‘Father’ of Zambia sings as Irish wild geese beat African nation to 50-year milestone

Expat group marked its half century recently at an event attended by Kenneth Kaunda, who led country to independence in 1964 and whose first justice minister hailed from Clonmel

Most Zambians are sympathetically disposed towards former president Kenneth Kaunda – the man who led them to independence. Photograph:  Tony Karumba/Getty Images

Most Zambians are sympathetically disposed towards former president Kenneth Kaunda – the man who led them to independence. Photograph: Tony Karumba/Getty Images

Wed, Jan 21, 2015, 09:46

It was a long way to Tipperary then, and it still is. Even so, when Kenneth Kaunda led Zambia to independence in 1964, it was from Tipperary that he got his first minister for justice.

James Skinner, a Clonmel-born, Clongowes-educated lawyer, who had emigrated to Lusaka during the 1950s, quickly came to hate the colonial system, and ran for parliament on a radical, nationalist ticket. Loyalty to Kaunda ensured several subsequent roles in government, before his ultimate appointment as chief justice.

It was a beautiful friendship while it lasted. Then, unfortunately, one of the Irishman’s rulings – probably correct – led to a race-tinged revolt in which the president was implicated. Skinner stood on principle and resigned, later crossing the Malawian border to become chief justice there instead.

Kaunda would make worse mistakes as president, naive politics combining with bad luck to squander Zambia’s early potential. The nationalisation of mining companies, for example, was followed promptly by an oil crisis and a slump in the copper prices on which the economy depended.

Violent struggle
There was trouble in the neighbourhood too. Itself peaceful, the new Zambia was surrounded by violent struggles, in which it took sides. For these and other reasons, Kaunda became progressively embattled and autocratic until international pressure forced him to hold multi-party elections in 1991, after which he became only the second modern African leader to peacefully relinquish power.

Throughout the turmoil, however, Skinner’s departure notwithstanding, Irish investment in Zambia’s future remained a constant. It had begun with people: missionaries, teachers, nurses, engineers, and other migrants with a vocational zeal. It continued, post-independence, with reverse-migration, as Zambian civil servants and army cadets went to Ireland for training.

But when this country began sending direct financial aid in 1980, it was fed in many cases into channels that had already been dug by others, such as the Jesuit educationalist Prof Fr Michael Kelly.

As a young maths teacher in the 1950s, Kelly arrived in a country where formal schooling hardly existed. Today, as an indirect tribute to people such as Kelly, half the Irish Aid Zambia budget goes to educationand primary school enrolment has doubled this century, to three million.

Zambia is now, in general, a qualified success story. In 2011 it was promoted to the status of a “lower middle-income” country by the World Bank. What this means is much debated. It partly reflects a wave of Chinese investment that some Zambians see as the new colonialism. It is also influenced by copper prices, soaring again but still an unhealthily dominant factor on the country’s fate. Even recent harvests have been good.

With annual growth rates averaging 6 per cent, the economy is booming. But there remain very basic problems. Life expectancy is under 50. And the dependence on maize as a cash crop means that almost half of Zambian children suffer from chronic malnutrition. Hence a pilot agriculture project being run by Concern, targeting infants and their mothers and aiming for growth rates of a much more fundamental kind.

Robust democracy
Zambia celebrates the 50th anniversary of independence next year. In the meantime, an organisation of Irish expats has just beaten it to that milestone. The Wild Geese Society (WGS) marked its half century with a get-together in Lusaka on St Patrick’s weekend, bringing together the aforementioned priests, nurses, aid workers, engineers, and at least one Cavan-born banana farmer.

A night earlier, many of them had gathered at the residence of Irish Ambassador Finbar O’Brien for an annual reception. As usual, the Zambian guests included one Kenneth Kaunda, now nearing 89. Wearing his trademark safari outfit, he even contributed a song. For all his faults, Kaunda has bequeathed a robust democracy. And with his former proteges now in power, Kaunda has become fashionable again, in more ways than one. A father-of-the-nation figure, he appears to be almost universally loved. “For all the wrong reasons,” one man at the WGS event muttered, lamenting that the socialist rhetoric of the 1970s was threatening a comeback.

But most Zambians are sympathetically disposed towards the man who led them to independence, even sometimes emulating his dress style. Near one of the Lusaka’s new shopping centres, which serve the city’s small but growing middle class, was a billboard announcement that Kaunda-style safari suits are in stock.

Frank McNally travelled to Zambia with the assistance of the Simon Cumbers Fund