Jesus, the Presidents Club, and me…

This morning, I read two pieces of writing. The first was in my Bible – John chapter 4 – where Jesus meets a Samaritan woman. Jews and Samaritans didn’t mix and Jesus knew of her promiscuous life up to this point. However, he shows her the most stunning display of love and grace.

The second piece was by Madison Marriage, a Financial Times journalist. I’ll be honest: it ruined me. All day, my mind and heart have been plagued by confusing, angry thoughts about the story’s revelations. I’ve felt a deep, overwhelming sadness.

***

We expect better of ourselves, as 21st century, supposedly “enlightened” people. But the Bible wisely cautions against such self-confidence which, so often, leads to self-righteousness. It says: “The [human] heart is deceitful above all things; who can understand it?”

That said, it is right that we’re talking about some of these deep, societal wrongs. Truth be told, in the depths of my own heart, I see the potential for the same sexist and misogynistic attitudes displayed by the men at the Presidents Club. It’s a chilling thought and one I desperately wish wasn’t true.

***

I want to be like Jesus in every way. And the crazy thing is that the grace of John 4 is also on hand for me! Jesus not only acts as an inspiring example, he also gives me, as a Christian, everything I need to follow him right to the end.

So – read Madison’s piece. Weep that the world is this way. And then read John 4. And marvel at Jesus – a man like no other; the one who came to give those wronged, and those guilty of wrong, a fresh start with him.

Additional reading:

The dark light of The Presidents Club by Nick Spencer
The Incredible Testimony as a Former Gymnast Confronts Her Sexual Abuser in Court (video)

Advertisements

In Conversation … with Kayula Siame, PS Ministry of Commerce, Trade and Industry

I recently met with Mrs Kayula Siame, Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Commerce, Trade and Industry, to discuss industrial policy, promising sectors of the Zambian economy, and entrepreneurship. This is an abridged version of our conversation:

When you were appointed, you said that your policy priorities would be ‘industrialisation’ and ‘job creation’. How have you been implementing this vision since then?
There are several ways we as a ministry have been achieving this vision. We have a framework which provides the overall policy direction, and the sectors we’re looking at. One of the things we have done, and are still doing, is completing an industrial policy that we want to ensure can support the overall industrialisation strategy. What we had previously was one policy which covered three areas – Commercial, Trade, and Industry. We have since separated it into three areas which will stand alone. We believe this will give us more impetus as we move forward. We’ve also looked at other aspects of industrialisation that we need to zero into, in terms of sectors. One of the sectors we are looking at is the engineering sector, so through the Citizens’ Economic Empowerment Commission (CEEC), we have received some funds through the African Development Bank, so we are setting up what we’re calling industrial yards in the provinces of Zambia, and this will help the light engineering sector, for people to have a place where they can work tools, and also shared facilities for them to be able to undertake other related activities.

Is the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC) right at the centre of this industrialisation policy?
Industrial policy is driven by the Ministry of Commerce. We’re doing the industrial policy. The IDC is a government body that’s supposed to mainly look at the parastatals, and ensure that they can contribute to industrialisation by becoming more efficient, and more commercially viable. The IDC derives its policy from the industrial policy and from the Ministry of Commerce.

You mentioned the light engineering sector – what other sectors of the economy provide the greatest promise, in your view?
Well, I think there are about three. First, agro-processing. If you look at value-addition to the food we grow, the different crops, vegetables, fruits, and so on, we believe that agro-processing is very critical. If you look at the value chain, it provides quite a number of jobs from the farmers who are producing, and then the processors, and then the distributors, and of course, overall, into the market. Second, we have also identified the tourism sector, and third the pharmaceutical sector. These three sectors are mirroring what we’re doing at the SADC [Southern African Development Community] level where we also have a region-wide industrialisation strategy. And then, of course, there’s talk of mineral beneficiation. When we talk of diversifying the minerals sector, we often focus on copper. But there are other minerals that we can add value to, so those are the ones that we’re also concentrating on.

All this talk of diversification – why do you think we haven’t done all this up to now?
Well, that’s a good question we’ve been asking ourselves because we’ve talked of diversification since 1964 – more than 50 years! Well, I guess there are a number of factors. One could be that because we’re still very dependent on copper, moving away from that has been a slow process. It’s one that requires a lot of effort from the different arms of government, the different ministries, and the different sectors – they all need to think alike. I think our 7th National Development Plan, which takes a more integrated approach to development, will facilitate that because most of the time you have ministries doing their own thing and not really having a platform from which to work together.

What are some of the challenges you’ve experienced in trying to drive this change, and what are some of the challenges you anticipate?
Well, some of the challenges of course are on the policy and legal level, but those are easy to change. And then there are others which are a bit more difficult – for example, the ones dealing with skills development mainly because they are long term. And then you need to have the financing, which is the biggest challenge because to industrialise, you need to invest financially in the change, you need to pour money into new sectors, new industries, and so on and so forth. How to finance the industrialisation drive has been the biggest challenge because government doesn’t have sufficient resources to do that, so it’s meant that we’ve had to seek private sector buy-in. We’ve said ‘Look! As an economy, we’ve said it is the private sector who will drive it, so government is only creating the environment and the policies, but the actual implementation has to be done by the private sector.’ It is the private sector who will create the jobs, not government. So getting that full understanding with the private sector, so that they see that they have a very prominent role to play, has been a bit of a challenge because everyone just says, ‘No, what is government doing, what is government doing?’, but it has to be done in partnership.

Can you give me one or two examples where you’re trying to encourage the private sector to see that they have a part to play in this industrialisation process?
Well, if you look at the sub-sectors within the overall industrialisation strategy, government developed a strategy for the leather sector and said to the private sector, ‘Look, this is what we feel should be put in place, and this is how we should move forward together.’ So, government did its part now it’s up to the businesses in the leather industry to look and see how, within the overall strategy, they can move on from leather products and rawhide into creating shoes and other finished products. At times, some business people have said, ‘We want to increase shoe production, but we don’t have the funds to do it, so where do we get the money?’ And we have said ‘Right, where are the available funds? We have the Citizens’ Economic Empowerment Commission, but what we have there is not enough.’ Then they might say, ‘what about other finance institutions that can provide financing?’ Then some will say, ‘I have the shoes but I don’t know where to sell them; I don’t have a market,’ then we’ll say, ‘Fine, what we need to do is ensure that we have a market within COMESA [the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa]’, and now we’re talking about the East and Southern African Tripartite Free Trade Area – about 26 countries – where we will have a market, so we’re looking at that side of things so that once the shoes are done, if the production capacity is more than what’s required in Zambia, then they can export. And then at the same time, there are others who will say, ‘I have the shoes, but the quality is not to a very high standard,’ then that’s when we bring our other institutions like the Zambia Bureau of Standards that looks at quality, and so on, to help them move forward. Also, we bring in other institutions like the Leather Institute based in Ethiopia for technical assistance and technical support so they can look at the product design right through to the time it’s ready to sell.

We talk about SMEs as the drivers of future economic growth. But we can’t ignore the informal sector. What ideas do you have about how we formalise the informal sector?
Yes, we’ve had a discussion with UNDP [the United Nations Development Program] and set about examining who the people in the informal sector actually are, because very often we talk about them without knowing who they are. We agreed that we would set up a simplified registration system – as a pilot – to register them. We’ll be doing this in Livingstone and Lusaka to get to know them, to have a database, and then through that database, be able to say why are they in the informal sector, what they sell, why they sell what they sell, and then try and seek how to move towards being formalised. With PACRA [the Patents and Companies Registration Agency] we have also tried to simplify the registration process so that those who can do it on their own will automatically go there and register their businesses.

In your view, what three things do Zambians need to do to harness the commercial opportunities that exist in the country?
I think first of all we need to understand and agree that the opportunities are there in Zambia, and not concentrate on the foreigners who come and see those opportunities. So instead of spending our energy saying, ‘why are these people coming, they shouldn’t come’, the question should be, ‘where are the opportunities and how can we utilise them?’ For us as a Ministry of Commerce, when you talk of entrepreneurship and so on, we are the starting point for all that, so we believe that potential entrepreneurs and investors should come to us and find out where some of the opportunities are. We have the Zambia Development Agency (ZDA) that looks at various opportunities and is able to identify where those opportunities are. The ZDA also has a registration process with Small and Medium Enterprises for registration purposes, so to assist and provide some of the support that is required. So, I believe if we could do that, I think it would help. I think secondly also, we need to be more positive. I think we need a change of attitude. For me I think, it’s the biggest thing. We need to change our mindsets and our attitudes in terms of the way we approach things and start to believe in ourselves, so that we can start businesses and we ourselves can also make the money, and be our own producers and employers, because I think most of the time a lot of people don’t really believe in these things, so some of it is an attitude mindset that needs to be looked at. Also, people need to have the patience because most want to get into business today, make 100% profit the very next day, but it doesn’t happen because it takes time to grow your business.

Author:
Chipo Muwowo is a freelance journalist writing about economics and business investment in Southern Africa, focusing specifically on Zambia. 

 

My Top 20 Reads of 2017

This year, I’ve read hundreds of articles, covering a wide range of themes all linked in some way to global current affairs – from investment and economics, to politics and philosophy. Here’s a list of my top 20 reads of 2017. Enjoy!

Why I left my liberal London tribe, by David Goodhart (FT Weekend Life & Arts) *paywall*
“The value divides in British society that led to Brexit, and may now break up the United Kingdom, stem from the emergence in the past generation of two big value clusters: the educated, mobile people who see the world from “Anywhere” and who value autonomy and fluidity, versus the more rooted, generally less well-educated people who see the world from “Somewhere” and prioritise group attachments and security. There are many subdivisions within both groups, of course, as well as a large “inbetweener” group. Anywheres tend to be more mobile than Somewheres, their careers often sucking them into London for a period. Yet more than 60 per cent of British people still live within 20 miles of where they lived when aged 14.”

From Netflix to rented homes, why are we less interested in ownership?, by Ian Leslie (The New Statesman)
“The Pay-go economy is changing our relationships with each other and with ourselves. Possessions form part of what the marketing academic Russell Belk calls “the extended self”. In Daniel Miller’s book, he describes how objects, however trivial, can embody relationships. Each household’s collection of stuff – tacky souvenirs, CDs we borrowed and never gave back – forms a constellation of personal significance. Post-materialism does not equate with spiritual enrichment. Usually the closer our relationships with objects, the closer our relationships are with people.”

Scandalized Reading, by Jessica Hooten Wilson (Fathom Mag)
“The majority of Christians […] read many more self-help and Christian living books than literature. But if we look at the example of the Son of God himself, we don’t see him speaking on how to make friends and influence people or seven methods of effective discipleship. Rather, he made his ministry about telling stories and living as the hero of a true story. Christ is the Word. The Bible is a story. If Christians are not reading stories, they are neglecting one of the charges of the gospel.”

Overcoming Your Demons, by Morgan Housel (Collaborative Fund blog)
“Stuttering seems uncommon [because] most stutterers don’t talk much. Silence is the perfect disguise. The clenched jaw, the contorted face, the awkward rapid repetitions of sounds as you struggle through words – veteran stutterers will move mountains to avoid these situations, and they’re easily avoided by not talking.”

Artificial intelligence: Silicon Valley’s new deity, by Leslie Hook (FT Magazine) *paywall*
“The quest for immortality is […] taken seriously in the Bay Area, partly because a number of billionaires are investing heavily in research to extend their own lives. Most of the focus is on the question of how to accomplish this (ideas include cloning yourself, then using the blood of the younger clone to nourish your older body). But few discuss the spiritual implications of these projects. If the technology we create surpasses us in intelligence, does it ever have a soul? And if humans live for a very long time, or indeed for ever, do they ever become gods?”

No more water for water-carrier, by Alex Magaisa (The Big Saturday Read blog)
“Mnangagwa doesn’t seem to have the courage to walk away. He is probably waiting for Mugabe to pronounce direct judgment upon him. There is no culture of resigning in [Zimbabwe’s] ZANU PF. Those on the gravy train do not like stepping off. They do not know how to survive outside the party. They are scared of life outside ZANU PF, a fact that Mnangagwa himself has preached before at political rallies.”

How ‘no deal’ could bring Britain to a halt, by Chris Giles (The Financial Times) *paywall*
“David Davis, the UK’s Brexit secretary, has expressed confidence that Britain will strike a deal with the EU which would provide a smooth path to new arrangements with Brussels rather than a disruptive change. However, a no deal scenario would be disruptive because of the laws governing Britain’s relationship with the EU would cease immediately. “Calling it a legal vacuum would be underplaying where we would be,” says Malcolm Barr, economist at JPMorgan. “I think there would be a significant contraction in GDP.””

Syria: a tale of three cities, by Erika Solomon (FT Magazine) *paywall*
“In Assad’s Syria, people are not only divided from the rest of the country, but from within. The war is not yet over, but his presumed victory has sparked fresh reflections on the fight. What did it mean? How will people heal? Can they even come together again? Across the country, you hear a constant exchange of stories about suffering, loss and survival – a national currency for a society grappling with incomprehensible change.”

China missionaries seek converts along the Belt and Road, by Tom Hancock (The Financial Times) *paywall*
“Beijing’s Zion church is one of dozens in the country to have sent missionaries overseas, as evangelical Christians follow their country’s huge infrastructure push into Southeast Asia and the Middle East, creating a dilemma for the officially atheist Communist party. There are about 1,000 Chinese missionaries outside the country, compared with virtually none a decade ago, according to churches and academics. Church leaders hope to increase their number to 20,000 by the end of the next decade. Those leaders say missionary activity is a natural extension of China’s Protestant movement, which has grown rapidly in recent decades and now numbers about 100m.”

To Understand ‘Brexit,’ Look to Britain’s Tabloids, by Katrin Bennhold (The New York Times)
“The campaign was marked by a relentless drip of anti-immigration rhetoric and a couple of big lies that stuck: the 350 million pounds (about $450 million at current rates) that Britain paid to the European Union every week (false) and the prospect of millions of Turks’ making their way to Britain if it stayed in the union (Turkey is not joining the bloc). Two years ago, the United Nations urged Britain to deal with hate speech in its newspapers, specifically citing a column in The Sun that compared migrants to cockroaches and the norovirus. The tabloids say they merely reflect the concerns and fears of their readers. But their critics say they poison the debate by playing to people’s worst instincts and prejudices, distorting facts and creating a propaganda ramp that mainstreams intolerance and shapes policy.”

What kind of liberal society do we want? by Tim Farron (Theos Think Tank blog)
“If you say you favour diversity and pluralism, then you must oppose all attempts at assimilation and forced conformity.  You may like the idea that people will think the same as you, but you must not aim to build a society where you engineer that via legal or social pressure.  And it is especially on this latter point that liberalism is at risk.”

George Osborne’s revenge, by Ed Caesar (Esquire)
“At a little after 6.30, nearly every weekday morning, George Osborne — 46 years old, tall, rich, boyish, tieless — takes the bus from Notting Hill in west London, where he lives, to Kensington High Street, where he works, orders his breakfast to take away from Leon, arrives at the marbled and airy headquarters of the London Evening Standard, takes the lift to the second floor, enters his corner office, and sets about destroying his political enemies.”

Eat, pray, live: The Lagos megachurches building their own cities, by Ruth MacLean (The Guardian)
“Throughout southern Nigeria, the landscape is permeated by Christianity of one kind or another. Billboards showing couples staring lovingly into each other’s eyes, which appear at first glance to be advertising clothes or condoms, turn out to be for a pentecostal church. Taxi drivers play knock-off CDs of their favourite pastor’s sermons on repeat, memorising salient lines. “I’m a Winner,” read the bumper stickers that adorn the fancier cars, declaring their owners’ allegiance to Winners’ Chapel, a grand white megachurch whose base, Canaanland in the Ota region, is all neat fences and manicured lawns. “Where I’m from, people long for tractors to farm with. Here they just use them to cut grass,” exclaims one visitor, driving through Heaven’s Gate. It is a world away from the throng of people, fumes and rubbish outside.”

Who’s afraid of a secular state? by Nick Spencer (Theos Think Tank blog)
“Secularist countries are rarely happy ones; or, more precisely, rarely happy with being secular. The ideological bloodlessness that is its greatest strength is also secularism’s biggest weakness. Fighting for equal fairness for all makes a great street banner. Human nature finds it a harder task. Those of a more naïve humanist bent, whose anthropology recognises only human goodness and dismisses selfishness as skin deep and cultural, often protest at this, but history is not on their side. Humans are tribal animals. They have strong identities. They are not animals instinctively inclined to arbitrate objectively between tribes or to fight for the rights of other tribal members. We can and we do, but it can often feel like hauling yourself up by your moral bootstraps. We are not naturally secular and, as a result, secular societies often struggle with simmering identity issues.”

Why religion is not going away and science will not destroy it, by Peter Harrison (Aeon blog)
“Global secularisation is not inevitable and, when it does happen, it is not caused by science. Further, when the attempt is made to use science to advance secularism, the results can damage science. The thesis that ‘science causes secularisation’ simply fails the empirical test, and enlisting science as an instrument of secularisation turns out to be poor strategy. The science and secularism pairing is so awkward that it raises the question: why did anyone think otherwise?”

Zambia: Lungu’s state capture is so complete he barely needs to pretend, by Sishuwa Sishuwa (African Arguments blog)
“Lungu has many political and business figures around him, many of whom were marginalised under the late President Sata but have flourished under the new president. This group feels its time in the corridors of power has been too brief thus far and wants more time to accumulate through the state. They can see clearly how those they replaced are now languishing. Senior government and ruling party figures say that this circle has captured virtually all state institutions. The term “state capture” is topical in South Africa, but applies fully to the situation in Zambia too.”

Reflections on the Ten Attributes of Great Investors
, by Michael J. Mauboussin, Dan Callahan, and Darius Majd (Credit Suisse)
“We all walk around with views of the world that we believe are correct. You are compelled to change your mind only when you confront reality that disconfirms your beliefs. The easiest way to avoid the sensation of being wrong is to fall for the confirmation bias. With confirmation bias, you seek information that confirms your view and interpret ambiguous information in a way that is favorable to your belief. Consistency allows you to stop thinking about an issue and to avoid change as a consequence of reason. But great investors do two things that most of us do not. They seek information or views that are different than their own and they update their beliefs when the evidence suggests they should. Neither task is easy.”

How to read Financial News, Morgan Housel (Collaborative Fund blog)
“Every piece of financial news you read should be filtered by asking the question, “Will I still care about this in a year? Five years? Ten years?” The goal of information should be to help you make better decisions between now and the end of your ultimate goals. Read old news and you’ll quickly see that the life expectancy of your goals is higher than that of the vast majority of headlines.”

Protect Africans from unscrupulous auditors, by Jude Fejokwu (The Africa Report)
“Auditors are paid by their clients, but the investing public is meant to believe that audited financial statements meet the required standards of honesty and transparency. History tells us, however, that audit firms’ first loyalty is to the paying client. Africa needs better auditors if its stock exchanges are to become developed markets, attracting substantive local investment.”

The Four Fundamental Skills of All Investing, by Morgan Housel (Collaborative Fund blog)
“If investing were only about numbers, no one would be good at it, because computers would arbitrage away all opportunities. And if it were only about psychology, no one would be good at it, because every investor has different, arbitrary, goals and markets would never coalesce around something objective. Good investing is some part analytical and some part psychological. An art and a science. The trick is knowing when which skill is necessary, and how one affects the other.”

That’s it!

Have a wonderful Christmas and best wishes for the New Year!

Chipo.

13 Things I Learned About Small & Medium Enterprises in Zambia

By Chipo Muwowo

I spent last week in Zambia’s capital, Lusaka, carrying out research for a magazine piece I’m writing on the state of SME (Small and Medium Enterprises) funding in the country – the challenges, opportunities, and subtleties. I conducted a series of interviews, and enjoyed numerous off-the-cuff conversations. Here are 13 things I learned:

1. The opportunity for strong returns on investment in Zambia is huge. As one interviewee said: “Where aren’t there opportunities?”

2. The potential to have a strong social impact is also massive. Whatever industry you choose to enter, you’ll quickly spot ways in which business can uplift people’s lives.

3. If one is building a business for growth/scale, the opportunity to establish and/or drive a whole industry forward is significant.

4. The emerging tech industry needs to solve local problems and not get sucked into Silicon Valley’s “an app for everything” culture, which often tries to solve problems people aren’t really facing.

5. For venture capital (VC) and private equity (PE) investors, it’s not actually that easy to identify solid local businesses to invest in. 

6. Type of SME funding is just as important as the funding itself. No one-size-fits-all.

7. Mindsets need to change. Zambians need to start creating businesses that look beyond survival. The country needs homegrown businesses that last and have scale.

8. Upcoming businessmen and women are in desperate need of mentors. On the other hand, a lot of mentors need to be guided on how to mentor.

9. The country needs people of goodwill (Zambians and non-Zambians, but especially Zambians) to return with their global training and expertise.

10. If a company is seeking VC/PE investment, Zambia probably won’t be a big enough market. Such investors seek aggressive growth so these businesses will need to look out to regional markets like SADC and COMESA. However, such growth will take time. (see point 7)

11. Government policymaking needs to look beyond the election cycle and the country’s current over-reliance on multinationals. Neither are sustainable in the long-run. One interviewee told me that currently, 240 multinationals generate 80% of the country’s GDP. That’s staggering. Zambians don’t own their economy. 

12. SMEs (especially in the manufacturing sector) are not being given the space to breathe. They need similar benefits to multinationals (e.g. tax holidays, etc) to begin to grow.

13. The informal sector problem (“How do we formalise the informal sector and generate tax revenues from it?”) is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon because it’s primarily a political issue. Those in the informal sector are many and they are voters.

I had formal interviews with:
– Mafipe Chunga, Senior Manager, Deal Advisory, KPMG Zambia
– Lukonga Lindunda and Simunza Muyangana, Co-Directors, Bongo Hive (tech hub)
– Kayula Siame, Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Commerce Trade and Industry
– Tembwe Mutungu, Partner, Oakfield Holdings (majority shareholder in Yalelo Fisheries)
– Noel Nkoma, CEO and Founder, Betternow Finance Company 
– Monica Musonda, CEO and Founder, Java Foods

Author:
Chipo Muwowo is a freelance journalist writing about economics and business investment in Southern Africa, focusing specifically on Zambia.  

“The Peaceful Nation” – Zambia’s Most Common Story About Itself (a reflection)

Every nation on earth has a set of stories about itself that it tells itself. These tales are passed down from generation to generation through food, music, and art, as well as through government-led social, economic, and foreign policies. From America’s “Land of the Free, Home of the Brave” to South Africa’s “Rainbow Nation”, these national narratives deepen the people’s sense of identity and belonging, and they set clear markers which distinguish them from other nations. Often, these stories are rooted in some historical event: a victorious war, or some widely celebrated invention. They can also be rooted in a person (some national hero), a key natural resource, or the physical landscape.

Zambia, my homeland, has its own set of stories. Perhaps the most common is “the peaceful nation” narrative. The idea of Zambia as an inherently “peaceful” place is one we have truly internalised – it’s what we believe we are at our core. The narrative isn’t just aspirational, it even informs public policy. Zambia as a “peaceful nation” is something we try to protect at home and sell to investors abroad.

But when last did we pause to reflect on how this idea squares up with day-to-day reality? Is it possible for “peace” in Zambia to mean so much more than just the absence of armed conflict? And who benefits and who loses out from this narrative as we have it today?

Zambia as a ‘haven of peace’ is an idea that has a lot of weight behind it.

Zambians are among the warmest and friendliest people anywhere on earth. We’ve never experienced civil war despite our rich cultural diversity. And during Southern Africa’s fights for independence, many liberation leaders from across the region were exiled to Zambia. This role cost us greatly. We literally took bullets (bombs, too) for our neighbours and the toll on our economy and way of life was considerable. Even as recently as the mid-1990s, Zambia was still acting as an important regional player in trying to bring an end to the armed conflicts in Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire).

But while this evidence supports “the peaceful nation” narrative, other evidence doesn’t.

Over the years we have taken these noble acts of peace-building and stretched them. “Protecting the peace we’ve enjoyed since Independence” is a well-worn phrase used by successive governments to quell debate and dissent.

What’s so peaceful about that?

And what’s peaceful about economic injustice? Corruption? A crumbling education system? Desperately poor public health infrastructure?

Most Zambians face unthinkable injustices every single day. Would they happily agree that being part of “the peaceful nation” of Zambia has served them well over the years? “Peace” is not just the absence of armed conflict, it’s so much more than that.

The prolonged absence of armed conflict is a wonderful thing, something we should be so thankful for. But I refuse to settle for “peace” in the way that the politicians tell me to – by keeping quiet and agreeing to be told what to think. Ben Okri, the Nigerian writer, says:

‘If nations tell themselves stories that are lies, they will suffer the future consequences of those lies. If they tell themselves stories that face reality, they will free their histories for future flowerings.’

We have a choice; to celebrate and build upon what is true about Zambia’s “peace” narrative but also to face down the lies. Learning to share together in our nation’s diversity – its traditional ceremonies, food, music, art, languages, politics – provides us with a much better chance of holding together than empty, recycled rhetoric ever will.

© Chipo Muwowo, July 2017.

Cover image by Gary Bernard, Getty Images.

Kaunda on human nature and my own thoughts on ‘Shalom’…

Kenneth Kaunda (affectionately known as ‘KK’) was Zambia’s first President. I’m currently reading a book he wrote in 1980 called Kaunda on Violence. In it, he wrestles deeply with the idea of peaceful protest in the face of violent oppression. As one of the key leaders of Zambia’s independence movement against minority British rule, the consequences of his thought processes and eventual actions were all to real – for the movement but also for the future independent country he hoped to lead.

KK is an intellectual and a pragmatist. In the book, he does history, political theory, philosophy and theology. He concludes that pacifism, though often viewed as a non-violent act, can in fact lead to violent consequences with those it aims to protect actually getting hurt. He comes to the view that the violence of war is necessary and acceptable some of the time. The deep and difficult questions he asks about motives and consequences often focus on himself; he’s very aware of his own propensity to do violence and explain it away. But of ours too.

This reality exists all of the time regardless of which side we’re on in any political argument. This is one thing we’re truly all in together. In the two paragraphs below, KK offers piercing analysis of the human condition. I’ve paraphrased some sentences to make them more easily understandable:

I am not suggesting that the tactics of violence and those of non-violence [e.g. sanctions] are indistinguishable. Nor do I think that because a revolutionary act will inevitably harm somebody, it doesn’t matter if we do harm indiscriminately. I seek only to dispel the illusion of innocence, for no fanaticism is so dangerous in politics as that which assumes inherent human goodness.

[…]

By all means we need those who bring to bear upon Southern Africa’s problems qualities of idealism and courage but they must be yoked in double harness with a healthy scepticism, close observation of human affairs and above all, a deep understanding of the dark forces at work in one’s own heart. For we ourselves are part of the battlefield on which great issues are being fought out.

Wow. A healthy scepticism? Dark forces in one’s own heart? This is deep. It’s uncomfortable!

KK wrote this nearly 40 years ago but it still rings true today; painfully so. It’s so hard for us to zoom out and look at ourselves with the honest clarity he presents here. Doing so would be unbearable and greatly disconcerting. Nobody wants to do it – I don’t. But it’s reality.

It seems we’re incapable of living out our greatest and highest ideals. A big part of the problem is that we’re blind to our own smugness and pride and our natural inclination for folly. Yes, we occasionally surprise ourselves by turning things the right way up but that’s not the normal day-to-day human experience. We don’t have to look far to see that this is true.

We’re saddled with a great weight that can’t be shaken off, like a millstone around our necks. We’re shackled and our attempts to break free prove fruitless. We long for the permanent quenching of our arid souls. There’s a constant, resolute, even desperate striving to do better but enslavement to pride and vain glory derail us just when we think we’ve got going. We totally get the Apostle Paul when he says, For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.”

If we’re honest, to live life in this world is enslavement not freedom, emptiness not joy, brokenness not healing. But then the prophet Isaiah speaks of one who has come, and will come again, a Messiah who will bring freedom and healing like we’ve never felt before, joy like we’ve never tasted before. Isaiah says:

The wolf will live with the lamb,
    the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
    and a little child will lead them.
  The cow will feed with the bear,
    their young will lie down together,
    and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
  The infant will play near the cobra’s den,
    and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.
  They will neither harm nor destroy
    on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord
    as the waters cover the sea.

They will neither harm nor destroy” – this is peace forever! Our propensity for folly will be righted, our failings forgotten, our thirst quenched by rivers that will never dry up, and behold, our future: one of feasting with others in brotherly love, sharing the finest foods and wine, and worshipping the one who made it all possible for us. We, his children, we who have said Sorry, Thank you, Please, will toast the Death of Death, toast the Death of Hate, toast the Death of Folly…forever!

This is what I’m holding out for.

True peace.

Shalom.

For the month of May, I’ve become a Daily Mail reader #FightTheEchoChamber

Since the start of May, I’ve been doing something I’ve never done before: I’ve been buying and reading the Daily Mail newspaper once a week. I plan to continue doing this for the rest of the month.

“Why?” you’re probably asking.

Well, the idea popped into my head a few weeks ago as I was reading a very different newspaper and my regular, the FT Weekend. As I sat there reading, I thought:

“This is nice. This is safe. What would rattle, even anger me, if I read it right now?”

“The Daily Mail,” came the reply!

I can’t stand most of what is printed in the Daily Mail but it’s popular – it’s Britain’s second most-read print publication after The Sun. Its website is the most popular English-language news site in the world. Whether I like it or not, many people I live close to, share the bus with, worship alongside, read it regularly – zealously, even.

I started to imagine the reasons for its popularity. Did people genuinely read it for its news? Are people really that obsessed with celebrity gossip, including the over 65s, the largest group of regular readers (45%)? Did readers enjoy being shouted at by Editor Paul Dacre through his headlines? How did they process the scaremongering, the hyperbole, the poison? I was intrigued.

It’s clear that all these questions reflect my negative view of the Daily Mail. And while I believe that a lot of my cynicism is justified, I remained curious about the paper and the people who read it. So, if you’re a regular reader of the Daily Mail, I’d really love to hear your thoughts. It would be refreshing to hear a positive case for the newspaper. And I hope it goes without saying: I’ll treat you with the utmost respect.

***

People read newspapers that express their worldview. Newspapers (which are consumer products at the end of the day) give readers pleasure and enjoyment, not just information. Often, this comes in the form of reinforcing ideas they already hold. And I’m no different. I enjoy the FT Weekend because of its centrist, internationalist, and pro-market stance. Among Britain’s newspapers, it comes the closest to representing where I’m at. But not just that: the FT does journalism well. Each issue of the weekend edition includes well-written, fascinating, and educative pieces from this country and elsewhere covering an array of themes: business, politics, technology, culture, and the arts. As a budding journalist, it’s a great source of inspiration.

Now regardless of the FT’s virtues, I read it because I (largely) agree with it and it (largely) agrees with me. Regardless of how right its/my ideas are, the FT and I have an “echo chamber” thing going on. In any democratic dispensation, and especially in the political environment we find ourselves in, this is problematic.

The political climate is so polarised, toxic even, that many of us aren’t hearing alternative voices. Not because all viewpoints are equally valid – no! But the people making those points are. They have an inherent and permanent worth that no one can take away. They are fellow citizens and they deserve to be heard. Yes, even Donald Trump!

His rise and the rise of other right-wing populists has taken us into new political territory – at least since the Second World War. In all this, it’s become painfully clear that we don’t know each other as well as we thought. The anger and bitterness is making us talk past each other like ships in the night. Harvard Professor Michael Sandel calls this “the lost art of democratic debate.

Recently, I was reflecting on this “echo chamber” phenomenon in my own life. As I’ve already said, I too have been living in a silo, not regularly encountering views that were odious to me, unwilling to step outside and view the world from the point of view of the other. I wrote:

“It feels like my daily life is one safe space. There’s very little to shock, to surprise, to disagree with. There’s hardly any room for the little Englander, the communist, the extreme liberal. If I’m honest, I spend most days cleaning, tidying, shining, and polishing my preconceived ideas like a chambermaid. An echo chambermaid.”

Regardless of your political persuasion, you’re most probably guilty of this too. We must all own up to it.

***

Glen Scrivener, a Christian evangelist and writer, observes: “The big problem with the world, according to the Bible, is not so much people doing wrong. It’s people who think that they are right. And if you are right, then everyone else has got to be wrong.”

One of the reasons for doing this project was to keep my own smugness and pride in check. In the current climate, I believe that we need to be willing to cross the aisle and try to see the world from the point of view of the other. That simple action is humbling.

But it’s also costly. One of the reasons for deciding to buy the paper and not just read it online or in a café was that I wanted to feel a bit of pain in all of this. I wanted it to cost me in a small way – and I don’t just mean £0.65 each week. Trying to see the world from the point of view of the other is painful.

With each issue I read, I’m looking for stories that are thought-provoking, interesting/informative, and weird. I’ll write something about the whole experience at the end of the month. In the mean time, I’ll be tweeting about it so do follow me!

And if you’re normally a Daily Mail reader, maybe pick up The Guardian tomorrow! Let me know how it goes 😉