Are you thinking what I'm thinking?

By Lwanga Mwilu

It is Independence Day and in joining the millions of other citizens who are commemorating this important milestone of 51 years of an independent Zambia, I wish to share my thoughts on one of our freedoms and hopefully inspire a public interrogation of the extent to which we are enjoying it.

Freedom of expression is one of our core indicators of democracy and a freedom that is crucial to the protection and enjoyment of all other freedoms. I wish to reflect on this freedom, particularly in light of what appears to be an uncomfortable relationship between information minister, honourable Chishimba Kambwili and Radio Phoenix, as well as Phoenix’s dismissal of Christine Ngwisha.

Last Tuesday, honourable Kambwili was a guest on Let the people talk and everyone who listened to the programme can confirm that the minister was not happy with his interviewer, Christine. He openly expressed his frustration with her and the way she was conducting the interview and later went on to accuse her/Radio Phoenix of planting opposition UPND cadres to gang up on him during the phone-in segment of the show. Come Friday, Christine got fired and what has followed is the inevitable speculation of whether or not her dismissal is linked to the minister’s interview.

This week, the minister is back on Radio Phoenix’s case, accusing them of being anti-government and pro-UPND and threatening to revoke their operating licence. Now this would probably be just another story elsewhere, but in a country that identifies itself as a democracy, seeing the government openly take such a position is very worrying.

Let me go back to the minister’s appearance on Let the people talk and particularly the point where Christine read some emails sent in by listeners and honourable Kambwili accused her/ Radio Phoenix of planting UPND cadres to send those emails. He also expressed his suspicion at the station’s faulty phones and offered his mobile phone to be used instead. The phone problem was eventually fixed but the minister still felt there was some kind of conspiracy on who could actually get through.

While I cannot argue with honourable Kambwili’s suspicion that there was a conspiracy to have UPND cadres air their views because I imagine he has some basis for that, I found nothing unusual about the views in the emails he got that day. They were just like the comments we often see on social media and I felt, instead of protesting that much, the minister should have simply welcomed those views and challenged them with his own so that at the end of the day, we (the listening public) would decide which messages worked for us. This should be the way a public sphere operates in a democracy: divergent views allowed equal space to be articulated, contested and defended. Divergent views from PF, UPND, FDD, and so on, fairly competing for credibility, legitimacy and the support of the electorate.

Given this expectation, I feel the minister’s emphatic “Us vs Them” attitude is a missed opportunity by the government to show its commitment to a diverse public sphere and an independent media that is free to be a platform for the different voices in our society.  In the same way I felt, as the government spokesperson, he could have simply accommodated those emails and calls without making it seem like being UPND invalidated one’s views on matters of public interest. Besides, whether those sentiments were expressed on that programme or not would not have changed the fact that they do exist. Would the minister have preferred to only receive solidarity feedback and remain unaware of the dissenting views held by some people? Is it not better to be made aware of dissent at a time when you still have an opportunity to plan an intervention rather than say people expressing their dissent on the ballot?

I feel that the minister does not appreciate enough the fact that unanimity on every issue is neither possible nor necessary in a democracy. I also feel it is not correct to reduce dissent to political party affiliation as if that is the only possible reason. What about one’s social context?

I know for example that I agree with the government on some issues and disagree on others, same situation with different opposition parties and that is simply due to my own reality informed by my background, my being a journalist, my being a woman and a youth (these two worlds, as you may appreciate, often place me at some very taxing frontiers) and other factors that have absolutely nothing to do with political affiliation. This, I believe, is the experience of a lot of people: to take a message and bring our own interpretations to it based on our own agency, capacity for analysis and of course lived reality. It is not always about party affiliation. And even if one day I chose to be affiliated to a party, I would want to be more useful than that member who simply agrees and praises…is it not better to be built by criticism than ruined by praise?

At 51, the measure of patriotism in Zambia should not be based on whether one agrees or disagrees with the government position on things. Opposing views are also a form of patriotism because they provide opportunities for the status quo to be challenged and even transformed for the better. I think if the space for inclusive deliberation on matters of public interest is allowed to shrink and either exclude or underrepresent contesting discourses, the government will end up in an echo chamber where the only voice they hear is their own and the inevitable disconnect from the electorate’s reality that will follow from such a situation will help no one.

I think the minister may want to step back a bit and assess his views on Radio Phoenix and even The Post. When the PF were in opposition, these were some of the media institutions that risked their necks and gave president Michael Sata a platform to reach the masses. I remember doing a thorough analysis of the media coverage in the run-up to 2011 elections and how ZNBC, Daily Mail and Times of Zambia were outdoing each other in praising MMD and simultaneously demonising PF. If Sata made it in any headlines, it was a story linking him to homosexuality, violence and whatever these media knew would put off the public. These media did not live up to their public media mandate and our information needs and rights as citizens were not met because we never got a balanced representation of events. Given the PF’s background and how their rise to power was in part aided by media that dared to do more than just parrot the government of the day’s songs, we expect better than a constrained public media and a threatened private media.

The dismissal of Christine after over 10 years at Phoenix is a very uncomfortable moment for the media in general. The minister’s warning to Phoenix staff is even more uncomfortable because he is a very powerful man in this country and so how can the media speak truth to power if they have to simultaneously negotiate their way around their seemingly threatened jobs?  How much can one do if their job seems to be held by a spider’s web? I look forward to the outcome of the investigation into Christine’s dismissal, which the minister said is being conducted by the Independent Broadcasting Authority. And I also challenge Radio Phoenix to put us all at ease by proving that Christine’s dismissal was not an act of intimidation and victimisation for simply doing her job. We cannot have such precedents in a country that is fighting for media freedom, especially not in private media where typically, journalists are expected to enjoy more latitude and freedom to do their work.

Let me end by saying that dissent is not inherently an enemy of the government and should not be seen as such. It is as good as a messenger that alerts them to a dissatisfied reality that then becomes possible for them to tackle. In dealing with public views, I think it is important to recognise one’s privilege in any given situation and how that positioning potentially blinds one to the reality of those on the other side of that privilege. It is equally important not to dismiss someone’s experience just because we do not share that experience. As we say in Bemba, icikalipa cumfwa umwine: the one who feels it knows it best; and just because it is not your struggle does not mean it is not a struggle. It is important to locate dissent within such contexts and analyse it from there.

From one patriotic Zambian to another, I wish to encourage honourable Kambwili and through him, the government, to help grow a healthy public sphere where divergent views, no matter how uncomfortable, are allowed expression. We need to entrench, not stifle, participatory democracy in all its forms. This is the Zambia we desire and deserve.

Our independence came at great cost and sacrifice and it is therefore our responsibility as patriotic citizens to keep safeguarding our various freedoms. Happy 51st independence anniversary to the leadership and people of this beautiful country I am privileged to call home!

Twitter: @lwangamwilu

Note: Originally published in The Post of October 24, 2015.


If it was entirely up to the government, I think some Zambian online publications would have long been shut down. With access to some sites already blocked, this week’s announcement by the minister of communication that the government is working on a law with the Zambia Information and Communication Technology Authority to make online media accountable was a mere reiteration of an already known position. Justifying the need to regulate online media, the minister said some publications are tarnishing the country’s image with their negative content and tendency to publish just anything and therefore need to be controlled.
In this blog, I share some of my observations on Zambian online media and in the next one I comment on the government’s position, among other issues.
With the ability to produce and disseminate news comes power: power to frame ‘reality’ by making preferred issues or interpretations salient and others insignificant or invisible; power to influence public discourse and opinion; and power to define ‘truth’, among others.
Previously, this ability and the power inherent in it was the preserve of a few but not anymore. Online platforms have significantly changed the media landscape in Zambia by removing the control on content production that was previously the norm and consequently enabling an ever increasing number of players in the field. These platforms have also presented unprecedented opportunities for citizens to speak on their governance and other issues of interest to them. Both changes are good for democracy because they enable enhanced freedom of expression, citizen participation and a bigger and more diverse public sphere, among other benefits.
These platforms merely provide a vehicle and their availability does not naturally translate into a more diverse public sphere or better informed public, for example. This then leads to the question: what are Zambians using online platforms for and what benefits are we enjoying? How does our reality compare to, for example, the democratising potential of these new media technologies?
Although I cannot answer these questions, here are some of my observations:
Copy and paste, Plagiarism: One benefit of new media is that voices and ideas that are excluded in traditional media can easily find expression online and I think social media has served Zambians very well on this score. Here we are able to access different voices, including those that challenge the dominant political, social and moral discourse promoted in traditional media. My concern, however, is how little original content there seems to be online compared to that which is merely lifted from one place, including radio and newspapers, and published by some online media. This probably works well for people in the diaspora who cannot access newspapers for example, but I think by merely replicating online the same voices and agendas that are privileged offline, an opportunity to further diversify the public sphere is lost. It means while the players may grow in number, the content does not increase so much in variety but only in circulation.
Different but related to this is plagiarism. I see too many cases of people who are comfortable stealing other people’s work and presenting it as their own. This is just one of several unethical practices common online.
Distortion, hearsay, hyperbole: As an ardent fan of new media, I find it unfortunate that some online media have normalised publishing distortions, hearsay and plain falsehoods as news. There is a clear lack of professionalism when it comes to basic news standards like verifying your information, insisting on accuracy, attempting fairness etc before publishing. “A source confirmed” is often the basis of serious allegations that would normally require provable evidence. Rumours, opinions and fabrications, no matter how defamatory, alarmist, exaggerated or indeed false, somehow find themselves published and I wonder if such online media believe they are exempt from any professionalism and ethical practice.
What cannot be ignored is the popularity of such stories among readers. Then there is also the tendency to pack their news with value judgements e.g. “the womanising and drunkard minister of this and that portfolio” and I wonder how that is a reporter’s place. How about just presenting provable facts and then allowing me, the reader, to decide what I think of that person and what I will call them? Sometimes I wonder how much time and opportunities for productivity get lost when so many people spend so much time spreading and reacting to hearsay. I wonder too what it means when so many people can hardly debate issues but can talk about personalities for days, unleashing some shocking attacks unrelated to the issue at hand. The intolerance in some comment threads is difficult to ignore; if the story they are reacting to involves a woman, especially a prominent one, then also expect some appallingly sexist comments.
Of the many opinions presented as fact, one example that quickly comes to mind is the interpretation of events as Satanism. I have seen, for example, how an online paper will confidently report a fatal road traffic accident as an act of Satanism and how people have been sacrificed etc. By presenting such personal beliefs as fact, I think responsibility gets shifted to what is beyond us – the paranormal – so where in these deliberations do we bring up issues we have control over such as road safety, road worthiness of vehicles on the roads, competence of drivers, road systems and so on? And talking of accidents, these also often show the lack of respect for basic ethics among some online media. An accident happens and pictures of victims in all states of mutilation get instantly posted online with no regard even for the most basic rule that no such identities can be revealed before families are notified.
Engrish: What online media and readers’ comments have magnified is the poor state of literacy among a lot of people. Sometimes I go over a sentence so many times but still fail to get even the remotest idea what the article is trying to communicate. I am not talking about such (unfortunately common) mistakes as cease being written as seize or their as there but entirely unintelligible sentences. I do not believe that proficiency in English is a requirement for participating in public affairs through online debate or any other chosen activity. Freedom of expression is not just for those who can write English correctly so I am not saying ‘Engrish’ writers should stop expressing themselves on matters of interest to them but it sure says a lot about how little the education system has done for some people. Until this year, English has been the sole official language of instruction from pre-school right through to college/university so it is definitely worrying to see so much unintelligible writing even by people who spent a minimum of 12 years in school. Also, I find it easier to forgive Engrish in comment threads and other user content than in the articles themselves because if you decide to publish in a particular language then you must make an extra effort to get it right.
Uncritical consumption: It is quite evident that a lot of people are uncritical in their news consumption and even those stories that should easily raise questions because of their evident lack of plausibility get taken as gospel truth. What I cannot claim to know is whether this unquestioning acceptance of just anything is due to ignorance or perhaps a conscious need to believe whatever tale has been fabricated because that is what they would like to be true. What I also find interesting is how even when some of these stories are later exposed as fabrications, this type of reader remains unquestioning in their belief and keeps taking everything as gospel truth. This state, I believe, is what enables some of the online media to carry on as they do. They have seen that they can be grossly unprofessional and even ridiculous and still remain extremely popular. There are of course other factors for this popularity (like exclusive exposés) which are a whole story for another day.
Sometimes the most factually incorrect information gets endless conversations going or gets zealously spread and repeated with none of the participants realising that the story is incorrect. This is actually being used by some people to intentionally fabricate stories for propaganda and mudslinging purposes. They are also rewriting history and telling it as they wish it had happened. Players are being erased from significant moments in history and others being fitted in/being magnified; not entirely honourable legacies are getting sanitized and heroes created belatedly.
So when I ask myself, has new media delivered enhanced citizen-consciousness, for example? The answer is yes and no. It is of course not realistic to expect what does not exist offline to magically be born online. People who make no effort to empower themselves with knowledge that enables them some capacity for critical thinking should not be expected to suddenly exhibit that capacity just because they are now online. There are lots of well researched and informative articles that get published and their popularity is nowhere near the sensational and sometimes plain fabricated ones. You will just see a few reactions and not all of them are about the issues raised. Somebody will go to great lengths to, for example, analyse the removal of fuel and mealie meal subsidies, a subject that affects all, and you will not see it generating as many reactions as something on Satanism for example would. If someone can however ‘explain’ subsidies in terms of Satanism, I bet it would become an instant hot cake.
So how do we address this situation? Do we let the defamation, sexism, distortion, pettiness and outright falsehoods just continue? Surely the government should go ahead and regulate these sites and even block some of them, no? No. In my next blog I share why I do not support the government’s position and why I think some practices are not exclusive to online media.

{November 6, 2013}   Morality, condoms and HIV

Scenario one:
“Do not promote condoms here, they encourage immorality.” “Condoms are against our culture.” “Condoms are laced with diseases.” Anti-condom sentiment in Zambia takes different narratives with some anchored on paranoia, myth, ignorance, cultural dos and don’ts and so on. The immorality narrative, however, is one of the commonest. This is the one that gets repeatedly expressed even by some influential members of society like politicians and religious leaders. My (potentially wrong) understanding is that condoms, within this narrative, are seen as encouraging people to have sex outside marriage, which is the sole relationship with moral approval for sexual activity.
I imagine that (again potentially wrong) the belief is that without condoms, many people will be reluctant to engage in pre or extra marital sex because they will be afraid of catching STIs including HIV. So through this fear, sexual immorality is curbed… there are of course other reasons like religious principles, personal choice etc. For those motivated by fear though, once condoms are introduced in the picture, fear leaves and sex becomes free for all. Or maybe the assumption is that school kids know nothing about sex and condom education and access will rob them of their innocence and introduce them too early to the adult world of sex. Remember, these are just my theories about how “condoms encourage immorality” and I have no idea how close to or far from the truth they are; the advocates of this view are in a better position to explain.
Scenario two:
“1 out of 3 young people gets HIV everyday in Zambia….Zambia does not have the luxury of not using condoms… Prevention messages are out there and condoms are out there but availability and accessibility do not equal use. People just do not use condoms, how do we change that?” Dr. Mary Otieno, UNFPA Country Representative (Quote partly paraphrased).
Approximately 14.3 % of adult Zambians (15-49 years) are living with HIV and the predominant mode of transmission is unprotected sex (sex without condoms). We are not doing as well as many other countries; ours is almost three times Kenya’s current prevalence rate for example. Why are we still recording so many preventable new HIV infections even when there is so much information, professional support and easily accessible prevention tools?

I had been meaning to blog about the upcoming 16 days of activism against Gender Based Violence (November 25 – December 10) and how, in addition to everything else, I find it especially significant that World AIDS Day falls within this same period. I wanted to blog about GBV, the impact of unequal power relations on sexual relations, vulnerability to HIV infection, state of sexual and reproductive health needs and rights for the average woman, unplanned pregnancies/children especially among the young and their role in perpetuating poverty and lack of empowerment…it was a long list of issues that I wanted to get into and I had no idea where to start or how to present them. Then last week I got invited to a UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund) stakeholders training and launch of Condomize Zambia! a campaign to promote condom use in Zambia. It is there that I had a moment of clarity with regard to how I would start what I hope to be the first of a number of related blogs.
On day one, we were all asked to write down our expectations of the training and our fears then a few randomly selected ones were read out and one fear was “the condomize campaign will encourage immorality in Zambia.” I am very familiar with this view and it no longer shocks me, but in that space of stakeholders working to fight against HIV, it came like a punch in the gut. I do not know if the participant who wrote that actually believes it or if they were just trying to remind us of the existence of this view so that we could launch a discussion on it. I can only hope it is the latter.
Not too long ago, a newspaper quoted the Gender deputy minister saying government would be going against morals if it allowed the distribution of condoms in schools. He believes that would promote immorality because “we will be asking children to be experimenting….We have a moral obligation as a country, as families, to ensure that we look after our children…” He was a different person saying an already well repeated thing.
I saw a similar view but in stronger language in a letter to the editor in another paper addressing “immoral and irresponsible NGOs” and it read in part “Zambia has cultural values which should be protected from these agents of western depravity…We will not allow pervert organisations and individuals to destroy our society through their promotion of immorality among our children…The fact that there is an increase in teenage pregnancies and illegal abortions is not a licence for these peddlers of evil to justify immorality”
How do we address this tension between morality and cultural standards and the HIV reality on our hands? What are your views?
For me, I worry a lot whenever I hear this anti-condom speech, regardless of the source. I worry about the implications of being a country with such a huge HIV and AIDS challenge yet still dismissing one of the best and most accessible forms of prevention against infection and re-infection. I worry about the many prevention opportunities that will keep getting missed due to prioritising condom stigma over people’s lives. With 52 % of our population aged 18 and younger, I worry that the much loved “they are too young to know about or access condoms” will send a generation to a war front without the necessary information to make smart choices.
I went to grade eight when I was 11 turning 12, I was quite young but my new environment did not respect that. There were boys and girls, some much older and more exposed to certain ways. There was pressure to do all kinds of things including drinking beer and having sex, and no there were no NGOs promoting condom use those days. Some people around me got away with it all, others were not so lucky and ended up pregnant etc and lucky for me, my sex education had not been based on fear. My sex education was part of a bigger education on knowing and valuing myself and my goals, on the various possibilities that lay ahead and how my choices would determine what I end up with, on being an individual and never forgetting where I came from no matter how big a crowd I found myself in. I was young but I was well empowered with information and I do not remember ever making a choice due to external influence, and even today at such a different stage in my life, external influence still does not make it on my list of motivations for making any decision that I consider personal.
What is the point of this life history, you may ask. My point is people are best taught young. If your child, no matter how young, is properly prepared no amount of information or access to condoms will make them have sex if that is not what they believe in. My point is ignorance is hardly a smart choice for a young person you love especially now in a time of HIV. As parents and guardians and indeed any adult with young loved ones, the best you can hope for is that they will adhere to the values you have imparted; I am assuming all adults do that somehow. In the event that they do not and say decide to have sex prematurely without your knowledge, as many do, would you not prefer then that they do the next best thing and protect themselves?
The 14.3 % includes 15 year olds who contracted HIV through unprotected sex. This is our reality. When stats on school girls who got pregnant in each province get presented, it is always about the policy that allows them to return to school after maternity leave. This is a great policy but I would be happy if those stats were also discussed in relation to exposure to HIV. If so many can and do get pregnant, then that entire number was at some point vulnerable to HIV infection. Now add to that the many more who do not get pregnant and therefore their status as sexually active school girls and boys never comes under public scrutiny. Consider casual sex and the various ways it occurs among young and old, multiple and concurrent sexual partnerships, intergenerational sex, gay sex and so many other realities that we as a society prefer to pretend do not exist. Is this blanket dismissal of condoms our best option? Will people continue feeling scandalized by the promotion of condom use even given our reality?

{September 10, 2013}   Supremacy and masculinity

This is the third and final part of my series on understandings of what it means to be a man and some of the implications for both men and women.

As earlier pointed out, the masculinity that our society promotes as ideal is largely constructed in relation to power and dominance. It therefore follows that dominance, particularly over women, is a significant marker of ‘real’ manhood. This is well in line with patriarchal ideology which positions the man as ‘naturally’ superior and the woman inferior. It must be said right here that there is nothing natural about this hierarchy; it is socially constructed to serve particular interests and it is necessary to interrogate whose interests get negated in this process. 

In order for this ‘superior man’ type of masculinity to be achieved, women are required to take up a subservient role; one that does not threaten the man’s ‘natural headship’. This is why the centuries- old project to constrain women and keep them ‘in line’ remains relevant and much protected to this day. Most of the methods have changed, obviously, but the goal remains pretty much the same.

Consider how a woman’s empowerment and success beyond a certain level is constructed as a bad thing for herself and others. This woman, the one who asserts herself in arenas beyond what patriarchal thinking has assigned her, is bound to face all kinds of opposition and negativity from both men and women. This is because the place she now assumes contradicts her ‘natural’ place as a woman and consequently challenges what it means to be a ‘real’ man.   

So the expectation is that, no matter how smart a woman is, she must be careful not to excel ‘too much’ and empower herself beyond  the reach/acceptance of a potential or current partner. It also means while a good education and big job significantly enhance the eligibility of a man among both educated and uneducated women, the same can and actually do encumber the eligibility of a woman.

This idea of dominance as a marker of ‘real’ manhood and concern about women empowering themselves ‘out of the market’ is not just a Zambian thing. “Strong, independent – and lonely – women” is the title of one of the chapters in Steve Harvey’s book Act like a lady: think like a man. This chapter, like the well repeated advice many girls and women are familiar with, is a ‘warning’ to women to not be “too empowered” and “too independent” because it ruins their chances of either getting or keeping a man. Apparently, such a woman scares off men because she denies them ‘their right’ to “take charge” and consequently emasculates them. 

It is such ideas that encourage that unnecessary hostility to female strength and success that is so common; the illogical fear that the bigger she grows as a woman, the smaller he becomes as a man. I often wonder of what use it is to anyone to applaud a man’s success as the good thing it actually is but construct the same success as a bad thing if it’s a woman’s. I find anything that hinders a woman from reaching the limit of her best detrimental. I also find this thinking detrimental because it promotes insecurity and a sense of inadequacy in many men. It means that a man’s sense of self worth is attached to factors he has no realistic control over e.g. how accomplished a woman becomes. It means that no matter how well a man does for himself, if the woman in his life does better then he will have ‘failed’.                                                                     The paranoia that is promoted due to this belief that a woman’s empowerment automatically makes a man irrelevant in her life is proof of how problematic the common ‘real man’ script is. It has convinced many men that all they are good for is ‘headship’ (which some interpret as answering to no one) over unquestioning women and providing the bacon so when they encounter an assertive woman who can bring home the whole pig, they feel small and irrelevant. Did nobody talk to anyone about companionship; about being relevant beyond material support?       I mean if you believe that your relevance to another person is solely dependent on their vulnerability and subordination then surely you have reason to worry. This same belief that an empowered woman causes a man to lose his ‘natural’ power and control over her cannot also be divorced from the many cases of GBV. Some ‘threatened’ men resort to physical and emotional abuse to assert what they believe is their rightful dominance. That is one of the many prices being paid for encouraging misplaced entitlements and expectations. 

A woman, however, is free to be a thousand times better than any man when it comes to doing house chores and no one will feel emasculated because she gets no economic benefits from it. This is no accident; it is a patriarchal strategy. With house work safely reduced to unpaid work, it becomes a woman’s ‘natural’ role; it is why women can have it all and they do not have to lose sleep over securing their participation…there’s no need to campaign for 30 or 50 % representation, they can have 100 % if they want. And it is not a surprise that a lot of men feel that doing house work emasculates them. From childhood, house chores are not traditionally considered essential skills for boys. The expectation is that their mothers and sisters will take care of that business and later their wives will take over. So on the one hand, society prepares a boy to expect to be served in that area and on the other it creates anxiety for the girl who cannot cook, clean etc; society stresses her into learning because “no man can marry a woman who cannot cook.”

And that is just one of too many problematic ways girls and women’s lives are made all about being acceptable to men. From a young age and throughout their lives, many girls and women are socialised to be submissive, demure and keen for male approval. “Men like women who do this; who don’t do that; who are like this; who are not like that” and so entire lives become about being the ‘ideal woman’ who will get a good grade from a man. From there, it follows that pleasing a man is one of her most important ‘natural’ roles. And that is how some girls and women’s lives get policed; their worlds shrunk and their options and interests shaped to fit the script recommended by patriarchy. Many boys on the other hand are socialised to be bold, in charge, autonomous and of course taught what to expect from an ideal woman, how to keep her in line as a ‘real’ man etc.  

I have never believed that suppressing women so that men can enjoy their ‘natural’ dominance is useful to anyone. Like Toni Morrison correctly points out: “if you’re going to hold someone down, you are going to have to hold on by the other end of the chain. You are confined by your own repression.”

Today’s man needs to choose a progressive way of being a man. One that allows him to aspire, achieve and be content without needing to be validated through supremacy over women; one that does not look to oppressive hierarchies and brutality for validation.

{September 10, 2013}   No to the smoke, yes to the fire

This is a continuation of the previous blog “who do men think they are?” It continues to interrogate some of the types of masculinity that our society privileges and the implications for both men and women. The case I continue to make here is that such understandings of what it means to be a man are not immaterial; they play a role in the pathetic attitudes towards women and girls that we currently witness.

Violence against women is one of the most visible indicators of what is wrong with the way men and women relate in our country. I cannot begin to count the number of times Gender Based Violence (GBV) is reported in the news; women being battered and killed by intimate partners. Today you hear about a woman who was killed for not preparing her husband’s meal on time, killed for allegedly cheating on her boyfriend or husband, killed because the husband came home from a drinking spree (as our news typically says it) and started beating her until she died. Pregnant women are not exempt from this battering and murdering, you already know this if you follow Zambian news or live in those neighbourhoods where GBV is a part of daily community life.

While many people strongly condemn such happenings, they have no problem with the underlying mindset that enables such behaviour in the first place. Male violence against women is largely accepted and continually encouraged and defended in different ways especially in understandings of what it means to be a man. When a woman is beaten up, be it by a partner or stranger (refer to my regular song on ‘indecent dressing’), she is not always recognised as a victim of violence, sometimes she is seen as a deserving recipient. “She asked for it” “she was taught a lesson” “what do you expect from a man when you do this and that” “he disciplined her”… These same voices of collusion and apologism are also heard when a woman gets raped “what was she wearing when it happened?” “Ama mini naya cilamo” Excuses are made for the male perpetrator and his victim made to share part of the blame which is logically all his. “She provoked him, that is why he beat her up” “She wore a ‘slutty’ skirt and enticed him, he could not help it” “She is very pretty and he is a man, what did she expect?” 

The very loud message in all this is: do not get beaten, do not get raped instead of do not beat and by all means do not rape! This, however, is the entitlement that society continues to hand male perpetrators of GBV and so the impunity continues. Is it logical to side with perpetrators and sanitise GBV by deploying all kinds of euphemisms then later get surprised when this ‘discipline’ or ‘lesson’ one day results in murder? How can we expect real change when we do not tackle the source? It is like hating the smoke but doing nothing about the fire that is producing it, the smoke will not leave on its own. 

These behaviours do not get developed overnight; they are long term outcomes of an environment that nurtures them and allows their growth to suffocating levels. An environment that allows disrespect for women to be reduced to the banal, a ‘no big deal’ part of everyday. Sometimes I get overwhelmed by all the hate and insults that get directed at women; the amount of contempt in them is just sickening. It just takes a small thing, sometimes even just boredom, for the deeply held contempt for women to get spewed. Online media platforms especially convince me that there is a gigantic reservoir of this contempt just waiting for expression and that is why it never runs out.

When expression and social practices that demean and violate are left to continue unchallenged, when they are repeated and normalised, what exactly do we expect to follow? Is it not collusion when we quietly tolerate derogatory attitudes and violence against women and yet we find our voices when there is a woman to be trashed and put in her ‘rightful’ place? Why do people find it easier to live with unjust patriarchal systems and practices which constrain even them yet cannot tolerate any disruption; cannot tolerate those who even just dare question them?

I get very uncomfortable by our society’s general inclination towards the perpetrators; how rather than try to address the perpetrator, they teach the victim to just live with it. This is why marriage as a shipikisha club (endurance club) and ubuchende bwa mwaume tabonaula ng’anda (a man’s infidelity does not destroy a home) still find themselves acceptable traditional teachings. This is typical of the male supremacy promoted as ideal masculinity: you are the head, you answer to no one (see next blog). What then does it mean for women when you remove this expectation of accountability from men?    

It is for the purpose of sustaining this type of masculinity that certain behaviours are even encouraged in women, like romanticising the idea of the self-sacrificing woman who forgives everything and has no problem giving more than she gets. There are in fact several forms of oppression and abuse that have been romanticised to help the victim cope better. Some women who get beaten, exploited, disrespected, abused etc even justify their tolerance as strength; a strong and well cultured woman who weathers much to keep her relationship going. This is probably part of the reason why some women are even in the forefront of perpetuating practices that actually constrain them; they participate in their own suppression because the project has been sold to them in a form so disguised that they do not recognise themselves as victims. 

I think a lot of people have a harsh understanding of what it means to be a man: real men don’t do this, real men do this, real men this and that.  Some of the benchmarks are harsh and damaging and not in the least bit necessary. That is why we need engaged and continuous discussions on what it means to be a man today in order to challenge some of the prevailing problematic understandings. Today’s man needs to create his own discourse of what it means to be a man; he cannot uncritically replicate his grandfather’s script for example, when the times in which they exist are so different. Times have changed and so should mindsets. Society also needs to be more supportive of the men who do not subscribe to the dominant brutish masculinity that believes might is right. This is how progressive attitudes will become more widespread and entrenched. It is possible.

The next blog is about supremacy as a marker of ‘real’ manhood.  

{June 18, 2013}   Who do men think they are?

Our society proposes particular ways of being a man by esteeming some types of masculinity over others. This is how come we have categories: “a real man”, “a sissy” and so on. Needless to say, some categories are more desirable than others. My interest in this categorisation, and the hierarchy it promotes, is its inclination towards brutish masculinity; how the ideal manhood is largely constructed in relation to power and dominance. 

I think it is important to interrogate some of the thinking (as prescribed by society) that informs men’s understanding of who they are, who they are expected to be and how that influences their conduct. It is important because for every ideal way of being a man that gets promoted, there is an accompanying implication for women; who men think they are affects, to a significant extent, who they think women ought to be. We, therefore, cannot divorce the appalling sexism and GBV we witness in this country from some of these understandings.

A situation: a government minister goes on a public platform and claims that in his culture,   beating your wife is a sign of love. He sparks outrage for promoting Gender Based Violence but mostly, he gets quiet solidarity and in some sections even open support. Why? Because he was simply repeating what many men and women understand as one of the roles of a man: to “discipline” his wife whenever necessary. This stems from a broader view of women as minors who best exist under a male guardian and within this thinking, it makes sense for a wife to get “disciplined” just like a child.               

This view also accounts for other attitudes that entitle men, in different situations, to think, speak, and act on behalf of women the way you would for a young child. Today women may no longer need the written permission of their husbands to do certain things (although this requirement still exists in some cases!), but they are still expected to satisfy external approval even in personal business. It is why women and girls still get beaten and stripped naked by male strangers who do not “approve” of their “indecent dressing” because those men feel entitled to a say in what those women should or should not wear.  

A situation: a key opposition leader calls a fellow man a “woman” in a context that suggests “woman” was on that day a synonym for “coward”. Again, some outrage but largely quiet acceptance. This, I think, was because he merely stated what is widely accepted within this particular thinking. When a woman is told “she is the best man for the job” or “she has balls” (this decidedly evokes masculinity), it is meant to be a compliment as man in this context is used to represent competence, courage etc. When a man is told “he is such a woman”, this is an insult regardless of context. So you can praise a woman by calling her a man and you can shame a man by calling him a woman: what does this say about our perception of men and women? See how even men who foreground their sensitive and gentle side are sometimes shamed as “weak”, “not real men” because that nature is supposedly for women and, according to this thinking, not something respectable.

A situation: years later, the same opposition leader mentioned above calls a female political opponent, a party president like himself, a little girl and tells her to go to the market and shop if she has run out of things to cook. So here again, apart from this woman being addressed as a minor she is also being ‘reminded’ of her ‘rightful place’ in the kitchen. Again there was some outrage but no serious consequences because these remarks were not exactly a deviation from the script: the public sphere is for men and any woman who ventures there is misplaced and cannot be taken seriously. This one woman of course does not represent all Zambian women and if she was being addressed as a politician, we would have all taken it as a message for her alone. But the statement was anchored on the fact that she is a woman and it was on that basis that she was dismissed in such an insulting way: you have no business in this space, go and cook! The fact that this was not this particular politician’s first sexist statement suggested a very disturbing mindset.       

A situation: this one happened last week and although it failed to meet some basic news standards, this story is an important reference. The essence of the story, which I first saw on Facebook where it had been shared in many different groups, was that a female politician (same one mentioned above) was being offered sex with random men to “shut her up”. Apparently, she was being too vocal in her criticism of the government (on national issues that is!) so this man’s advice to “that girl” as he called her was for her to “shut up and concentrate on her broken and failed marriages”. He then went on to offer her “bedroom” solutions, in the process referring to a female government minister as a fellow quarrelsome woman who had been ‘cured’ after the said men “sorted her out” in the bedroom. So here it is again, a grown woman being called a girl and being demeaned to such appalling extents. Another woman gets dragged into an issue she’s not logically part of, just so she too can be insulted. This is partly coming from this man’s failure to deal with women who are asserting themselves in the public space and feels he needs to send   them to the bedroom (a domestic space like the kitchen) where, as he clearly states, he hopes to be the one in charge.    

Normally, you would wonder where anyone would get the courage to speak such sexist and plain ridiculous rubbish, and how it managed to get published. One critical look around, however, will show you that this rubbish is perfectly at home in our public discourse. Online commentary also daily proves that many citizens have no problem being sexist and demeaning women, in fact they enjoy it.

Does it make sense to call ourselves a democracy and even say we live in 2013 yet make it impossible for a woman to offer checks and balances or indeed express a dissenting view without risking being trashed? 

The examples cited here, and how there is no accompanying public censure to write about, are just a few indications of how much acceptance some of these attitudes enjoy. See how public figures who have dared show their disdain for women have lost neither face nor popularity; life has gone on. But again, I am yet to see a Zambian politician’s career get ruined on account of a scandal. I mean how many politicians do we have whose reputations are beyond tainted yet their careers are intact? Even being convicted by the courts of law is not enough to ruin a political career…but I digress.  

I will continue this topic in the next blog.

If words alone, regardless of intention, could change circumstances then March 8 would be salvation day for many women. You can fault this day for many things but definitely not for failing to produce high profile speeches, lots of media coverage, widespread praise (both realistic and romantic) for women and their abilities, resilience and great importance, and just generally keeping women front of collective mind.

This year’s International Women’s Day on March 8 was no different. There was marching in different parts of the country, marchers were in new uniform outfits according to the organisations they represented, there were speeches and there were speeches, there were appeals to government and there were assurances by government, there was eulogizing of women on different platforms, there was celebration, there was entertainment and of course there was media coverage, lots of it.

I support the idea of commemorating International Women’s Day; its relevance needs no justification. I think the type of expression it generates is also good, including the one by those who join in simply because “everyone else is doing it”, because it contributes to entrenching a culture of celebrating women.

One of my main reservations about this day though is that I sometimes feel it encourages an amount of contentment that we as a country should not yet feel. I feel it creates an impression that gender has now arrived at the top of the country’s agenda and it is a foremost priority for millions of citizens. If it were so, I do not believe we would still see the attitudes we see towards women. We would also not see the very marked reduction and even disappearance of gender as a subject in the media and in many citizens’ conversations as we do once March 8 passes.  It is as if “gender” is an event to attend at a particular time and having fulfilled that on March 8, people can move on to other things until the next event probably the 16 days of activism against Gender Based Violence.

What if the impression created during Women’s week and Women’s Day was where we really are, can you imagine the possibilities? I think we would still be committing much time and passion to raising issues and ensuring something is done about them. I think it would bother us more that even straight from progressive events like the commemoration of Women’s Day, many women go back home to their limited means, to their toxic relationships where intimate partners double as their emotional abusers, batterers and killers, to their desperate poverty, to being ladders for political climbers who never return once they cross over to the plentiful land of public office, to illiteracy, to never ending lack.

We would be diligent in calling things as they are: for example we would not call women and children who walk long distances to draw water for daily use strong, we would call them deprived. If service delivery was as it should be, no one would have to do this. We would adjust our expectations and stop believing deep down that poverty and lack are an acceptable state of being; that it is meant to be this way for some people.

I think if all the people who raise their voices on March 8 could carry on without waiting for another event before they talk again, we could do a lot. The day to day discussion around women could significantly shift from blanket statements that do not reflect the varied nature of our realities as women, to well researched specifics. Specifics that we can confidently use as a checklist when the government talks about the services it has delivered; we can easily see how much the progress on paper reflects the progress on the ground. Specifics that can guide our own interventions as citizens; we would know better where we can make a practical difference.

If the visibility that women enjoy in the media for example and indeed the popularity among many politicians is not just lip-service, where does it go when there is no event? It is not possible that we exhaust all issues during these ‘peak’ periods. We can never run out of things to talk about: the lack of capacity that excludes many women from the possibility of having meaningful income or competing for high positions; the lack of opportunities for that same capacity building; the poverty that makes it impossible to plan as far as the next meal; the death of great ideas due to lack of access to finance; the needless suffering and deaths due to lack of access to quality health care services; the avoidable maternal mortality; the illiteracy that enables gullibility during elections; the economic dependency that makes women stay in abusive relationships; the lack of satisfactory representation in politics and other decision making roles…I will not even try to exhaust this list because I cannot. The issues are clearly too many, too complex and too urgent to be limited to a few designated days.

It is imperative to mention of course that women cannot live any better than their environment allows. If inequality, poverty, lack of opportunities and general hopelessness remain widespread in the country then surely women cannot be expected to be exceptions; they will continue bearing the brunt of these unfortunate circumstances.

It is, however, still not too much to ask that we as a country should take care not to be comfortable with treating women like a convenient category that can be sidelined for as long as we want then called upon to be fussed over and romanticized in order to complete the March 8 script or whatever occasion where a “gender quota” needs to be filled.

What does the declaration of Zambia as a Christian nation mean? Outside of the already well debated interpretations based on the Bible and the Constitution, what does it mean?

My angle in this blog is what I consider a crucial but neglected component of the debate: the declaration’s material effects on lived reality.

Apart from what I can only assume to be its other effects, the declaration has become an authoritative paradigm of censure. It is the big stick used on those ‘missing the way’ and the inevitable authority cited by many people seeking solidarity for their intolerance.

One discourse that strongly draws on this declaration for justification is the one that has declared war on women who dress “indecently”. The brief background to this is that over the years, Zambia has recorded several cases of women being roughed up and even stripped naked by members of the public who feel these women are “indecently” dressed. This practice has continued to polarise public opinion because while some condemn it as the barbaric practice it is, others feel it is a necessary measure to “teach these women how to dress”.

For a long time, the practice has been almost exclusively associated with types like unruly call boys in bus stations and taxi ranks but it has gone on with the quiet approval of many people especially, as irony would have it, women. This time the practice, and especially the mindset that enables it, has grown public support even among well informed types that you expect to know better. I call it public support because now people find it ok to go on radio or online and openly call for the “disciplining” of women who dress a certain way because “it is unacceptable in a Christian nation”.

An example is a panel that appeared on Radio Phoenix’s “Let the people talk”, a talk show that is an influential thought leader in the country, and emphatically expressed their exasperation at the ungodly way people now dress and went as far as calling for the government to regulate women’s dress code in order for it to be fitting of a Christian nation. One of the panelists argued that beating up women and stripping them naked in public may not be good but it should be done if that will help women dress better. A number of us were outraged by this and we reacted on Twitter in real time.

But the real outrage for me was the fact that those panelists were by no means an isolated case but a mere representation of a deeply entrenched and widespread mindset. National discourse, on the various platforms it occurs, is replete with examples of how inciting and discriminatory speech, attitudes and actions against targeted categories are justified as measures to maintain the “dignity” expected of a Christian nation and/or return us to our “traditional roots”. (The latter makes me wonder which roots to return to because I know our ancestors wore imibinde which only covered their privates and no one in Zambia today dresses that skimpily in public but I digress!)

The position of the panelists and countless other commentators within this discourse is that women dress to entice men and so when they are raped they asked for it because what choice did the poor man have? And when they are beaten and stripped they asked for that too because what is a decent man supposed to do about an indecently dressed woman? If you think this is ridiculous, that is because it actually is.

Blaming and shaming a victim for being a victim while simultaneously justifying the perpetrator’s misdeed is the height of illogic. About two weeks ago, a colleague shared how she witnessed a young woman being roughed up and stripped naked by a bunch of call boys who then started taking turns touching her genitals. What struck her even more than the horror of the act was the fact that some women among the witnesses expressed their approval of the incident. She was sharing to express her disgust and yet even that post generated some comments that felt the young woman called the violence upon herself because “indecent dressing has become too much as if we are not in a Christian nation”.

This is just but one example of the many instances in which some people who genuinely believe they are defending what ought to be the values of a Christian nation end up siding with the perpetrators of violent intolerance. This is the danger of dressing intolerance in something as influential as religion because it produces the most resolute and unquestioning of followers. That kind of intolerance is hard to recognise in yourself and even harder to unlearn because the motivation is honourable. Every time your sense of justice questions your intolerance, your religious beliefs take you on a guilt trip and determined not to sin, you abandon the questions and embrace the prejudice. I am not saying the declaration is causing this but that some people are interpreting it to mean that everyone needs to share their dress preferences which they believe to be informed by Christian values. Women already suffer violence for wearing what they choose and backing such aggression with something as authoritative as religion can only serve to further limit the rights of women and endanger their lives.

Already, representations of these ‘indecently dressed women’ construct them to signify an undesirable state of morals that includes being a high health risk (“indecent” dressing is repeatedly blamed for the spread of HIV) and a sexual trap for men. Forget that men have agency and are capable of deciding their sexual interactions, this discourse constructs them as entirely defenceless (and oh sadly so) in their risk of being seduced by these women.

By so denigrating and isolating these women in the eyes of the public, ground for their discrimination is conveniently laid and negative action (beating, stripping you name it) is legitimised as a necessary step to stem “indecency”. And by the simplistic conflation of the spread of HIV with “indecent dressing” which according to this thinking represents “immorality” are we not reversing the many strides that have been taken to de-stigmatise the disease by replacing ignorant perceptions with facts?  Would HIV prevention still be the challenge it is if it was a mere issue of looking at how one dressed and knowing who had it and who did not? The drivers of HIV here are multiple and concurrent sexual partners (the practice patriarchal traditions justify), absent and inconsistent use of condoms, transactional sex, cross-generational sex and the list goes on but it does not include women’s dress choice! Apportioning gendered and I daresay fact-free blame on who is spreading HIV is not progressive. When we ignore the complexity of HIV and reduce it to simplistic interpretations we lose sight of the many circumstances in which it occurs and in turn we limit our own frontline as far as response to the challenge is concerned.

Within their own spheres of influence, people have the right to discourage social behaviour that they believe is valueless and harmful. I do not believe though that it is possible to unanimously name these behaviours and apply a uniform standard across the country. It is not practical not only because not everyone shares Christian preferences but because the faith itself is not an absolutely unified paradigm with identical interpretations of every issue. Within Christianity, different denominations depending on the extent to which they embrace patriarchy accept different standards of “decency” particularly where women’s clothes are concerned. For some, decency means ifitambala (head scarves), no trousers, no short sleeved shirts and dresses etc yet in others all of these are optional. What standard then shall Mr. Protector of Decency on the street use when deciding which woman to beat up? And by the way, this woman can be anybody depending on what the group brain on duty that day decides. It can be me, you, your sister, your wife, your mother, your daughter, your girlfriend, your niece…anybody.

Christian nation or not, Zambia is first and foremost a democracy and that is why I have not seen the relevance to justify in this blog why women can wear what they choose because that is as  necessary as stating that the Pope is Catholic. Commitment to fairness and zero discrimination should not just be exercised when the freedom under threat directly affects you as a person. So while many people are getting carried away inciting discrimination, hatred and violence in the name of a Christian nation, I suggest we consider what precedents are being set here. We need to also be alive to the possibility that one day a zealot for a different cause (far from policing women’s bodies) may come and use the same declaration to hinder rights that are precious to all of us. Is that when it will matter how people are choosing to invoke the declaration in contexts that only serve to curtail the freedoms of others?

United by a common journey: I am every woman and every woman is me - Lwanga Mwilu.

Today we celebrate International Women’s Day, the day that women can speak and be heard, in theory at least. I am celebrating my day by standing in solidarity with all my fellow women and by imagining a more woman-friendly world through my wish list:


1. I wish for a world where there will be a 100 per cent assurance that a job can be acquired and a promotion or pay hike negotiated without any skirt being taken off. Let society allow women the dignity to compete on merit and by all means quit objectifying our bodies.

2. I wish that more men could love and respect women enough to stop cheating on them; to stop sacrificing their hearts, health, dignity and pride on a few minutes of selfish pleasure. I wish that more women could put their own welfare before their fear to be alone; the fear that makes them accept that a bad man is better than none. A relationship between a man and a woman should not be an exercise in humiliation and a cheating, disrespectful partner makes it exactly that. Fidelity in men is not a dog’s horn; it is not an urban legend; it exists!

3. I wish that more parents will raise their daughters knowing what love is not; what respect is not; what integrity is not…so that when they encounter an abusive man they will know exactly what they are facing. They will not buy into the generations’ old lie that if he loves you he will ‘discipline’ (read beat) you once in a while. They will realise that never in a million years will abuse – emotional, mental and physical – become a form of love. Love never takes away from anyone’s sense of self worth; from anyone’s wellbeing and anything that does is definitely not love.

4. I wish that more women will remember today that motherhood is an honourable undertaking. To give birth to, nurture and raise a child is praiseworthy and whether or not you are receiving the credit and support you deserve, be happy in the knowledge that you are irreplaceable. I believe I represent many adults world over when I quote Renita Weems and say of my mother: “I cannot forget my mother. She [was] my bridge. When I needed to get across, she steadied herself long enough for me to run across safely”.

5. I wish that more women will refuse to accept discrimination as normal. The biggest hurdle to our cause comes when insults on our dignity grow so mechanical through centuries of use that the victims accept it unconsciously. It appears natural; an inevitable way of life. Refuse to be paid less than your input; refuse to be denied any of your rights; refuse to be defined by other people; refuse to be a willing victim of any sexist system.

6. I wish that more women will defeat the curse of low expectations: the damaging but deeply entrenched and widespread belief that it is alright to be disrespected here and there. Beware of participating in your own domination and humiliation; beware of any instrument that undermines your worth even if it comes decorated as culture – case in point, polygamy! Why should having multiple sex partners, which is normally called infidelity, be accepted without question? It may be culture but if it places your health at unnecessary risk and undermines your dignity, then you have a right – a responsibility even – to question it. Every culture was created by people who knew whose interests it was going to serve and I believe women are not who they had in mind when they created polygamy. Learn to expect from others what you give to them; if one man is enough for you, then one woman is definitely enough for him. Whoever teaches you to respect your partner should not neglect to teach you to expect respect in return.

7. I wish more women will remember today that being adequate, strong, smart, beautiful, and independent does not put you at risk of being alone for the rest of your life. It may intimidate some men but that is no reason to tone down your real abilities; do not blame yourself for any man’s insecurity and by all means do not apologise for being phenomenal. There are millions of men out there who will love you exactly the way you are – brains, big job, confidence, beauty, bling and all. Empowered women are the future.

8. I wish that ALL women will attain economic freedom and be able to have a say in their lives and homes without being reminded by Mr. Pathetic that he has worked for everything they are now enjoying. And I wish that ALL men will respect all women no matter how financially dependent they are on them and realise that money does not make any person better than the other; integrity is what makes one better than the other.

I will end my clearly biased wish list by wishing all my fellow women, a happy International Women’s Day and beyond that I wish you a life of dignity, love and respect. I wish you a life that does not stifle your best instincts but instead accommodates and nurtures them; continually providing opportunities for you to be your best. And to all men who are with us on this journey to self love, acceptance and empowerment, may posterity reward you. And to those men who are undermining this journey by doing to women what you wish never to be done to you, allow me to quote one of my favourite people in the world; “I like an honest person. A man who is a man and proud to be a man, not a brute, not a batterer, a man” – Maya. Angelou.

With best regards from your sister, daughter, friend, partner, mother and every woman in the world that wishes issues affecting women could make the global agenda every day!

Author’s note: first published on 08. 03. 10 on Lusaka

If you ask me to tell you a story about Africa today I will tell you about an overfed minority and a starving majority, poverty in all its hues and shapes, unemployment, HIV, political intolerance, disputed elections, international debts and of course I will tell you at great length about our wonderful leaders. Leaders who are on first name basis with world class luxury, leaders who have no qualms about making a feast out of public resources and leaving crumbs for the rest, those that can access the dinner table that is. I hasten to say here that there are exceptions to this but I know there is a very good number of African leaders who have a story or two to tell about the pleasures of robbing their countries blind; amassing more wealth than their input deserves; hand delivering poverty, hopelessness and all manner of squalor to their citizens; and of course never allowing public grief to stand in the way of the good life. I will tell you about citizens who have been condemned to a life of deprivation with no hope of coming out, rampant unemployment, unnecessary deaths that a single panado could have postponed, citizens living in places that I can’t bring myself to call houses, lacking the most basic of life’s basics, lacking even just the decency of a proper place to pee.
Are you disappointed that my story has nothing on the beauty of the land, the warmth and big hearts of the people, how we are ‘living’ and not ‘dying’ in Africa? How we are fighting back and not taking life’s assaults lying down? And of course how our hearts are swelling with pride at successfully hosting the on-going Confederation Cup games? Are you surprised that I actually know about this other side of Africa?
I probably sound like a dooms-sayer but maybe, just maybe, you may sound even worse if you took one quick peek at the stories making headlines in different African countries right about now.
Countries like Zimbabwe, The Sudan etc may have had more than their fair share of media coverage, but that does not make Kenya, South Africa, Zambia and many other countries any paradise. And talking about Zambia, the news there is currently reading like tasteless fiction bent on making the reader cry; insane amounts of public resources stolen with what I imagine to be utmost impunity by a few people, resulting in donor support to the ministry of health being withdrawn by some partners (and potential deaths for the majority who depend on public hospitals), strikes by health staff and teachers that have had enough of salaries too meagre to support even half a life. As was the case in South Africa during the brief strike by health staff in April, the Zambian poor (who are the majority) felt it more than anyone else. I will not even talk about the clearly selective fight against corruption going on, I mean why should I single Zambia out when “sacred cows” is a language we understand too well in Africa; those that just have to be served whether it means an entire constitution being re-written or courts of law pulling stunts that even the most alert fail to see coming, judiciary…. *yaaawwwwn* ok I won’t go there. I am sure you get the picture and please do feel free to pick your own examples from Cape to Cairo!
I am not generalising, I definitely know better than that, and I will tell you part of the reason for my enlightenment.
As an Honours student, I took a course called Reporting in Africa and I remember one of the topics that never failed to inspire progressive debate was What is Africa? We grappled with such issues as why was it that in Western media, people were largely referred to as say two African men not Ghanaian, Ethiopian etc as distinct from two Norwegian men and not European! We marveled at the sheer ignorance of reducing an entire continent to the status of a country.We wondered too why Africa was almost always in the news for the same things crime, corruption, famine, HIV/AIDS you know them and we never agreed on whether this was misrepresentation or a case of merely stating a fact. There was of course the other coverage of Africa which bordered on the ideal, it was all about the unspoilt nature, the beautiful sunsets etc a line too which we problematized as reinforcing its own stereotypes, which I will allow your imagination to ponder.
I remember always being on the side that argued that Africa was just a geographical land mass and not the home of a homogenous group of people as is often suggested in the blanket use of the term. And I always left those seminars feeling like telling the whole world that there was nothing enlightened about talking about an ‘African spirit’ or an ‘African morality’ that yes, we may have a common history of slavery, colonialism and general deprivation but we are NOT a homogenous mass. I wanted to stand on some mountain and educate some people that if my siblings and I who have grown up in the same home, been nurtured by the same people, cried together, laughed hysterically together, dreamt together, known each other to the point of words no longer being the main form of communication and sharing so much including our very souls, are as different as we are; we have different perspectives and even fail to see eye to eye on more issues than I can list; how much more a clan/community, nation…not to talk about a continent!
See I was so engrossed in those thoughts and the more I went over them, the angrier I felt and to me the more urgent it became that we all speak out if not to educate the uninformed (Western world I imagine) then for the sake of our own sanity! I get quite a high blood pressure (in my mind at least!lol) when I’m not properly treated and I don’t get to educate the culprit on how NOT to treat me. So you can imagine the state my mind was in when I thought of all these things and how WE were getting no respect from the world!
Now when I look at the mess that most of this continent is in, I ask myself over and over ‘the story of Africa: misrepresentation or fact?’ And just how different are we as countries? You know what, I do want to be patriotic but I’m finding that so hard right now and it’s not for lack of trying.
I am thinking of all the speeches being made by politicians all over this continent and how I can bet my last cent that “I wish to reiterate government’s commitment to the well being of our people…. ” will show up somewhere. Promises appear in these speeches with the consistency that words of forever feature in the conversations of a couple in love. I use this comparison because every time I hear the politicians’ love messages my mind switches to squatter camps, to women not accessing maternal health care, to families that have never known what having enough food to eat looks like, starving children that look no different from a shriveled water melon stuck on a pencil, I can paint several pictures.. but my point is I look at this disconnect and I can’t help but think of a partner that loves with their heart, mind and soul but never their wallet. So the words speak love in its purest form but actions show something else…picture this, your partner comes to see you and find you losing your last senses to hunger, they secure the very fat wallet that they are keeping on your behalf then literally dripping honey reaffirm their love for you… but their constant belching keeps giving away the stark difference between your stomach and theirs. Well, if this is the new love I will tell you straight I’m a backward girl and I will never be cool enough to appreciate it so don’t even try to convince me! If it was not tax-payers money financing rock star lifestyles I would indeed forever hold my peace…but like this? Not gonna happen! Look, I plan to be a mother some day and I refuse to allow a few people to create an environment where no amount of hard work on my part will assure my children of any sweet; I want my hard work to be rewarded enough so that if I want to buy my babies Bentley prams and Prada diapers I should be able to damn well do it! But at the rate we are going….. we may all become volunteers financing the never ending needs of our dear elite.
I know there are many other places outside Africa that are not doing too well in terms of ensuring dignity and opportunities for their citizens but I am not talking about those other places… I am talking about here where my inheritance is supposed to be. I think one’s own home is always a realistic place to start because unless you have experienced it you will not feel the pain the same way as the person who is watching the ground they are standing on being stolen from under their feet as they watch…. I am operating on the Chinese (I think) wisdom that if everyone sweeps their front door, the whole street will be clean!
Ok I’m off to more inspiring stuff happening around us, talking of which I must say hats off to Bafana for doing what needed to be done last night! Happy Thursday everybody and do tell me if you are thinking what I’m thinking!

et cetera