The Kawacha: another perspective on cultural adjustments

The Kawacha is a Bemba word meaning the sound of light. With this being an autosynthistic word, it goes to express how the Bemba language, while not always considered a highly sophisticated and written modern language, achieves a deep meaning using its traditional tonal structure. Depending on how it is said it can mean kawacha for money, kawacha for when the street lights come on, or kawacha for when the sun is rising; all determined by the tone of the word. While this comes easily for a native language speaker, I have to rely mainly on the context of the conversation to have any idea what someone is referring to and yet I am often still left doubting if I know what’s going on.
When talking money or indalama, as we call it here, I like to abbreviate and call it kwach. The kwach in its easiest conversion is currently 10K to 1 USD currently. Which makes an easy enough conversion to readily grasp when for example determining and comparing how much a box of tampons would be in USD (expensive). The harder part is changing the value put to that dollar, yes the strict Peace Corps budget helps, but really adapting culturally to the kawacha is a mindset. It is simple to say “OMG this is only 5USD!” when in reality it is not; it is 50 kawacha. Something most Zambians earn then spend on 2 full days of work and living. To them that 50 kwacha is to their livelihood the equivalent of what the full 50 USD dollars would be in the US.
Adjusting doesn’t just involve getting over your jet lag, acclimating to the climate, stomaching the food, and learning how to haggle at the market in local language. Adjusting culturally requires time for deeper understanding. It involves understanding the purpose, history, and traditional meanings behind each set of actions.
When I still struggle to merely grasp the basics of a conversation, I am still only hitting the surface contexts and only years of practice would not even bring me to a level of grasping the entirety and complexity of a truly meaningful conversation. Even if I am a fluent speaker, I will never be able to obtain the depth of understanding that only comes with being born into an environment.

Fun fact: Kateka and Kateeka (typically spelled the same) can either mean rat or president- sometimes the same in American cultures. I confidently told my counterpart I was going to kill the president. His response was horrified, I repeated and changed my pronunciation and horror turned to cheering. Syllables are powerful. Learning a new language could prove treasonous.

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