to Chris Corner in Lusaka’s Chilenje area, where she used to hang around. You may even have found her clutching a bottle of Mosi in her hand, and seemingly at home.
Julia, who came to Zambia about five years ago and works at the Russian Cultural Centre in Lusaka, where she teaches Russian languages and culture, is clearly in love with Zambian life although she does get a few cultural shocks here and there, but nothing really intriguing.
But she is so much in love with it that she is even working on a book along the title of The Culture of Donchi Kubeba, which is basically about Zambian culture through the eyes of a foreigner.
All things being equal, she should be able to finish it this year.
But if you want to see Julia today, away from her work place on Freedom Way, you may probably have to look for places where there is salsa dancing.
Oh, she loves salsa.
Julia learnt salsa at the Young Men Christian Association (YMCA) on Chilumbulu Road shortly after she came to Zambia. Nowadays, you can find her watching salsa learners at The Frog. The Mosi may not be far from her.
More comfortable speaking Bemba rather than Nyanja, Julia has visited a few places in Zambia. When she visited Mufulira, she appreciated it for its orderliness and peoples hospitality.
But she still loves Lusaka.
“I am a Lusaka girl you know,” she says.
“I usually go to City Market to buy fruit and vegetables for home. I even used to pass through Soweto Market for some salaula [second hand clothing] but the place is just too crowded. Mandevu is way better.
“I do buy from supermarkets but City Market has more choice and better prices for most things and it is also near my workplace.”
That is certainly a typical Zambian woman.
“When having nshima, my favourite dish is mulembwe and village chicken. Or beef stew if it is Trudy’s [a restaurant located between Chachacha Road and Freedom Way]. [But] I have always loved chikanda. In fact, I love most local foods, and in my family, we eat local food – nshima – everyday.
“I like most local vegetables but chikanda is very special. I don’t like going to kitchen parties but I sometimes attend them or a Chilanga Mulilo just to eat some chikanda especially if it is full of chilli.”
Julia, she even knows Chilanga Mulilo!
“Yeah! It is when the bride’s family cook for the groom’s family to demonstrate how the future wife will care for her husband and his relatives,” she says.
Julia says when she came to Zambia, she was not really intrigued that much.
“…To tell the truth, nothing intrigued me. I didn’t come with any expectations. So, I was neither intrigued nor disappointed. I just took things as they were. And it helped me to adapt fast.”
One of the reasons why she liked hanging around Chris Corner is that it helped her to get connected with people.
“[But] also the atmosphere was friendly and nice. But I no longer go there,” she says.
Julia may not have been intrigued when she came, but there are certain differences between Russians and Zambians that she finds striking.
Like for instance, when one is invited for a meal.
“When in Zambia, you are invited for a meal, you are not supposed to finish everything [so as] not to make the impression that you’re still hungry, it’s considered bad manners. But in Russia, it’s bad manners not to finish everything. It’s like when they give you food, you’re supposed to finish everything because if you don’t, the person that invited you might think you didn’t like their food,” she says.
But she has also noted that Zambians would avoid telling someone the truth for fear of hurting them.
“In Russia, people speak their mind, even if it is negative. And they will show you how they feel about you. They will speak the truth even if it hurts you,” she says.
“But it is nice here the way people buy beer for each other. Like even if you don’t have money, you can still go out to drink and your friends will buy for you. In Russia, you have to plan, maybe for weeks.”
The other difference is in the way men treat women.
“In Russia, men treat women like queens. Men in Russia are gentlemen. A lot of times, you will find two men fighting or struggling over a woman because women are considered precious,” she points out.
“In Zambia, it’s the other way round. Women give respect to men. It’s totally the opposite. In Zambia, if there are no enough seats, a woman would leave the seat for the man, but in Russia, a woman would rather stand if the seats are not enough. But in Zambia, the man will sit on a chair and his wife will take the floor.”
If there is one thing she misses about Russia, it is that people are free, even with their in-laws.
“In Russia, people are free with each other, and it is common to have some beer or wine together with your in-laws on the weekend,” she says.
But again, she is enjoying the freedom in Zambia, and if she was to leave, she would miss the freedom to do whatever she wanted.
“To get up and do what I feel like doing at that particular moment. Like going to visit a friend without making prior arrangements, I would miss things like that.”
So, what does Julia tell Zambians going to Russian?
“I tell them to be prepared to adapt. To learn to understand other people even if they find their behaviour weird or even wrong. At the same time, I encourage them never to lose their roots or identity,” she says.
“I teach them to strike a balance between adaptation and authenticity. Be soft and malleable and strong at the same time.”
This is particularly important for Zambian students in Russia who have quite a reputation.
“There’s a joke among African students that if you see an African guy drinking beer in the morning, chances are high that he is Zambian. Zambians drink a lot.”
So, how does Julia summarise the way of life in Zambia?
“I would say Zambian culture is a culture of ‘Donchi Kubeba’, not in a political sense of the word or meaning. What I am trying to say is that here people avoid conflict, they’re peaceful and non-confrontational,” she says.
“So one can do many things, even questionable ones, and it will be okay as long as others don’t know.”

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