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Letter from Zambia

Peter Henriot

In the midst of a recent liturgy at Kabangwe, I was distracted to note something that I had been taking for granted for sometime: People in my congregation pray and sing in several languages besides ciNyanja. Although the official language of the region is ciNyanja (what I struggle along with at Mass), ciBemba is also used, and occasionally ciTonga or something else.  What struck me was that on a continent getting bad press because of "tribalism," people of various ethnic groups (and languages) could easily pray and sing together.

What does this mean? Probably many things, at least one of which is that "tribe" is not necessarily a dangerous fact of life. Although people of different backgrounds often tend to fight and kill each other-- in Rwanda, Ireland, Bosnia, Los Angeles--it is usually over something deeper than tribal or racial characteristics. Economic pressures, religious prejudices, power relationships: These and other factors can and do account for many murderous activities. And they are much more common factors in the conflict situations that have been getting plenty of reports in the news lately.

I was provoked to this reflection because of the lament of some African friends of mine who told me that they feel non-Africans are sadly misinterpreting conflicts such as those currently occurring in Rwanda and Burundi. Blaming the tragic events only on "tribalism" spared the need for deeper analysis of the historical causes (frequently colonial) and economic-political causes (frequently neo-colonial). Simple explanations also provide excuses for simple answers (frequently military) to highly complex situations. I have seen press accounts from Europe or North America that simplistically condemn "tribalism" and then tend to write off any hope of real peace in Africa.

Ethnic bigotry no doubt plays a role in many of the conflicts, but it doesn't explain how there could be harmony of living (and singing!) that has existed for centuries among very diverse groups. Well, I know that the next time I read about "tribal" conflicts in Africa, I'll recall the singing and praying I've experienced in various tribal languages in my outstation. And I invite you, my friends, to also recall the point made here when the topic of Africa comes up in your reading and conversations, wherever you are.

Politics in Zambia is quite mixed up these days, and unfortunately that distracts from the economic difficulties affecting most people. In November, 1996, presidential and parliamentary elections were held, but some confusion and tension remains about the outcome. The current leader, President Frederick Chiluba, and his party, Movement for a Multi-Party Democracy (MMD), won handily. But major opposition groups boycotted the polls and now have questioned the legitimacy of the elections. We pray that peace will stay with us, with justice!

I've been busy with a large research project, part of a United Nations initiative to study poverty and employment here in Zambia. Working with two university professors, we've been using the concept of "sustainable livelihoods" to see just how the poor (80 percent of Zambians) are able to survive and what the government should be doing to meet the social problems. We presented initial findings last month at a big conference (held at the local "five star hotel" in Lusaka--all the "poverty conferences" seem incongruously to be held in very luxurious surroundings!). As I said in introducing my section, "If a poor country could be developed through the reports that are made about its situation, then Zambia would definitely be an 'over-developed' country!" But I hope that some good actually does come out of our report's findings and recommendations. The main point, of course, is obvious to all: Poverty and unemployment continue to grow, despite all Zambia's efforts to follow--faithfully and rigorously--the orthodox neo-liberal recipes of the World Bank, IMF, and others. It is true, however, that the "rich" sector continues to flourish--stores were filled with plenty of consumer goods, mainly imported from South Africa, and there are at least a few Zambians who can afford them.

The author is a pastor in Lusaka, Zambia and is based at the Oregon Province of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits.

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