This is an interesting time to be in Zambia

Most of you are probably unaware that Zambia inaugurated a new president on Friday.

Zambia gained independence in 1964, and was a one-party “democracy” under President Kenneth Kaunda until 1991, when other candidates were allowed to run, and there was a peaceful transfer of power to Frederick Chiluba of the MMD (Movement for Multiparty Democracy). The next two presidents were also MMD.

Tuesday was Election Day, which meant that I didn’t teach on Monday, and had a holiday on Tuesday (I spent it reading, puttering, cooking, knitting, and planting seeds in my new garden). Wednesday arrived, and it occurred to me that I didn’t know who had won the election. At some point either that afternoon or Thursday, I realized that no one knew who had won the election. This was bizarre to me.

There were mutters that the then-current administration was dragging things out longer than strictly necessary. We heard rumors of roving bands of rabble-rousers in Lusaka, and while I wasn’t aware of violence that people had been concerned might occur, there was a distinct feeling of unrest (though it was a very diluted and sleepy sort of unrest way out here in Macha).

Thursday night I stayed up rather later than I’d intended to, making a poor attempt at enchiladas and chatting with David about elections and politics and government in Zambia and the US.

Friday morning, as I was readying myself to go teach about multiple worksheets and frozen header rows, David greeted me, “Good morning. We have a new president.” It had been announced sometime during the night: Michael Sata of the PF (Patriotic Front) had been elected.

Friday afternoon, Beauty passed me on her way out the door: “We are going to watch the President!”


“In the back.” (And this was how I discovered that the back door to the Wooden House leads into an extra living room. I still haven’t figured out if this is Wooden House 4, or if the bedroom also connects to the front.)

It was shortly after fourteen hours, and I was fairly certain that whatever the president was doing, it wouldn’t be done in 20 minutes, but I decided that this was more important than work, collected my knitting and my bag and plopped myself on the psuedo-linoleum with a collection of women whose names I still mostly haven’t figured out to watch what turned out to be the inauguration ceremony.

I’m glad I wasn’t in Lusaka this past week, and glad that our planning meeting was rescheduled so that I’m not in Lusaka right now. But it’s very exciting to be in Zambia.


I’ve been struck a number of times recently by how raw democracy is here. I’ve certainly never seen billboards of President Clinton (or, for that matter, Reagan or Bush) urging people to campaign and vote peacefully. I was told that this election might be volatile because emotions were running high, but I didn’t see any sign of it until Friday afternoon, sitting on the floor with my neighbors. I’ve driven past Highcourt, where the ceremony was held, but I did not recognize it (my neighbors did). It was filled — flooded — in every direction as far as the camera could see with people. When I arrived, the footage was mainly focusing on the progress of a car (perhaps containing the party with two living presidents and president-elect?), surrounded by a massed throng on both sides, with soldiers or police or both persuading the crowd to condense just enough for the car to progress at a snail’s pace.

It was in many ways a very odd experience for me. The press did not have a good vantage point, which meant that we, as the viewers, had a worse one (so bad, in fact, that through I heard the news anchor announce that the ceremony had started, I though I’d misheard her, because she just kept talking about background information and we didn’t shift from images of a massed sea of people). Presently we switched to an awkward sideways angle around several people’s heads and shoulders, and were able to watch President Sata taking the oath, and hear enough of the words to believe that he was saying an oath sort of thing.

We could hear the speech that followed only slightly better, except for the times when the sound cut out entirely, but that did not deter the enthusiasm of my neighbors. “Banish poverty, WHOOHOO!!”

The other thing that surprised me was the obvious affection towards President Kaunda. Most of the books I read had not had a highly complimentary impression of him (“one-party participatory democracy” for twenty-seven years, anyone?), and our hostess, who might have been Mercy, freely admitted that he’d been arrested on corruption charges during the first week of Chiluba’s presidency, but as Michael Sata sat down, Beauty grabbed my knee to be sure I saw:

“That is President Kaunda! He fighted for freedom in Zambia! We are free because of him! We are free because of that man!”

I hadn’t expected that. In the faces of my neighbors, I saw that even though he won less than a quarter of the vote in the 1991 election, he is not merely beloved, he is an icon (at least in that crowd, in this part of the world). I don’t think that any of those women were alive before Zambia became a Republic, much less old enough to remember, but the idea of freedom is important in a different way than it is at home. US Americans will say that freedom is important to them, but I’ve never seen anyone on her feet, almost-shouting, because the US is a free country.

That’s what I mean about democracy being raw. I mean that it is fragile, that it is precious, in a way it’s not in a country where the wheels of democracy have run pretty smoothly for over a hundred years.

This election was important. Not just because it was a (mostly) peaceful, (mostly) hitch-free transition of power from one party to another, only the second in Zambia’s history as a republic. But because it happened, because it was more-or-less fair and open, because people had a chance to participate in the franchise and feel that they made a change in their government. And there is a magic in that that holds eight women spellbound staring at a poor picture on a little tv, listening to nearly-inaudible sound that may cut out entirely, with two or three more people hovering in the doorway to catch a glimpse of an historic moment.

Will Michael Sata be a good president? I don’t know. I know almost nothing about his political ideology. What I do know is that his election was important because he was chosen by the people of Zambia.

(The next part isn’t important, but you can read it anyway.)
As I was sitting on the floor, trying to hear Michael Sata’s inauguration speech, I became aware of a flaw that had never occurred to me in Alexander Hamilton’s plan for 12-year presidential terms (despite the fact that I spent half a semester refuting it in any way that I could). Elections are important. Presidential elections are important. And I think that it is vitally important for the health of any democracy for most of its citizens to feel that they have contributed to a positive change of government. With a twelve-year presidency, if you were lucky (and no one died), you’d see two presidential elections before the age of thirty-five. If you weren’t lucky, you would see only one before the age of forty. And that’s not enough; not enough people can win while they can still believe, before they reach whatever age occasions jaded cynicism about politics. People need elections. It’s one of the ways that they believe that their government means something.



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6 responses to “This is an interesting time to be in Zambia

  1. R&R

    Didn’t know about the election so no opportunity to be worried about you. That’s so great that is was relatively peaceful. Sata sounds like he could be good for Zambia. Let’s hope so.

  2. we were in Jamaica for their election in 1972 (?) and it was JUST LIKE THIS – so exciting to be there, and to be part of what people felt was something new and different. Democracy at work. (It turned out to be the start of a lengthy and tired regime that has done nothing postitive for the country, as far as I can tell, though I am out of it now. But in 1972 it was HUGELY exciting.)

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