Hercharan Dhody, IFS4
Life of a diplomat taking him to various nooks and corners of this globe exposing him to diverse races, climes and cultures is unique. It is perhaps truer for an Indian diplomat. While in most Foreign Services there is some modicum of area specialization restricting movement of a diplomat outside his/her area, in Indian Foreign Service except for the first posting to learn the allotted foreign language and perhaps one more brush in the same country the postings are invariably determined by classification of stations and one found oneself in a country depending on the vacancy available at the time of transfer. This is how I found myself shuttling between African continent (most stations are graded C due to harsh living conditions) and Europe (generally falling in the category of A grading). Thus, on completing my assignment as Ambassador of India in Greece in 1991 I was expecting transfer to some hard station and the ministry did not disappoint by posting me to Zambia as High Commissioner.
On hearing the news as usual I started preparing for my new assignment. Apart from making myself acquainted with the geography, political and constitutional structures, state of bilateral relations, culture etc. I was cautioned that one had to be fully prepared to face the harsh realities of non-availability of day to day necessities. African Continent was familiar to me as I had earlier served there during 1981-84 as Ambassador to IVORY COAST with concurrent accreditation to NIGER. However, that was a different experience as during the presidency of Houphuet Boigny, Ivory Coast was a sea of tranquility and known as mini Paris for availability of commodities of daily requirements. We spent nights out in remote jungles with no threat to personal security. In order not to face paucity of daily necessities in Zambia we went on a frantic buying spree and it now appears laughable that half the container was loaded with such items. Lusaka proved its reputation as row after row of shops were either empty or stored goods of such inferior quality that one shuddered buying them.
We landed in Lusaka in August 1991. There is a tendency in some countries in Africa to club Heads of Missions for presentation of Credential ceremony. This practice in cases results in delays up to six months thus considerably restricting the functional ability of the Head of Mission as per normal diplomatic practice incumbent HOM is not supposed to attend official functions till the presentation of credentials. However, given excellent relations between Zambia and India I did not have to wait long and ceremony simple and dignified was held shortly after my arrival. I presented my credentials to President Kenneth Kaunda. KK as the President was generally known with his trade mark white handkerchief and typical smile spent more than normal time with me after the ceremony discussing bilateral relations.
African Continent has gained notoriety for leaders clinging to power, dictatorship of one party and lack of genuine democratic polity. However, the continent is like a mosaic with no two pieces resembling each other. In January 1964 KK won the first and only election for Prime Minister of the then Northern Rhodesia which became Republic of Zambia on 24th October 1964 with KK as first President. Zambian politics is conducted in the frame work of a presidential representative democratic republic where the President is both head of state and head of government in a multiparty system. KK as head of United National Independence Party (UNIP) ruled the country with iron hand and socialist policies. Since Zambian economy largely depends on copper mining and its exports, fall in copper prices in mid 70s had deleterious effect. In June 1990 riots against KK accelerated. In November 1991 multiparty elections were held in which KK lost to a trade union leader Frederick Chiluba. As if to prove to the world that Zambia was not a tin pot dictatorship transition was a smooth affair with KK melting into oblivion without any protest. Though ignored as ex-president of a country there was no special immediate witch hunt against KK. He was later arrested in 1997 after a failed coup attempt against Chiluba who was re-elected in 1996 and declared martial law in 1997.I kept in regular touch with him and when approached he was gracious to readily agree to contribute a write up on Mahatma Gandhi, manuscript of which is still in my possession.
What hit us most in Zambia was poor infrastructure. During better days when copper prices were reigning high Zambia could boast of good infrastructure and a per capita income of $1500. Host of foreign expatriates were employed in the field of medicine, education etc. The country had good road connectivity. However, the economic downturn and lack of financial resources took their toll. The Hospitals were mere structures devoid of equipment, medicines and good doctors. Even thought of falling sick of normal ailment was nightmarish as due to lack of local medical facilities the only choice was to be evacuated either to South Africa or Zimbabwe which still had excellent medical facilities. Main arterial roads were full of pot holes and driving was an experience by itself. Many accidents were caused while avoiding the pot holes. Similarly, schools did not have basic infrastructure. Security was another concern especially in major cities such as Lusaka, Ndola, Kitwe etc. The situation was not that bad in the villages. Our residence resembled a prison with 9 feet high boundary wall having razor wire topping and deployment of armed security guards both local as well as from India. Still one did not feel secure and we had the unsavory experience of our official car being stolen at gun point.
Under Indian Technical Economic Cooperation (ITEC) established in 1964 and Special Commonwealth Assistance for Africa (SCAAP) Programme, 156 countries in Asia, Central Asia, East Europe, Africa and Latin America are eligible to benefit from the developmental experience acquired by India since independence. India spends approximately $ 10 million per year annually on ITEC activities. Zambia is one of main beneficiaries under these programs. Hundreds of Zambians have received training in India. I continued the tradition of hosting these professionals on two occasions namely ITEC Day and Foreign Students Day at my residence. These professionals have fond memories of their stay in India and acted as a bond and stimulus in enhancing bilateral relations. There is a myth that Germans are beer guzzlers. One has to be in Africa to know about the beer drinking capacity of its inhabitants. We had to order truck load of it to meet the requirement. I am reminded of this because two wash rooms had to be constructed in the lawns to take care of the input and output. One special feature during my tenure under the ITEC programme was assistance for creation of Military training institute in Lusaka. Three-Armed Force officers from India were deputed to run the newly created facility and their services were highly appreciated by the Zambian government. In consonance with warm bilateral relations I had easy access to the Ministers.
People of Indian origin had a reasonable presence in Zambia numbering around 18000. Indians from Gujarat migrated in 1905 what was then the British Territory of North Eastern Rhodesia. Unlike the population of South Africa, the proportion of indentured labour among them was quite small, most instead were skilled artisans and business people. They had representation in the cabinet notably Suresh Desai- Minister of Agriculture and Dipak Patel- Minister of Commerce and Industry in Chiluba’s regime.
Indian community maintained its ethnic bond and celebrated Indian festivals with gusto. It was quite a task to cope with participation in various functions held in different parts of the country. Both Hindus and Muslims lived in harmony and even the event of demolition of Babari Masjid in 1992 did not have any serious effect on community relations. For me personally it was a different experience as TV channel in Zambia quoted selectively from my interview which caused some uneasiness in the Muslim community. However, things were smoothened once details were made known to the delegation of the community which called on me.
Developing countries offer considerable opportunities for social and charitable work. Zambia was no exception. In a well-established institution called Lusaka Indian Ladies Association (LILA) which was nurtured by my predecessors we found an easy instrument to organize social and charitable work. High Commissioner’s spouse was ex officio Chairperson of LILA. Cultural events were organized to raise funds for charity. Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) helped in sending cultural troupes free of cost and a local five-star hotel Pramodji managed by Taj group of hotels rendered full assistance by providing venue for holding cultural events. Whole hearted contribution of the Indian community was a source of satisfaction and encouragement. A new attempt of organizing one act plays with participation of local Indian community was also much appreciated. Past experience of my wife being an actress and director for stage plays came in handy. These events were runaway success and millions of Kwachas were raised for local charities. Large donations were given to health and educational institutions. In order to derive maximum benefit surgical instruments and medicines as well as educational material was procured in India and flown to Lusaka for donations. These activities had dual effect one of promoting Indian culture and of demonstrating that India cared. Most of donations were channeled through a local charitable organization known as HOPE. The first lady Mme Vera Chiluba was the chairperson of HOPE. Concern shown for common Zambian people resulted in creation of special bond between the first lady and my wife, the manifestation of which was that we had access to telephone number which rang in the bed room of the first lady and that she would grace our residence with her grandchildren which reflected the intimacy and trust she had in us. In fact, my wife became a source of undue attention when in social gatherings the first lady would seek her out to join her on the main table. An official organization in Zambia instituted’ Woman of The Year Award ‘in 1994. The first award was given to the first lady. Next year it was awarded to my wife even though we had left the country in 1995 and the same was received by spouse of my successor. The first lady was a simple and affectionate person. Vera has shown strength of character and after divorce from her husband she became deputy minister in the cabinet in her own right. When I spoke to her lately, she was as cheerful as ever and invited us to visit Zambia. The state visit to India by President Chiluba and the first lady apart from enhancing bilateral relations between Zambia and India further cemented bonds of our personal relationship. In order to ensure that the charities reached the right people we travelled deep in the country side to small villages with truck load of mealie meal, staple diet of Zambians (apart from cassava) and clothing. The discomfort of staying in small hotels infested with mosquitoes with attendant danger of getting infected with malaria evaporated at the sign of smile on the faces of the villagers who thankfully accepted small gifts brought by us. I cannot help mentioning a hilarious episode. We used to ask the institutions for a list of items required by them and to our utter surprise one list contained a demand of 10000 thermometers.
The culture of Zambia is mainly indigenous Bantu culture mixed with European culture. While urban centers have adopted European culture, the original culture has survived in the villages. The traditional culture is manifested through annual Zambian traditional ceremonies. Different provinces hold these ceremonies. KUAMBOKA was one ceremony to which we were invited on regular basis. Kuamboka is a word in the Lozi language meaning’ to get out of water’. In today’s Zambia it is applied to a traditional ceremony that takes place when the upper Zambezi River floods the plains of Western Province. The festival celebrates the move of the Litunga, king of Lozi people from the compound at Lealui in the Barotse flood plain of the Zambezi River to Limulunga on higher ground. King’s state barge called Nalikwanda with a replica of huge elephant mounted on it is still vivid in our memory. Gift of food and clothing for king’s subjects earned us his special gratitude. It is said that music and dance are in the African blood and manifestation of the same can be seen in the village tribal dances. Energetic mask dances to the tune of frenzied drum beats are fascinating experience.
Zambia offered reasonable rich variety of flora and fauna though compared with Zimbabwe its next-door neighbor the facilities in Zambian resorts were poor. Apart from viewing wild life in pristine jungles the most exhilarating experiences were associated with visit to Livingstone for Victoria Falls, locally known as’ Mosi-oa- Tunya’ or ‘The Smoke that Thunders’, and sitting idly on the banks of river Zambezi watching crocodiles and hippopotamus with sun setting in the background. Sheer tranquility, purity and with its pollution free atmosphere, changing hues of the sky and the gentle sound of the water flowing down the river left an indelible mark on the memory. Victoria Falls are considered to be among the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. Width of the falls at 1708 meters and height at 108 meters makes it the largest sheet of falling water in the world. Major portion of the falls is on the Zimbabwe side. One was always tempted to crossover to Zimbabwe not only to have fuller view of the falls but also to enjoy a good spread of buffet lunch served in up market hotels at half the cost. Intercontinental hotel in Livingstone used to organize breakfast setting near the falls perhaps a unique experience.
One wonders why the African continent rich in natural resources remains under developed and caught in tribal conflicts. Perhaps the answer lies in corruption, mismanagement and the legacy of arbitrary division of the continent by the imperial powers. A very look at the map of the continent showing straight lines, as if drawn by a foot rule, reveals the un natural creation of boundaries. Ethnic and tribal affiliations were not given adequate consideration resulting the trans-border conflicts that presently plague the continent. Zambia is no exception. With vast resources of Copper and abounding in cobalt, zinc, lead, emeralds and fertile land if properly managed Zambia could become one of the prosperous countries of the world. Its emerald is considered second best in quality after Columbia but its contribution to Zambian economy remains a mystery.
My diplomatic assignments took me to different parts of the globe. Seven years in Africa: three and half years as ambassador to IVORY COAST and NIGER; and a similar tenure as High Commissioner to ZAMBIA; three years each as ambassador to GREECE and IRELAND and three years as ambassador to JORDAN exposed me to different environments. With all its material problems as compared to creature comforts of life in Europe somehow the African continent grows on you and leaves an indelible mark. Inequalities between the developed and developing world are so stark so as to compel one to raise doubt in one’s mind about Devine justice. The continent throws multitude of challenges and if they are met successfully one is richer by the experience. Memories of time spent in Zambia are one such fulfilling and gratifying experience.