“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.

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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.

An Echo Chambermaid

Openness is a virtue. This is our belief.

For progress to take place, for fresh ideas to flourish, for peace to reign, minds must be open. This is our creed.

The ability to look at the world from the point of view of Another is one of life’s greatest goods, so the liberal liturgical texts say.

I’m open-minded. Open to people of different colours, cultures, shapes and sizes. But open to what exactly?

Open to their right to exist? Yes.
Open to them enjoying life’s freedoms? Broadly, yes.
Open to them upending my life and ideas? If I’m honest, probably not!

The ability to look at the world from the point of view of Another is good and right. But what if I don’t like what I see?

I honestly can’t tell you when I last listened to a radio station, read a newspaper, attended a conference or festival that didn’t reinforce some idea I already held; or even made me feel surprised and vulnerable.

The ability to look at the world from the point view of Another is good and right. But do I really do it?

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.

Why I Write and Lessons from Five Years of Blogging

This blog post is based on a talk I recently gave to a small group of people from my local church. It was part of an event we run for those in their 20s and 30s. The event is based loosely on the TED Talks format. Each speaker seeks to challenge and encourage those listening to learn something new: a practical skill or some piece of knowledge. We believe that God is Lord over all Creation therefore he doesn’t look down on bike fixing, or gardening, or even writing. In fact, he cares about these things. The big aim of my talk was to encourage my listeners to begin to take the first steps towards writing publicly. I did this by sharing some of the lessons I’ve learnt from my five years of blogging. Continue reading “Why I Write and Lessons from Five Years of Blogging”

Some interesting thoughts on what it means to be “well-read” – by Morgan Jerkins of Book Riot

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Here is an excerpt from a short article, Is Our Concept of “Well-Read” elitist by Morgan Jerkins:

“Let’s face it: we place value in certain works more than others. Not many people may have read Things Fall Apart, but they have read and will most likely praise Romeo and Juliet. Continue reading “Some interesting thoughts on what it means to be “well-read” – by Morgan Jerkins of Book Riot”

Some advice for writers, from Anne Lamott

As I mentioned in my last post, I recently finished reading the book ‘Bird By Bird’ by Anne Lamott. I’ve extracted some quotes from the book which I found interesting and helpful. Here goes:

Continue reading “Some advice for writers, from Anne Lamott”