Why I do what I do
By Sishuwa Sishuwa
Whenever I hold our elected public leaders to account, some in our country – largely those whose ability to reason is never beyond an adhominem attack – are quick to accuse me of working to advance sectional interests or a particular viewpoint of my paymasters. Perhaps they cannot imagine being motivated to do anything except for material gain. This is regrettable: I have never claimed nor received a single ngwee from a politician for my activism, something I am sure those in opposition and in power today would be happy to confirm.
It is my belief that intellectuals must act out of conviction, based on understandable reasons and the intrinsic value of their actions, not out of anticipation of material gain, political or personal favours. I do what I do out of a deep conviction, motivated by the belief that if knowledge is worth acquiring, it is also worth sharing; that the acquisition of specialist knowledge should result in its application to causes and communities that need it most. Zambia’s intellectuals, though few in numbers, have a duty to publicly share their knowledge and expertise on issues of public interest. Zambia lacks a public intellectual culture, and I provide regular media commentaries in the hope that in my own modest way I could contribute to the creation of one.
I am extremely grateful for the education I received at the University of Zambia (UNZA), courtesy of a government loan that I only managed to repay last month, but I remain conscious and indeed outraged that such opportunities remain so limited for my fellow citizens. One of the reasons that explain this dearth of opportunity is corruption coupled with lack of accountability. Another is incompetent leadership. It is incumbent upon those of us who have received a good education to share the fruits of such benefits as far as we can with others. For me, one way of doing so is by holding elected leaders to account so that they can provide a range of basic services such as increased educational opportunities and improved healthcare. I also periodically return to my former schools in rural areas to share with today’s pupils my experiences and the opportunities ahead.
I do not often mention my own background in my public commentaries mainly because I do not think it is relevant, even when some people out there, who themselves know nothing of my life and family history, assume that I was born into privileged circumstances, or that I write to advance sectional interests of my unknown paymasters.
I was, in fact, born in Nalitoya village in rural Senanga, one of the most impoverished parts of the country. The nearest public school I attended, Luandui Primary, was about 17 kilometres away from home in Nalikwanda constituency, another rural backwater. Later, my mother relocated to Kapulanga, an impoverished slum in Mongu where no one should live let alone raise a child. Here, I largely succeeded due to the kindness of other people, whose generous efforts – alongside those of my mother, who brewed native beer for a living – enabled me to complete my secondary school education.
I know all too well the realities of grinding poverty and illiteracy, especially among rural folk, and this makes me even more determined that it should not be mere chance that rescues people. This background explains why I hold to account elected public officials. The government policies and the actions of our ruling political elites that condemn many of our fellow citizens to poverty, disease, superstition, ignorance, hunger, want, and ill health must be opposed. I have been doing this and intend to do so with every fibre of my being, as long as I live, and to do so without seeking any financial reward or personal benefits.
Zambia has a great resource in its people, people who are denied the opportunities to develop and exercise their talents by the circumstances of their birth. To be born in rural Zambia today is to be condemned to generational poverty, as the chances of overcoming so many barriers that militate against the rural child are remote. I escaped by chance and through the kindness of strangers. Some of the most determined, hopeful, and passionate people l ever met are those l went to school with, in rural Zambia. The hopes and aspirations of many of these former schoolmates have been dashed by a system that does not know that they exist, one that does not care about or value them. Remove the opportunities l got, l am the neglected rural child. Give them the opportunities that l received, they are me and even better.
I attended Oxford, thanks to the Rhodes Scholarship that entirely financed my master’s and doctoral studies, but I am, like many Zambians, a child of struggle and adversity. My father – whom I never got to see even on a picture – died when I was only weeks old. My mother, a rustic self-made visionary who neither stepped a foot into a school classroom nor ever enjoyed the advantage of a formal job, raised me by herself until 2010 when, owing to a lack of adequate public health facilities in rural areas, she succumbed to a treatable illness while I was still a student. My own personal experiences – a rural child, raised by a single parent, and whose life can be shattered or transformed by their place of birth and the decisions of those entrusted with public service – are sadly common to many, many Zambians.
There is an abundance of potential among rural kids, but it cannot be unleashed by a national leadership that prioritises the selfish striving for personal gain over the selfless pursuit of the public good. This is why we must hold our elected public leaders to account. If we keep quiet when corruption happens, when public services are not delivered, when those entrusted with serving our collective welfare prioritise private or foreign commercial interests, then only a tiny number of people will succeed in escaping poverty. Those of us who have escaped owe our success to those who are left behind. We cannot afford to ignore the injustices of the society we live in. We must question anything and everyone, especially if they are leading us or making claims to want to lead us.