I confess that I have more than casual interest in the affairs of Malawi and Zambia. This is if only because both my parents come from the southern highlands which border the two nations.
Therefore, what takes place in these two countries is generally of interest to neighbouring Tanzania - and more so to Tanzanians whose tribal roots are in their neighbourhood.
The same applies to Malawians and Zambians. You can never miss them in pubs and restaurants in places like Mbeya, Njombe, Tukuyu, Tunduma and other semi-urban centres in the region. They naturally feel at home here.
No wonder, then, that - at one point in my life - I visited these two countries. I first visited Malawi in the early 1980s during President Kamuzu Banda’s regime (1964-94). Obviously that was not the most appropriate time to undertake that sojourn - considering the ‘mini cold war’ between Bongoland and Malawi at the time.
Readers of this column will recall how I was briefly detained at Lilongwe Airport because my passport showed that I was a journalist. But my official mission there was tourism promotion. They must have misconstrued me for a super spy. Wow!
But, all in all, I ended up having a wonderful time in their ‘shebeens’ - read ‘groceries’ - in places like Kawale One and Two. Shebeens have a life of their own... But let us get back to my sojourns.
The next sojourn was to Zambia. I was flying back from Harare in the late 1980s, and made a stopover in Lusaka for a tete-a-tete with a fellow scribe and former collage-mate in Berlin.
The friend, Ken Wafulila, knew exactly the likes of me who always wants to mingle with the locals and hear of their experiences. So, we went to one of the townships where shebeens thrive.
Truly, I had a wonderful time. We talked football, politics - and, naturally enough, maize flour prices. The flour issue was heated. To Zambians and Malawians, ‘Nshima’ - ‘Ugali’ in Tanzania - is hot politics.
But what caught my attention was the presence of a number of young men with empty wheelbarrows at the shebeen’s entrance - and, indeed, at the entrances of all shebeens in the area.
On enquiry I was informed that these were for hire by patrons who got so sloshed that they could not find their way home. Then the wheelbarrow boys would ferry them home like bags of maize... And, because the ‘gentlemen’ had run out of ‘Kwacha’ - the local currency - or were too sloshed to pay, their spouses paid the fare them out. Cest la vie! (French for ‘such is life!’)
And for those who do not know the word ‘shebeen,’ this is derived from an Irish word ‘Sibin’, meaning ‘illicit whisky.’ Also, ‘Sibin’ was a place where the booze was sold without a licence.
Shebeens are popular in Southern Africa, where they sprung during the colonial era when Blacks were not allowed in bars and pubs where they would mingle with White folk. As such, they created their own drinking places - shebeens - in townships which were operated without licences.
Back to Zambia... In the 1980s, Zambia had a vibrant, copper -based economy. But we all know what it went through after; the econo-political ups and downs are a story in themselves.
So, it goes without saying that I had more than a casual interest in the just-ended presidential elections there. The elections ended with the incumbent President, Edgar Lungu of the ruling Patriotic Front, losing to opposition leader Hakainde ‘HH’ Hichilema of the United Party for National Development by a million votes.
But, who is this ‘Hichilema?’ He was born to a poor family in Monze District on June 4, 1962. Through a scholarship, in 1986 he graduated in Economics and Business Administration from the University of Zambia - and an MBD soon afterwards in the UK.
He worked in a number of financial institutions - and finally became a prominent businessman, currently owning the second largest cattle ranch in Zambia. According to Forbes’ 2021 rankings, Hichilema is the richest man in Zambia!
He unsuccessfully contested for the Presidency in 2006, 2008, 2011, 2015 and 2016. He once said “Africa needs businessmen who don’t need to make a living from politics, but who go in to help grow African economies. It would be their policies that take Africans out of poverty through enterprise.”
As a Bongolander and a neighbour, I wish President Hichilema and Zambians all the best in this new phase of their political safari. And, I promise to revisit a Zambia that is sans wheelbarrows parked outside shebeens... Cheers!