When he stepped into the alcove, the musty scent tempered his expectations. He turned the door handle and flipped the light switch to a small office with drab oatmeal walls, a faded aerial photo of the Zambezi River, and a mirror instead of a window. Kelvin Kantu was a tall, slim, good-looking man with upright posture and bright brown eyes behind brown-rimmed glasses. He walked around the desk to the chair and was kneading the tacky blue fabric on its back when he heard a triple tap. Simon stood smiling at the doorjamb. “Welcome, my friend. I hope your new quarters will serve you well. No doubt a step down from the hallowed halls of your last job, but this ministry sends every available kwacha to the villages.” Simon Malambo had been appointed Zambia’s minister of chiefs and tribal affairs two months earlier. He had needed a deputy who could compensate for his own lack of government experience and awarded Kelvin the position over candidates proposed by members of the National Assembly and the president.
“Well, your priorities are mine and I’m ready for my marching orders.”
Simon raised his eyebrows, gave a closed-lip smile and a nod. He was a generation older and wore a dark suit with a pocket square in the Zambian flag’s green, red, black and gold. He swung the door closed and took the flat-seated, well-dinged visitor chair as Kelvin sat. “Glad you’re eager to start. Your new job, my friend, is to improve life for everyday tribal people.” He paused and fastened his eyes on Kelvin. “That’s the core of the ministry’s mission. Delegating it may seem an abdication of duty, but my time’s consumed here in Lusaka by territorial disputes, ethnic tensions, leadership succession, mining company claims, presidential advice giving, and you name it. I have little time left for the pleasurable hard work of aiding our people in the provinces. I trust you. You care, you’re bright, and you’re motivated to make a difference. So, here’s your chance. You have the well-being of eight million tribal Zambians on your shoulders.”
He paused again and studied Kelvin’s pensive face. “You have more experience with bureaucracies than I do, so unless my white hair gains some magical power, I can’t help much with the government infighting likely to come your way. I’ll be four doors down the corridor, happy to discuss ideas, and approve major projects, but it’s up to you to make things happen.”
Kelvin sat tall and stiff in his long-sleeved white shirt and tie, arms on the desk, hands folded. His direct gaze showed a hard-won self-confidence, readiness to take charge and the importance of his question. “You know more about the tribes than I’ll ever know. What other guidance can you give?”
“First of all, do things your way. If I’d wanted a copy of myself, I’d have moved that mirror to my office, not promoted you to deputy minister. Focus on health and poverty. Make regular, small improvements as well as major changes. Balance what people want today against what they need in the long term, and remember a patient man eats ripe fruit. Watch for storm clouds and avoid crises.”
“That’s a tall order,” Kelvin said with his eyes narrowing.
“It’s a life’s work, not an afternoon’s chore.” Simon leaned forward, chin up, hands on his knees, and said with a hint of mischief, “Close your eyes and picture Kadazi. What’s there?”
Kadazi was the village in Copperbelt Province where both had grown up. It was on Zambia’s 4,000-foot central plateau, with high temperatures in the 80s, a June to September dry period, and rain peaking in December. Simon had been the only son of the chief, later became the chief himself, and was well-liked by villagers for his insightful solutions to community problems. Like many villages, an ancient baobab tree dominated Kadazi’s setting. Its packed earth communal center was ringed by thatched roofed round huts. Most were made of bamboo and plaster, had a single main room for living and sleeping, and a wood fire cooking area. Some had an insaka at the back, an open-air room with half-height walls for family conversation. Two and three room rectangular, masonry houses were interspersed through the village, and rough, single room, wood, branch, and mud huts dotted the fields and forest beyond. The schoolhouse was open-air, a thatched roof on stilts run by part-time, unpaid volunteers. The village had no electricity or running water; toilets were set in outbuildings, and most families were subsistence farmers or herders with up to ten children. Kelvin was an only child. His mother held a paid job as an administrator at a Danish charity organization nearby. His father had immigrated from Ghana and taken a job as an engineer in the copper mines, a fifty-minute walk away.
“Well,” Kelvin said with a closed-eye smile, “I see you sitting under the baobab. You’re wearing that leather necklace. Eight or ten women are telling you it’s not fair they have to haul water from the stream every day when they do all the housework and fieldwork.” Simon nodded and smiled at the village’s never-ending problem. “I see dust kicked up by barefoot kids playing football, goats walking to and fro, the bush off to the left and vegetable gardens to the right. I hear cattle in the distance and the sound of an ax chopping firewood. I smell cooking fires, and I’m getting hungry.”
He remembered the first time he ever talked with Simon, but the day still stung, and he didn’t mention it. He’d ached to be the hero of schoolyard games, but having been slow to develop, even younger boys pushed him aside. One Sunday when Kelvin was seven, two nearby villages gathered in Kadazi for a festival. Older boys organized a football match but didn’t pick him for a team. He approached a group preparing for dodge ball, but feigned indifference after a boy from a neighboring village taunted him with, “No maglas, no maglas” because of his new eyeglasses; others were engaged in sojo, a game like marbles played with bottle caps, but they didn’t look up when he asked to join; and still other children were playing icidunu, a hide and seek game, but he couldn’t find the leader to be invited in. He’d retreated to the edge of the common area and was sitting alone under the great baobab tree when Simon walked by, and said, “Hello young man. Why are you here when the games are over there?”
“Those kids don’t like me. They call me names.”
“Is that so?”
“They make me feel bad.” He remembered staring hard at the ground and hoping the man would leave him alone.
“This must be a difficult day.”
“Yes. But not just today, every day.”
Simon sat down, pointed up and asked, “What do they call this tree?”
“Huh? The baobab?”
“Yes, but what else do they call it?”
“Well, they call it the upside-down tree. They say it’s stupid because its roots are up in the air.”
“And do you know why?”
“I suppose it’s just a different kind of tree. Different, like me.”
“There’s more to the story. Here in Kadazi, the rain stays away for many months, and the baobab protects itself by going without leaves for half the year. Even when its bare branches look like roots up in the air, it is storing water in this giant trunk we’re resting on. And did you notice, in the very driest time, when there’s not much for us to eat, it sprouts those big, tasty fruit that keep the whole village alive?” Kelvin remembered wishing he didn’t have to listen to all this talk. He wanted to be alone, but Simon continued. “The baobab doesn’t care if people call it names. It knows it’s strong, and it knows it’s good. I know you’re good too. I’m going back to the festival. Want to walk with me?” The feel of Simon’s hand on his knee returned with perfect fidelity. Kelvin shook his head, stared down, and re-played his hurt.
“Now, what don’t you see?” Simon asked as he pulled his chair forward.
“Well, I see no men. Some are looking for work in the city, but most are chatting or napping in cool places in the bush. I can’t see anything at night, of course.”
“Tell me what you’d like to see.”
Kelvin opened his eyes, removed his glasses, and polished them with a cloth he carried in his shirt pocket. “I’d like to see people using computers connected to the outside world. I’d like to see parents and children talking about what they’ll do when they grow up, and it wouldn’t always be taking over the family farm. I want the motivated ones to have the chance to work with their minds as well as their hands.”
“Ah, the point of the exercise. You arrived this morning with laudable goals, but you need to remember you’re not the typical villager. Your family set you apart when you were growing up. Your University degree, big jobs, and city living separate you more now. Take time to learn what the villagers want. You can tell them what you think they need, but be sure to listen to their reactions. Connect with hundreds and be confident you know the nation’s pulse before you set objectives.”
The Ministry’s administrator knocked politely, bent his head inside the door and told Simon a reporter was on the phone with questions about tribal tensions building from a police crack-down on opponents to the President’s political party. As he hopped out, Simon said, “Remember, Conference Room at 4:00 to meet the visitors.”
First day and on display. Time for measure-the-new-guy. Chairs removed, sugar biscuits and tea on the table. Handshakes. They’re wearing the look. He’s different. Too intense. Watch out. Hope we can tame him with a few beers. Nice intro, Simon. Big smile. Eye contact, show-time...
Kelvin was first into the office the next morning, and Simon stopped by later to report the six visiting chiefs appreciated the earnest messages he’d delivered at the reception. Kelvin closed his door, talked on the phone, updated Simon at lunchtime, and the chiefs arrived in a group at his door late in the afternoon. “Tell us more about the tribal book bus Simon says you arranged.” He ushered them from his cramped office to the conference room, described his newly minted partnership with a British publisher, accepted their congratulations, and added that he’d also sent a proposal to a Swiss food company about processing villages’ baobab fruit into a nutritional supplement for sale in Europe. A chief hooted, “New cash coming!” leaving Kelvin scrambling and adding a disclaimer that ideas travel a bumpy road when they concern money.
“I have something else you might like,” he said, opening his laptop and showing a short video about increasing crop yields. They gave nods of approval, and he continued, “If farmers could access the internet, they could watch a whole series of these lessons. This next one surprised me with all the variables in choosing seeds, starting with soil composition, temperature, altitude, and rain patterns. There are other videos on harvesting techniques, insect damage, and selling at the best price. One says collecting specialty woods in the forest and planting seedlings of the most popular varieties can protect farmers’ income when the rains are unreliable. You’re welcome to look…”
The next morning Kelvin set off in the Ministry’s four-wheel drive to North-Western province, where 40 inches of annual rainfall and the current rainy season meant deep mud. He picked up the Kaonde peoples’ chief in the capital, Solwezi, and true to the first impression from his bowler hat, bushy mustache, red-checked, blue-flowered, and black diamond-patterned jacket, the chief’s personality filled the vehicle with his warmth and laughter.
That first day, they toured villages like those near Lusaka where Kelvin had taught weekend classes in English and math while in college. The next day they sliced through a steaming forest on a mud track for ten miles and were navigating potholes filled with water, when the chief said, “Roll up your window, we’re entering a tsetse fly area. These here don’t carry diseases, but better to sweat a little than suffer bloody bites.”
On arrival, the village headman greeted them and served tea under a baobab tree as a group of children sang a welcome song. The first stop on their tour of the verdant village was a nearby hut where four witches sat waiting for their daily beating. The headman explained it was their punishment for causing young people to die. The chief shook his head, and commented to Kelvin, “They look like unfortunate wretches who should be home feeding their orphaned grandchildren.” The headman guided them around deep puddles and widely spaced huts, pointing out those of well-to-do men with many wives and relating how they and all villagers benefitted from the virgin cure for AIDS. Both the chief and Kelvin let his words pass without comment.
After the tour, the chief instructed the headman to gather all villagers, and when they assembled at the end of the afternoon, the crowd extended as far as his voice. He bellowed a cheerful greeting, spoke of a chief’s responsibility for the culture of the entire tribe, and warned the gathering they would hear harsh words from him. He started by shaking his head and criticizing the misguided beliefs he’d just heard and then roared his anger that they hadn’t heeded the sub-chief he’d sent to address these matters a year earlier. With stern words and forceful gestures, he demanded a change in village behavior, crossing from left to right, making eye contact with all in the front rows.
Then he bewildered the gathering by announcing he’d been circumcised this past year. “As you know, our tribal custom is to never speak of such things, and like you, I followed it. But last year, my son told me circumcision would reduce my risk of AIDS by 60%. My son submitted to the procedure, and I followed. I want to live longer. I want you to live longer. I want men to talk of this, and I want women to talk of this. When you are ready to make your village healthier, send me a message.”
As they ate at a communal table that evening, a trio of wizened elders came before the chief and their spokesman said, “What you say is strange, but if circumcision is good for our chief, it is good for all males. Please send the doctors.”
During the six-hour return to Lusaka, Kelvin ruminated about what he should do next. That evening, he treated himself to a Vivaldi concerto tape over a light dinner, put his feet on the coffee table, and outlined the plan for his Tribal Village Health Program. He slept little, arrived early at the office, contacted overseas aid agencies, religious missions, and public health experts. By the end of the afternoon, lists of possible leaders in each province, training and supply needs covered his desk. The next morning, he gained Simon’s agreement, hurtled from the Ministry of Health to the Department of Economic Development to donor agencies; and over the coming months, he visited each of the 72 tribes to build teams and oversee progress. An exhausting year later, he entered Simon’s office exhilarated, proclaimed the program to be operational, and left for home at 5:00, the first time.
The next morning, he gave himself permission to pursue his long-held goal of giving villagers alternatives to subsistence farming. His future ideal village looked much the same as today, but in addition to a baobab tree anchoring one end of the communal center, a brick building clad with bamboo, plaster, and a thatched roof anchored the other. It housed solar panels, a satellite antenna, computer workstations, and classrooms. Beyond the fields were workshops for Zambian Heritage Furniture and Zambezi Specialty Clothing. Communal life remained as warm as today, but villagers had choices in how to make their living.
Kelvin had formed a group of advisors to guide the social aspects of the change, but his first priority was funding for solar panels, internet and PCs, education, and manufacturing tax incentives. He drew up legislation for these investments, titled it “Live Tribal, Work Global,” and promoted it door to political door at the National Assembly, week after week. He asserted the payoff for Zambia would be more skilled labor, consumers with money to spend, and tax revenue beyond the investment.
When a majority of the Assembly pledged support, Kelvin announced it with fanfare to Simon and the chiefs and wrote an article for the Lusaka Times. His success brought the reward of a dream that night where he basked in the smiles of his late parents after telling them of the tribes’ pending leap forward. The best part was overhearing them boast to their neighbors about their boy’s accomplishment.
He drove to the program’s pilot village in Muchinga Province and was greeted with enthusiasm matching his own. Their project team committed to his schedule, and Kelvin committed to returning with money, a first solar panel, and a package of light bulbs. Smoke from fields being burned for new crops slowed his return to Lusaka, but he was fresh and upbeat when he arrived and popped his head into Simon’s office to give an update. But Simon raised his hand and interrupted. Nothing for “Live Tribal, Work Global” had been included in the nation’s annual budget because the Assembly had decided instead to build a new football stadium in Lusaka with the promised funds.
Kelvin charged to the Assembly Hall and pleaded with his two strongest supporters. But the budget was final and they warned he’d alienate members if his outrage spewed into other offices. Chastened by the tone of their rebuke and humiliated at the prospect of walking back his pronouncements, he left in a daze of anger and self-doubt.
During the following weeks, when Kelvin wasn’t a lethargic shadow staring out the window at the end of the corridor, he was a recluse in his office with the door closed. Simon cajoled him to return to the Assembly in a problem-solving frame of mind, and he was able to secure promises for the next year. But by the time that budget was final, the need to repay foreign debts had consumed all discretionary funds. He slogged through a further year of sustaining small, unambitious projects until he returned to the Assembly with a scaled-back proposal. Members treated him like a weed. Even his strongest supporters declared city problems had priority and they wouldn’t address rural village issues in the foreseeable future.
An unfit political weakling gazed back from his mirror. A hollow reed, broken and trampled by 166 politicians. He became aimless in the office; neither food, music, nor friends interested him; and sleep was difficult.
A dream one night took him back to his seven-year-old self, crying to his mother about bullies, and the memory of her buoying him with, “Your strength will come out in time. You’ll put those nasty boys in their place one day. Remember, you’re descended from Shaka Zulu. When I was growing up, my mother told me stories of King Shaka’s great deeds, and my heart knows one day I’ll be talking of my Kelvin’s great deeds, too.” Her words had filled him with confidence. In dreams, he could fly over the jungle, soaring like an eagle, turning, and diving at great speed. He was the first chosen for every team and led the village to dazzling football victories over neighbors. He could achieve whatever he could imagine.
Three years later, when all Kadazi buzzed about a pride of lions roaming nearby, he dreamed of encountering a lion mauling a farmer. He rushed to within an arm’s length of the lion, howled Shaka’s warrior cry, and forced it to retreat with its tail between its legs. The lions stayed near Kadazi the next day, and in a dream sequel, he encountered boys stealing tools from workmen next door, and called out, “That’s not fair, put them back.” They laughed in his face; his howl brought the king back, and their blood turned the dust to mud. Such dreams bolstered him through teenage insecurities, but they now shamed the aggrieved government employee in his impotence, and he took refuge in rationalizing his legislative failure. It was business-as-usual in the real world of politics, and his parents would still be proud of him for improving village health and farmers’ practices.
Kelvin abandoned his quest for “Live Tribal, Work Global” and plodded through suffocating days; the poor became even poorer; his light dimmed, and his friends worried. While reviewing a village water project in Eastern province, Kelvin encountered an Assembly member who had been an early supporter. When cooking fire smoke streamed over thatched roofs that evening, the two joined the village headman beneath a tree and conversed as they rolled small balls of cornmeal mush, pressed them onto sautéed greens and fish, and popped them into their mouths. “Can you help me understand why you didn’t pass the electricity and internet legislation I proposed?”
“Sure,” the Assemblyman replied cheerfully, moving fish bones aside and wiping his fingers. “When you first described it, I was excited to help people like the villagers here. It seemed moral and honorable. But the more I questioned how the government could fund it, the less I liked it. We would raise taxes on those already paying taxes and give their money to villagers who pay none. Those city people took risks for their money. Each left the knowns of a rural tribe, faced the unknowns of the city, and fought to advance themselves. I figured it wasn’t right to tax them to buy an easier life for people who didn’t take the initiative. I’m a churchgoer and help the poor myself, but that’s my choice, not the government making me do it. I made my decision after one of my city constituents said we should let the tribes stay as they are because pushing them into modern culture would just make them miserable.”
A candle with a tin foil back plate illuminated Kelvin as he rebutted, but the Assemblyman shrugged him off, and the headman’s silence led them to change the subject.
Compassion. Ha! Selfish. Hypocrite. Income tax is a tiny part of the government’s revenue because everybody avoids it. Bet he does too. Has power but won’t use it for good. Says to leave villagers alone because we might make them miserable. He’s comfortable. Sleeps in a bed with sheets, not a mat on a dirt floor. Would never hang onto the roof rack of a bus. His forebears took the risk for his comforts, not him. Thinks he’s entitled. Self-satisfied windbag. He’ll get justice one day.
On his return from the Eastern Province, he found an invitation from old friends at Defense Ministry HQ Admin for a Friday evening gathering. Kelvin remembered the promise and excitement of his first job in the working world and accepted, hoping that reconnecting would rekindle his spirits. He arrived by bus, navigated to the restaurant’s back patio, ran into his first-ever office mate, and asked, “How are things back in the fortified ivory tower?”
“Hey, good to see you again, Kelvin! Admin keeps chugging along, same as when you were with us. Our work processes are still a mess, but no time to save time. Need programmers to tighten things up, too, and can’t afford them. Nothing new.” His old colleague raised his glass in a mock toast, and said, “How about a beer?” Kelvin declined. “You’ve been out of sight for months, or is it years? How are things with the tribes?”
“Pretty much the same, nothing special.”
“I know you better. You’re saving the world, right? Planning something big, or already working it day and night. Come on, open up Kelvin. We’re friends.”
“Well, the thing causing me the most pain is getting worse, according to a report I saw yesterday. Migration to cities rose 50% last year, and the ugly proof of it was flowing across Kafue Road tonight where floodwater is still pushing garbage out from the Misisi Compound. The bus had to crawl through it. Some 90,000 people back there in squalor, with pit latrines, undrinkable water, malaria, cholera, and AIDS surrounding them. Life expectancy is 32 years. Our esteemed Assembly talks and talks about the thousands dying here in shanty towns and jails but won’t support me in keeping people healthy in the countryside. So, the net is, I’m failing in my job.”
His friend raised his eyebrows and saluted with his drink. “Kelvin, everybody here is proud of you for stepping up, but you need perspective. Don’t take it all on your shoulders. The whole country, the system… the government owns this.”
“That’s true. But I am the government. I stick with it because it’s the dream job we talked about at the dinner table when I was a kid.”
“You know, when we worked together, I was always amazed at how you’d grind through hard, thankless stuff and do whatever it took to get the job done. But work has limits and going beyond them has a cost. If you don’t lighten up, you’ll burn out, go nuts, and need help yourself.”
“Well, that’s a possibility. Be happy you’re not driven by a mission.”
A woman separated from a nearby group and introduced herself into the conversation with a broad smile. “Kelvin, it’s so nice to see you. But I can tell you’re being too serious. Come on, let’s go to the bar. The band’s setting up, and tonight’s a time for laughing. No worrying, OK?”
Kelvin’s eyes brightened, and he nodded a greeting. “You sound like my boss. He says I don’t have balance in my life, but I’ll value balance when the government values tribes. Although I may have none left by then,” he said with a chuckle and gesture toward his thinning hair. She smiled, and he winked. She inclined her head toward the bar and invited him again. He shook his head with a smile, gave a two-fingered salute to his friend, and took his leave.
I don’t waste good days having good times. People are rushing into squalor. It’s on me to keep them home until they get an education. The bus pushed through the refuse on its return down Kafue Road, and stench hung inside for blocks. Alone in his apartment, Kelvin brewed a cup of tea and dropped into his chair, staring at his fingernails, then staring at his bookcase and closing his eyes. Following a motionless five minutes, he lurched to his feet and put on a Beethoven tape. He pulled out his laptop, found his “Live Tribal, Work Global” documents in the archive, typed updates for an hour, and closed Friday evening with a pledge to invest the weekend finding rhetoric to change the minds and hearts of the powerful.
Monday morning, he returned to Assembly Hall convinced he’d crafted the right words to recruit the six newly elected members to his cause. After two hours in a conference room, they said they’d consider his program if the budget allowed. He searched their faces for more optimistic words, but they showed no interest and tapped their pencil erasers on the table.