Disparities

One thing that hits you in the face every day in Zambia is the huge income and housing disparities between different groups.  I know there are the same disparities in the U.S. but everyone tends to live clustered in groups so those who are (say) upper middle class never really see the lower classes.

Here, the lower classes live in shacks or one-room block buildings on the same property as the well-off.  Those people tend to be the gardeners and housecleaners (I can’t get used to calling them maids, which is what everyone refers to their household help as).

There are three houses on our five-acre property.  Ours, the landlady’s mother’s (which is a nice 3 bedroom/2 bath home with jacuzzi), and this one below,  where Mr. and Mrs. Phiri live with their three children (about 1, 4, and 8 years old).

I’ve come to know Mrs. Phiri a little bit.  Her name is Memory (there are lots of names like this: Precious, Liberty, Obvious, Chance, Glory) and she can’t be more than 26 or 27.  She doesn’t speak English but understands a lot, so we communicate through hand signals and demonstrations.  Among others in their class, they’re well-off because they have a very nice bicycle (see below).

When we moved into the house the landlady said, “don’t worry, we’re going to get rid of that house and there won’t be anyone on the property.”  Thom and I both said, no, it’s perfectly fine to have them there.  We were afraid that these people would be homeless just because their home was an eyesore.  So, we’re relieved they’re still here and their three kids wave at us like we’re in a parade when we go down our drive.  (BTW, because we stand out in our neighborhood because of our skin color, we get a lot of stares.  Thom thinks they’re saying, “there goes the neighborhood,” and how we dress compared to them I kind of think he’s right.)

These housing disparities go along with the income disparities.  As I mentioned earlier our gardener earns about $120 a month and works long hours.  When I asked around about giving him a raise everyone was surprised.  One said this was equivalent to our minimum wage in the U.S. and that I should not apply U.S. wage scales to Africa.  He pointed out they were in decent clothes, obviously well-fed, and cheerful and outgoing.  Who was I to impose my view on how someone should live?

Hmmmmmm….

Because I’m American it’s been inculcated in me from birth that anyone can grow up to be President and/or rich, you just have to work hard.  I’ve personally seen it with my dad and we all saw it with Obama.  I wonder what the prevailing inculcated cultural beliefs are here?  I need to find out.  In the meantime I find myself culling through clothes and even food and handing off extras to the Phiris.

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About Kimm X Jayne

Gravatar Photograph from the exceptionally talented Ben Heine. http://www.flickr.com/photos/benheine/3794765860/
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6 Responses to Disparities

  1. Maureen Witte says:

    A whole different world… We’re so spoiled!

  2. Lisa Murray-Johnson says:

    Loved this post because it really makes you consider so many elements of culture, politics, belief systems, economic expectations and how the market driven economy works there, and so on. On one hand you want to be generous and improve their experience because you can, and you feel an humanistic obligation to do so. On the other, you don’t want to overly upset the apple cart–because once you are gone, it would be another cycle for them. I really need to think about this level of structural inequality. You are our best ambassadors overseas!

  3. Neliswa says:

    Great post. I applaud the sentiments, but would caution against pity. As a black native South African child running through the bush of my grandfather’s farm, I’ve had my share of tourist handouts. As a result, I tried to spend my summers begging by the side of the road, until my grandfather gave me a swift clip upside the head. What actually had more impact on my life, were the tourists that stopped and came into our house for dinner. I felt that these tourists were interested in learning about us, and those were the moments when I came to realize they were not better than me. Because at the end of the day, nothing they could possibly do could get me out of the “African bush”. It was the understanding that I was “the same”, that led me to believe all things are possible.

  4. Kimm X Jayne says:

    Neli — I wish we could have a great dinner at your 12-person table and talk about this. I have lots of questions!!! Perhaps when you folks come to visit us? My main question is what do you do about the language barrier? (We could have them for dinner but how would that work?)

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