Are you thinking what I'm thinking?

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.


The role that the Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation (ZNBC), Zambia Daily Mail and Times of Zambia played in the 12 plus months prior to the September 20 polls showed, like never before,  the depressingly mediocre state of what ought to be our public media.
The three categorically positioned themselves as mouth-pieces, tirelessly singing ruling party and government praises while simultaneously tearing down and demonising anyone that was considered a threat to MMD and Rupiah Banda’s ambitions of staying in power. The Patriotic Front’s Michael Sata was a particular favourite for the latter assignment.
The mandate of public media (of which Zambia has none) is to be inclusive and provide equitable space to divergent views. None of these three media can claim to have done that because they were, as always, a monopoly of the government and made little effort to conceal their biases. They openly prioritised MMD propaganda and other government serving interests over public interest. This led to a significant exclusion of non-MMD voices thereby hindering inclusive national debate. Newsworthiness was understood to mean any item – sensible or not (one way more often than the other) – that reminded the public why RB was no less than God’s own choice for Zambia!
There was no editorial and programming independence to talk about and it is fair to say these media were a mere extension of the MMD’s public relations wing. In the case of ZNBC, even content that would normally end up in some trash can due to legal, ethical and quality considerations made it on no less than prime time TV as long as it favoured team RB. Consider Chanda Chimba III’s ‘Stand up for Zambia’, a programme anchored on character assassination, defamation, mudslinging and plain hate speech. It was one of several blatant smear campaigns against Sata and those seen as his sympathisers. Chimba, who I remember as a broadcaster from as far back as my primary school years, accused his targets of satanism, homosexuality, brutishness and whatever else he thought would appal Zambia’s largely conservative population and consequently condemn these people to mass unpopularity and rejection. For an institution with so many members of staff, you would expect that at least one of them was aware of the ethical obligation the corporation had to give an opportunity to the named (read condemned) subjects in that programme to also be heard.
But clearly, ZNBC had no qualms about trashing ethics or presenting ‘news’ that would embarrass even an undergraduate journalism student with no work experience, if that’s what it took to build the MMD. We were made to endure ‘news sources’ who would not make it even as a filler on a college radio making headlines on our “national broadcaster” simply because they had “endorsed President Banda” for this and that or “area xyz has been declared a no go zone for opposition party xyz” or such kind of engineered and unconvincingly staged pronouncements.
The Times and Daily were equally outdoing themselves religiously practicing what has been referred to as ‘minister and sunshine’ journalism where the media are expected to be a praise singer solely focused on government officials “delivering development.”
The following stories on the front page of the Times of Monday September 5, 2011 give an idea how things were:
Headline: RB way ahead of Sata – Kavindele
2. Good agro policies will inspire us to vote for RB, say Kalomo farmers
3. RB to officiate at Itezhi-Tezhi power station at groundbreaking ceremony
4. Police warn of stern action against troublesome cadres (read PF cadres)
5. Stop maligning electoral process, PF told
6. Itezhi-tezhi receives 300 tonnes of maize
Add to these an editorial condemning the action of PF cadres in some or other place…
The Daily Mail of the same day led with “Kamwala residents boo Lubinda [PF parliamentary candidate]” and had other stories such as “Banda to launch power plant works” “RB, MMD ahead in campaigns” “GBM [PF candidate] campaign manager arrested” “House counsels Nkomeshya [Chieftainess who snubbed RB], other chiefs”.
The following day the Daily Mail had three stories on the cover “RB will win- Reuters” as bold headline, “Thandiwe [First Lady] welcomes State House clinic” “Rupiah appeals for votes, promises more hard work” Then a blurb “Honour forefathers, vote MMD, Namwala urged”.
And so the “government says” media carried on and on, ensuring that we heard “President Rupiah Banda…” more often than we heard our own names. MMD related “developmental news” was the only news worth reading or writing on unless of course there was a chance to make Sata unpopular. Remember the Sata homosexuality story? Of course you do, who could possibly forget such a generously reported story?! This was the story that was stretched to death with ‘fresh angles’ being found every day in the form of “xyz has joined citizens from all over the country in condemning Mr. Sata’s stance on homosexuality”, the following day the freshness of the angle would manifest in the different name of the source making the exact same call.
No really, you cannot fault these media’s exceptional efforts at constructing a pro MMD reality and engineering public consensus but eish what a disastrous misreading of their audience!
I think even a quick consideration of cultural theorist Stuart Hall’s encoding/ decoding model would have helped some of these media colleagues of mine explain to their MMD buddies that social positioning plays a role in people’s interpretation of media messages. You can’t confidently expect a reader/ viewer to agree with your hegemonic message of “unprecedented economic growth in the country” when they still live in abject poverty.
And no, you state media are no longer able to completely deprive people of alternative voices and realities by unfairly priviledging a particular (MMD=bliss) reality at the expense of all others. Social media has entered the playing field and sadly for you, your information monopoly days are well and truly over.

We Zambians will not forget in a hurry the events of July 3, 2008. I don’t know what to call it; the day President Levy Mwanawasa ‘died’ or perhaps the day he did not die? I don’t know, but what I do know for sure is that after one year, I’m finally able to see some humour in that rumour that made world news. The brief background is that after suffering a stroke at an African Union Summit in Egypt, the President was evacuated to Percy military hospital in Paris. While we waited for an update on his condition on that particular day, South African talk radio 702 broke news of his ‘death’ and media all over the world picked the story. This was followed by then South African President Thabo Mbeki observing a moment of silence. And in curious fashion, Zambian media was completely without such news, fuelling a level of speculation I had never imagined possible. We were later told he was alive but not before expending huge amounts of frantic energy and imagination – and that’s where my story begins. I was home for vac and the news found me in Ndola City, on the Copperbelt province, where I was visiting family. I was getting into the CBD when a friend called to confirm what he had heard. And so, “have you heard?” and “is it true?” became the order of the day. Soon I was repeating to each caller what the previous one had told me, each version slightly differing from the other such that within an hour I had passed on so many versions it was difficult to believe it was all about the same event!
Although Ndola City was hosting the annual Zambia International Trade Fair which is a big event, the talk in the CBD was mainly about the President’s ‘passing’. A few people were openly weeping, some speculating about his burial place, some convinced that the wise thing to do was rush home and stay indoors as none could tell what the coming days would bring and others totally indifferent to the news. A few were convinced it was all untrue and malicious. Anxiety, grief, fear and plain shock were evident in the countless conversations triggered by the news.
Now you see, every sister who knows what time it is (i.e. cultured in the enlightened ways of the big city!) has certain places she will not be found dead and certain rules she lives by, yet in the few hours of guesswork I went not to one but several of such places. I broke all the rules of the sisterhood and went on an uncharacteristic spree: eaves dropping, joining in conversations and arguments with strangers and even standing on tip toe behind any cluster of people on the street hoping to get some ‘411’. How I got to such extents beats me to this day. But like many people, my Levy’s ‘death’ verification exercise had begun in earnest and logic was the last thing on my mind.

Street hawkers were already cashing in on the desperation for news by selling printouts of the 702 story. Needless to say I bought a copy and what a struggle reading it was! The ink was so faint it could hardly be seen. If there was a Body Parts Rights Movement I’m very sure my eyes would have reported me for gross abuse! I decided I had had enough of ‘wrong’ places and ‘wrong’ crowds; surely how could I listen to street talk when I knew not only where news was found but also who found it?! So I got my phone from my gigantic handbag (yes, trends have to be followed even if it means carrying 4 Kgs on your shoulder everyday!) and called eight journalist friends in different newsrooms and all they knew was that the chief government spokesman would soon be addressing the nation. Not good enough. I sent countless texts to people I thought might know but nix, most of them did not even bother to reply. And so I was back to street news (put in my place is really what happened but heck, do you really think I will say that about myself?? lol). Besides, one thing I know about home is that “do not talk to strangers” does not work, at least not in ordinary people’s circles. People talk and if you care to listen you don’t even have to read the papers to know what is in the news, you just have to be in a public space like a minibus, a bank queue, a beauty parlour etc to get the 411 for free. I can’t begin to say how familiar I am with conversations that start with a head emerging from some newspaper with something between a laugh and clearing of the throat….. I digress!
Although I keenly chased this news, I was not sure if I wanted to know the truth especially if it was a confirmation of the ‘death’. I must admit that I was not Mwanawasa’s greatest fan: I was critical of and even angry at a number of his policies, but at the same time I recognised that the positive side of his presidency was positive indeed. He had scored several successes and made Zambia a country worth believing in again and I remember how proud I was to tell my non Zambian friends about him and his courageous ways. I had the privilege of meeting him a couple of times between 2002 and 2007. And just months earlier (Christmas of 2007) I had visited State House for an interview with the First Lady and throughout our talk she, in addition to other issues, repeatedly told me what a supportive and inspiring husband and father he was, how much his family had learnt from him, how disciplined and dependable he was and she painted a number of scenarios that made me see the first family in a different light. It was a family just like mine, bound by love and countless memories. And so now apart from my own fear of losing a President and the possibility of political and economic instability, I thought about a family that would have to learn to live without one of its foremost pillars and decided all over again that I wanted him alive.
I walked into an internet cafe and promptly googled the president’s name and there was nothing new. I went on face book and found almost all my Zambian friends had changed their statuses to an assortment of XY is shocked at President Mwanawasa’s death, BC has a dead president or does she? etc. Still on face book a group called “Is President Mwanawasa really dead?” had been formed and already had members. Although all the computers in the cafe were taken, people kept coming in and just hovering behind those browsing! Soon it was a chaotic joint effort with suggestions flying “let’s check state house website” and we would all rush there, “French embassy website” and so on. Our State House website took three lifetimes to open and when it finally did there was nothing close to the news we were dying to hear. People would talk on the phone and share whatever they had learnt. And soon the creative became evident among us as people started going “I have just talked to my uncle’s old neighbour whose ex-wife’s step brother’s workmate’s niece’s friend (or some such creative arrangement! lol) is friends with one of the President’s children” and not to be outwitted another would go “my cousin’s friend has a child with one of the presidential drivers and he has just told her now that no one is crying at state house… so I’m very sure he’s alive” “now come on even if he really is dead you don’t expect those ‘some of us’ (slang for the elite) at state house to wail!?” another would respond. Someone would start “I have a ‘connected’ friend in Paris who might know…” and even though it was a poorly told lie and just as likely to be true as Nicholas Sarkozy sending ME a “Please Call”, someone would promptly offer “use my phone…” and so the panic and guesswork grew. The things I would normally never give a second of my time, I found myself giving my all and then some to. By the time the news was officially dismissed as false, I was well and truly exhausted. I was also very convinced my stilettos and ‘half my weight’ handbag were punishing me for all my life’s sins! I headed back home my initial mission in the CBD completely forgotten.

The official announcement drew its own reactions but that’s really a story for another day, and whether one believed the first or second statement was really an individual choice.

As for me it is enough to say that strange as it was, July 3 brought to the fore our way of life in Zambia, reminding me how phenomenal our conversation skills are: how we love, bond, share, fight, boast, resolve conflict and heal through talking! The economy may have changed how we live as Zambians such that strangers may no longer be welcomed with a meal or drink but there is no shortage in smiles and especially good conversation!

et cetera