We’ve got to be better

Not too long ago, I was traveling somewhere in rural Zambia. I was in Sikongo, Western province to be specific. Traveling in sandy terrain that we call Mushabati and surrounded by natural habitat that we call Mushitu. As we were driving up to Kalabo from Sikongo, we found a heavy vehicle which to me looked like some kind of machine that could be best deployed in a war zone.

What’s more, given how dated it was, no civilised army in this modern day could probably use such a machine. This heavy vehicle had broken down; it had been carrying passengers from Sikongo through the different areas such as Liumba heading to Kalabo – it was being used as a form of public transport.

Now, living in the real world, as well as recognising the various ‘innovations’ that our capitalist economy has hatched since 1991, I figured this makes a bit of sense. Small and big buses common in urban areas cannot move on this terrain and people will do what they can to make some money while providing the service of public transport.

What disturbed me, however, was the fact that there were two primary school teachers – government school teachers – aboard that truck moving from one place to another right within the district. Call me naive, but this situation broke my heart. One of the teachers was actually female, sitting in the back of some heavy armoured looking truck that appeared only fit for a war zone.

I enquired as to where she and her colleague were headed and whether or not such is their ordinary transport? They responded that they were heading a few kilometres up the road, but still within Sikongo district. They went on to say that this is the usual transport available.

They said ordinarily they chanced Land cruisers or even other Sports Utility Vehicles which they hitch hike, but by and large, they have become accustomed to the lack of predictable and comfortable transport in the district.

The breakdown of the truck did not look like ending, even with our assistance in trying to jump start the vehicle.

Eventually, we gave the two teachers as well as some others a ride in the back of our open back Land cruiser. Disturbed as I was, I told them that I found it unfair that they were posted so far in these rural areas to deliver primary education to our children and yet the Ministry of Education could not do anything to ease their transport problems.

I wondered why they had relegated themselves into what seemed like an acquiesced acceptance of such conditions.

I also queried as to why they do not use a body like BETUZ to request for better conditions for those working in rural areas. The response that they gave me about their body BETUZ is something that I will not even include in my article. Suffice to say that they have very low confidence levels in BETUZ fighting for them.

I told them what it’s worth I will write about it in my column in the hope that someone, somewhere that is related to helping them may stumble upon this column.

I told them that for my part, I would at least let my readership know their plight. And who knows, perhaps the word may one day reach a person of influence. Does it not bother you dear reader that we have reached such levels of mediocrity?

Why is it that our government can’t buy these public servants even a Land cruiser or two per district and allocate drivers to ease their movement? I do not think we have more than 100 districts in this country and of course they are not all rural. This means not all would need the vehicles. So what’s the cost really?

And this time the money will be going to good use (at least in my opinion). How come we can have a parliament with 158 people and they get to buy cars that make the car park there look like a Motor Show where people are competing for who has the plushest vehicle and yet we live our civil servants in rural areas in such dire straits. The very same civil servants that break their backs to give our children a primary education. This very same education is what’s poised to change our children’s lives in the future. We have got to be better than this as a country. I was quite heartbroken, sad and felt all sorts of other disturbing emotions.

Again, call me naive; after all, we have so many tragic situations going on in this country today. But what disturbed me most was the fact that the position of these teachers is that they have done their part. They have been to college and obtained productive jobs and they are now serving their country, and surely this is how we show them appreciation! No way! It’s the most pathetic thing really. Whereas we can’t wave a magic wand and make Sikongo (or any other rural area for that matter) look like Lusaka at the Arcades roundabout – surrounded by a plush hotel, a beautiful office park, 2 lovely shopping malls and one of the prime residential areas – we must at least strive to give our citizens a sense of dignity in their work. Again, what’s wrong with just buying them 2 district Land cruisers and allocating them drivers?

We have got to be better as a country. We all need to stand up and try to help our country one way or another. Some of these challenges have led to the brain drain that we have experienced over the years with our doctors, nurses, teachers etc. We have got to demand more from our leaders.

Sometimes you see certain government expenditure and you tend to question the priority of such when you have needy areas everywhere you look. Look at the state of our hospitals and government clinics. It’s really ridiculous what goes on in some of these institutions of ours. Sometimes, this issue of us being better has got a lot to do with culture.

One thing that has always bothered me in this country, for instance, is the culture of clumping down on critics of the State. This for me is sad because critics allow us to see where our government is falling short and can do better. Consider what Andrew Sardanis wrote on page 263 of his book entitled Zambia the first 50 years regarding Lusaka Businessmen Brebner Changala, “Changala, a successful self-made Lusaka businessman (he received the UK Trade and Investment Award for Small Businesses in 2004) who had set up a chalk manufacturing facility in Lusaka and was supplying blackboard chalk to schools since the year 2000, had been an outspoken civil rights activist and he may have upset the Patriotic Front elements because of his frequent protests against human rights violations.

He first lost his contract to supply chalk to government schools and at 3 a.m. on 7th August, 2013 his house was invaded by nine DEC officers who arrived in six cars. After filling in and handing him the search warrant, they proceeded to make havoc of his house and office, confiscated his computers, iPads, his children’s laptops and video games, arrested him and incarcerated him.

Their first act on arrival was to confiscate his mobile phones and disconnect his landline so that he could not communicate with either his lawyer or a friend,” Changala said.

They carried out a thorough search of the house until 9 a.m in the morning.

When they moved to his office, they only finished searching at 12 noon. Apart from taking away a number of documents of a political nature and his computers and other electronic gadgets I mentioned above, they also removed a packet containing 59 pills of Vermox, a children’s deworming medicine that his sister had forgotten in the house………..They were interrogated and released……… They rearrested him and his sister the next day, kept them both in custody for the entire weekend and on Monday, 12 Augus. They took them both to court and charged them for possession of psychotropic drugs……. The day before hearing was due to commence the police took him and his sister back to the court and withdrew the case on a nolle prosequi order from the DPP. But Changala’s civil liberties were not the only casualty of this saga.

His company, Brebner School Chalk Ltd, is now moribund, operating at 10 percent capacity. He had to dismiss 68 workers, half of them in Monze, a small town some 150 miles south of Lusaka, who were digging gypsum, the school chalk’s main ingredient. And who supplies the chalk now?

It is imported from South Africa, or India, or China, of course. This is not the way to encourage local industry and create the jobs the PF had promised the electorates.’

It is worth mentioning that the preceding paragraphs describe events of a couple of years ago or so. Things may have changed today.

However, my point remains that we have got to be better than this. Let’s take care of our teachers, let’s take care of our businessmen regardless of their criticism.


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