The opportunity of attending the annual Commonwealth Association of Polytechnics in Africa (CAPA) conference in Lusaka, Zambia came with a suppressed anxiety. As a delegate, my established impression of the landlocked southern African country revolved around a relatively limited knowledge about the country. Part of this knowledge is that the country which became Zambia was indeed one of the parts known as Rhodesia - the northern by geographical contraption of course. The pain that the ignoble identity is ascribed to a colonial overlord, Cecil Rhodes reminds one of Africa's extant experiences of colonialism. Moreover, the text, Zambia shall be Free written by the country's founder President, Kenneth Kaunda resonates with sweet memory of fellow Africans quest for independence, a couple of decades back.
Besides, the delegate had read about Zambia's mineral endowments, especially copper; which abound in commercial quantity. Indeed, this precious stone partly accounted for the delay in granting the natives, the desired self-rule until 1964. As is the case with almost all parts of Africa, naturally endowed, this otherwise source of prosperity, had paradoxically rendered the vast majority, pauperised.
Another aspect of the country's history has to do with the tragedy of losing a whole squad of its national football team in an air crash around the coast of Gabon in 1993. The notable survivor, Kalusha Bwalya missed the ill fated flight. He would later inspire a newly built team to glory in 1994; reaching the final of that year's Africa Cup of Nations final hosted by Tunisia, only to lose gallantly to eventual winners Nigeria.
With a rather sketchy knowledge of the host country, the delegate along with his colleagues, mostly Rectors and Registrars of Nigerian Polytechnics as well as officials of National Board for Technical Education (NBTE) boarded an Ethiopian Airline with the prospect of spending a night at Addis Ababa before taking off to Lusaka via Harare Zimbabwe, the following morning. Alighting from the aircraft at the Addis Ababa airport, the delegate marvelled at the breath-taking edifice to which none of the Nigerian so called international airports compares, despite the billions of Naira claimed to be spent on them annually. And the thought that Ethiopia has no oil or any tangible natural resources further agitates the spectre of my country's failure in all ramifications.
Upon arrival at the Kenneth Kaunda International Airport, Lusaka, the economic status of the country is apparent. An otherwise prosperous nation in economic comatose. The airport, which approximates the international gateway to the country looks desolate and reflects the country's poor economy.
Having completed immigration formalities, the delegates were driven to the various hotel accommodations reserved for them. What instantly struck one's attention was that left hand driving was still the norm in Zambia. The steering wheel is at the right. It instantly reminded one of similar practice in Nigeria until 1972. One had to quickly adjust to the reality that what would have amounted to driving on the wrong lane in Nigeria, is indeed the norm in Zambia. Upon enquiry, it was discovered that the same practice obtains in neighbouring Zimbabwe and South Africa.
As we were being driven to Golden Bridge Hotel, what drew the visitor's attention along the almost twenty five kilometres drive is the preponderance of drilling companies. If Zambia were an oil rich state it would have been understandable.
But the drilling business has to do with sinking bore holes; to provide portable water for the citizenry. If the preponderance of drilling companies portended the inability of the government to sustain an enduring water supply system, it is remarkable that truck pushers bearing water in jerry cans are not visible as is the case with many Nigerian cities. How then do people access water supply in Lusaka? One was compelled to enquire. The enquiry yielded the information that bore holes were jointly sunk by a cluster of mutually inclined individuals. Supply to various homes is undertaken by an efficient reticulation. It was obvious that an enduring communal effort for the common good was at work.
The delegates set out for the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Association of Polytechnics in Africa (CAPA) conference the following morning. The avenue of the event was the Government complex, an imposing building housing quite a number of government ministries as well as the National museum. The conference hall where the opening ceremony and subsequent plenary sessions held was undoubtedly, of international standard. That Zambia could put such an edifice in place, indicated the country's commendable measure of commitment amidst scarce resources. Moreover, being able host the conference for which cost the hosting nation had to account for 60% further attested the level of the country's capacity in modesty.
The host nation accounted for the highest number of delegates; reflecting the broad based concept of vocational education in the country. Nigeria along with Kenya, Uganda and Lesotho made a strong presence too. The quality of presentations was adjudged one of the best in recent years, not only because of their scholarly attribute but also due to their topicality. The theme decidedly focused on "Vocational Education as a tool for youth employment and wealth creation, further accentuated proceedings all through.
Zambia comprises of seventy three ethnic groups; four of which are adjudged to be the major ones. Interestingly, this apparent heterogeneity rather than being a source internecine clamour for supremacy provides an enduring unity of purpose which the political class no matter the urge for opportunism, dare not toy with. My dear country, Nigeria readily came to mind in a rather nauseating manner. I had reasoned that if a far lesser endowed nation like Zambia could harness its ethnic diversity for regenerative purposes, Nigeria, with its vast human and material resources could have been the proverbial Garden of Eden.
The prevalent harmony in Zambia amongst its diverse populace is indeed a lesson to many African states that gleefully resort to mindless bloodletting at the slightest provocation. The remarkable sense of belonging exuded by the Zambians with pride is accentuated by a perceptive aura of self restraint and incredible hospitality. A Zambian is always willing to be of assistance to the visitor without expecting to be rewarded for service rendered in line of duty. The delegate had forgotten his handset at the reception of his hotel. More than an hour later, he had dialled the reception if anyone had seen a handset forgotten at the desk. He was surprised to be requested to come down for identification.
Upon confirmation that the set belonged to him, the delegate was teased that a thief had indeed picked the handset and walked away through the hotel gate, before he was apprehended. There was general laughter. The delegate had his set back thankfully and took the lift back to his room. He momentarily remembered Nigeria and quickly pushed away the thought of what would have befallen him had the forgotten his handset in a hotel back home.
Lusaka, the capital of Zambia serves as the economic hub of the country. The business district of the city is reasonably busy by every modest standard. The presence of Bank of China - an extraordinary architectural masterpiece, eloquently attested to the growing influence of the Chinese in Zambian economy. The old fashioned building of Barclays Bank symbolised the ebbing of the hitherto predominance of the British in Zambia. The Chinese had arrived with a bang.
Within the business district, the delegate noted yet another imposing building of Samsung Plaza. Luxury items of varying quality and prices abounded. An epitome of shopper's paradise, one must admit. From electronic gadgets to wedding rings, the shoppers were guaranteed a wide range of choice. For the visitor, there was no dull moment in window shopping. Out of curiosity, the visitor looked closely at the price tag on a wedding ring. The one million five hundred thousand Kwacha (K1.5m) price tag translated into two thousand, eight hundred and eighty five dollars ($2,885). Such was the miserable value of the Zambian currency that payment for a service or good no matter how little, could attract a load of notes in K50,000 denomination. To take a taxi for a trip round the city on hourly basis attracted K280,000. For a Nigerian bemoaning the increasing devaluation of Naira, the Zambian situation instantly aroused contrasting consternation.
As noted earlier, the ascendancy of the Chinese in the Zambian economy was evidently overwhelming. Indeed, even the hotel business was not exempted from the Chinese Midas touch. The Three Star Golden Bridge Hotel strategically located in the Business District, is a typical example. The hotel in which majority of the majority of the Nigerian delegates were lodged, proved to be the proverbial home away from home.
The Zambia government, like several other African nations, had in recent years, focused on technical and vocational education. Vocational and Technical schools are spread across the provinces of the country to allow for equitable accessibility to the citizenry. Obviously, the country had realized the futility of churning out ill equipped University graduates to whom there were no jobs available. University education in the country is relatively prohibitive albeit the palpable poverty.
The delegate was to appreciate the situation when a porter in the Hotel confided in him that what prevented him from completing his University education was just five hundred dollars. This pathetic situation notwithstanding, the quality of education on offer was adjudged qualitative. The hotel staff and other citizens interacted with; display a credible measure of quality education.
The capital city, Lusaka boasted of a network of well-planned roads demarcated by beautiful lawns meticulously kept, to add beauty to the landscape. The visitor was to later learn that the rehabilitation of the roads across the city was borne by Japan. Visible sign posts were placed to acknowledge the kind gesture of the Japanese. Moreover, the city also benefitted from the Late Libyan leader, Ghaddafi who had erected rows of duplexes in the government reservation area. There could be other inputs by sundry other donor nations, which might have escaped the visitor's notice. And Zambia is obliged to graciously accept such proactive interventions and could do better with more of such.
The visitor was impressed by the stable power supply throughout his sojourn. It was learned that power is supplied by a hydro-powered plant located about 200km away from Lusaka. The plant had been commissioned twenty years ago and has the capacity of generating 990 megawatts for a country with a population of about 14 million. This contrasts remarkably with Nigeria which had inexplicably expended over $8bn in the past twelve years to generate 2000 megawatts for a population of over 150 million!
Zambia had been led by four leaders since independence in 1964. Kenneth Kaunda the former President had the longest reign, until he lost to Fred Chiluba. His humility in defeat had continued to earn the elder statesman unprecedented respect in the country. His successor built a befitting house for him in recognition of his service. Mwanawasa was to succeed Chiluba and endeared himself to the citizenry, perhaps more than any leader Zambia ever had. He died as a serving president and was missed dearly. As a tribute to his stature in the country, an edifying mausoleum was erected in his honour. The shape of the structure suggests the final rest place of a sitting President. The current President Sata appears to be towing the route of the Late President Mwanawasa.
Political succession in Zambia has shown that such an exercise could be undertaken without rancour in Africa. The ruling classes across the continent have a good lesson to learn from the Zambians in this regard.
The Zambian political landscape allows for active participation of a variety of civil rights activists. Such a practice provides ample avenue for keeping the political leadership on its toes. The leadership, always conscious of the virility of the pressure groups, ensures decorum in its affairs. The influence and strength of the civil society was poignantly reinforced when upon enquiry on the possibility of relocating the ghetto by the elite was muted by the delegate. The instant response by the driver cum tours guide was to the effect that such a move could never be contemplated. The torrents of protestation against such a move would stiffle the mere thought of such an action by the leadership. Real democracy at work, one must admit. What the Zambians may lack in terms of economic wellbeing is compensated by political awareness and dignifying freedom for self determination.
Zambia is a multi-religious country. Christianity, Islam and other forms of traditional religion are being practised. It is instructive that the country is predominantly Christian as over 90% of the populace are adherents of the faith.
The less than 10% remainder is accounted for by Muslims and practitioners of traditional religions. Worthy of note is that the vast majority of Muslims are of Indian and Pakistani extraction.
The visitor was privileged to meet an indigenous Muslim, Murad who conducted him along with a fellow visitor round the museum and mosques within the business district. Lusaka has three distinctive mosques of beautiful architectural ingenuity. Indeed, one of the mosques is located adjacent the government complex where the CAPA conference held.
Our Muslim guide was to inform us that Islam's slow growth in the country was on account of the Asian Muslims inability to integrate with the natives. The natives view the religion as exclusively that of the Asians in their midst. Moreover, the negative impression the indigenous Muslim converts create, discourages the desired expansion of Islam's scope. Quite a number of the converts still indulge in vices clearly abhored by the religion. Murad reasoned that such an attitude creates a negative impression about the religion which only an enduring Da'awa could arrest. Despite this shortcoming, however, the country enjoys religious harmony of enviable proportion.
The national museum is located within the government complex. Though of modest conception, it houses relics of the country's proud artifacts and ancestry. Model village setting; relics of ancient Zambian culture etc. are meticulously preserved. The first car to ever ply the country's road is also preserved. The automobile is an Italian technology brought to the country in 1931.
As the conference wound up, the delegates were set for their return journey back to Nigeria. Most of the delegates would live with sweet memories of a wonderful country apparently at peace with itself. Zambia was indeed an experience to savour for a long time to come.