When I heard we would be meeting the Director of a peer group in Zambia of individuals around my age, I was definitely interested but to be honest, I was also a little nervous at first. I was completely new to the country and the culture, and ultimately I was afraid of how I would be perceived or how I would be treated. To be completely honest, it’s not common to see a young, white woman walking along the streets of these small towns in Zambia, and I was already seeing that a lot of people couldn’t help but stare at me.
As we walked from our office building to the medical building where the Director held the peer group meetings, I asked for a quick summary of what the group was about, what they talked about, etc. The group met (don’t remember frequency?) at the medical center in the tiny town of Mulufira to discuss everything from HIV/Aids, personal hygiene, teen pregnancy, and many other issues. After hearing those key points, I was even more interested to meet the group and see how our organizations could help each other.
Upon arriving at the medical center and getting a small tour from the Director and meeting some of the staff, we were treated to quite a surprise. To our surprise, not only were we going to meet and interview the Director, we were going to meet the entire peer group as well! As we walked into a courtyard we were surprised (in a good way) to find the entire peer group, which consisted of about 12 - 15 people all hanging out, laughing and joking, and just relaxing. To say I was a little awkward and intimidated at first would be an understatement.
We walked into the courtyard to meet everyone and be introduced ourselves, and everyone was friendly but also noticeably shy. During a moment when Stephanie was talking to the Director about where we could hold an interview and ask a few members of the peer group to join us, the preacher who had walked with us over to the medical center leaned over and told me something very interesting about the group. “They don’t want to look you in the eye; in Zambian culture, it’s a sign of respect to not look someone in the eye” he said. I couldn’t help but look at him and go “Oh...really?”.
I had no idea! The whole time I was standing up in front of this group, I had noticed no one was looking me in the eye, or if they were looking in my general direction, they would look at me and then look away or look at their feet or something. It was something I had to get used to, especially growing up in a military family and a culture where you always looked someone in the eye when you were speaking with them.
After a few minutes of some side conversations and general joking around, we asked the Director about where would be the best place to hold a group discussion. Our hope was to film a discussion between us (Stephanie and myself), the director of the peer group, and a few members of the peer group itself. After a small search, we found a medical examination room near the back of the facility where we could all sit down and talk. To our surprise, many of the peer members were eager to speak with us, so many that the director had to only pick a few from the group to join in our discussion.
Once we were settled and introduced, we started to set up Stephanie’s digital camera to film our conversations. The purpose of this was to hopefully post small segments on our website to show our followers what some of the youth and young adults in Zambia deal with on an everyday basis. We wanted these videos to provide context but also show just how relatable they were, and that in hindsight, they weren’t any different from youths and young adults in the states. They wanted jobs, an education, and more importantly they had big plans too.
While you could tell the camera made some of our volunteers a little nervous being put on the spot, they were still very willing to answer many of our questions. We would pose a question, and sometimes the Director would lead with his answer, and then the volunteers would add their thoughts as well. As we talked more and more though, the volunteers became much more comfortable in speaking up. It was nice to actually hear the words from them and hear their perspective on things.
What I found surprising and comforting at the same time was how similar they were to me. We each wanted and education, we each wanted a job, and most importantly, we wanted an opportunity to succeed in life and make the most of our opportunities. As we talked more and I asked questions about what went on in their community, I was able to find similarities there as well.
One of the biggest issues that plagues the area is lack of jobs, teen pregnancy, and HIV/Aids. While HIV/Aids may not be as big of an issue in the United States as it is in Zambia, teen pregnancy has been an issue along with just trying to find a decent, well-paying job in certain areas. (Our recent election is an example of that!)
As our interview started winding down, the volunteers and the Director started asking me questions about the United States. They asked me about education and who pays for it, the different types of schools we have, like college, trade schools, and much more. They were very interested in our schools and the resources the provide to students, and you could tell by their looks they were very interested in how a school was able to provide such opportunities.
Our talk ended up lasting two hours, much longer than we had expected, but were nonetheless grateful for. Our volunteers were clearly eager to meet us and find out more about us, just as much as we wanted to hear from them. The mutual interest in each other's daily lives really helped fuel the talks, and we ended up taking lots of useful notes and videos that we hope to share with our followers. We also wanted to take videos and notes because we wanted to keep in mind the similarities and how we can help each other in the future.
Our chat with the peer group was enlightening, engaging, and ultimately, heartwarming. I was nervous coming to Zambia because I wasn't sure what the people would think of me. I ended up leaving and realizing we're really not all that different.