Zambian Politics: A Revelation of Tribalist Tendencies

“I Would Rather Die than Vote for a Tonga President,” I heard him say.


I never thought that there would ever come a day when I would feel ashamed just for the mere fact that I am Zambian. However, as the day for the by-elections keeps drawing near and as campaigns intensify, every single day I wake up and leave my house, I keep getting reminded of the truth about Zambians – the sudden realization of how deep certain beliefs lie and how overwhelming the potential for these beliefs to breed division is.

I am not very active when it comes to political issues but I am never one to remain silent when I experience something so profound that it threatens to wreak havoc to the very foundation of my being. I did not know that this is how my people truly are. I did not know the depth and levels of tribalism in Zambia until the campaigns for these elections started. Without meaning to sound like a prophetess of doom…I keep wondering, could we be another Rwanda?

Tribalists: I am not sure if this is an actual word or if it qualifies as an adjective but I will still use it.

Tribalism: The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines tribalism as ‘loyalty to a tribe or other social group especially when combined with strong negative feelings for people outside the group…. Tribal consciousness and loyalty; especially: exaltation of the tribe above other groups.”

I know it is very hard for people to accept that they are tribalists yet it is very easy for them to point the finger at another for being tribalist. But since when did this situation in Zambian become so grave? Since when did I start fearing to express my views when out in public? Since when did it start to matter what tribe my friends are or what tribe the person I am voting for is? The present reality in this country makes me shudder and if people do not evaluate themselves sooner, this could lay the foundation of something on a genocide scale. And I mean it.

Do not get me wrong, I am not Tonga and neither am I married to one but I would not mind being Tonga at all.  I come from the Northern Province of Zambia, Mbala to be a little specific but I was raised in two towns in the Southern Province.  I am married to someone from the East. Through the years, just as I have come to learn more about the many tribes that we have in Zambia, I have come to appreciate the diversity of this beautiful country. Many are the times I have boasted to my foreign friends that despite having such diverse cultures, we are still a nation locked in togetherness. But that feels like it was centuries ago and the truth that is at play now is enough to confuse the devil himself. I am no longer able to boast about that and that is what I find embarrassing because once upon a time, that used to be my pride.

The one thing I have come to realise is how ‘some’ Zambians are unaware of how tribalist they can be. I feel that most people are not yet aware of their tendencies or they choose to take it lightly or ignore it altogether. You see, I was not raised very traditionally. Because of personal family issues, my father believed it was better for us to speak English at all times – a decision he later came to regret, and so have I.  So the first time I attended a wedding in Zambia and the MC said something about the two tribes that were getting united in matrimony, I got to experience for the first time adults openly insulting and humiliating each other in public. I could see some people getting upset yet more of them where laughing…and mostly at the expense of the other tribe. As I sat there cringing from being uncomfortable, my dear mother whispered to me, “they are doing Chimbuya.”

It was then that I learnt that it was okay for certain tribes to insult and humiliate each other like that and to whatever degree and the one that got offended would be the weird one. It was a horrifying discovery. Years after that experience, I convinced myself that I would not get uncomfortable when such things happen but to this day, every time I hear people playing chimbuya, I can’t help feeling extremely offended despite not being part of the circus. Personally, despite its traditional connotations and essence, I feel that it is this charade dressed in chimbuyaness that is slowly breeding tribalism in Zambia. Yes it’s been ‘in existence for many years and no one really means what they are saying’… but is it really necessary to bring another tribe down just so we could get a rise out of them and make those around us laugh?

I have a historical and archaeological background and I will be the first to preach to you about the importance of preserving a culture. But I will also be the first to remind you of how culture, if not approached properly has the potential to retard development. But have you ever wondered what causes genocide? No matter how innocent you think your utterances are, are you sure that the person that is receiving them in all their humanness will not at all feel the sting at some point? And in all your efforts to get a rise and a laugh at their expense, to what degree have you disassociated your personal judgements and feelings from the ‘jokes?’

Now,  I am not saying that Chimbuya is the cause of tribalism in Zambia. I am simply questioning the practice and ‘wondering if at all it would have anything to do with the current state of reality in political realm in Zambia.’

I keep hearing people say that Tongas are tribalists yet every time I ask them to explain that statement, they only manage to convince me of how tribalist they themselves are and not the party in question. It is always Tonga’s this and Tonga’s that. Tonga’s love themselves too much…you can’t work with Tonga’s…they have bad manners in the work place…and so on and so forth. But seriously, can this be the basis for ‘de-campaigning’ a presidential candidate?

Not so long ago I met someone who said this to me, “Have you ever conducted research? Do you know how facts are collected? Researchers come up with facts based on ratios. If you go out to do research and you discover that the majority of people in that area practice certain things, then your report will say that the people in that area…and not ‘some’ people in that area because you are reporting your findings based on what can be considered general.”

Although those where not his actual words, that was the point he was trying to deliver and all this was because I asked him to not make general statements about Tonga’s. He felt he was justified to make this declaration – “I would rather die than vote for a Tonga!” As I watched and listened to him shamelessly run his lips up and down like a heifer on heat, it struck me;  he was just as tribalist as the people he was accusing of the practice.

Was there any research that was done to prove that Tonga’s are tribalists or Zambians simply came to that conclusion based off their unfortunate experiences with that group of people? If so, how many of those experiences where first, second or third experiences? How many where hearsay? How sure are you that those experiences stemmed from those particular individuals being Tonga’s and not their personalities? If you have had mostly bad experiences with Tongas in your life, at what point in the experience did you become aware of their tribe and did it in any way affect your judgement? Do you think the outcome of that experience would have been different if a person of another tribe was in it or if you had not been aware of any tribal inclinations at all? How much of your own beliefs do you think affected the outcome of that experience? Do you think that just because someone has a Tonga name, irrespective of their social upbringing or educational background, by virtue of them having Tonga blood, then they will exhibit ‘Tonga-like’ behaviour? Have you ever taken the time to find out why Tonga’s behave the way you think they do? I have these and many other questions.

I want people to know that even in a well conducted research, there are always limitations. You simply cannot draw conclusions based on what you think is the majority view. Just because one Tonga behaved in a certain way when faced with one problem does not mean that another Tonga would have behaved that exact way when confronted with the same situation. It is especially dangerous to draw conclusions if your mind already has its own preconceived ideas. Before you judge how others are, ask yourself how much of that judgement reveals about yourself.

I once said this to my sister over the phone about someone I had seen on the streets earlier that day, “She was awfully dressed! She was wearing a long dress but with white sneakers and stockings. She was definitely Tonga that one!” The truth is that that was not the first time I had uttered such a derogatory statement about Tonga’s and laughed about it as if I had said nothing wrong. In fact, one of my closest friends is Tonga and although that fact never at any point came into play when I was getting closer to her, there have been times when I have said to her, “iwe chimuTonga, very typical!” Was I being a tribalist?

Yes there have been times when I have felt like kicking the life out of my friend when we have disagreements but there has never been a time I attributed her judgements, utterances, or behaviour to her tribe. So, could that have been my weakness or her weakness? Another friend of mine (should I mention that she is Bemba?) made this statement;

“I have heard Zambians celebrate every time Mweene the goalkeeper for the Zambian Soccer/Football Team saves a goal…but I have never heard people say anything about his skills having anything to do about him being Tonga or not. In fact, it was only after someone mentioned it to me that I learnt he was Tonga.” And to tell you the truth, I am also not sure if Mweene is actualy Tonga or not. It had never occurred to me to ask.

Personally, I have had many terrible experiences with people yet I cannot remember how many times I attributed their behaviour to their tribe. Looking back, I have had disagreements  with people from almost all the tribes in Zambia! However, I cannot say for sure how many of those where Tonga’s and how many where not. So, do you think I, who was not aware of such a thing has a weakness or the weakness would lie with someone who can count on his/her fingers and more how many times he/she has had bad experiences with Tongas? From when did you start counting and at what point did you discover those people where Tongas? Perhaps, could there be people with such characters from your own tribal group? If there are, would you be comfortable with people ascribing that characteristic to your whole group?

I understand that each tribe has its own tendencies, some very nice and some not so nice. However, before making general statements, how about we put into perspective all variables? Do not just say Tongas love themselves too much or that they are bad to work with. Everyone knows that women are complex creatures of emotion and they tend to be lethal whenever it’s ‘that time of the month’ – this is a biological fact – yet men still marry them and decide to have children with them. The question is why? Because they strive to understand them. Have you ever tried to understand why certain tribes have certain tendencies? If I grew up hearing that my people are backwards, mediocre, with funny accents and so on…will you blame me if I become defensive in the presence of other tribes or if I propel myself to excel to prove the haters wrong? Would you blame me for being proud? How about we both take responsibility for the way society has contributed to my socialization and if the outcome is not likable, can we do anything to change this from reoccurring? Can we do that?

Before you utter anything negative, it is important to think critically about the outcome. Genocides have started for lesser things than playing Chimbuya. It is very easy to practice tribalism and not be aware of it. If you are going to vote for anyone, vote on merit and not tribe. Since when did you start thinking about what tribe your friend or enemy was? Could it be that there is something you yourself is lacking and the only way to discredit others is to attack something of theirs that they had no choice in attaining? Who had a choice in the tribe they are? We can choose our marriage partners yes but our children will have no choice in who their parents are. If you have a problem with that, you can take it to God in prayer. He always answers.

While I was writing this piece, I called most of my friends and asked them this question; what tribe is Hakainde Hichilema and what tribe is Edgar Lungu? You know the answer? It was this answer;

Hakainde is Tonga and Edgar is from Eastern Province.

And no, the answer was NOT HH is from Southern Province and EL is from Eastern Province. People were not clear about what tribe EL really is and it didn’t matter because who doesn’t know the tribes from Eastern Province? By the way, how many tribes are there in Southern Province? My point here is that people are quick to mention Tonga when referring to HH but slow to come up with either Chewa, Nsenga, Ngoni or other tribes from the Eastern. It is the same with all other political candidates, their tribes do not matter but HH’s tribe does.

Why should tribe matter for one and not the other? If we took away HH being Tonga, can we list down the qualities we feel demerit all presidential candidates from taking that position, including the ones we support? Is it possible for us to weigh the pros and cons of each and make an informed decision from that or are we simply supporting candidates based on loyalty? How many of us have taken the time to make such evaluations?

Just because people belong to opposing parties does not mean there is nothing they can learn from each other. I am of the belief that as long as I am not being asked to vote on tribal basis, I can strive to understand different party manifestos, evaluate the candidates, consider the past lessons, and make an informed decision. And once I decide, it is not because I feel that candidate is perfect and the rest are worthless, it is simply because out of all those candidates, I believe that the one I have picked stands for most of the things I would love to promote. If you have personal experiences with HH that have led you to believe he is a tribalist, then don’t support him. However, it would be wrong to ascribe his behaviour to all Tongas. I understand that all cultures have their tendencies but, just as you hate hearing people from outside Africa talk about how poor and Ebola-infested people in Africa are, then stop this Tonga this and Tonga that because what you see is not always a complete picture.

I do not wish for people to see this as a political campaign but instead, an opportunity to think about what they say and what the impact their words can have on the Zambian community at large. If our children grow up hearing the words that I have been hearing lately, can you imagine what the future of Zambia would look like fifty years from now? Even in politics, isn’t it possible to campaign without bashing the tribe of the opponent? Whatever happened to voting based on merit, has it become a foreign concept?