A Blog by International Students at Leiden University
Rik Jongenelen is a guest blogger on The Leidener and studies the MA in African Studies. He is currently doing a three-month internship in Zambia.
The handles of the plastic bags cut in my fingers as I return from the little market around the corner. A white pickup truck jammed with people passes by, blowing a load of red dust in my direction. As I turn my head away and hold my breath, I notice that I’m grinning. I have only arrived in Lusaka two hours ago and I’m already facing the sub-Saharan scenery that fascinates me so much. Although it is already my tenth visit to an African country, this is about to be my longest and most intensive stay up to now.
An abundance of impressions
An electric fence surrounded by razor wire opens itself soundless, revealing my residence for the coming three months. Five freshly painted bungalows appear on my left, the curtains dancing in the wind through their barred windows. I unlock the door and to the satisfaction of my fingers, I put the plastic bags on the kitchen counter. I start pacing up and down through the living room, opening my senses and realising that I am more than 7,000 kilometres away from my comfortable Dutch life. Many unfamiliar sounds come to my hearing, sounds that will probably become more trusted the upcoming weeks. The loud buzzing of my old refrigerator. The high pitched crying of a toddler. The sound of my neighbour’s satellite TV. Despite the relatively luxurious conditions a certain claustrophobic feeling grabs me by the throat for only a few seconds. I always have to ‘land’ mentally when I have just arrived in an unfamiliar country. Most likely it is a combination of fatigue, dehydration, an abundance of impressions and the high temperatures. I turn off the lights and call it a day.
My new neighbourhood
It is Wednesday morning and I am about to go on my morning walk to the office. The first days have been a bit tougher than I initially expected. My cooking stove was not working, I had no access to hot water and it was very hard to let my relatives know that I had arrived. Because of the absence of street names or internet, it was impossible to orientate myself. This way, the two days of weekend seemed to last twice as long.
The people that pass by in Woodlands, my new neighbourhood in the southeast of Lusaka, are apparently used to the presence of white expats. It is the diplomatic district of the city and most other foreigners that move around here represent an embassy, the United Nations, the African Union or an NGO. This also makes Woodlands an area to invest in; this becomes visible as I walk past a group of Zambian construction workers installing solar powered lampposts, supervised by a sternly looking Chinese foreman.
Organising fieldtrips to collect data
The office I’m working at is about 30 minutes on foot. As soon as I have extendedly greeted my new colleagues, I start organising my interview guides and consent forms. Although I have created a planning for the coming weeks during the preparation seminars in Leiden, this planning is forced to be adapted already. Lusaka has been experiencing an outbreak of cholera and at the moment of writing, more than 1500 people have been infected of which 77 did not survive. To prevent a further spreading, markets and schools remain closed for the next three weeks. Quite inconvenient, as my internship is related to education. I take the initiative to talk to the programme manager to organise some other fieldtrips to collect data. Taking the initiative has never been my strongest point, but I am on my own here and I am the only one responsible for the success of my fieldwork. The organisation gives me a lot of freedom and this only motivates me to work hard and be independent.
No culture shock
After only two weeks I feel way more familiar with my new surroundings. The organisation is very professional, my accommodation feels like home and every day I make a little bit more progress in my research. I have noticed that the MA African Studies has brought me quite some useful insights that can be applied on my stay here. The most remarkable is that I do not experience a culture shock since I have been studying Africa every single day for the past 3 months. Communication runs smoothly and many of the Zambian cultural values I discover do not come as a surprise to me. Also in terms of economics, politics, religion and migration I acknowledge that my view on Africa has professionalised since I have started these studies. Now that I am in the field, all the theories and disciplines from the last 3 months are very much alive and my research hardly feels like a studies. If this is what the life of an Africanist is like, I cannot wait to dig deeper into Africa’s scientific secrets.