By Gerson Uaripi Tjihenuna
YESTERDAY on October 24, 2013 to be exact – the Republic of Zambia commemorated its 49th anniversary as an independent state.
For many young Namibians, Zambia is just another neighbouring African country, but for those of us who grew up under Apartheid colonial rule – and especially those of us who chose the hard road ‘less-travelled’ of freedom fighting and exile life – Zambia was a second home, away from home. It was a bastion of hope where we saw Africans determining their own destiny, while hosting freedom fighters from the neighbouring countries, which were still under white minority rule. Hosting freedom fighters while at the same time imposing economic sanctions against the Apartheid regime in Pretoria was no mean task for a landlocked developing country like Zambia. This attracted the wrath of the economic and military powerhouse in the sub-region – Apartheid South Africa. The economic loss that Zambia suffered for having taken a principled stand against the white minority regimes in Southern Africa – South Africa, Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) Mozambique and Angola that became liberated one by one over the course of time, amounted to billions of US dollars. Zambia’s economic development was negatively affected. Yet, despite all the odds, the warm-hearted and thousand times heroic people of Zambia received and hosted us with open arms, in the most brotherly African way. I have always wanted to find time to say thank you to the people of Zambia.
Two particular incidents which took place in September last year prompted me to no longer postpone my “thank you” note. The first event was a Christian conference, which was hosted in Windhoek by a dear pastor friend, Apostle Margret Mwale – originally from Zambia, but now based in Namibia in the first week of September 2012. The second event was the tragic passing on of Mama Betty Kaunda, the wife of Dr Kenneth Kaunda, the founding President of the Republic of Zambia. Pastors and gospel singers from Zambia attended this Christian conference. Sitting there and listening to these young Christian artists singing away in Bemba – one of the main local languages in Zambia – triggered my mind and took me down memory lane to the early eighties when I was studying at the then United Nations Institute for Namibia (UNIN) in Lusaka, Zambia (where our current Prime Minister Right Honourable Dr Hage Geingob was the Director). I could not help but remember Cairo Road, Lusaka’s main street.
I remember the young bus ‘callers’ at the main bus station, who direct passengers to mini-buses according to different destinations across the sprawling suburbs of Lusaka. These young fellows are a marvel to listen to as they do these announcements in style. They would go: “…Tuyende Chilenye-Chilimbulu-Kamwala-Kambwata…” Tuyende in Nyanja simply means ‘let’s go’ and the other words that follow are the names of the townships. These announcements are done in a repeated rhythm like a song until that particular mini-bus is full and the announcer or caller receives his tip from the driver. The announcer also competes with rival announcers and he therefore has to shout very hard so that passengers can hear him from far. I also remember Godfrey Chitalu, one of the most gifted midfield players (with a lethal left foot) Zambia has ever produced. Chitalu was later to coach the Zambian national team, which perished near Gabon in that ill-fated flight that crashed a few years ago. I had the privilege of meeting Godfrey Chitalu in person in Kabwe when he was playing for Kabwe Warriors in the 1980s. He died in that plane crash. In 2012 when Zambia won the African Cup of Nations, those of us who had lived in that great country as refugees were over the moon! After the passing on of Mama Betty Kaunda in 2012, both our Founding President, Dr Sam Nujoma, as well as the current President His Excellency Pohamba paid tribute to her. A moving article was also published in New Era on October 01, 2012 that paid tribute to her in very rich tones.
I believe I am the least qualified to pay any tribute to this great woman, a true daughter of the African soil, in the real sense of that word. All that I can say is that as we were growing up and becoming politically conscious, Kaunda was an icon and a symbol of African liberation. The history of Southern Africa cannot be complete without mentioning Kenneth Kaunda. However, Kenneth Kaunda had a strong pillar to lean on for moral support and counsel, the mother of the Zambian nation, Betty Kaunda. Rest in eternal peace Mama Betty! As Africans we have a tendency to think that we can only draw lessons from the West and I think that has something to do with the colonial hangover that we are still suffering from. What is it then that we as Namibians can learn from Zambia? Dr Kaunda, through his philosophy of humanism, instilled a strong sense of national consciousness in Zambians. This was, for example, done through the National Service programme where young Zambians were required to do voluntary national service after completing high school. During this period of national service, these young Zambians were immersed in national values and they were, for the most part, sent to regions other than the ones they were from. I have also been reliably informed that during the Kaunda era, civil servants were deliberately posted to areas where they did not come from in order to expose them to different cultures. The second factor that has contributed immensely to national unity is the usage of the Nyanja and Bemba languages as common languages, mainly in the Lusaka area and the Copper Belt Province respectively. Regardless of your ethnic background, when you live in the Lusaka area you have to speak Nyanja to be able to get around and the same applies to the usage of Bemba in the Copper Belt Province. It is interesting to note that most Zambians use these two languages without blinking an eye. In other words, when Zambians who are not native speakers of thee two languages communicate in these two languages it comes almost spontaneously. There is no feeling that the native speakers of these two languages are being done a favour or that those who are not native speakers are forced to do so. I think this goes to explain why marriages across ethnic lines are very common in Zambia and it is no longer an issue to write home about. Most Zambians regard themselves first and foremost as Zambians, rather than Ngonis or Bembas for example. The recent national elections in Zambia were also very interesting to watch. These elections were contested on policy issues only e.g. how to deal with poverty or what to do with the many Chinese traders who have flooded Zambia over the years. Ethnicity is not a major factor in the Zambian body politic and political parties mainly contest and win or lose elections on the basis of policy options. That is a sign of a democracy that has come of age. Last but not least, after the elections, former President Banda conceded defeat and shook hands with Sata as the incoming president and the heavens did not fall! For a sitting president to concede defeat to his/her political opponent in a peaceful manner is very rare on the African continent. The historic photo where former president Banda was shown shaking hands with Sata captured the imagination of many political observers both in Africa and abroad. It is high time that we as Namibians drew some valuable lessons from Zambia, especially in the areas of true nationhood and political tolerance and maturity. We do not always have to look to the West for lessons on democracy. Finally, I am not saying that there are no political or economic challenges in Zambia. Their problems are many, but ethnicity is no longer the determining factor in their national discourse and for that I salute the thousand times heroic people of Zambia! Happy Birth Day Zambia!
*Gerson Uaripi Tjihenuna is a senior lecturer in Labour Relations at the International University of Management (IUM). The views expressed in here are not those of the IUM but his own.