Have you heard the one about Zambia? No, seriously–no joke. Have you heard about Zambia? It’s one of the fastest growing economies in the world. It also features one of the fastest growing populations in the world. It is a nation known for its political stability in an otherwise war-torn region. The reputation of Zambia is unlike any other place in Southern Africa, because the human rights abuses that every nation suffers from in one way or another are more buried, suppressed, and the highs of history outweigh the lows of human cruelty. Zambia is, at least on the surface, a place to admire.
And yet, nearly two-thirds of the population of over sixteen million live in poverty.
It is a place of great natural beauty,
and yet is still prone to many of the horrors afflicting the whole world today.
So how did this nation get to here, so broad and grand and wonderful, and yet mired in the many human problems that there is cause for general fear that the country will collapse, falling prey to the voracious predators surrounding its beacon of flickering light?
We can go all the way back to 300,000 BC and find traces of human-style life in the bones of the so-called “Broken Hill Man.”
In fact, evolutionary human habitation developed comparatively quickly in this region, a wide variety of human civilizations uncovered from the time of the Broken Hill Man, into 36,000 years ago, with the remains of a variety of tools essential for a hunter-gatherer culture, according to archaeologists (me, I cannot figure out what most of these rocks were meant for).
The progression continued for thousands of years, finally culminating with the Bantu expansion in the first century BC, a massive influx of travelers from all throughout Eastern, Western and Southern Africa, banding together to form a unified language (for a more detailed discussion of this, please check out the earlier piece on Cameroon).
Bantu civilization evolved even more rapidly, and groups were suddenly at war with each other for control of the land, the more advanced completely annihilating the primitive, or peaceful tribes. The region became covered with the blood of the conquered, spreading throughout all the future surrounding nations: Zimbabwe, the Congo, Kenya, and South Africa, among others. The tribes became locked in a struggle for control, the Zulu, Shona, Sukuma, Kikuyu and Luba, all declaring themselves the lords of creation in one form or another, their own religions justifying these endeavors.
The whole make-up of Bantu civilization (“Bantu,” is translated as “people”) transformed from bonding together under one language into the same petty battles for dominance that consume so much of the world today. If we wish to seek the meaning of the struggles in the modern world we need look no further than the history of sub-Saharan Africa and the fight to control increasingly tiny spaces.
Outside of carbon-dating and the recovery of buried objects, the early history of Zambia is dependent entirely on oral narratives passed down from the 12th century on, stories that, no doubt, were transformed into parables and myths, as with any neo-religious tale, in the hundreds of years before as well as the thousand years later, mixed with Christianity, Animism, and a sprinkling of Islam. The stories that emerged from this time are curious and heroic, depicting people of courage and great imagination.
It was the Tonga people who eventually took charge of the regions of Zambia and Zimbabwe.
The various tribes of the area saw Nkoya claim the Congo, and to the east a growing empire known as Maravi.
There remained tentative calm and growing trade between these nations, and peace grudgingly continued (with the occasional lapse, greedy battles over ivory and copper, as well as brief holy wars used as excuses for conquest). Slavery was an indigenous phenomenon within Zambia, more the idea of indentured servitude, mostly impoverished men selling themselves to wealthy benefactors for life in order to feed their families. Often the whole families found themselves claimed by chiefs and rich merchants, the man dying young through overwork or brutal beatings, and the masters deciding that the debt had yet to be paid.
This way of life forever changed in 1798 when Portuguese explorer Francisco de Lacera arrived with the intention of making a name for himself by being the first man to cross Southern Africa from coast to coast.
Lacerna died during this expedition, his self-reflective goals replaced by the new leader of the expedition, the far more religious Francisco Pinto.
Now a missionary endeavor, Zambia was bombarded with Catholic priests,
arriving in ship after ship with the equally ambitious goal of saving the people from Hellfire.
This was their threat, the terror they aroused in the conquered masses. They had soldiers march into town, really just a latter day variation on the Inquisition. The primary accomplishment they claimed for themselves was keeping the Muslims out of the center of Africa.
In the 1850s a new sort of missionary arrived at the interior of Africa, touring around on an anti-slavery crusade. Zambia had come late to the international trade of humans, and they were still in a primitive state of business (there being no coast many Europeans found it too much effort to transport people). The most famous among them was David Livingstone.
But Livingstone was far more than just another priest out to save souls. He was an experienced medical doctor and international explorer who had first come to prominence while touring the West Indies all the way through to Southern Africa, spreading medical advice, medicines, and teaching the natives basic procedures so they would not die from simple maladies.
Livingstone fell under the influence of Robert Moffat, a radical Scottish abolitionist and dedicated missionary seeking to spread the gospels to the people of Africa not to subjugate them, but in order to set them free. Moffat would eventually also become Livingstone’s father-in-law when he married his daughter Mary.
Livingstone grew increasingly dedicated as he toured nearly the entire continent, preaching, teaching, and helping in any way he could.
Eventually Livingstone grew ill and remained in Africa, growing sicker and sicker, and was often delirious. Because he had worked so hard and tried to help the people with such enthusiasm, he was taken in as one of their own, and some of the natives even used medical techniques he had taught them to care for him. Livingstone fell out of touch with the world outside for more than six years. It was assumed that he had died in some horrible way, whether eaten by a lion, or a native, or some other jungle animal roaming the jungles of the Dark Continent.
In 1871 Livingstone was discovered by Henry Morgan Stanley, a Welsh journalist and explorer who had been hired by New York Herald to find him and write of his experience.
When he located Livingstone in the town of Ujiji, in Tanzania, the legend that he greeted his objective with the famous words “Dr. Livingstone, I presume,” probably did not actually happen. In Stanley’s subsequent book, How I Found Livingstone (https://www.abebooks.com/servlet/SearchResults?isbn=9788854401204&n=100121503&cm_sp=mbc-_-ISBN-_-used) this tale was told, meant as a joke because Livingstone was the only other white person for ‘presumably’ hundreds of miles.
Livingstone spent the last two years of his life in Zambia, where he died of malaria in 1873. He was considered one of the great heroes of both Britain and Africa, until rumors of his own racism emerged, sullying his reputation and condemning him to the ashes of the colonial past.
It was in 1888 when the British finally decided to take over the region both including and surrounding Zambia. The British South Africa Company pressured the then king of what would shortly become Northern Rhodesia into giving away exclusive mining rights to the minerals of the nation. This enabled the British to arrive en masse and set up yet another protectorate under their absolute control.
Without any real knowledge of what they might find, Cecil Rhodes, the founder of the BSA Company (get it? Rhodesia!)
sent his American scout, Frederick Russell Burnham
to plunder the land. He would eventually uncover massive reserves of copper, which made him rich and Rhodes even richer.
By 1923 Northern Rhodesia was given to the British government by Rhodes, while Southern Rhodesia temporarily remained under the BSA’s control. There was, after all, quite a bit more to tear out of the earth. Finally it too was ceded to Great Britain.
Time moved forward and the nations kept growing smaller and smaller, different national interests claiming different portions of the region (diamonds, emeralds, silver and poppy were discovered to be rampant everywhere). New nations sprouted out of slivers of the larger land, ultimately forming Zimbabwe and Malawi alongside Zambia. The rupture and chaos of these constant transitions destroyed the economies of some, while enriching others, including Zambia.
It was in 1960 when the people of Zambia had finally had enough. The British were still busy trying to organize their small protectorates into one unified business holding company. But the dream of democracy had invaded the minds of the increasingly frustrated population. Two new political parties rapidly emerged, organizing protests that took the opposition to the British from a sizable minority into a vast majority. The first party to make a name for itself was the African National Congress, led by Harry Nkumbula,
an inspirational party organizer who had no political agenda outside of freedom from British rule. The African National Congress was rapidly overtaken by the United National Independence Party in 1961. This party was led by Kenneth Kaunda, the man who would become Zambia’s first President a few years later.
In 1959 Kaunda had been imprisoned after white liberals turned on him, terrified by his insistence on Black Majority Rule. While the whites were in favor of freedom, and were even willing to consider appointing a nominal black leader subject only to British rule, Kaunda became increasingly radical in his racial politics and was declared a danger to the well-being of Rhodesia.
After being released from prison nine months later, Kaunda went on a tour of America, mostly in order to meet Martin Luther King, Jr. Following their meeting Kaunda returned to Zambia and began a campaign of civil disobedience which, unlike King’s mostly peaceful demonstrations, immediately erupted into riots, featuring looting and arson.
In 1964 Kaunda was elected President of independent Zambia. His first order of business was to revolutionize the educational system, which stood as among the worst in the world. The country itself was populated by less than one percent who had completed their primary education. In fact, there were at that time only one hundred and nine university graduates who were native to the nation.
Kaunda invested most of the nation’s wealth into improving the schools, instituting policies that all students would receive free books, pens and pencils. The parents’ only responsibilities were to pay for uniforms and make sure that their children attended class (they could face fines should the children be absent too often).
The prospects of an educated Zambia exploded after this, the University of Zambia opening in 1966 and becoming one of the top colleges in all of Africa within a few years. At this time Kaunda was beloved, called the Father of the Country, and celebrated with his name being plastered on nearly every new utility and construction.
In 1973 consensus fell apart, tribal warfare bleeding into inner-party turmoil, as well as a severe economic recession due to the worldwide oil crisis. This put the nation’s export business almost entirely on hold. To quell the unrest and violence, Kaunda banned all political opposition parties, thus forming yet another dictatorship in Africa. Taking a newly Socialist approach to government, every business was suddenly nationalized, turning the copper industry into 95% of the nation’s economic interest. And once the price of copper began to decline in the mid-1970s, the nation fell into the darkest poverty in its history.
One of the other major issues that erupted at the time of independence was, as with so many other nations throughout the world, women’s rights. A rather horrifying example of resistance to such movements, as well as the inspired toxicity of religion, can be related in the Lumpa Uprising.
In 1953 a woman by the name of Alice Lenshina fell into a deep coma as a result of malaria. It was believed by her doctors that she would surely die. And yet she regained consciousness and declared that she had met Jesus Christ, who restored her to health and given her a mission. She proclaimed herself a Prophetess, and began going around Zambia preaching the message of her new religion, which stated that all women were the voices closest to God.
Lenshina founded a church, eventually known as Lumpa. She decided that the only requirement to be a Christian was baptism. Beyond this, she shouted her screed of morality, condemning many ancient tribal practices such as polygamy (she had once been married and in a particularly abusive relationship), drinking alcohol, and witchcraft. She was an absolutist and true believer in her faith, and her powerful message attracted many followers, seeking a new life at the moment of independence.
It was 1964 when the Lumpa Uprising occurred. Leaders of the Lumpa church began protesting against President Kaunda, claiming he was a sorcerer. They advised their adherents, who had grown to a large number, to leave the villages run by members of the United National Independence Party, and separate themselves into their own independent villages, away from government control and free to live life the way they believed it was meant to be.
Eventually an armed conflict broke out, Zambian soldiers firing on a compound, and the Lumpas firing back. It was an absolute bloodbath, killing, over time, at least 1,000 people, and as many as 7,000, depending of which side’s numbers you believe.
Kaunda outlawed the church after the rebellion, and a mournful Lenshina turned herself in. She believed that the situation had gotten out of hand not because of the violence, but because her message against polygamy was blurred in the aftermath of the massacre. She was placed under house arrest in August of 1964. She was never given a trial for her alleged crimes. She died in prison in 1978.
Kenneth Kaunda lasted in office until 1991. For years he had followed the pattern of his African peers by running fraudulent elections and increasingly cracking down on any opposition. But in 1990, with the continuing turmoil over economic issues, and the fact that Zambia had one of the largest debts in the world, riots broke out protesting Kaunda’s authoritarian rule.
Kaunda was pressured into placing a referendum on the upcoming ballot regarding whether to legalize opposition parties in Zambia, although he went on a campaign trail preaching fear about the chaos that would erupt if the nation were officially divided into partisan camps.
That was enough for one particular high-ranking member of the military, who went on state radio to announce that Kaunda had been overthrown. It was not true, but it led to further chaos in the streets, organized into an actual coup attempt that was suppressed a few hours later.
Reeling from the violence and anarchy overtaking the nation, Kaunda bowed to the opposition, and a new party arose, the Movement for Multiparty Democracy, which crushed the UNIP in the next election, replacing nearly every member of parliament, and voting Kaunda out of office. He received only 24% of the popular vote.
The new President, Frederick Chiluba, was a former trade union leader, and a man who since childhood had been obsessed with the power of politics.
Chiluba offered an interesting contrast to his predecessor. Standing only five feet tall, Chiluba made up for the doubt people had about his short stature with a loud, ebullient personality, and a personal charm that caused many people to swoon. He was also a born-again Christian, a fanatical one, who saw the rapture coming any day now. This led him to believe that all money and all earthly goods no longer had value, and that the nation needed only to pray for salvation in order to assure themselves a blissful future in Heaven. This, of course, did wonders for the down turning economy.
Chiluba lasted in office for a little over ten years, and his exit from leadership in 2002 was followed by numerous charges of corruption. He was charged with 168 counts of theft, purportedly stealing more than forty million dollars from the Zambian government. In addition, he was found guilty in a London court of diverting forty-six million dollars into British banks. Chiluba claimed it was meant for secret intelligence funds and was laughed out of court. The judge mocked him for spending all his stolen money on an expensive wardrobe and lavish gifts for his wife (she too was arrested for possession of stolen goods).
Things got even worse for Chiluba as his health declined and the ordered repayment rose to fifty-eight million dollars, with legal costs and interest added. He was also commanded to leave his home, which was purchased with ill-gotten funds. He died of heart disease in 2011.
The next president on the chopping block was Levy Mwanawasa, a generally decent man who managed to creep into office with only 29% of the popular vote due to the nine other candidates he was running against. Mwanawasa’s main platform was anti-corruption, a popular idea in the aftermath of Chiluba. In fact, Mwanawasa’s policies helped stabilize the Zambian economy, although 75% of the nation still lived on less than one dollar a day.
Mwanawasa, a genial man, was well-liked by foreign investors, who quickly improved conditions within Zambia, giving the people an idea of a future free from poverty.
A few months before election day in 2006, Mwanawasa suffered a mild stroke. Instantly rumors of his death began spreading, changing the polls and yet still keeping him ahead in the prospective vote. When he re-emerged for the election he won by a sizable margin. Within two years he would be dead of a second stroke.
Vice-President Rupiah Banda took over, focused exclusively on improving the economy. While working on this rather successfully, he also dismantled nearly all of Mwanawasa’s anti-corruption policies. Otherwise Banda was forgettable for everything other than his milder anti-homosexual stance from many of his predecessors (Chiluba declared it was both “unbiblical” and “against human nature.” He used the tired cliche about there being “a special place in hell” for such criminals.) Homosexuality had been outlawed in Zambia since long before independence. There are mandatory tests within suspect communities of anal probing to investigate charges of sodomy, which is punishable by up to fourteen years in prison.
Banda’s successor, Michael Sata
was a longtime politician, a member of several previous administrations, and a two-time loser in presidential elections. He was the founder of the Patriotic Front, the political party that has since emerged as the ruling administration. Sata promised China that he would protect their investments, and his wife made a brief statement about allowing homosexuals equal rights under the law, but that is about all this influential lifelong politician accomplished as president of his increasingly successful nation, all this in spite of himself.
Sata died before the end of his term, his sudden illness giving rise to theories that he was no longer in control of the government. When his Vice-Preisdent, Guy Scott, took over, he became the first white leader in Zambia since independence.
He lasted in office for eighty-nine days and declined to run for re-election. His accomplishments over the brief time are negligible and, in an ironic twist he will likely only be remembered for the color of his skin.
The current president of Zambia is Edgar Lungu
a sincere reformer who has commuted the death sentences of more than 300 people to life in prison, and has taken it to heart to fix the “affront to basic human dignity” that is the overcrowding of prisons.
Lungu appears to suffer from numerous health problems, several times having collapsed while giving speeches, but he remains an active participant in both his own nation’s interests as well as the international community. And while he is forced to confront many of the same issues so many other places face today,
the world still holds a bright spot in this nation’s perhaps naive, good-willed intentions. After all, here, too, is Zambia:
©2019 Lance Polin