“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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LUNGU-NOMICS: Zambia’s Post-Election Economy (by Hjoe Moono)

By Hjoe Moono, Secretary of the Economics Association of Zambia

History has been made once again in Zambia. Since Frederick Chiluba, President Elect H.E. Edgar Chagwa Lungu is the only president to be elected by a vote of over 50%. Marginal as 50.3% might seem, it speaks volumes, and indeed, congratulations are in order to the Head of State and his party, the ruling Patriotic Front. Continue reading “LUNGU-NOMICS: Zambia’s Post-Election Economy (by Hjoe Moono)”

Passing the buck: We the public do it well

In today’s i newspaper, Dominic Lawson comments on the current UK phone-hacking scandal engulfing Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. In his article, Lawson lists the people and organisations that are being blamed for having allowed this sort of behaviour by News of the World journalists to have ever been tolerated. He mentions the organisation’s Chairman Rupert Murdoch, the Metropolitan Police, the politicians and the “generally useless” Press Complaints Commission.

Lawson asserts that while the bulk of the blame should rest with the mentioned persons – and rightly so – the ‘market’ for such insidious journalism would never have taken root had the public simply not gone out and bought these papers. He writes:

“Newspapers, after all, are very sensitive to the moods and prejudices of their readers. It was because such papers as the News of the World knew that their readers were much more interested in eavesdropping on Prince Charles’ pillow talk than bothered about how the snooping was carried out, that they felt able to get away with publishing such stories.”

I have heard a range of public reactions to this story. On the whole, people are appalled. Very appalled in fact. But the question that springs to mind is this: Are we the public justified in our “outrage” and “shock” with the way these journalists conducted themselves when we have often been the ones feeding this deadly gossip machine?

Identifying a similar pattern of “public self-exculpation”, Lawson references public attitudes to the recent credit crunch episode and the collapse of the housing market. In that situation, the public often blamed the bankers – and rightly so – who lent too much to people with bad or non-existent credit records, the politicians for regulating the banks with insufficient vigilance, the central bankers for keeping interest rates too low during the boom and interestingly the Chinese for saving too much, the surplus of which swept like a tsunami of cheap credit through the Western debtor nations.

But yet again, the question arises: Who was it that benefited from the cheap loans that were later defaulted on, subsequently squeezing liquidity in the global financial system? It was us, the public! Yes, we all accept that financial institutions took foolish and unnecessary risks which they should not have done and governments were often lax in their regulation of these institutions. But when you have bankers hell-bent on making a quick buck merge with a public that seems willing to abdicate responsibility for its actions, that is bound to serve as a recipe for disaster.

Similarly, journalists able to get away with publishing sensationalist stories will stop at nothing to feed the public’s obsession with the gossip and humiliation of (often famous) people; even better when they can make some money from it! The News of the World journalists involved in this scandal stooped so low simply because they had a public feeding out of their palms, eagerly awaiting the next eye-catching story.

Lawson’s article got me thinking about one of my greatest passions, my country Zambia, and how we as Zambians so often place all blame and responsibility for our country’s ills at the feet of our politicians. We somehow expect them to work miracles that will translate into development – human, economic, justice, etc.

Don’t get me wrong, it is right to expect our elected leaders to solemnly carry out their public service obligations; after all that is why we elect them to public office. However our attitude to our nation’s political process is intricately tied up with its success. If we don’t value, and subsequently elect, leaders of vision and integrity and consistently hold them to account once in office, we as a people will have to shoulder some of the blame in years to come. We have to view the sort of political leadership we encourage now in light of the impact it’ll have on future generations. Each person has an essential part to play in bringing about the change we want to see in our country.

So if the problem is poor civic education in the country, what are those that have been educated doing about it? If the problem is corruption in the police service are we simultaneously complaining about the problem whilst being complicit in such behaviour!?

I personally have talked and talked and talked, as many of my countrymen and women have done, but talk is nothing until it translates into action. So what are we actually doing to change this? I have recently been challenged by the need for my words to become action.

Much food for thought. God help us!

This piece was originally written in 2011.