Webby Phiri is a participant of the 2017 YALI Mandela Washington Fellowship at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He shares some of his reflections on his time in the U.S. including answers to the ever so prevalent question, “What do you think is different between here and Africa?”
After traveling on my longest trip, and recovering from a draining first jet lag experience, I was frying a brown colored egg which I had bought from a nearby grocer. I am not a great cook, so the egg was a celebrated accomplishment before “buzzzzzzzzz!!!!!” the fire alarm went off. I panicked in surprise and did not know what to do next!
I stayed on the 8th floor of the Statesider apartment, right in the heart of Madison, along State Street. I thought of Madison as a peaceful and wonderful place, perhaps symbolically similar to the context of my rural district which is near a bigger town, Kafue, and a little further the greater city of Lusaka. Kafue would perhaps be Milwaukee and Lusaka would be Chicago.
So it felt as if I was living in a familiar world that was very different. A few days had passed since my fire alarm incident. The girls on the floor below us had an even louder alarm that called the firemen to visit. One evening while taking my shower, the alarm went off again, just when I had soap on my face! Steam alarm? “Oh God!” I protested as I reached out for the stop button that I had thankfully figured out.
“What do you think is different between here and Africa?” was definitely the most frequent question I got. I still did not fully figure out the answer until I met Kai Williams, an astoundingly smart eleven year old grandchild of Steve and Jane who had invited the Mandela Washington Fellows to a wonderful Saturday picnic at their beautiful home in a lovely neighbourhood.
“If-Then-Unless, it is the basic principle of robotics,” Kai enthusiastically explained to me. I was impressed with the young scientific and curious mind of his. The memories of gadgets I had built as a kid flooded me – automatic rulers, water purifiers and an electrolysis cell. Kai and I even discussed why I could not get my Picture Watch paper winder to create motion pictures, something about speed of gears and speed of light, probabilities and fractions of a second.
I particularly enjoyed the lunch because the food tasted ‘organic’. Well, that would be my recall of the taste of food at home. Organic food in the USA, were more costly than the other regular food. We would later visit a grass fed beef ranch, and a dairy farm that had some cows producing organic milk. Organic food back home is more common and so affordable that most diets are more organic. Many people still grow some of their food, including myself only until I moved to an area where my garden is constantly raided by monkeys.
“Aha!” That was it, the answer to the question, what I profoundly found different between Zambia and the USA. The reliance on technology in the USA and the diet. Technology seemed to control everything. Kai’s words fired up in my mind, ‘If-Then-Unless’. (IF) The light goes green, (THEN) cross the road, (UNLESS) there is a car coming. That is why those alarms buzzed off!
So, back home, we use less technology, and have more organic food, in contrast to the US. As we wound down our chat and meal with Kai, I realised what my answer to the ‘difference question’ would be. I concluded that we are cultures more less striving towards each other! (If) we all do our best together (Then) better will always be better for both our cultures and ways of life (Unless? – Well, there is nothing to stop us).