A god in Zambia

By Daniel Goldstein-As a young man I heard of many accounts of my grandparents’ experiences in Eastern Europe before the onset of the Second World War. As a Jewish couple from Poland , they were faced with imminent death as Hitler’s hate campaign against my people resonated and spread like a wild fire through the continent. Their experiences shaped the person I am and the deep values I have with regards to my community and justice in general.  I am especially inspired by Elie Wiesel, holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate. I was nearly brought to tears when I heard him speak at the University of Miami during my senior year. The words “the opposite of love is not hate but indifference” that he uttered, pushed me into seeking my purpose as a human being and galvanised me into being the embodiment of his philosophy of compassion and love.

My first inclination was to learn more about the land of Israel and its plight. Even though I am a born citizen of the United States of America , Israel is the land that I have unequivocal love for.  The Jewish people have historically been demonised but always found a way to adapt and thrive in any given society and prosper in numerous professions. As I delved deeper into the history of my people I firmly concluded that we undoubtedly deserve the sacred holy land of Israel . Its right to exist is paramount in my heart but looking back at Elie Wiesel’s words I couldn’t help but also try to understand the plight of the Palestinians. It is a conflict wrought with unimaginable complexity that I sometimes wonder if the allocation of that particular land was the major problem. This is not to say that Israel should not be, quite the contrary it should, but the question is should we have been located in perhaps another part of the world? As I thoroughly perused the history books I am yet to come across this thought.  The beginning of the journey towards my conclusion to this query came through one fateful evening at a fraternity party.

While trying to cram for my western legal traditions exam that was scheduled in the next two days, my dorm mate Joey stormed in with his characteristic enthusiasm. His excitement about a frat party was so infectious that I couldn’t help but oblige. I ditched the books and joined him in the hope that I can unload some stress as well as partake in some college debauchery. We got into the loud and humid party room packed with gyrating girls and heavily intoxicated guys.. As Joey went for the keg of beer I retreated to the upstairs balcony where there was relative peace. I was relived to see a buddy of mine Chris, he appeared to be in a heated discussion with an African-American girl. As we made our salutations I came to know that the girl was actually an international student from Africa .  As Chris temporarily vacated the scene my curiosity got the best of me so I inquired what their discussion was about. It turns out they were in an African history class and they had differed on an issue regarding how colonialism negatively impacted the psyche of the African. Controversial as usual, Chris alluded to the notion to Africans need to get over their former subjugation and move forward. Her point was that it still doesn’t reverse the negative effects because they still resonate in modern day Africa . I was so intrigued that I just had to hear more. Chris’s departure served as a blessing because not only was I enchanted by the conversation, I was smitten by the beauty of this girl. I was fortunate to get her details and in a matter of months we began dating.

Africa became my new passion and I decided to focus on understanding more about the continent that many of my peers thought was a country. I began to participate in activities with the Africa association and helped organise discussion forums about the continent’s issues. I just loved the tumultuous nature of understanding Africa and how it can horrify then endear me in one moment. Margaret and I found true solace in one another and it wasn’t long before I asked to go to visit with her home in the sub-Saharan country of Zambia . In a few short months we were on our way and I was extremely ecstatic. I couldn’t wait to apply some of the knowledge I had accumulated on development and sustainability. I was banking on working in conjunction with USAID or any relevant NGO. All I had was 3 months to spare before I headed back to the United States .

Upon arrival in Lusaka , the capital of Zambia , my heart skipped multiple beats as I disembarked from the aircraft and was welcomed by the most spectacular sunshine I had ever seen. I walked through the hallways of the airport terminal feeling the warm embrace of the smiles that adorned each Zambian’s face.  My grandmother had mild tendencies of prejudice towards blacks but here I was in a country they own and welcomed with open arms. From the moment I stepped onto the runway all the way to the taxi that took Margaret and I to the guest house where we were staying, each and every person went out of their way to serve me with the brightest of smiles. They did it as though it was their honor and duty. The guest house was simple yet cosy and the staff made me feel a little uncomfortable after sometime. All they would do was stand around and stare at me in amazement even though they had others to serve. Margaret’s parents lived in the countryside region of Chipata so we opted to be in the capital for a while and scheduled a visit to that area in a couple of weeks.

Jetlag did not overwhelm me, I was ready to tour this beautiful city and meet its people.. I wanted to do everything that Zambians did on a daily basis and not act like some bewildered white tourist. We took a walk down to a local township called Kaunda square. It was an environment filled with life and activity with shoeless children running around and local Zambian tunes blaring out of buses and bars. The area was named after their first president Kenneth Kaunda, their version of George Washington though he is live and well today. A clear indication of how young the country is. As we sat in an outdoor restaurant, I couldn’t help but be conscious of my every move as I was the only white person within a 10 kilometre radius. My first meal will never be forgotten, it was a balanced nutritional arrangement that was a genuine blessing to my taste buds. The starchy component was a white pulp made from crushed corn with mashed up vegetable that was mixed with peanuts. The chicken was unlike anything I had ever tasted, it was extremely lean with tough muscle fibres due to the fact that there, chickens roam freely and not caged like back in America . There was a growing audience around to witness this foreigner partaking in some traditional cuisine. It amazed me how amused they were. It was almost like I had validated their essence. I felt as though they had mistaken me for some Hollywood actor but that was not the case. It was immediately apparent that the people of this country have a great affinity for people of my complexion. Its amazing considering the colonial history, I would have assumed that we be treated with some form of angst or suspicion. This was a huge break of reality compared to their Black American counterparts.

As a child I had a very low self-esteem. I was bullied for being a socially awkward book worm.. Never in a million years did I think that my very essence as a white man would be the cause of excessive adoration. Had I grown up in Zambia , those unfortunate circumstances that plagued my childhood would surely not exist. Opportunities were opening up left right and centre. I was in Zambia for just over a week and I was loving every moment of it. My girlfriend was getting a little bit agitated because of the blatant seductive advances that were coming my way. I was never in the least bit considered an attractive fellow growing up in my home town of Rochester , New York but in Zambia I was irresistible. At this point the glee that each day brought drew me to the conclusion that I should move to Zambia permanently. I had began to develop quite a network of friends who worked with NGOs as well as government institutions so I was confident that I could be of value in the areas of development. Unfortunately I had not yet completed my studies as I only had a semester to go. Without any specific qualifications I was being courted by quite a few aid agencies which would again be unheard of back in the States. I slowly began to see numerous realities that are rather uncomfortable to describe happening in Zambia .

One undeniable truth is that someone like myself, a foreigner was valued more than any Zambian. It was as if what I am made me inherently superior, intelligent, knowledgeable and rich. I could literally do anything I pleased without serious retribution. If I was involved in a fight for instance with a black Zambian in which I instigated, it is quite likely that the police would immediately assume my innocence and batter the other poor fellow before realising the truth. It was becoming ridiculous, I was no longer waiting in line because Zambians would gladly give up their spot for me. Foreign dignitaries probably have much more power than the Zambian government itself in the sovereign republic of Zambia . The attention paid to the words of a foreign official is paramount. The heads of every large corporation are white men including the company that produces the staple traditional Zambian meal that I mentioned earlier. I went to Zambia expecting to be an equal and assist in develop and put to good use what I learned from Elie Wiesel but instead I was frustrated by a bunch of bumbling idiots who assumed I am better than them. I painfully caught myself thinking that perhaps their assumptions were true.

It was also getting clear that Zambia has two worlds in it. One is where the blacks go about their daily business leading lives of mediocrity and disgruntlement. Another is a secret society of foreigners who live like gods, networking with another, toasting champagne and driving big business. Many of the government officials are in the pockets of the latter group. They are unaffected by any policy or regulation. Their access to gigantic contracts, land and business opportunities is a capitalist’s wet dream. The ease in which they lead their lives would compel any person in the world who is not of African descent to move to Zambia . To be a member of this untouchable elite one just needs to be anything but black.. What is even more interesting is that people of mixed race origin also fit into this group as they seek to distance themselves from the African blood that flows in their veins to be closer to the European side as it brings societal privileges. Someone like our former secretary of state Colin Powell or the illustrious Senator from Illinois Barack Obama who we consider black would be characterised as “coloured” and the addition of non black blood would elevate their status in Zambia . My ultra Afro centric room mate Joey would be so confused by this reality. He is black in America but would be “coloured” in Zambia .. Another aspect of Zambian society that is unsettling is that there is a natural and comfortable segregation of the two worlds I describe. It doesn’t cease to amaze me how awkward the interaction between black Zambians and foreigners is. They become so jittery and nervous that we cannot relate to one another naturally. They humble themselves to a point that they cannot genuinely articulate themselves. If I were ever to imagine a situation in which the human race were before the lord, that is exactly how we would all behave before the deity. In America I was a nobody, in Zambia is regret to say, I am a god.

The circumstances I describe also produce what I consider the saddest account of the absence of human dignity. I had taken sometime to also observe how the other world of Zambians live, the indigenous ones. I spoke of how nice and accommodating they were with me. I immediately assumed that they were the same with each other. I was very wrong, it is quite the opposite. They have a complex love/hate relationship with one another. Nothing pleases a Zambian more than to see another in unfortunate circumstances. They are fun loving people who pleasantly confide in one another but when the rubber hits the road they tend pull each other back like crabs in a bucket. I love the company of indigenous Zambians, they have unmatched enthusiasm. Unfortunately I find that their qualities end there. The amount of time spent consuming alcohol and loudly making uneducated political commentary is rather excessive. The aids pandemic is sped by their tendencies to ravenously engage in sex with multiple partners regardless of marital status. These valueless behaviours are really the norm. I must say that I was pleasantly refreshed when I met a young military officer through a friend of my girlfriend. He is so progressive in his thinking and had a remarkable story. Raised in a village he worked his way through high school and joined the air force of Zambia . He became my closest friend in the country and I always anticipated Friday afternoons when we exchanged thoughts over a “Mosi” (a local beer named after Zambia ’s leading tourist attraction).  Like many Zambians he was very disgruntled but also spoke of positive solutions that made sense to me. He was a quiet confident guy who was deeply religious. He inspired me in so many ways. One afternoon we were relaxing at an Irish pub (yes they do exist in Africa too) on a patio at one of Lusaka ’s popular shopping complexes when a brand new BMW drove by. Chanda, a guy we were with annoyingly said, “there goes another thief!” I inquired if Chanda knew the guy but he had no clue who he was. Puzzled, I asked why he thought the BMW driver was a thief. Kelvin, my officer friend interjected by saying it’s an unfortunately mentality Zambians have. It is thought that no indigenous Zambian has the right nor the ability to accumulate wealth and enjoy the trappings of hard work. I observed that many other fancy vehicles had passed by driven by Zambians of Asian and Arabic origin but it didn’t seem to matter until they saw a black guy driving one. If Americans thought like this, we would not be the most powerful nation on earth. Another strange reaction to blacks with a degree of success in Zambia is the assumption that he or she is rich because of being part of a satanic cult. These people have an incredibly low self-esteem to actually believe that it is inconceivable for a black to be successful through the fruits of hard work and ingenuity. I would cry myself to sleep everyday if a day came when Americans or Israelis thought like this about one another.. If that occurred, Israel would no longer exist and America would be relived of its hegemony.

The inherent self-hated I have witnessed among Zambians not only allows for them to be dominated by foreigners but I stunts the growth of their country. One example of how I think this detrimental mentality is killing the country is how it is being applied on a government level. The president of Zambia had instituted a fight against corruption. It seems noble but also damaging to the fabric of their nation. The way I see it, this fight is fanning flames of hatred. It is apparent in the newspapers and the way people simply react to it. It is like the medieval days when people who were accused of a certain crime were hung in front of a cheering crowd. The leaders during those times were cunning because they knew they could confuse the economically underprivileged and disenfranchised by blaming their woes on the few that they could sacrifice. This served as a catharsis for the people’s pain to see people hang as well as a way to get rid of the enemies of high ranking officials while making the people assume the leaders are solving the kingdom’s ills. Where did this take them? Nowhere. In time people grew to find out that it was pure nonsense and progressed to create what we now know as highly industrialised democratic western nations. To be clear, I am not against people fighting corruption, it is actually the way it has been orchestrated in the Zambian context. The main targets are the former president and all his high ranking officials.. Imagine a broken down bus struggling to move along a highway with a driver and passengers in it. The driver then disembarks and hands over the bus to another driver. The new bus driver decides that he is going to send the previous driver and all his passengers to jail because the bus is broken. That is the best analogy I have for the Zambian government, blame is passed around when what really should be fixed is the system and not the people. If each and everyone in the previous government is accused then there is definitely something wrong with the way things are done generally. It is not driven by the need to develop a country but rather by the malicious nature of Zambians.

Kelvin is an ambitious officer who dreams of someday becoming a General. His heart is broken because one of his favourite Generals is on trial for what he describes as allegations that don’t make any sense. He spoke of how that particular General improved many aspects of the air force and helped Kelvin and his colleagues enroll in advanced education programs to advance their careers, adding value to the military. In fact every single military leader from the previous regime is on trial too! What is disconcerting is that they arrested the former chief of Zambia ’s version of the CIA who I hear has now fled the country. This is probably a guy who knows every little secret about the impoverished nation. Does this mean he is going to have to explain in court how the government goes about its secret business for the world to hear? This would never happen in Israel or the United states . I don’t know about the rest of the international community but think this is really hilarious how unpatriotic that is. Zambia is probably destined for doom. In my opinion they don’t have good alternatives either. The main political opposition is advocating xenophobia. They want all the Chinese and Indians out of the country creating another potential Zimbabwe . I’m assuming that when the current president leaves office, it would only be natural that he be arrested based on the precedent set.

I found that as much as I enjoyed being in Zambia , I had fallen out of love with it after 3 months and couldn’t wait to get back to the states. The principles instilled in me by Elie Wiesel cannot be applied there. I had read that Winston Churchill once said that the young are liberal and think they can change the world but as one gets older they realise the reality of life and become conservative. Unfortunately, the cultural differences between Margaret and I were unsustainable and lead to our eventual break-up but I’ll always treasure her as a great friend.

Some black Zambia 'assistants' helping a white person enjoy life in Livingstone

Some black Zambians 'assistants' helping a white person enjoy life in Livingstone

I had come to a conclusion that is rather uncomfortable to make.. I truly believe that modern day Zambia should have been the location for the Jewish homeland of Israel . The British should have handed over North Rhodesia (what Zambia was called during colonialism) to the Jews. There would have absolutely been no conflict at all. The mentality of Zambians would have enabled my people to live peacefully without any threats whatsoever. Zambians are prideless and accommodating people who would have bent over backwards for us. I also believe that it is not free to this day. It would have been a strategic tool for Israel to utilise for its central location in Africa as well as its resources that are still being exploited by outsiders. The divisiveness that exists in the country makes them easy to control. The Palestinians would have had their home peacefully as well and the world would very much be a different place. There is no doubt that a country willing to risk its sovereignty and security for political gain and maliciousness can even be annexed today. My words are not based on prejudice or racism but on fact and experience. These words can be sung even louder by Zambians themselves.. I have no doubt that many of them will agree with these sentiments.. Africa is the dumping site and lab rat of the west, this is no wonder we are gods there. I have failed in my commitment to live without indifference. Other uncomfortable thoughts come to mind why we did not come to the aid of the Rwandans. I feel that I can now sleep worry-free knowing that people are responsible for themselves and I have no obligation to help anyone. Reality has made its own conclusion. Perhaps my purpose lies in something else…

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