My Tribe Is NOT Zambia: Erasure, tribalism and the challenge of national cohesion


E. Munshya


To help fight the scourge of tribalism in Zambia, some of our people are buying into several slogans in the hope that these slogans will help build some national cohesion. There is one particular slogan that I find patently problematic. This slogan states, “My tribe is Zambia”. The goal of using this slogan is to try and have the user know or convince others that they are above tribalism by emphasizing the fact that the only tribe that matters, should be the “tribe” called Zambia. I have a problem with such sloganeering, because it really does not help fight tribalism but could actually be used to perpetuate it.

It should be clear that Zambia is not a tribe and it was never meant to be a tribe. Rather it is a republic that is formed by people who belong to different tribes, persuasions and races. As such, there is no way that “Zambia” can fulfill a goal that it was never meant to fulfill in the first place. Zambia has not replaced our ethnic heritage; rather Zambia is a creation of people who already belonged to different ethnic groups. When we say that all these tribes do not really matter and all that matters is “Zambia” we are robbing our nationhood of a clear philosophical basis grounded upon the tribal diversity of this space we now call Zambia.

Stating, “my tribe is Zambia” has the potential of erasure. The most potent tool against tribalism is not erasure of tribes, but rather the respect for all tribes. That which we fail to do by respect of tribes cannot be achieved through contempt for those tribes. If we cannot respect Tongas and Lozis and Tumbukas, we do no service to the destiny of our country by trying to erase the experience of Tongas, Lozis, and Tumbukas. What we need in Zambia is acknowledgement and respect for the “Zambianness” of all tribes. The paramount assumption should be that all tribes contribute equally to the Zambian project. There is no tribe that contributes less to Zambia, but rather that all tribes are part and parcel of the Zambian venture. If we acknowledge that fact, it will lead all of us to a more respectful attitude towards the other. It will make us realise that on our own, we cannot make Zambia, Zambia. It takes the effort of all. And these “all” are the different tribes that make up our nation. It was not the intention of the Republic of Zambia to erase the reality of ethnic diversity, but rather the republic exists as a result of this ethnic diversity.

To fight tribalism in Zambia, we must also interrogate the assumptions exhibited by some of our people. Zambia is not a Bemba country to which they invited other tribes such as the Tongas or Lenjes. Zambia is a diverse nation to which all tribes contribute equally to its subsistence. As such, removing some tribes from national memory does not resolve the tribalism problem it just exacerbates it. All tribes must be visible and none should be assigned to the garbage bin of obliteration.

Zambians should listen to each other. We should listen to how various tribes are experiencing the Zambian promise. We should not shut each other up. If the Zambian project is not working for some of our people, it is time for us to listen to each other without judgment and without threats of “tribal” accusations. To listen to each other, we must draw the discourse from the urban centers of Lusaka and Ndola to the interior of Gwembe and Mapatizya. We should ask each other, do the people of Milenge and Mongu perceive the Zambian project in the same way? Before we accuse any tribe of being more tribal than our tribes, let us take the time to listen to each other. As such, let us take the 2015 elections as a way to begin conversations, not as a way to stop conversations. The people of Southern Province made their voices heard through the ballot, it is time to listen before we accuse.

Zambians should learn to respect each other’s tribes. Respect is predicated on numerous elements. Each of us should love our heritage. We should celebrate our traditions. We should feel free to speak our language and enjoy the intonation inherited from our forefathers. But after we have done that, we will realise how our own heritage is so inadequate to fully express the Zambian spirit. It is this humility that should push us to want to respect the heritage of others. By respecting the culture of others, we are becoming totally Zambian, as Zambia itself is best expressed by the respect we feel for the peoples that comprise its confines. Respect for others means, a Bemba person should have that humbling respect for a Goba and vice-versa. It also means that we take the time to acknowledge that the Zambian greatness lies not in ourselves alone but in the collective effort of all – the others and me. This can best be done in an environment that respects others and not the one that seeks to erase the other.

All political leaders in our country should be aware of the power of tribal balancing. Regardless of how technically astute a cabinet is, I would not support it if it only comprises people belonging to one tribe or region. If Chagwa Lungu dared to appoint an all Nsenga-cabinet, I would be the first one to protest against such an act. Through tribal balancing, you are acknowledging the strength of others and you are also showing our nation that you respect the other. Even God in the Bible asked Joshua and Moses to select 12 men, one from each tribe to perform specific tasks. God balanced tribe in Israel. If tribal balancing was good for Israel, it is surely good for our people.

President Kenneth Kaunda also realized the power of tribal balancing. He deliberately sought to appoint a diverse cabinet. Assuming that he was from Chinsali, he made sure that people belonging to other tribes held the positions of Prime Minister. This was a very powerful way of saying; the Zambian project truly belongs to all. Merit in that case, was clearly supplemented by a touch of balance. It cannot be on merit that which produces a board filled with Bembas alone!

We do misconstrue the One Zambia One Nation motto if we think that it means that “tribes” do not matter. The motto actually is an ideal way of saying that the Republic is a product of various peoples who come together to form it. Such an understanding of One Zambia One Nation, does not lead to erasure, it instead leads to a healthy respect for all. And it is this respect for the other that we all need as we navigate through the challenge of tribalism.


This article appeared in the print edition of the Zambia Daily Nation on Friday, 30 January 2015.