“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.