Culture Shock in Zambia

Zambia is sparely populated and most of the population lives in the capital, Lusaka, and the mineral-rich Copperbelt region. With around 72 different ethnic groups, Zambia is a multicultural society. Most of these groups are Bantu-speaking, although English is the official language of Zambia.

Expat coming from more developed countries are likely to experience a fair amount of culture shock in Zambia. For an inexperienced expat, in particular, the most profound adjustment will be to the poverty endemic to the country. 

Poverty in Zambia

Although the country’s economy has improved in recent years, much of Zambia’s infrastructure remains underdeveloped and expats may have to adjust to life without many of the luxuries they have back home. Many roads are not paved and power and water supplies can be unpredictable, even in Lusaka, where it is not uncommon to experience power blackouts; a generator is therefore essential for any expat's home.

The sharp contradictions between the haves and the have-nots are very noticeable in Zambia. Within a few miles, one can see the transition from rural mud huts and poor shanty towns to luxurious mansions and ostentatious shopping malls, with the obligatory luxury vehicles lined up outside. 

Time in Zambia

Expats living in Zambia will need to learn some patience when it comes to making arrangements and attending meetings or social engagements. Time is sometimes a vague concept in Zambia and Zambians often have a very relaxed attitude to punctuality. Meetings and social functions often start late and expats should not expect any apologies for tardiness.

Communicating in Zambia

English is the official language in Zambia and most expats will therefore not struggle with a language barrier. Nevertheless, those living in more rural areas of Zambia will likely encounter those who do not speak or understand English and they should take the time to learn some key phrases of the local dialect.

Zambians are quite formal and prefer to be addressed formally; greetings are extremely important and will be reciprocated. Politeness is highly respected in Zambian culture and requests after a person’s wellbeing are the typical start to a conversation, even in a service situation.

Public displays of affection are not common in Zambian social circles, and expats should try avoid such displays as they may cause embarrassment to their Zambian peers. Expats should note that homosexuality is illegal in Zambia, and offenders will face prosecution. However, Zambian men will often hold hands for the duration of a conversation. This is not suggestive, and simply a cultural equivalent of ‘look at me when you speak to me.’ 

The people of Zambia are renowned for being warm, charming and curious. Staring is common and the children will often greet white people with shouts of “mazungu, mazungu!” (white man).

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