Remembering Kenneth Kaunda, the president who was an artist

Kenneth Kaunda

This file photo taken on April 01, 1978 shows former Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda, in his palace. Kaunda, Zambia's first President, died aged 97 on June 17, 2021.

Photo credit: AFP

What you need to know:

  • Mr Kaunda was lured by politics and was elected the first president of Zambia in 1964.
  • One thing going for him and why he won’t be soon forgotten is that he was a writer.

Former Zambia President, Kenneth Kaunda (KK), was a spellbinding orator and singer. “In one of his last major public appearances, at the funeral of Nelson Mandela in December 2013, Mr Kaunda recalled his own history in the fight to end apartheid, launching into a version of a song that had once been his rallying cry, Tiyende Pamodzi (‘let’s go together’). But this time, when he reached the chorus, his listeners did not dutifully sing along, as they had in the past. ‘Ah, you have forgotten,’ he said wistfully,” once wrote Michael T. Kaufman about the man who passed away on June 17, 2021.

“Ah, you have forgotten”. These words by Mr Kaunda must have been spoken with the despair of someone seeing another landscape; warm, welcoming, long ago and far away. Somewhere out there in the haze under a Zambian sky, were all the places he had sung that song and he had received a rapturous response.

The song may have conjured up the scent of long-forgotten smells of the rain and wet earth or the misty picture of a basket of vaguely-remembered wild fruits from a distant afternoon in his childhood. That golden place of fantasy is almost an allegory of the “heaven” that many Africans dreamt of when their countries got independence from colonial rule.

Zambians must have had those dreams when Mr Kaunda took the reins of power. Never before had Africa beamed with so much promise and potential like immediately after independence from colonial rule. Many have wondered how different things could have been with better and selfless leaders; it’s like longing for unrecoverable treasures after a ship capsizes and everything is adrift in the open sea.

Kaunda's famous books

Mr Kaunda was lured by politics and was elected the first president of Zambia in 1964. One thing going for him and why he won’t be soon forgotten is that he was a writer. In his book, Zambia Shall Be Free (1962), he writes that, “My parents gave me the name Buchizya, meaning ‘the unexpected one’, for I was born in their twentieth year of their marriage, the eighth in the line of children, three of who died young. I was born in 1924 at Lubwa in the hills of the watershed between the great Luangwa and Chambezi rivers”.

One of his most poignant books is Letter to My Children (1977) in which he lays out his vision for the country he would like to bequeath his children. He writes about real-life happenings with the magical touch of fiction:

“Often as I travel around our country, I look from the windows of my car or gaze at the assembled crowds who come to greet me and hear me speak. I see a citizen on a bicycle, a hoe over his shoulder, heading for the fields, or a young woman, a baby on her back chatting by the roadside, or a government official going about his everyday business. I pass churches filled with worshippers, shops packed with customers, processions of men making their way to factory gates or the mine shaft, and I am filled with humility and respect. For they are Zambia, and whether they know it or not, the fate of this country is in their hands.”

His other books are Black Government (1961), A Humanist in Africa (with Colin Morris), 1966, Humanism in Zambia and its Implementation (1967), Kaunda on Violence (1980), The Riddle of Violence (1981), The Political Philosophy of President Kenneth D. Kaunda of Zambia (1981) and State of the Nation: National Economy (1988).

On this aspect, he joins the league of founder presidents who were also writers like Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana), Jomo Kenyatta (Kenya), Julius Nyerere (Tanzania) and Leopold Senghor (Senegal). Mr Kaunda not only wrote but also played the guitar, so it’s clear that he was a real artist.

Peaceful power transfer

For all his weaknesses as a politician from introducing the one-party repressive state to overseeing Zambia’s economic decline due to falling copper prices in the global market, Mr Kaunda salvaged his legacy when he peacefully transferred power in 1991 after he lost elections.

Some African dictators have lost elections but have clung on; orchestrating terrifying violence in the process. For being humane, conceding defeat and letting go of power, history will be kind to Mr Kaunda.

Nic Cheeseman seems to agree with this assertion when he writes that, “The memory of Kaunda as a nation-builder will also be sustained by the contrast between his manner and the brash style of the contemporary political class. Despite being a national liberation hero, Kaunda never lost his human touch. We interviewed him and saw at first hand his modest lifestyle and lack of pretension. It was a reminder of a less cynical and more idealistic time when leaders were not assumed to be corrupt, arrogant and flashy... When Zambians observe 21 days of national mourning, they will not just be grieving for KK, but also for a lost era of hope, national pride and human dignity.”

The rest of Africa joins Zambia in mourning what could have been. Hopefully, we’ll get leaders who will build a better continent for all.


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