September 24, 2011



Elections are on Tuesday. As of now the town, and parts of the village easily accessible are postered with blue, the ruling party, MMD (Movement for MultiParty Democracy), and green, the major opposition, PF (Patriotic Front). Politics are on the wall, in the air, and passing us by in vehicles with mounted loudspeakers.

First of all, let me explain why I can't talk about politics. Peace Corps, as a collaborator with the host national government of Zambia, and as an extension of the U.S. State Department, has as one of its conditions for existence a policy of non-participation in politics. We are diplomats with none of the privileges but all of the responsibilities. The Presidential election of Zambia, however, is to present not to be spoken on, as the campaigns have monopolized much of the periphery of my daily life. This picture I will paint will be as neutrally drawn as possible, it will be a pleasant landscape rather than a political call to arms, a Goya.

What is at stake, most of all, is the Presidential seat. Rupiah Banda was never elected, as his opponents like to mention: as the former Vice President, he took the office after the death of President Mwanawasa. The party he belongs to, MMD, was pivotal in the creation of a multiparty state after the one party rule of Kenneth Kaunda and the UNIP (United National Independence Party). As the incumbent, this is Banda's first Presidential campaign. Its motto is "The hour has come," clocks play as metaphors: supporters advertise their allegiance with the forefinger and thumb raised to symbolize clock hands.

Source: Daily Maverick
Supporters of the Patriotic Front, with candidate Michael Sata, raise a fist in opposition, a gesture appropriated from countless black power movements. Their motto is "Don't kubeba" (Don't tell). A friend explained it this way: when other parties, particularly MMD, hand out campaign banners, chitenges (large pieces of cloth worn by women as skirts), and offer incentives such as seeds and fertilizer, and ask the recipient who their vote will be for, one is to accept the gesture but don't tell, keep one's choice a secret. The opposition newspaper which has endorsed Sata, the Post, carries full page ads with the candidate holding his finger to his lips, shushing his supporters, don't kubeba.

Source: Zambia Daily Mail
The opposition argues that the government's efforts towards development have been sporadic and ineffective, particularly mobile hospitals and farming subsidies. President Banda and the MMD, on the other hand, argue that Sata has not set a clear platform of changes he will actually perform; in an often repeated quote, he promised opaquely that he would make significant changes in the first ninety days of office.

As the campaign begins to look familiar to the Western observer, it begins to differ drastically. The election does not decide the sole governing body of Zambia - the country, on both a local and provincial level, relies on a system of parallel and often conflicting leadership. One is the government which Banda and Sata are vying to lead, based heavily on the British model, even to the extent wigs are necessary for judicial procedures. The other is the traditional system of leadership, in which chiefs from royal clans are elected to head chiefdoms. This system, apparently, was left relatively unaltered as British rule and missionaries collaborated rather than competed with them. The Lozi king (litunga) of Western Province was named honorary admiral of the British Navy by Queen Vioctoria, and his successor continues to wear the uniform, once a year, for the ceremonial migration over the flooded Zambezi river.

Humphrey Fisher, in describing religious conversion in Africa, broken the process into three stages: quarantine, mixing, and reform. The first stage sees the introduction of the new idea from the outside, the second where it is combined with tradition and reimagined through the lens of local culture, and in the last stage, usually typified by the introduction of literacy and subsequent reading of sacred texts, believers, holders of the idea, strive to modify it and reconcile the two worlds of the modern and the traditional. The idea of modern government, the British model, was introduced in Zambia, but the idea, arguably, did not enter the second stage, but skilled to its reform. Thus the institution was not combined with local culture, in this case traditional governance, but set next to it, parallel. This is evident in the education system, where chalkboards and standardized exams exist in the same communities as youth initiation ceremonies and early marriage; and in religion, where Christianity "became like an overcoat, hardly touching the underlying reality of the Zambian personality, especially in issues connected with witchcraft" (Brendan Carmody - Education in Zambia: Catholic Perspective). Thus Zambia hovers in between these parallel dimensions, attempting to occupy them both.In the same way these two governances occupy the same terrain, they overlap each other in the space of power. Our local chololo (chief's retainer) had a meeting with our school's head teacher (the equivalent of a principal) because the former was assigning land to families which was encroaching onto school land. Often there is contention between traditional leaders, who judge land rights, and local forestry departments, who basically do the same. There has been a feud between President Banda and the chieftaness of the Soli people (of Lusaka Province), Nkomeshya Mukamambo II. The opposition claims the government "buys off" most chiefs, but the Post has been covering an extended argument between the chieftaness and Banda which began apparently with the chieftaness claiming a lack of development in her area.

From an American standpoint, chiefdom is quite romantic opposed to the banal equality of secular democracy. Chiefs, sultans, and headmen/headwomen, in that descending order of hierarchy, are usually chosen for their position later in their life, so they exude a sense of wisdom and knowledge. They live in the bush with communities usually, while district officials of the civil government live in towns. Peace Corps volunteers do well to acquaint themselves with the local traditional leaders, and are encourage to comply with tradition: on entering a chief's palace, a gift, often money or a chicken, is required, and a particular greeting is performed as symbolic of respect (usually involving clapping which kneeling or lying on the floor). My area has chief's retainers, chololos; the chief passed away a year or so ago, and the clan in which his successor must emerge has not yet agreed on his replacement.

So, given that it is only one of two governing bodies, do these Presidential and Parliamentary elections matter? Absolutely. The modern government has roles in infrastructure and service providing, and is the main route through which external aid and proceeds from industry flow, while traditional leaders at lower levels manage the distribution of small tracts of land and resolve local disputes; chiefs and chieftanesses often come across as figureheads, although they are still powerful in their influence. The greatest desire in the lections, as Kenneth Kaunda, first president of an independent Zambia, has been promoting, is free and nonviolent democratic participation, that every voter can cast their choice in the political abyss without reservation, influence, or disenchantment, and their ballot, a missal to the universe, will have an impact. I'm anxious to see how its goes.


And they voted. Polls opened at six hours. Some, including the new to vote, began forming lines at three in the morning. In Lusaka a few polling stations were opened late by unprepared staffers, and protests were improvised. This, and protests around the release of results later in the week in the Copperbelt, constituted the only acts of civil disobedience, so far, in the otherwise systematic and uneventful process.

I stayed home and made paper airplanes with neighborhood kids. We flew them in the air, the same space that previously held the aircraft of the visiting Vice President. This is what political neutrality feels like, the dull hum of inactivity, the avoidance of everyone's questions, a mute in conversations.

The Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ) has a policy of no speculation: numbers are read after they have been officiated from all the major political parties. This is a contrast with American politics, pure speculation and constant commentary, even after numbers have been released.


I wake up, and bring the BBC into bed with me. ECZ is to release the official count, and thus declare the victor of the game of democracy, by six this evening. They speculate, as they are not in Zambia, and declare that Sata is ahead. Banda captured the majority of votes, a landslide, in his native province of Eastern. The chololo of our village passes through, a radio, turned on, attached to his bicycle. When radios are too large to carry, or are attached to car batteries, we hover around them, listening to music occasionally interrupted by small updates. So we wait.


Today I wake up with VOA, a lesser journalistic source, but I'm desperate for any news. And news is given: Sata wins. He led by a difference of more than 100,000 votes. Within twenty-four hours he is to be sworn in, a faster turnover and the handover of a nation. It seems the Parliament as well, from the latest news, is predominated by PF.

In my head teacher's office, we plan for the coming week in front of a blank wall, where, the day before, a portrait of Rupiah Banda presided, overseeing our civic contribution. One teacher said he felt like a new person. My neighbor, a supporter of MMD, accepted the power change with a reserved dignity I've only ever seen in Zambia. Maybe a change will bring some development to the people, he said.

Stolen from BBC's Focus on Africa: "From deep inside me, I feel a kind of relief that this is over and that it has been done in a democratic and civilized way" - former President Rupiah Banda.

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