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Zambia and a living legend bare their souls

Photo by Robert Eilets

Dr. Kenneth Kaunda

By Michael Iachetta

LUSAKA -- It was the emotional highlight of a recent international tourism conference here in the capital of Zambia – the instant when a nation bared and shared its soul.

It was the moment when Zambia’s living legend showed he was made of flesh-and-blood.

It happened when Dr. Kenneth Kaunda – Zambia’s founding father, first president, and a visionary leader in the forefront of the movement to liberate all of Africa – was to be honored with the World Association of Non-Governmental Organizations (WANGO) Universal Peace Award.


Kaunda, Zambia’s version of Nelson Mandela, albeit virtually unknown beyond its borders, was to receive the award, along with Mandela in absentia.

The occasion: the Third International Institute of Peace Through Tourism African Conference staged here in conjunction with the Africa Travel Association Feb. 6-11.

But what happened when Kaunda received his award will be remembered long after the conference ended with the inauguration of an IIPT Peace Park at Victoria Falls – one of the eight natural wonders of the world, the world’s highest waterfall and country’s leading tourist attraction, in Livingstone.

Just before the poised Kaunda, soon to be 81, began his acceptance speech, lovingly cradling the crystal statuette he received showing open hands holding up the world, he began waving his trademark white handkerchief, chanting the words chi so kone, a Zambian greeting that roughly translates into hello, goodbye and may there be better times ahead.

Zambians in the audience returned the greeting time and again. And then Kaunda began to sing the national anthem, joined in by his fellow Zambians among the more than 350 delegates from over 30 countries, the chorus resounding through the luncheon audience at the InterContinental Lusaka:

“Zambia, the real Africa, land full of promise, hope and peace
“Zambia peaceful and free waiting for all to see.”

As the voices died down, Kaunda began his acceptance speech with words of thanks and then his voice faltered as he stared into space as though seeing the faces of those who weren’t there even as he acknowledged those who had gone before him, many of whom had giving their lives to the cause of freedom as Zambia broke away from Northern Rhodesia. He said he hoped they were now in a better place, in the hands of a loving, compassionate, unconditionally loving God.

And then he began to cry, his body shaking with stifled sobs, his eyes turning into human versions of Victoria Falls, as were the eyes of many a delegate, especially those who knew his story – imprisoned for two years by colonial powers, writing his freedom memoirs on toilet paper in a lonely cell, separated from his lovely wife, Betty, and their nine children, one of whom died of AIDS, another killed by robbers in Nigeria.

His wife would be paralyzed by the lingering aftereffects of a stroke ten years ago, and so couldn’t be there with him at the award ceremony.

Along the way other things happened that they would rather forget, the emotional price they paid in the battle for Zambia’s independence, finally achieved on Oct. 24, 1964 when Kaunda became his country’s first president, its founding father, its first head of state.

He was president for 27 years, helping the country build its infrastructure, its cities, its ever-growing US$152.8 million tourism industry based on a record 610,109 international arrivals last year. He served as president until 1991. On his retirement he became very active in the non-governmental sector, especially renowned for his efforts to address the AIDS crisis afflicting Africa.

He has also received several honorary doctorates, authored six books, and served in various government positions, from Zambian prime minister to president of the Pan-African Freedom Movement to Chairman of the Organization of African Unity.

He also played key roles in the mitigation of territorial disputes between Kenya and Somalia, and the liberation movements in Angola, Mozambique, Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa. And he, a preacher’s son, also became known as a teacher, preacher, philosopher and more.

But his true monument may well be in what, in effect, Zambia’s Statue of Liberty, a huge statue of a slave breaking free from his shackles, that stands in the heart of the multi-billion dollar government-and-museum complex that began during his presidency and is still a building.

There is no telling how much of the above flashed through Kaunda’s mind before he stopped crying, regained his composure, and finished his speech filled with thoughts of peace, unity, improving the lot of his fellow man and building a stronger and better Zambia, “the real Africa.” And his impact will remain on those delegates long after the memory of the conference fades.

(Michael Iachetta is a former nationally syndicated travel writer, columnist, editor, arts critic and more with The New York Daily News, who is now retired and writes regularly for regional and national publications.)

Photo by Robert Eilets

From left to right: Taj Hamad, President, World Association of NGO’s (WANGO); Dr. Kenneth Kaunda, Hon. Mzwandile Masala, South African Ambassador to Zambia; Louis D’Amore, IIPT Founder and President; Hon. Patrick Kalifungwa, Minister of Tourism, Environment and Natural Resources, Zambia; Timothy Marshall, Chairman, IIPT Board of Directors; John Graff, Treasurer, IIPT Board of Directors


International Institute for Peace Through Tourism