Hakainde Hichilema

Zambian president-elect for the United Party for National Development Hakainde Hichilema during a press briefing at his residence in Lusaka on August 11, 2021.


Cowrie of hope for Zambia: Literature and reality for new president

What you need to know:

  • The President-Elect of Zambia, Hakainde Hichilema, should remember that the voter is like the fictional character Nasula in A Cowrie of Hope.
  • The work for the new Zambian president and the incoming Kenyan president in 2022 is clearly cut: to, among other things, tackle the abject poverty.


African politics is menacing, like the sudden purring of a wild cat. Like the feel of the coldness of the muzzle of a loaded gun. It can be shimmering, fully-fledged and completely convincing or direct, jarring and shocking.

There are all kinds of politicians; some are brash or mild and timid, others severe and overbearing, some tart and caustic; others are overwhelmingly uplifting with their sweet words. Some have picture-perfect smiles, incredibly free and spontaneous-looking with that windblown and sunbathed centrifugal energy of joie de vivre (joy of living).

The masses of people they lead, on the other hand, are far from having any joy of living. Many are miserable; struggling in abject poverty as politicians lead lives many people can only dream of. Therefore, whenever a new president comes to power, the masses pour out in the streets in ululations, chants and dance.

This is what happened on Monday, August 16, 2021 after Zambia’s opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema was announced as the president-elect. Celebrations broke out in the Zambian capital, Lusaka, as supporters chanted, sang and danced in the streets. Most of these people are living in poverty and are hoping that the new president will change their lives for the better.

The plight of most Zambians, which is the plight of many Africans including Kenyans, is captured best in the classic African novel, A Cowrie of Hope by Zambian writer Binwell Sinyangwe, in the famous African Writers Series.

Hakainde Hichilema

United Party for National Development (UPND) Presidential candidate Hakainde Hichilema casts his vote on Zambia's general elections in Lusaka, Zambia on August 12, 2021.

Photo credit: James Kunda |AFP

The protagonist can represent the African voter in a brutal metaphor, cruelly apt. Bristling with chilly creativity, the story is about a woman — Nasula — meaning mother of Sula (her daughter’s name). She is described poignantly: “Nasula was poverty, she was loneliness and aloneness. Suffering was her life. She wore it like her own skin. A young peasant woman in her early thirties, beautiful and gracefully built, Nasula had no means and no dependable support. She was…a plant growing on poor soils without tendrils. Both her parents had died not long after she had come of age and had left her with nothing but herself.”

This is the typical Zambian or Kenyan voter. Every new political slogan elicits hope — whether it’s bottom-up economics, top-down economics or rural development. Hope is what the masses cling onto even when they know it may not work out in the end.

For Nasula, just like the voter anywhere in Africa, she had pinned her hopes on her husband. However, when her husband had finally won her over, he changed just like politicians do after winning over voters and getting into office.

The same politicians who jumped over open sewer lines visiting the lowliest in society will later be so full of bravado that one is shocked at how power corrupts most of them. Nasula reached that point in her life when her husband mistreated her (before he died) because he had already won her and had nothing to lose.

Nasula pleaded with him then: “I am poor and a woman, but you do not stop being a human being when you are poor or a woman”. Then she had broken down as “pain had constricted her throat and she had cried like a child stolen away from its mother”.

The President-Elect of Zambia, Hakainde Hichilema, should remember that the voter is like the fictional character Nasula in A Cowrie of Hope. A cowrie is a beautiful sea shell, which is precious and was used as money in some parts of Africa. Nasula sees her daughter, Sula, as a cowrie. Having Sula and looking after her is depicted as being more important than having money.

Zambia elections, Hakainde Hichilema

Supporters of Zambian President elect for the opposition party United Party for National Development (UPND) Hakainde Hichilema gestures as they ride on a pick up truck in the streets of Lusaka on August 16, 2021. 

Photo credit: Marco Longari | AFP

As for Zambian voters, their “cowrie” — the most precious thing — is hope. They hope that the president-elect will make their lives better. And most of them are just looking for the basic things in life; clean water to drink, food to eat, and good education for their children.

Most of the people not only in Zambia but also in Kenya and much of Africa are searching for solutions against what our founding father, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, singled out as the unholy troika of poverty, ignorance and disease.

Poverty is what keeps Nasula from sleeping at night: “wide awake, her dark eyes open and dry, she stared vacantly at the fire. So it was with her these days. After a hard day of endless pursuit, of searching for a solution to her problem, midnight would find her awake, thinking and worrying, asking herself the question: What shall I do? When desperation gave way to fear, the fear of her daughter’s schooling coming to an end, her thoughts would stiffen and she would silently lament: is this the way things end?”

The work for the new Zambian president and the incoming Kenyan president in 2022 is clearly cut: to, among other things, tackle the abject poverty that is making people live in inhumane conditions. We wish the Zambian people well as we wait for our own elections.

For the IEBC, the lesson from Zambia is that they should do their job and not to fear or favour anyone. In Zambia, the incumbent lost to the opposition and the sitting president graciously accepted the results. That is the true spirit of democracy.


You're all set to enjoy unlimited Prime content.