As many correctly guessed, the minister serving in President Edgar Lungu’s Cabinet who inspired last week’s column, ‘Crisis? What Crisis?’, did not respond to my article that discussed the form, content and degree of Zambia’s ongoing national predicament. It may be that he has little to say or that his thoughts are still evolving. The article attracted several responses, however, mainly positive, but also a few others that I think deserve a fair hearing.
One reader wrote:

‘Dear Sishuwa, I have just finished reading your latest article in News Diggers published today… You talk about the poor and marginalised rural populations. What moral right do you and your elite friends in civil society, especially the Oasis Forum, have to speak for these groups? We know that you write that column to please your paymasters and therefore have to wilfully turn a blind eye to the many great strides that His Excellency ECL [President Edgar Chagwa Lungu] has made to develop this country. I am however glad that you admitted that it is not President Lungu who is to blame for Zambia’s crisis. That was the only truthful thing in your article… Kindest regards, Dora’.

Another email came from someone who called himself ‘Bashi Phiri’. Part of it read:

‘I get unhappy when Zambians like you, who come from a privileged background that enabled you to go to schools such as Oxford, assume that you have the moral right to lecture us on how bad our government is performing. You do not understand the facts on the grounds, otherwise you would appreciate how President Lungu is transforming the lives of ordinary Zambians. But maybe you are afraid that if you wrote about the good things that the President is doing, you may not earn your pay from News Diggers and their sponsors. As for us, it is ECL nafuti nafuti [again and again] even in 2021’.

There were a few other critical emails whose authors either generally echoed the aforementioned sentiments without stating how exactly President Lungu is transforming the country or accused me of being a sympathiser of the opposition, out to paint the administration of President Lungu dark.

I wish those who generously take time to respond to my weekly interventions in News Diggers could try as much as possible to engage with the substance of my writings, to expose the flaws of my arguments, not to attack my persona. Raising ad hominems such as my supposed ‘privileged background’ or accusing me of advancing the interests of my unknown paymasters does little to enrich public discussion of the most salient national issues of our time, especially matters that keep the majority of Zambians surviving below human levels, in this day and age.

I do not often mention my own background in my writings mainly because I do not think it is relevant. My arguments should stand in full on their own merit, not because of who I am. However, it does irritate me when my critics, who themselves know nothing of my life and family history, assume that I myself was born into privileged circumstances and have remained in such circumstances.

I was in fact born in Nalitoya village in rural Senanga, one of the most impoverished parts of the country. The nearest public school I attended, Luandui Primary, was about 17 kilometres away from home in Nalikwanda constituency, another rural backwater. Later, my mother relocated to Kapulanga, an impoverished slum in Mongu where no one should live let alone raise a child. Here, I largely succeeded due to chance and the kindness of others, whose generous efforts enabled me to complete my secondary school. I know all too well the realities of grinding poverty and illiteracy, especially among rural folk, and this makes me all the more determined that it should not be mere chance that rescues people. The government policies and the actions of our ruling political elites that condemn many of our fellow citizens to poverty, disease, superstition, ignorance, hunger, want, and ill health must thus be opposed. I intend to do so with every fibre of my being, as long as I live, and to do so without seeking any financial reward or personal benefits.

Zambia has a great resource in its people, people who are denied the opportunities to develop and exercise their talents by the circumstances of their birth. To be born in rural Zambia today is to be condemned to generational poverty, as the chances of overcoming so many barriers that militate against the rural child are remote. I escaped by chance and through the kindness of strangers, not the efforts of the government. Some of the most determined, hopeful and passionate people l ever met are those l went to school with in rural Zambia. The hopes and aspirations of many of these former schoolmates of mine have been dashed by a system that does not know that they exist, that does not care about or value them. Remove the opportunities l got, l am the neglected rural child. Give them the opportunities that l received, they are me.

One should not assume that I am from a privileged background because I attended the University of Zambia (UNZA) and Oxford University. On the contrary, I am, like many Zambians, a child of struggle and adversity. My father died when I was still a baby. My mother, a rustic self-made visionary who neither stepped a foot into a school classroom nor enjoyed the advantage of a formal job, raised me by herself until 2010 when, owing to a lack of adequate public health facilities in rural areas, she succumbed to a treatable illness while I was still a student. My own personal experiences – a rural child, raised by a single parent mainly an extremely poor mother who never saw the inside of a classroom, who dares to hope and whose life can be shattered or transformed by their place of birth and the decisions of those entrusted with public service – are sadly common to many, many Zambians.

There is an abundance of potential among rural kids but it cannot be unleashed by a national leadership that prioritises the selfish striving for personal gain over the selfless pursuit of the public good. If we keep quiet when the government thinks that the best way of utilising public funds is to buy 42 fire tenders costing US $42 million, when a President declares himself ‘a success’ simply because he has won an election, when our leaders are prepared to sell the very education institution that gave many of us a start in life, when none of us are willing to hold our public leaders to account, then only a tiny number of people will succeed in escaping poverty. Those of us who have succeeded owe our success to those who are left behind. We cannot afford to ignore the injustices of the society we live in or to abandon it for another.

Critics of my previous article have also been quick to accuse me of working to advance sectional interests or a particular viewpoint of my paymasters. Perhaps they cannot imagine being motivated to do anything except for material gain. This is regrettable: I have never claimed nor received a single ngwee for writing this column, something I am sure the editors of News Diggers would be happy to confirm. I do what I do out of a deep conviction, motivated by the belief that if knowledge is worth acquiring, it is also worth sharing. Zambia lacks a public intellectual culture and I started this column in the hope that in my own modest way I could contribute to the creation of one. I have long maintained that Zambia’s intellectuals, though few in number, have a duty to publicly share their knowledge and
expertise. I myself am extremely grateful for the education I received both at UNZA, courtesy of a government bursary, and later as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, but remain conscious and indeed outraged that such opportunities remain so limited for my fellow citizens. It is incumbent upon those of us who have received a good education to share the fruits of such benefits as far as we can with others. For me, one way of doing so was returning home to teach at UNZA, one of the educational institutions that gave me a start. I also periodically return to my former schools in rural areas to share with today’s pupils my experiences and the opportunities ahead.

Writing this weekly column is a privilege that I do not take for granted, one that I carry out in my few moments of spare time between teaching and marking the work of several hundred undergraduates and master’s students, and conducting my own academic research. It is my belief that intellectuals must act out of conviction, based on understandable reasons and the intrinsic value of their actions, not out of anticipation of material gain, political or personal favours. This is especially important in the current deteriorating political climate in Zambia as our present government threatens freedom of speech and freedom of expression. I joined News Diggers as a columnist in June 2017 to contribute towards the protection of our free press. Zambia’s once vibrant tradition of private media had been almost totally stifled when News Diggers was founded. Following the closure of The Post, the only remaining major private newspaper outlet largely adopted a pro- government position. A critical free press willing and able to hold the powerful to account is the lifeblood of any functioning democracy. News Diggers, I thought, could play that role and I have since endeavoured to contribute towards their efforts. This is not a task I envisage or wish to do alone. Other educated Zambians must do their bit to strengthen our fragile democracy and help our fellow citizens who have been failed so many times by successive governments.

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