The human desire to migrate is as instinctual as a bird’s. In search of a better, happier life, or to escape armed conflict, people will make a move. Many seek to experience what is “different” in order to open a greater range of possibilities and unlock their human potential.
I was never a rebellious teenager, but I was extremely curious about the “other.” Here, I use the word to generalize everything outside of my cultural experience: my environment, my school, and what my parents told me. My father was a very skillful traditionalist; his sons were to marry women from one particular region of Zambia because, according to him, that is where the best women came from. He wouldn’t say what was wrong with other women, but he skillfully drummed it into our little brains anyway. Alas, my first girlfriend was from the group he taught us about.
I realized as a teen that my worldview needed some serious shakeup. My geography classes helped expand my curiosity about other parts of our world that seemed far and different from mine. Geography helped me develop a new consciousness, and it led me to Carl Sagan, who said we must “see the Earth as a single organism.” And so, no place seemed too far away.
In 2001, I was granted a scholarship by the Norwegian government to attend the Oslo National Academy of the Arts. That year I flew for the very first time, but the bigger shock was at Oslo Airport: I barely saw another black person. I understood immediately that my sense of reality would be transformed forever. I just didn’t know how.
For me, Zambia and Norway were completely different. Consider “day” and “night,” which are easily defined in Zambia as periods of light and darkness. In Norway, things are more dependent on the wristwatch, less on the rising or setting of the sun—at least during the summer and winter months when part of the country gets either twenty-four or zero hours of daylight. Long winter night were by far my biggest challenge, to the point that every other potential problem was rendered insignificant. I settled in well.
But Norway is overwhelmingly white and so culturally different from Zambia—at least on the surface. I understood that my place in this racial monotony was going to provide both challenges and opportunities to grow as a human. I was conscious of potential racism but had already discovered an effective personal antidote: believe it or not, the color of my skin. I had learned early in school that pigment was simply the result of evolution, an innovation that allowed me to survive the hot sun in the land of my ancestors. Since this revelation, I’ve felt pity for those who assume otherwise.
I thrived within Norwegian society, though I have failed miserably at learning Norwegian. Luckily, English was the unofficial language of the academy and my third language. My education did not suffer. There were cultural misunderstandings, but nothing too serious.
Zambian and Scandinavian societies function quite differently, though much of Zambia’s administrative structure is the brainchild of our Western colonial past. Time management stood as a great source of conflict. I was accustomed to fluidity in appointment times, but soon realized I needed to adjust. 2 p.m. meant 2 p.m., not 2:30 or 3. In Zambia, being late for an appointment is no big deal, especially if you can explain yourself.
I remember receiving a phone call from a professor at what I took for an ungodly hour; he asked where I was because our photography class was about to start. I had been in bed dreaming away and asked my teacher in what I’m sure was a sleepy and somewhat angry voice to look out his window and tell me why he was calling me to attend a class in the middle of the night. He asked that I check my watch. It was 10 a.m. I leapt out of bed and was in class within thirty minutes. I learned fast that in the Norwegian winter, my craving for more sleep had a lot to do with a lack of vitamin D, in addition, of course, to the darkness.
I am not a fan of bureaucracy, especially one that barely functions, with officials who believe they are doing you a favor simply by serving you. I detest bad customer service. Here, Zambia and Norway are direct opposites. Every time I visited an office in Zambia—be it the passport office or police station—the person at the counter will behave as if you should be in awe of him. Things are very different in Norway, where the rules of customer service are better written.
In Zambia, conversing with strangers on a train or bus about the trending news, politics, sports, or complexities of life is not uncommon. In Norway, keeping to yourself is an unwritten rule, and one you are expected to know before arriving. When waiting for a bus, a person will consciously or unconsciously calculate the distance to keep between himself and the guy next to him.
At a typical Norwegian party, you sit, drink, and talk loudly while music plays. In Zambia, when you drink, you dance like there is no tomorrow. In Norway, you don’t buy rounds at the club with colleagues or even friends. It’s every man for himself. Even when invited to a party, you must bring your own alcohol—I learned that one the hard way. On a date, it’s normal for a woman to ask to pay her share. She will not judge you if you let her pay.
Arriving at the arts academy, I had to adjust to an academic environment where nothing was off limits. Any idea or opinion could be discussed and questioned. I had just come out of a three-year course in Zambia where lecturers and teachers were viewed as the fountain of all knowledge. Now imagine me coming into a school where students had a say in which professors to employ. My artistic ideas, beliefs on sexual orientation, religion, and everything else were never interrogated so intensely.
I had brought with me a naïve idea of what art was: art for art’s sake, a concept that I now consider utterly stupid. Frank Lloyd Wright had already labeled it “a philosophy of the well-fed.” My art needed to take a stand flush with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “fierce urgency of now.” Unless I produced art engaged in the present, I would not participate in helping better the human condition. I needed to research, read, engage and question everything and everybody, myself included. And so that is what I began to do.
What I became was one who retains a bit of Zambia, along with enculturated bits of Norway and the many parts of the world I have visited. I am a hybrid in how I perceive and deal with the world around me. Outside my home, I consider every action I take before I take it, every comment before I make it.
I’ve lived in Oslo now for seventeen years. Whenever I travel back to Zambia, I experience “cultural jet lag”—my thoughts and behaviors have changed so much through immersive experience that going back and forth demands periods of adjustment. During my first four years in Norway, this almost physical feeling when I traveled home bothered me a lot. It wasn’t until later that I realized so many others must feel the same thing, and that perhaps constant acculturation is what makes each of us human.
Victor Mutelekesha was born in 1976 in Chililabombwe, Zambia. He lives and works in Oslo, Norway. As an artist, his work deals with hybridity, diaspora, identity, and the human condition. He has received several work grants from Arts Council Norway, and in 2016–2017 he worked at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage as a Smithsonian Artist Research Fellow.