Sep 28, 2012

Are these the winds of change?

This week with most world leaders converging on New York for the 67th UN General Assembly, the news has been awash with various speeches made, awards given, and so forth. Of note, has been the attention given to three powerful African leaders – Presidents Joyce Banda and Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, and AU Commission Chair Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.

The three have been lauded in various fora for their rise to the top, and as such we’re hearing the requisite buzz that the winds of change are blowing across Africa, and this is indeed the century of the African woman. I’m much more familiar with President Banda’s story because I’ve followed her more keenly over the last few years, and her rise is quite admirable.

For young women such as I seeing women in positions of leadership that have been historically denied us, I’m filled with pride and even more resolve to break my own glass ceilings. With that said, I’m also cognizant of the fact that having a handful of women in high profile positions means little as long as the structures on the route up remain the same, built to promote and sustain male privilege.

Real winds of change will blow when the women who make up the majority of our nations’ populations and electorate start to realise their own upward mobility. When we finally start taking tangible steps towards equal pay for equal work, negligible rates of infant and maternal mortality, greater access to quality health care, equitable inheritance laws for men and women, women moving from being property to partners, and so forth, the story won’t be about a only handful of women who’ve risen up. That’s the critical mass we need.

There’s much work to be done, and we cannot afford to get stuck singing praise songs for the trailblazers and thinking that’s the pinnacle of our rise. 

Sep 17, 2012

Woman, sit down!

In the last few weeks there has been a war of words between opposition leaders Hakainde Hichilema (UPND) and Edith Nawakwi (FDD) and this has largely been played out in the media. Sadly the issues they are fighting about do little to elevate public discourse in Zambia; instead we have two adults fighting in a pig pen, slinging handfuls of manure at each other much to the chagrin of many. If the leaders of two political parties spend this much time calling each other all kinds of names, what time do they have to provide checks and balances to the party currently in government?

Last week marked an ugly turn when Mr. Hichilema said of Ms. Nawakwi:
“Kamukazi kaja sikanakambe vilivonse. Nili namukazi, niwambili wameneuyu  Uyu mukazi anyanya. (That little girl did not say anything. My wife is enough for me. This woman is too much.) Please if you (Nawakwi) have run out of what to cook in the kitchen, go and look for something at the market." 
This was in response to remarks made by Ms. Nawakwi in which she accused him of being selfish, egotistical and difficult to work with in any opposition alliance. She also charged that he has a “singular belief that he is better than anyone else in the leadership of this country as far as his leadership concerned.”

Now Mr. Hichilema has every right to defend himself in the face of this, however, he crossed the line by his choice of words in which he refers to Ms. Nawakwi as a “little girl” and as someone who should be in kitchen or at the market shopping for foodstuffs. This type of sexist and demeaning language is deplorable, and should not be tolerated or defended.

This language reinforces gender stereotypes and normalises violent behaviour against women. Our words often reflect our belief systems and when a public figure like Hichilema makes such statements it’s quite indicative of how he feels about women in the public sphere – “shut up, and go back to the kitchen where you belong.”

This is also not the first time he has been caught making negative references to women. In 2006 he accused a former ally of “being a woman” for “running away” from an alliance. The implications of the remark were obvious; he views women as cowards and to call another man a woman was an insult.

If Hichilema wants to position himself as a future president of Zambia he needs to check himself before he wrecks himself. By virtue of him being a public figure means he is subject to both men and women talking about him, and if he doesn’t particularly like the opinions of women perhaps he should resign his position and find other things to do with his time and money.

Let me also be clear that I do not agree with Nawakwi's counter that Hichilema is a "male chauvanist pig." By calling him a pig we're back to square one of name calling instead of bringing the focus back to the problematic sexism inherent in his initial response. 

Do not doubt the power of words and the violence they can easily spark. Yesterday it was reported that former UPND national youth chairman, Joe Kalusa, had vowed to rally the party's youth on the Copperbelt to gang rape Ms. Nawakwi "to teach her to respect married men like Hakaine Hichilema." Twenty-four hours later and not a single person from UPND has repudiated these remarks including Mr. Hichilema himself.

Unfortunately this is not the first time we have seen threats of rape against a public figure such as Ms. Nawakwi for what ruffians deem as disrespect. Even sadder, the subsequent silence is yet another repeat of history. But not to worry, there are enough of us out there disgusted by it all, and we will not be silenced. The backlash against Hichilema and UPND will not go unnoticed.   

Sep 5, 2012

More irresponsible press

Over the weekend it was announced on local television that a terrorist group called “Tongas under Oath” had sent a letter to the Minister of Home Affairs and the Police Inspector General announcing that they were a group representing the Tonga people of Zambia’s southern province and had the following demands:

1.    That all Bemba speaking people living in the province leave immediately or face death like three unfortunate compatriots who they claimed to have recently killed
2.    That the districts of Chirundu and Itezhi-Tezhi be realigned with Southern province (as they were recently moved to fall under Lusaka province).

The part that grabbed most of our attention was the first point – the immediate self-removal of Bembas or face the prospect of death by poisoning. The desired effect was immediately felt when folks with a penchant for shooting their mouths off on Facebook did so by demanding the government send the military to crush the so-called rebellion.

On Monday morning state-run newspapers also ran the story further fuelling debate on the issue. People wanted to know who was behind this terrorist group threatening the peace and security of our nation by sowing seeds of ethnic hatred.

Now, one of the first things that struck me as odd about this story from the very beginning was the source of the purported letter – the Ministry of Home Affairs. It seemed rather reckless that they would choose to share this letter with the state-run broadcaster before the country’s security wings had the opportunity to launch an investigation. Furthermore, the language attributed to the authors was too phony. Why would a terrorist group make available their mailing address? And what kind of poison were they using on their victims that led to the claim that they “would die sooner or later.” This was all amateurish indeed.

I was extremely disappointed that the news editors of Times of Zambia and Zambia Daily Mail chose to print a story that was completely single sourced. They didn’t fact check a single aspect of what was contained in that letter. They have followed this up by printing updates from Zambia Police spokesperson who reports “they are making progress” in tracking down the perpetrators. If it wasn’t a sad indictment on the inefficiencies rampant in our public institutions I would laugh and keep moving.

However, when it’s an issue that has the potential to raise the ugly spectre of xenophobia, it’s no laughing matter. And shame on those trying to capitalise on people’s fears and prejudices. Thank goodness there have been many sensible voices that have raised the same concerns I have, and refuse to get caught up in this poor ploy.

We need to remain vigilant. Pity our media houses make this work even harder by allowing themselves to be pawns as opposed to being agents of truth.