Friday, September 23, 2011

Election Surprises

National elections just took place in Zambia.

Elections are always a time of excitement and expectant waiting and hoping. It has been that way in Zambia for the past few weeks, as the country prepared to vote on September 20. I've been impressed by the similarities and contrasts to elections in the USA.

First, terms of office and frequency of elections: Many African countries have a poor record of holding regular elections or having free and fair elections in which it is possible to unseat an incumbent. I spent time in Uganda in 1991 and 1993. Yoweri Museveni was President then, and he is still. (Has been since 1989, and over the years he has become increasingly dictatorial and repressive against his opponents or challengers.) Zambia, on the other hand, following an initial period of one-party rule after independence, has a competitive multi-party system. The president serves a five year term and can be elected twice.

Political parties: There were 11 contenders for president, from 11 different parties. However the two major parties are the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD), which has held power for 21 years, and the Patriotic Front (PF), which just won this election. I was afraid that with the vote split so many ways, the power of incumbency would win out. However, Michael Sata of the PH is a well-known political figure who came close to winning the last election and was considered the only viable contender against President Rupiah Banda. His nickname is "King Cobra" after his vigorous and confrontational campaigning style.

Campaign Issues: Banda takes credit for Zambia's stability and positive economic growth. It should be noted that this relatively strong economy has not impacted the lives of the vast majority of citizens, who live in deep poverty and without a system of free education. Development has been possible largely through deals with China to mine Zambia's rich copper and other mineral resources. However, the country realizes little benefit in taxes, despite the dramatic recent increases in copper prices. And the working conditions and wages in the mines are notoriously poor. Sata promised to renegotiate the arrangements with the Chinese so that Zambia would share more of the profits and so that working conditions would improve. He campaigned on job creation, better education, and help for the most vulnerable. He also promises to fight corruption. Easier said than done, but this is a badly needed reform.

Campaign tactics: The usual rallies, marches, and debates took place. Campaign signs and billboards were everywhere. Banda was known to be offering sacks of maize to his supporters and fertilizer to farmers, and of course the roads began to be repaired in the month before the election. Sata had vehicles with loud speakers driving through the compounds urging people to register and to vote for him. He had a clever campaign strategy: his signs urged voters "Don't kubeke!" ("don't tell!"), meaning they should accept the mealie meal from Banda's party, but vote for Sata. International observers criticized Banda's vote-buying activities. Inappropriate use of public money for the incumbent's party activities was also documented.

Uniquely Zambian election customs: All campaigning was required to stop at 6 am the day before the election. I'm not sure why, but it was a welcome relief to have a quiet day. Then Election Day is a national holiday. Our students went to the chapel Monday evening to pray for a peaceful election (some of them come from countries where there has been considerable election violence). During election day, Tuesday, many churches were open for people to come and pray for peace, and our students kept up a prayer and fasting vigil all day. Several people shared with me the idea that the election was already decided by God--but they did intend to vote, they just knew the outcome would be "right," whatever it was.

Post-election activities: Voting ended at 6 pm Tuesday, and people went home. Results would not come out until the next day, since the count was by hand from paper ballots. However, they did expect local results on Wednesday morning, and presidential results later in the day. On Wednesday, announcements seemed to be slow coming. Results were being "verified" in a way no one seemed to understand. International observers had judged the election to have been well-run, with only a few examples of polls opening late or problems with ballot papers. But the delay in learning results made everyone anxious, especially the youth, first time voters, and members of the opposition party.

When the presidential race results had not been reported by Wednesday evening, unrest was evident. Thursday morning at chapel, we were cautioned to stay home or within Mindolo in case disturbances broke out. I intended to do just that, after a quick trip to town to get money and pick up a few fresh groceries for a dinner I was planning for friends. I called a cab so I could just go and come quickly. Well, it wasn't such a good idea. While in ShopRite, there was a panicked exodus of nearly everyone from the store when it appeared that the nearby open vegetable market might be burning. We got out just in time, since shortly thereafter the road was closed by rioting, stone-throwing youths demanding to know the results of the election. I gave the cab driver "hazardous duty pay" and had him take the household workers from our area back to their compound safely. News of demonstrations and destruction in our area, the Copperbelt, continued. People were suspicious that vote tampering was going on.

All day Thursday, reports of the results were promised, but didn't materialize. Then, just before 1 am Friday, I heard a great commotion outside. Cars were honking their horns, fireworks were exploding, people were singing and dancing in the streets outside of MEF in Mindolo Compound. The results were out, and amazingly, the opposition had won with 43% of the vote. (Remember, there were 11 candidates!) Sadly, two people had died in the disturbances in Kitwe on Thursday, but otherwise, calm was restored. And people are still celebrating today.

To have an election--especially one resulting in a change of administration--happen so well is refreshing and hopeful for the future. Zambia is being seen as a model for other African countries. My hope is that the new president will follow through with his campaign promises and will also put transparency and accountability high on his agenda. We are all eager to see what a difference the change will make. We know that words are easier than deeds, but at least there is an opening for a new beginning and a greater priority on the needs of youth and the poor.

The biggest surprise of all came when I learned that the new president was inaugurated today, on the same day the results were announced. No lame duck period here! And Banda left graciously. A model for other countries in Africa, indeed.

Friday, September 16, 2011

A Humbling Perspective

For the week preceding, and on the day itself, BBC had features about 9/11: eyewitness reports from survivors and reporters, interviews with persons who lost family members in the tragedy, reflections on the reactions and consequences of this event, and reports of commemorations planned in the USA and around the world. Commentators repeatedly spoke of the significance 9/11 as an event which changed the world. Probably the coverage was more extensive than usual because it was the 10th anniversary, but I recall a number of BBC programs last year, as well.

This morning, I heard another perspective, and it made me think. Once a week, BBC broadcasts a 5-minute dialogue between “The Resident Presidents,” two fictitious African heads of state, Olishambles and Kibakima (not sure about the spelling here, but that is how it sounds.) They make irreverent and often humorous observations about current events. Mostly their topic of conversation focuses on happenings in Africa. This morning, however, their piece was on 9/11.

One president tried to engage his colleague in conversation about 9/11. The other claimed to have been preoccupied with a party and to have paid no attention. The first was amazed that anyone could be unaware of the anniversary. His fellow president then challenged him: “How many people died in 9/11?” “About 3,000” was the reply. The next question from the inattentive president asked about the hundreds, even thousands of people who have died in Africa recently, in ferries that sank, election violence, and mass rapes and executions associated with civil wars--and commented how quickly these losses disappear from the news, or don‘t even make the news in some countries. The next question was “And how many have died in Iraq and Afghanistan?” “Well, I don’t really know,” was the reply. “I have heard that over 150,000 have died, including civilians and military,” announced the president who did not seem to care much for 9/11 commemorations.

While I understand that 9/11 was about more than numbers, the coverage has raised some issues for me. Is there a question of balance here? What do we emphasize in our commemorations? Do we also use the anniversary as an opportunity for a critical assessment of our national priorities and the effects of our responses to 9/11? Or do we mainly re-live and renew our horror and grieving?

Of course, being in Zambia with limited Internet, I do not know what the media coverage was like in the USA, or much about community observances. But I checked it and was pleased to see that Tucson Habitat for Humanity is still practicing the commemoration started on 9/11 in 2002--organizing Building Freedom Day and involving hundreds of volunteers in laying the foundations and framing a number of houses for low income families. Ten were started this year, in honor of the 10th anniversary of 9/11. Such an effort celebrates the core values of America. The volunteers will include people from all walks of life, different ethnic groups, men and women, working together in mutual aid. The family that will live in the house helps with its construction. The work on the houses will continue for about eight months before they are finished.

Projects like these build community solidarity. They contribute to a climate of peace and respect. They reflect what is best about America, our “can do” approach to solving social problems and our willingness to cooperate and collaborate to help one another. I wish our Congress would see the model represented by the spirit of Tucson and begin to collaborate and cooperate on programs which will benefit the entire community, and especially the poor and vulnerable. We need to create jobs, extend educational opportunities, develop more affordable housing, and make health care available to all. This will only happen if we agree to pay our fair share of taxes and if we take a hard look at how much we are spending on military endeavors and our ever-expanding correctional system.

I am left meditating on what is the appropriate balance between concern for security and for freedom. Perhaps a better question is what will provide us with more security and freedom, at home and abroad? Is it more investment in fences, walls, and weapons? Or investment in creating opportunities for human development through education, work, and technology? It’s not as simple as that makes it sound, but I believe we need to be asking these questions and looking at a wider range of creative options in public policy.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Blessings and Burdens of Being a Teacher

Every teacher hopes her students will use what she has taught. This is especially true of teachers in the professions, since the knowledge imparted is intended to be practical. So it pleases me when graduates come back to discuss how they are trying to develop projects in the community or programs at agencies.

Sometimes they come just to let me know what they are doing. More often, they come for consultation as they struggle to make what they learned work in the real world of human and organizational complexities. Usually they are looking for ideas about resources for collaboration and support.

Here in Zambia, jobs are scarce in any field. Official unemployment figures are reported to be over 40%. So some of the more enterprising social work graduates try to start a social service endeavor by themselves or in partnership with a church.

Menard came to see me a few weeks ago and took me to visit the community school he is assisting. It is located in a poor shanty town off the main road. He is helping them to find teachers, enroll students, and finish building a permanent facility. Right now they are meeting inside a building that looks about to fall apart. It certainly will not survive heavy rains, which are due to start in October. He had a budget for the materials they need to complete a new, sturdy structure. The community can donate the labor, but they need cement and bricks and other building supplies. I helped him think about some natural connections they could make with international church partners, since the school originated as a church project.

When Kabutu came with an organizational design for Heart of Care Services for the Aged in Mulenga Compound, I helped him amplify his idea. We created a three-fold brochure with the basic information: vision, mission, auspices, how they got started, what they do, how people can help by volunteering, making referrals, or supporting the program, and the basic contact information. I'm not as skilled at producing such brochures as my children are, but we thought it looked pretty good. We even found a graphic for the cover and will try to incorporate a photo on the back. Now I am consulting with him as he shapes up a formal proposal and seeks funding and a permanent location.

Kabutu, too, wanted me to see the community and meet with some of the leaders and participants in his project. Mulenga Compound is far off the main highway, down dirt roads that twist and turn, full of bumps and ruts. We got out at a clearing next to the tiny donated one-room office of Heart of Care. It was filled with elders, sitting on benches and the dirt floor. They decided it was more pleasant outside under the trees, so we held our meeting there. About a dozen or more elderly women and one old man were in attendance, along with a half-dozen community leaders. One woman was blind, another showed me the support bandages around her knees to help keep her steady, the man used a walking stick, and others showed evidence of various mild disabilities. The program was to hear a bit about the plans and activities of Heart of Care, and for me to offer some words of encouragement. They wanted me to know that many of the elderly were helping raise orphans. Some lacked food security, most had health problems, shelter was inadequate, and they needed to find ways to earn a little money to care for themselves or their families. I commended their resilience and commitment and their spirit of unity in working together for self-help. I was thinking about the many needs this group represented and the few resources they could easily access. In a place of deep poverty, the elderly and children suffer most.

The church and the wider community group Kabutu is working with in Mulenga Compound have also established Tiyezye Community School. They meet in a building with brick walls and a cement floor, and openings where doors and windows will someday be installed. It needs a roof before rainy season. It also needs desks and benches. Children in one classroom are squatting or sitting on bricks, one per child, arranged in rows. The teachers are volunteers; most of them are still in training and combine their teaching with attending classes at the local education college. I think community schools could be considered a movement, since they spring up in compounds and shanty towns all around the urban areas, providing the free primary school education that the government should be guaranteeing to all children. Without them, thousands of children, mostly orphans and desperately poor, would be growing up illiterate.

One of the students still in the program, Enala, wants to establish an orphanage after she graduates. I have asked Kathe Padilla to share her experience creating Chishawasha Children's Home with the student. I won't be here to see her progress, but I am trying to help her as much as possible now so that she can work effectively in the future.

My title for this blog is the blessings and burdens of being a teacher. One of the joys of teaching is to see students creating programs based on what they have learned. The student or graduate is doing the work, but you helped him or her develop the knowledge and skill needed to establish the project or organization. That's the blessing part. The burden is struggling to help them find resources in these difficult economic times. It is hard to visit the compounds and see the deprivation and desperation these programs are trying to alleviate. But I feel honored that my students want me to see what they are doing with their education. I am proud of how they are trying to make a difference. It may be small, as they are starting from scratch, and it may be fragile, nourished by hope and prayer. But they are patient, persistent, and passionate, and those qualities will carry them far.