By Joshua Kalenga | Photo courtesy of Joshua Kalenga
“What was your first meal in America?” my mum asked.
After 40 hours of travelling — from Lusaka to Johannesburg to Frankfurt to Denver — I had finally arrived at my long-awaited destination. I promised myself that I wouldn’t idealize the U.S., yet there was something exciting about trying Dunkin’ Donuts for the first time.
On the flight, I had read the final chapters of “Americanah” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The novel tells the story of Ifemelu, a young Nigerian woman who moves to the U.S. for university. Some might say it’s a love story between Ifemelu and her high school love, Obinze. The way I see it, the lover (or rather, the “loved”) in this story is the U.S., seducing immigrants with promises of freedom, opportunity, and happiness.
According to Adichie, “Americanah is a word in Nigeria referring to people who pretend to be Americanized or have been Americanized […] It’s often used in the context of a kind of gentle mockery.”
Having been fortunate enough to have studied at a United World College (in Hong Kong) for two years, I arrived in the U.S. already possessing some experience of being an ocean away from home. Still, there was something uniquely thrilling, and equally daunting, about the new transition.
The prospect of studying in the U.S. seemed exciting to me because I’ve always been attracted to the idea of a liberal arts education. Perhaps it’s because my interests span over (too) many different disciplines. In my first year at Colorado College, I’ve taken classes in math, computer science, religion, economics, environmental science, literature, and philosophy. Funnily enough, my FYE class was called “The Idea of a Liberal Arts Education.”
When I arrived at my room in Mathias Hall, I draped my desk in the colours of the Zambian flag. On top of it, I laid out my most meaningful possessions: a family picture and a collection of my favourite books, among others. I proudly introduced myself to others as being from Zambia, always finding amusement in the unspoken “Where/what is that?” written on some faces. When asked questions about the country, I was always glad to respond.
Yet, somehow, there was always a nagging discomfort somewhere inside me. Part of it was the normal dose of homesickness. It’s odd, but when I miss home, I long for the littlest of things: the sound of the footsteps of a loved one approaching my room; the smell of rain in December; the muffled voices of joyful children playing somewhere in the distance; the timelessness of travelling through my hometown at dawn, just as the red and orange flecks begin to illuminate the morning joggers, bus drivers, newspaper hawkers.
Still, at the center of my discomfort was more than just homesickness but an insidious thought: “What does it mean to be Zambian, anyway?” There is this idea that international students are the representatives of their countries on campus, but one wonders what that says to the diversity within those countries.
As much as I always wanted to talk to others about my country, I sometimes felt a sort of guilt. Zambia is a myriad of perspectives and experiences, yet I felt as though I was claiming to somehow embody them all. Somewhere along the hecticness of the Block Plan, I had fallen into this strange desperation to represent my country in its entirety, perhaps fueled by the hope of hanging onto some arbitrary identity.
The way I see it, after a year of living with this question, the best I can do is represent myself. While where I’m from is certainly a large part of that, it’s far from everything — and I’m far from everything that makes the country what it is. In much simpler terms, if you ask me questions about Zambia in the future (and please do), expect to hear the phrase, “Honestly, I don’t know,” much more frequently.
The other side of this, I hope, is that I may help to dispel prejudices or stereotypes that others may hold by reminding them that there is no “single story” of Zambia (despite the all too prevalent one in some media sources). Instead, there are 17 million people, who, just like me and you, have their own character and life experiences, albeit with some overlap. (And, of course, the one billion people from the African continent are certainly not all the same, either.)
While I’m sure that I’m due more identity crises and bouts of homesickness, I am truly grateful to have the opportunity to study in the U.S. and specifically at CC. I believe that the value of my time here is not just my liberal arts education, but the perspective and thoughtfulness that comes from living in a place different from your home and interacting with people different from yourself. I hope, in return, I can renew the perspectives of others.