I was enjoying a visit with a Bemba senior chief in the Republic of Zambia and trying to make up my mind about whether I thought this particular potentate was kosher enough for my tastes when he managed to truly impress me.
Just an hour ago I was on my knees in his living room, clapping three times to fulfil the tradition of greeting.
Please, be amused. A self-proclaimed feminist/futurist prostrated before what can only be called the ultimate manifestation of patriarchy: A true-blue African chief, in the flesh.
Next she finds herself standing in front of a large and beautiful tree, a sacred tree that Senior Chief Nkula had selected to be part of his (eventual) funeral rites.
And I felt envy. This man was assured by virtue of his station of a lovely, organic, frankly poetic return to the land that gave him birth, and it was decidedly and unapologetically outside of the Christian canon.
Dust to dust – our journeys out of this world must be as beautiful and keenly anticipated as our journeys into it. May we plant ourselves like seeds to germinate within the stories of those who come after us.
We all have secret lives. As a social scientist there is nothing about human behaviour that can bore me – with the radical exception of sports.
If it’s not Serena Williams asserting her warrior-queendom, or the Kenyan Rugby Sevens beauties in their form-fitting uniforms crushing the soul of some European pretender, count me out.
As an Africanist, ohooo... The thirst is deep and unquenchable. I want to know it all, all of it, the good and the bad and the ugly, the interminable history that stretches back to the dawn of humanity itself.
This messy bog that is contemporary Africa, this most gorgeous complexity, more than a hundred lifetimes’ work to behold, this is my love.
As a terminally inadequate aspiring poet, asking me to resist an African chief when they are raised to think and speak so beautifully in nothing but metaphors is futile. Zambia, unlike the majority of African countries, has found a way to integrate traditional forms of governance into the formal structures of their modern republic.
By which I mean: they have a House of Chiefs with 50 representatives (elected from 200+ active candidates) and a Ministry of Chiefs. Their government sometimes builds them palaces from whence they perform their chiefly duties. Their mandate covers all matters of traditional land and what could be collectively termed “family law.”
They adjudicate on issues of marriage, inheritance, and the allocation of land resources, which of course has implications for the availability of water, the care of the environment, and the provision of public services.
Folks: We’re not talking King Mswati and the Reed Dance or the House of Al Saud nor what’s left of my own Haya Princes and the Kings of the Lake Zone.
We’re talking structures, job descriptions that go beyond “inheritor,” responsibilities, deliverables, office hours. Not quite a parallel system to the regular old government, but an element of it if you will, when done right.
As Chief Nkula walked us around the development projects he intends to provide to his peoples, we got to look at tractors and combine harvesters.
We talked about the difficulty of applying his women-first policy in land allocation for agricultural purposes.
He knows that women are the primary farmers in Africa, most productive and dependable but even he must struggle against the very patriarchy that gives him his powers to rule.
We saw the site where he symbolically immolated the practice of early girl-child marriages along with 10 other chiefs. We toured his gender resource-centre, which is also the site of his gender court and his chiefly court.
He worries about the dangers of aid dependency, and has requested that the Peace Corps in his area focus their service on teaching fish-farming.
He was quite happy to tell us that yes, being a chief is convenient: Whereas his interventions to prevent girl-child marriages previously landed him in court and he didn’t win all his cases, now all he has to do is make his will known for a child to be protected.
As much as I liked my visit, as a subject of the chief I would probably be rather unhappy about the lack of democracy and feel compelled to bother him with a monthly visit to preach the gospel of modernity as I see it. However, he gave me a gift of verification: Chiefs are not an institution we need fear for love of Eurocentric domination of the development discourse.
I hope this vignette of one Bemba leader raises in you thoughts about our philosophies of good governance before the Bible and the Gatling Gun and the World Bank found us.
Elsie Eyakuze is an independent consultant and blogger for The Mikocheni Report, http://mikochenireport.blogspot.com. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org