Smile, forgive and forget and be a little more Zambian

By Jo Fidgen
BBC News, Lusaka

Zambians have a remarkable ability to set aside grievances and move on – people actually seem to find it hard to bear a grudge.

The Zambian way: Smile, shake hands and act like it never happened
I had a run-in with the police not long ago.

I had been ordered to pull off the road by an officer who said his camera had clocked me speeding. But I had been pootling along well under the limit and was sceptical about the policeman’s motivation. After all, checkpoints are a well-known source of extra income in Zambia.

So I kicked up a fuss, tried to inspect the speed camera and questioned other, more docile motorists about the speed they had been doing when stopped.

The police officers were furious.

One threatened to lock me up, but settled for scolding me with the most scathing insult she could muster: “You have problems. Take them to hell, not to the police.”

I was still feeling irritated when driving out of town the next day, a mood not improved by being done for speeding – again – by the same police team. A fair cop this time.

As the Zambian proverb has it, ‘Two thighs will always rub together’

I steeled myself for a humiliating dose of sarcasm, or smugness at least. Instead, a cheery face appeared at the window.

“Hello again,” said the policeman, with no trace of animosity. “How are you today?”

I paid the fine, he waved me off, and I spent the next 100km of my journey marvelling at the remarkable ability of so many Zambians to let bygones be bygones.

But there is an expectation of forgiveness in Zambia.

One Zambia, One Nation

A friend of mine was visited by a former employee who he had sacked for stealing.

The guy wanted his job back. “Surely you didn’t say yes?” I asked my friend.

“I did,” he replied, seemingly as surprised as I was, adding: “It was like he thought yesterday shouldn’t have any bearing on today.”

Certainly Zambians have had a lot of practice at putting the past behind them.

The decades of British colonialism, for instance, which at its worst, institutionalised the second class status of local people.

A small example – Europeans were allowed into the butchery to select the choice meat. The less appetising cuts were sold to Zambians through a hatch.

Yet these days, race relations are very good.

Or how about the bombing raids by the Rhodesian air force in the years before Zimbabwe fought its way into existence?

Now large numbers of “Rhodies”, as they are known, have been welcomed into Zambia since being hounded off their farms by Mugabe.

Then there is the woeful mismanagement of the country by political leaders.

Mr Kaunda came to power in 1964 after Zambia gained independence
First among them was Kenneth Kaunda, founding father of the nation, and now at 86, elevated to demi-god status.

I went to a talk where he was guest of honour.

The audience was made up of 40-something professionals, sharp-suited and hard-nosed.

As Kenneth Kaunda reached the podium and danced his trademark jig, the crowd swooned.

“One Zambia,” he called to them. “One Nation,” they chorused happily.

This catechism may be Kenneth Kaunda’s greatest legacy.

He managed to forge a shared identity for a country made up of more than 70 tribes. But he also presided over economic collapse.

By the time he permitted genuine elections in 1991, after 27 years in power, the shops were empty, the nationalised mining industry was ruined and state spies were everywhere.

‘A good man’

A charismatic trade unionist called Frederick Chiluba was agitating for democracy and capitalism. The voters could not wait to dump Kaunda, among them presumably many of these businessmen now gazing at him adoringly.

It is hard to find anyone with an acrimonious word for Kenneth Kaunda, even Taki, a naturalised Zambian and property magnate, who I met propping up his own bar.

He recounted how the first president had confiscated his businesses without compensation.

“How do you feel about him?” I enquired. “Ah he’s a good man,” he said, draining his glass.

President Chiluba recently provided another opportunity for Zambians to display their capacity for forgiveness.

Frederick Chiluba had a reputation for buying designer clothes and shoes
In 10 years in power, his grand promises delivered wealth only to a select few.

The London High Court ruled that he and his associates had stolen more than $40m (£27m) of public money, but he was acquitted of corruption at Lusaka’s magistrates court.

Ahead of the verdict, one of Zambia’s foremost anti-corruption campaigners told me he wanted a conviction. But then the current president should immediately issue a pardon, he said.

“It would send a message that we are a very forgiving people,” he argued.

Now back in the UK, I am re-adjusting to life in a country where small slights are not so easily overlooked.

Next time someone rubs me up the wrong way, I am going to try to be a little more Zambian about it.

Smile, shake hands and act like it never happened. After all, as the Zambian proverb has it: Two thighs will always rub together.

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