Boston University Monday evening sat down with President Banda shortly after his arrival to discuss his nation’s economic future, why it’s billed as “the real Africa,” and its recent, crowning Africa Cup victory.
Tell me what it means to your country to have its football (soccer) team win its first Africa Cup crown, 19 years after the tragic plane crash that killed 18 team members.
It’s difficult to explain how this one action is able to get this continuous, united reaction from the people — young, old, men, women, poor, middle class. Everyone just became one. Suddenly the whole country was aglow with celebrations and drums in the villages. I was talking to my nephew, who lives in a small town, who told me after the end of the game that people left their homes so quickly some of them forgot to fully dress. They were running towards the village center, where they thought the celebration would be. I was in the Gabon and the reaction of the people there were so supportive of Zambia, even in cheering, It’s really a great, great occasion for our country.
How long did the celebration last?
It’s still going on.
When Zambia bills itself as the “Real Africa,” what does that mean?
What we are really trying to say is that what the tourists will see when they come to Zambia is different from the other places in Africa, especially the countries that are best known for tourism, that they’ll see more game in Zambia. You know, in our game parks, there are very strict regulations. For instance, you cannot take a piece of wood from there. It’s so strict so that where the animals live, it’s really the natural surroundings. And we don’t have big, big five-star hotels. We try to discourage that. We have lodges with grass thatch, with very clean conditions.
And we allow no music in the game parks.
In what ways do tensions in neighboring Zimbabwe spill over to your country?
We’re friends. And when Zimbabwe was facing a lot of problems, a lot of their people crossed over to Zambia to look for their necessities,like foodstuffs. But that was the case also with us. When we had difficulties in Zambia, we would go to Zimbabwe to seek what we wanted.
Is it a porous border?
No. It’s a difficult border. It’s divided by the Zambezi River, and the river is very deep in certain parts. So it’s not easy. But deliberately we allow our people to go there. We are the same people. All the eight countries around us, we are on friendly terms. So we work at this all the time; our officials are meeting to see how we can make it easy for our people to cross on either side.
We read a lot about China investing in Africa, for example, in Zambian copper mines, where output is steadily climbing. How extensive is Chinese investment, and why does it seem to cause concerns?
You know, copper mining is very expensive. So they bring in their specialists to look after their equipment and (employ) their style of management. But by and large, the majority are Zambians who work there. At management levels, perhaps a bit less, but at labor force, they are predominantly Zambian. The main countries that invest in our country are Australia, Canada, South Africa, and China. I’m putting them more or less in that order. Because you hear more about the Chinese, but they are not the biggest. But outside, because of politics, of course, you hear more about China. But they are significant. They have lots of money. They’re looking everywhere. They have got their own geologists, who are looking for new finds. But in the Western countries maybe there is concern because they just don’t benefit from China’s involvement in Africa and in Zambia.
To what extent is technology creeping into the lives of Zambia’s farmers and other rural people – nearly 65 percent of the population? Is there Internet access everywhere? What about cell phones?
Not everywhere. The government under my leadership felt that the penetration of the Internet was not adequate. And today Zambia is taking deliberate steps to make sure that the schools in the rural areas, the traders in the rural areas and so on have access to the Internet so that then they can connect with the urban areas and the rest of the world. There are now towers for mobile phones. We have invested a lot of money in erecting these towers in all parts of the country. So that now you don’t have to go to an actual place to share news, like a death. Before they had to send a letter or send somebody by bus to go there. But now this is by the cell phone, with the ability to send text messages. So it’s made life a little easier for people.
Has the increase in communications technology and awareness of employment and social opportunities caused more Zambians to migrate to the city?
No, because they have everything where they are. One of the things that made people emigrate before is the need for communication. But now they know from contact with the rest of the country that a lot of people in the towns aren’t employed, and they’re suffering. And then a lot of people are starting little industries in their rural areas. And these industries are growing. There are also more and more people that are going into the agricultural sector, because with the money that they get from what they are growing, they are able to access the same things as the people in town have access to. And in fact, there is a marketing system now. They have farmers’ unions. They have text messages where they can find out prices and where the market is for their products.
Does Zambia suffer from what’s often referred to as “brain drain,” a tendency of highly educated to emigrate to other countries?
There used to be a lot of Zambians were leaving, but we first noticed during our time (in office) that some of the Zambians are beginning to come back. Because I came to power at a time when there were a lot of difficulties, and many of our young people had drifted to look for jobs. The news is that Zambia is getting better, that you could start your own business, or you could get the job in the banks. Now we have 21 banks in the country. So the movement of the people sort of stabilized.
What about Zambia’s estimated 14 percent unemployment rate? What’s being done about that?
Now, to answer the question of the jobs for the young people, that is a big problem that we have been talking so much about and trying to find ways and means to engage these young people. And one way, of course, is to build industry and encourage more investment from outside so that they come to our country and go into the agricultural sector, grow pineapples, for instance, and process the pineapples. And all this creates jobs for the rural people. And then we had a program where we gave support to the agricultural sector, and we gave them subsidized fertilizer. And then also, if you wanted your children to be educated, you had to send them to the urban areas. That’s where all the schools were. But we had a deliberate policy to build as many schools as possible, at all levels, from primary to university, so that our people can go to schools that are as close to their homes as possible.
Will you be playing any sort of public role when you return to Zambia?
As long as we are able to do something, I think we should do something. Yes, I’ve seen people much older than myself starting a new industry. The story I like to tell everybody about is the one about Kentucky Fried Chicken. I hear that Colonel Sanders was a chef in the United States Navy. And when he retired he got bored and asked himself, why am I sitting here mourning about retirement? Why don’t I do what I know best, making chicken? And he started and grew the company to be one of the biggest and the most desired products in the world. So there is a lot that one can do, even after political retirement as the president, and as we are going around the U.S., we are looking, and we are talking to people, and we are quite fascinated to see that there’s a lot that people can do.
What would you like Americans to know about your country?
First of all, they should know that this is a country that is aspiring to be like parts of the United States. We aspire to develop our country, develop its infrastructure, provide more education for our people, more and better health facilities. We encourage direct foreign investment into our country. Our population is quite urbane. And our people like good things. We have television. We have Internet. We have modern financial services. And we have the peace that we have talked so much about. We are surrounded by eight different countries, and go out of our way to make sure that we have good relations with all of them. So people like to come to Zambia. Most people, when they talk about tourism, they talk about those coming from Europe and America and Asia. But within Africa itself there are people on a daily basis coming in from the Congo, from Angola, from Namibia, from Zimbabwe, Botswana, Malawi, Tanzania, who like to go to Zambia to do business or to take a holiday. They like it, because it’s peaceful, and they can get most of the things that they need.
You lived in Washington, D.C. for several years when you were ambassador to the U.S. How do you like Boston?
Very nice, but too cold — though today the climate is a bit better. And the traffic jams! We returned from our trip south and it took us an hour and a half to get here from the airport.