Saturday, June 25, 2011

Public Mourning

This week I have been learning something of Zambia's history. The second President of the Republic of Zambia, Frederick Chiluba, died and we are in a period of national mourning. BBC and the newspapers have been full of discussions of his life and legacy, a very mixed story.

Chiluba was the first president to win a multi-party election in Zambia. Formerly called Northern Rhodesia under British colonial rule, Zambia became independent in 1964. It was ruled for the next 27 years by one leader, Kenneth Kaunda, under a single-party system.

Kaunda established a strongly centralized government and closely guarded his power. He imprisoned Chiluba without charges when Chiluba, a labor leader, appeared to be gaining popularity as a political challenger. He campaigned against the corruption and autocracy rampant in the Kaunda administration.

Chiluba united a number of groups into the Movement for Multi-Party Democracy (MMD). They forced Kaunda to hold an election in 1991, and Chiluba won with over 70% of the vote.

People had high hopes when he came to office. His election was hailed as a shining example of democracy in action in a continent where the norm was "imperial presidencies" of long duration. He was called a "Black Moses" and a "Liberator". His policies and initiatives at first brought an expansion of civil liberties. He drafted a constitution which included freedom of the press and freedom to form political parties. He worked to modernize and liberalize the economy.

This impressive set of reforms did not last, however. As one commentator put it, after a few years, Chiluba was no longer transforming the system, but instead, Chiluba was being transformed. He began to spend lavishly on his personal wardrobe and lifestyle, from public funds. Economic mismanagement and corruption began to re-emerge in the government. The accountability mechanisms outlined in the constitution he promulgated were not enforced. He began to act to suppress other politicians, often jailing opponents on trumped up charges. He even tried to get an amendment to the constitution as he was reaching his limit of two five-year terms, but a public outcry stopped him.

Comments I have heard here vary. Some honor the accomplishments of bringing in multi-party democracy and press freedom, with no mention of his appropriation of at least $50 million of public money for his personal use. There was a long trial at which the weak judicial system here acquitted him just this year, because the judge said that his well-documented excessive personal spending couldn't be proven to have been from government money. (Chiluba claimed that it was "personal gifts from admirers" whose identity he would not reveal.) Others condemn him not only for corruption, but also for failing to live up to his promises of strengthening democracy.

All over Africa, there are examples of leaders who stay in power for many years, either because the system allows it or because they manipulate the system. Some months ago there was a close election in Ivory Coast which the incumbent president lost. He then refused to leave office. He surrounded the presidential offices with military loyal to him, and the newly-elected president set up his administration in a hotel guarded by UN peacekeepers. It took months to get the old president out, even after world leaders and the United Nations all declared the election free and fair and the result clear.

I have been reading some analyses of the governance issues in Africa, and there seems to be a consensus that many nations do not have a balance of power between executive, judicial and legislative branches of government, with too much power in the presidency. Decision-making and implementation is controlled at the national level and not shared with districts/states/regions. Many countries don't fully recognize freedom of the press, and they suppress dissenting viewpoints. Recently in Zimbabwe and Uganda, members of opposition parties have been thrown in jail for criticizing the government or leading peaceful demonstrations. Civil society institutions are weak, and people feel powerless because there is so little transparency and accountability in the government structures.

All of this is to say that while I am quite critical of America right now--both our foreign policy and the way in which our domestic policy decisions have increased inequality and eroded community--nonetheless, I definitely see some of the strengths of our system. Of course, we are better in concept than in practice, like every human institution. But I do appreciate our strong constitution and bill of rights and our balance of powers. And the opportunities to practice advocacy and to work for change.

I hope we can see more of that in Zambia.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Drivers' Wives, Unite!

Caroline, a Zambian friend, invited me to a meeting last Saturday. (She's the one who has taken in 12 orphans and cares for them along with her own family.) She asked if I would bake a chocolate sheet cake to take along, and said she would come to accompany me since otherwise I might never find the place.

She was right. The meeting was in the small space between two houses in a compound called Chimwemwe, which means "Happiness" in Bemba. I never could have found it in a taxi, so Jenny drove us there. She had intended to come to the meeting, too, but had a conflict. So she just helped with transport.

We had chairs and mats to sit on, a tree to shade us, and music from a stereo set. About twenty women were there and about double that number of children and youths. As soon as Caroline and I arrived, she led the women in a cheer: "Drivers' Wives, UNITE!"

This was a meeting of the Association of Drivers' Wives, a self-help, mutual aid organization Caroline has initiated. Their first purpose is to set up a fund to assist the women and children who are widowed and orphaned when a driver dies in a road accident. They also plan to help families pay for health care, and ultimately to create a cooperative loan fund the members could tap into when they want to start an income-generating project. There is no universal Social Security system here in Zambia, or even worker's compensation or unemployment insurance. People are on their own, or cared for by family or friends when in need. So mutual aid associations are a means to share some of the risks of life and supplement the resources of the family.

The Association of Drivers' Wives has an ambitious long-term agenda with their goal of creating a fund big enough to meet crisis needs and eventually also to support a revolving fund for seed money for members' small businesses. For today, our purpose was to get a progress report on the work of becoming a registered, chartered organization, and to celebrate with prayer, singing, dancing, and the traditional "brai" luncheon: roasted chicken, rice, relish, potatoes, coleslaw, and, of course, the cake for dessert. We managed to make one cake feed everyone--bigger pieces for the adults, bite-size portions for the children. Reminded me of the feeding of the five thousand...

There was competitive dancing between the teenage girls, daughters of the members, to see who could do the traditional dances best. The mothers couldn't help but join in, and finally even I had to attempt dancing, too. I think you have to start as a young child to master the hip and waist movement that is the heart of the dancing here. Everyone applauded my effort, but I think they were being kind to the Muzungu.

And, as I have learned to expect, I was asked to offer words of encouragement to the women in their efforts to organize themselves and raise money for their self-help activities. This was easy to do, since their enthusiasm and hard work were evident in this event. I was impressed with their strength and their hope.

We concluded with the chant, repeated like a cheer, "Drivers' Wives, UNITE!"

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Potions and Prayers

Are you a woman afflicted with "bareness"? Or maybe you have a family member who is "bewited"? Do you have things moving in your body? Are you after more "man power" ? Do you need help selling property or attracting business or bringing back a lost lover in 24 hours, no less!? (It seems to take 28 hours to bring back stolen property, however.) Do you need to have bad spells removed from your business or home? I'm not sure if this is the same as "body, house, and property cleansing," but that service is also offered. Illnesses such as cancer, blood pressure, TB, HIV/AIDS, skin problems, body pains, and madness are also on the list.

All of these conditions, and many more, are treated by people who call themselves "herbalist healers" or practitioners of "African, Indian, Arabic and Chinese Medicine." Some of them offer guarantees. The initial consultation fee is 20,000 Kwachas (about $5), but I don't know what the treatments cost. These traditional healers advertise their services in flyers passed out on the streets of Kitwe. The examples I have cited above are direct quotes from these ads.

Dr. Ojaku "has got herbs from Nigeria and in the tropical forests of Africa" and as well he will be "telling you your problems using Spiritual Powers and the Rock." Dr. Organ Lwazi is associated with the "Herbal Joint Research Under World Medical Clinic Research Centre", as is Dr. Isa.

The list of issues for which treatment is offered, as contained in the advertising, gives an indication of what people are stressed about here in Zambia. They seem to fall into three categories: body/health problems, love/relationship problems, and business/economic problems. I suspect that many of the issues in the first two categories are similar to what people might consult doctors and mental health professionals about in the U.S., but I doubt that many of us take our business or financial concerns to healers.

From the lists on the ads, health issues specific to women center on fertility, and men's issues on sexual performance. Particular relationship problems mentioned include dealing with jealousy between spouses or neighbors, getting and keeping lovers/mates, overcoming misunderstandings, preventing your mate from cheating, and getting your boyfriend/girlfriend to marry you. (Zambians seem to favor engagement periods that last sometimes for several years.) Dealing with hatred and 'spells" (witchcraft?) was also featured on the lists. In the area of business and finance, the herbal specialists promise help with attracting customers, selling property, having good luck, finding and keeping jobs, getting promotions, winning court cases, and starting enterprises. The one service I found that related to kids was help with passing exams.

As an alternative to these traditional healers, some churches offer "deliverance" services or ceremonies. These are designed to deal with the same problems listed above, plus such issues as being troubled by nightmares or disturbing thoughts, or being possessed by demonic spirits. They consist of vigorous prayers and "laying on of hands", punctuated by singing and dancing. Some of my students have attended such observances and report that many people are helped by the interventions.

Personally, I'm sticking to "an apple a day" and positive thinking--seems to work for me!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Come, sisters, let's put a little wiggle in our walk!

Friday afternoon this past week we went to the Kitwe Copperbelt Agriculture and Technology Exhibition, or what in the U.S. we would call a county fair.

In a lot of ways it was like the county fairs I have attended in the past. There were competitions for the biggest and best produce grown by different farmers. (It's amazing how huge some pumpkins can grow--but here they are cream-colored, not orange. People cook the leaves as greens, as well as eating chunks of pumpkin as a vegetable.) Farm machinery was on display. Kids could get their faces painted and buy cotton candy, popcorn, and fritters. Nurseries had acres of plants for sale. There were pony rides and bicycle trick competitions and many marching bands in their full dress uniforms, complete with baton twirlers.

For amusement there was a live snake and crocodile house with lots of interesting specimens, an arena with rotating entertainment acts, competitive break dancing, clowns with balloons, and more.

For education we visited halls with materials about cancer, HIV/AIDS, diabetes, malaria and other diseases, information about the work of NGOs on gender and development, centers on environmental issues, displays of medicinal plants, and various government-sponsored exhibits. We enjoyed seeing the art gallery which had an exhibition of drawings and paintings by children from various schools.

Vendors were selling many different items, including fresh and prepared food, tools, toys, clothing imported from different Asian and African countries, plants, sports equipment, and animals. One snack stand reminded me of the Oscar Meyer “wienermobile” that used to tour around America. Instead of a car shaped like a hot dog, it was a kiosk shaped like a Coke bottle on its side, with a window in the middle to sell the drinks.

We visited a hall sponsored by the area prison, where they had exhibits describing their programs and services. They were also selling items made by inmate workers in the prison industry at that institution, as well as crafts produced by individual prisoners on their own. I bought a doormat and even met the woman who had designed and made it.

Since it was a school day, many nursery school and primary level classes were there from different schools on field trips. In Zambia all school children wear uniforms, so these school groups made big splashes of color wherever they went. I watched one group which appeared to include the entire school, one grade behind the next like stairsteps. The uniform for each grade had a small variation--a different colored sash or style shirt so you could tell the grades apart, but the basic color scheme was the same, and there must have been over 100 kids there in their lemon yellow and tangerine accented outfits.

Speaking of clothing, members of political parties, or supporters of specific candidates, often advertise their preferences with wearing apparel. In addition to custom tee-shirts (which are not so common here), the outstanding article of political attire is the chitenge (2 yards of fabric used as a wrap-around skirt) with the image of the candidate in huge medallions all over the cloth. I saw many supporters of Rupiah Banda, the incumbent President, at the fair in their political chitenges. Some of the women had quite broad backsides, giving plenty of exposure to his smiling face!

We left at dusk with new plants for our gardens, educational materials for our classes, and a handmade basket and doormat. I had learned about some vegetables and grains I had never encountered before, and my mind was filled with a collage of colorful images for my memory bank. It was a good day.