Blog excerpt: Kenneth Kaunda, Zambia’s first President

Fellows Fall 2003

By Joshua Benton

June 04, 2009

Fall 2003 IRP Fellow Joshua Benton with former Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda.

Fall 2003 IRP Fellow Joshua Benton with former Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda.

The office of Kenneth Kaunda, Zambia's first president (1964-1991), sits behind cinder block walls and an electric fence on Serval Road, in Lusaka's old colonial-favored Kabulonga neighborhood. It's just a few doors down from the home of Frederick Chiluba, Zambia's second president (1991-2001). From the waist-deep potholes on Serval Road, it's clear that political power drops precipitously when one leaves office in Zambia. It's hard to imagine potholes going unrepaired outside Richard Nixon's house or Bill Clinton's house.

I'm sitting in a taxi with three men. James is the driver; it's his cab. He's the one taxi driver in Lusaka smart enough to realize that Chachacha Backpackers is filled with white tourists who just might want to take a cab somewhere. He's outside Chachacha every morning, and I get the impression he's done well for himself, as Zambian cabbies go.

In the front passenger seat (on the left in Zambia, remember) is Benson, another fellow who's figured out how to profit from Chachacha's denizens. I had asked Benson to get me an appointment with Kaunda (or KK, as he's universally known). Benson and James had been fighting for the entire drive over, and I'm left with the impression that James may have had more to do with getting the appointment than Benson.

With me in the back seat is Sephiwe, a man about my age seeking self-discovery. Sephiwe was born in Lusaka to a Caribbean mother and a South African father. Dad had been a member of the African National Congress; when the apartheid government banned the ANC, it had set up headquarters in free Zambia. Sephiwe now lived, oddly enough, in Dublin and was backpacking around his country of birth. At Chachacha, he'd met Benson, who'd mentioned that I was meeting with KK. He, too, wanted to meet KK, who as one of the most important supporters of the ANC and black nationalism for decades had been something of a hero of his.

Our appointment had been at 6:30, but there was no sign of movement around Kaunda's offices. ("They're working on Zambian time," James lamented.) Benson and James were arguing over something, half in English, half in Nyanja.

Finally, around 7 p.m., a late-model Japanese sedan pulls up. Inside is Sunday Musonda, KK's chief of staff (or that position's equivalent). He tells us that KK will meet us at his residence, not at the office, and that he will drive Sepiwe and me there.

Five minutes later, we're at another electric fence and more cinder block walls, waiting for an armed guard in army fatigues to open the gate. (I'd later learn that Kaunda's residence is government-owned, a perk of past-presidency.) A moment down a winding tree-lined lane and we're at Kaunda's back door.

We walk up to the sliding glass door and I immediately see what Kaunda has chosen to make the first thing visitors see upon arrival: a photo from the 1980s of him dancing with Margaret Thatcher. Thatcher, for her part, is all smiles and seems thrilled. I think for a moment how much more dance-centric the life of a female British prime minister must be than a male's. No one would expect John Major or Tony Blair to dance with Kaunda or Robert Mugabe or Ronald Reagan, after all.

Sephiwe and I are ushered into Kaunda's living room. Its major colors are brown, tan, and white, and the furniture looks like the high end of a Barcalounger dealership -- comfy and leather, even if a certain class of people would find it too proletarian. Sunday apologizes for KK's making us wait while he remains upstairs, in his private quarters. "It's a very bad time -- his excellency is watching the news," he said.

In my mind, I'd debated how to address Kenneth Kaunda. He's certainly the essential man in Zambian history. He led the fight against British colonial government in the '50s and '60s, and done it in a thoroughly admirable way; an admirer of Gandhi's, he advocated nonviolence, and Zambia was born in nearly bloodless fashion. He'd served as president for nearly three decades and was a strong supporter of liberation movements throughout the rest of southern Africa.

Yes, Zambia was poorer when he left office than when he arrived. And yes, he did have autocratic tendencies (most notably banning all opposition parties in the early 1970s), and yes, his choice of friends could be questioned (Saddam Hussein and Tito most prominently). But no one called him a kleptocrat, and he had always been an opponent of divisive attitudes among races or tribes. The fact that Zambia's 70-plus tribes get along fine and the fact that anti-white attitudes are rare are both credits to his legacy.

And when public pressure mounted for a return to multi-party politics, he voluntarily legalized the opposition and held elections considered free and honest. When he lost to Chiluba in 1991, he stepped aside with no fuss. He hadn't caused trouble (Chiluba claimed he was involved in a coup attempt in 1997, but no one I've met believes it). And now he had devoted his waning years to fighting AIDS, an issue few African heads of state are willing to broach openly. I find all that admirable.

But I wasn't sure what to call him. "Mr. President," following the American model? "Dr. Kaunda" (he's received countless honorary doctorates)? Was "KK" too familiar? And now Sunday was calling him "His Excellency." I wasn't sure what to make of that.

In any event, the news on ZNBC finally ended, and Kaunda came downstairs. He was dressed in black pants, a black polo shirt (with an embroidered red AIDS ribbon pinned on), and brown slippers of the style old men have earned the right to wear around the house. "Hello, my young friends!" he called out. I shook his hand, told him it was a pleasure to meet him, and thanked him for making time in his schedule for me. When the exchange was over, I realized I hadn't called him anything - not Mr. President, not KK, nothing. Conflict avoided.

We sat down in those big leather chairs and began the interview. Kaunda has the freedom that seems to only come to politicians when they retire: the liberty to say exactly what you mean and the authority to be taken seriously. As a result, he was an excellent interview subject -- blunt, honest, and forthright.

I asked him mostly about AIDS, since that's my main subject and his main interest these days. He says a man in his position has to remain optimistic, but he doesn't sound it. "I don't think we have a future in education," he said at one point when I asked about the masses of dead teachers the disease has left behind. "Zambia has no future in education.")

AIDS is a personal issue to KK. In 1986, his son Masuzyo died of AIDS. In a move that seems courageous compared with the shameful silence of many African leaders, he talked openly about the disease. " Soon after the burial, I talked to Mrs. Kaunda, and said 'We must make this public,'" he said. "I held a press conference at State House and said what had happened. I began a campaign from that time." Some church leaders attacked him for promoting condom use, but "I told them, 'Look, those who don't do what I say, they'll be dead soon!'"

It's sad that in a country where 20 percent of adults are HIV positive, Masuzyo is still the closest thing to a Zambian celebrity to openly die of AIDS. The stigma is still so strong that the death of prominent 30-somethings is still blamed on "long-term illness." "There's a lot of shame attached to STDs in this country," Kaunda said. "I wanted to talk about my son because no one could shame me. Nothing could happen to make me shut up."

Kaunda is 79, and while he certainly still has his wits about him, he did seem to be moving a bit slowly. But he held in one hand a white handkerchief, and whenever an insect would buzz around his head, he'd whip that handkerchief at it with the force and speed of a teenager.

After an hour or so, I asked my last question. Kaunda had to get up early the next morning to fly back to Boston (where he's currently doing a term as Balfour African President in Residence at Boston U.), and I didn't want to keep him too long. He chatted for a few minutes with Sephiwe, then we readied to leave. Before we could go, though, Kaunda wanted to sing me a song. He'd been famous in colonial days for bicycling around the country with a guitar on his back, singing songs of freedom to rouse feelings of independence in the locals. He's taken one of those songs and changed up the lyrics; now the last two lines are:

We shall fight and conquer, in the name of great Africa,
We will fight and conquer AIDS.

Click here to read Benton's other blog posts from Zambia