Friday, 28 November 2014

My first impression of America

With Bill Modica and Chebet at an inter-faith meeting in Roanoke, Verginia.

Chebet (right) with Prof. Patricia Kelly during our Thanks Giving meal.

Chebet with Bill Modica and Mwaka Namfukwe.

With my dance partner at the Floyd Country Store.

Jack Zimba spent a month in Virginia State, USA, on a Global Health Fellows programme. He now writes about his experiences.

More than the three-lane inter-state roads teeming with zooming traffic, more than the elegant buildings that adorn its landscape, more than the military prowess and media supremacy, America is about people.
And it is the people that I met during my month-long stay in the US that left a lasting impression on me about the world’s greatest nation.
And America is really a melting pot for different races, cultures and traditions and all this came to light during my stay.
Bill Modica
Part of my programme in the US was to experience the American culture while living with an American family for one week. That will be the hardest part, I thought. And when I learned that my home stay host lived all by himself in Salem, a small rural town near the city of Roanoke, I grew even more worried.
But Bill was a fun guy to be around and soon it didn’t matter to me that his stone house, draped in ivy, was in the woods and isolated from the rest of the houses.   
Bill loves to read and he has a deep understanding of history. We discussed many things from religion to 911 to plants.
A realtor and a self-made conservationist, Bill works very hard and he made me realize just how hard life in America can be if one does not work hard enough.
“America is a great country to live in, but only when you have money,” he told me.
Decades ago, Bill’s parents migrated to the US from Italy. Bill himself was born in New York.
He has a younger brother who has a penchant for guns and a diehard Republican.
Bill likes to think of himself as an Independent, though he does sound like a Democrat.
“Bill is a Democrat, he just doesn’t admit it,” one of his friends, a university professor, told me.  
Bill likes to collect antiques and his home looks like a small museum. There is a cheese shredder made by his grandfather in 1924 and handed down to him by his mother; there is a spinning wheel for making yarn and even an 1877 telephone which is by his kitchen door.
Whatever ‘Italianess’ he has lost – he still looks Italian, though - Bill retains the ability to cook good food and he does it as a hobby.
My last dinner with Bill was particularly special. He had decided to treat me and my colleague Mwaka Namfukwe from Muvi TV to the traditional Thanks Giving meal – roasted turkey, mashed potato and cranberry source. He also made sure we followed the tradition of Thanks Giving, including breaking the turkey’s breast bone and making a wish.
Chebet Dolly Kibogy
I met her at an inter-faith meeting at a Presbyterian Church in Roanoke, Virginia. The meeting was called to discuss how faith can impact the environment.
It is very hard to not notice Chebet in a crowd. She is as dark as a Masai’s child that she is – and possesses the elegance and beauty associated with the worrier tribe of Kenya. And almost always she wears a warm smile and has a girlish laughter.
Chebet epitomizes the American Dream in her own small way.
A little over 10 years ago, she came to the US as a student and later she got a job at a hotel. And it was there that she got introduced to the who’s who of American politics. In 2008, Chebet, by now an American citizen, joined the Obama campaign team as an events organiser.
“So how close do you ever get to the president?” I enquired, feeling very envious of her.
“Close enough to not be pushed by the Secret Service,” she told me. “But at least I’ve been in the same room with him.”
And she keeps a book of her photos with all the important people. The book also bears autographs of President Obama, Bill Clinton, George Bush and John McCain among others.
And she still holds on to the invitation card to President Obama’s inauguration four years ago. She is confident President Obama will retain the presidency, but worries about Romny’s money muscle.
But despite all that she has attained in America, Chebet still talks of going back to Kenya, but only on one condition. “If Raila Odinga became president I would go back and contribute to my country,” she said.
Joy Sylvester-Johnson
The first time I saw Mrs Sylvester-Johnson was in an old black-and-white photograph pasted on the wall at the Rescue Mission in Roanoke. She was a cute three-year-old back in 1948 when the mission was established by her father. She is now the CEO.
The mission was established as a center for the homeless, offering shelter, food and hope to hundreds of individuals as well as whole families. The men’s section has 150 beds and sometimes they have needed extra mattresses laid on the floor.
I had an opportunity to work as a volunteer for three days at the mission (one-third of mission’s workforce is volunteer). The first day was at the thrift shop, where the mission sells second-hand cloths and household goods to raise money for its operations. My job was to sort shoes, pairing them up and then binding them with rubber band. Most of the shoes were in very good condition, some even had price tags on them. All the items are donated by individuals and within a couple of hours I was at the loading bay, there were eight drop-ins.
“I have no need of these,” one very old lady in a gleaming Chevy told me as she handed me a bunch of cloths.
Interestingly, the thrift shop is also the genesis of our salaula. Whatever doesn’t get sold here is taken to the basement for baling and then, through other agencies, shipped to developing countries.
Later that day, I watched as men and women trudged to the Rescue Mission from all directions of the city.
The air in the TV room where I sat was soon a mixture of sweat, tobacco and alcohol as the guests – for that is what the mission staff call the homeless people – filled the room. The reasons for homelessness range from job losses, alcohol and drug abuse, while others are former jail birds unable to reestablish themselves in society.
The guests, who are only allowed into the mission centre between 16:30 hours and 08:30 hours, follow a strict routine – they eat, pray, bath and sleep.
On Tuesday night, I was sitting in the front row of the chapel as I joined the men for worship. Next to me sat a particularly pitiful soul. He wore dirty jeans and old cowboy boots and kept twitching his body, snorting and mumbling. He was probably on drugs or had just recently gotten off some hard stuff.
The mission accepts everyone and treats each of the individuals with respect.
“I believe everybody is broken,” says Mrs Sylvester-Johnson. “There’s no-one so far broken that they cannot be mended.”  Mrs Sylvester-Johnson has a kind face and an assuring yet authoritative voice. She is an ordained preacher herself.
Back in the chapel I was still waiting for the preacher to hit the high knot. One young man sitting behind me leaned forward and whispered, “The preacher today is boring. You should have seen yesterday, everyone was jumping and shouting in this room.”
When I scanned the room, half of the men were resting their heads on their chests. All they needed now was a bed.
“Would you like some vegetables, mom?” I said to a woman standing in front of me. It is a question I parroted over 100 times as the women and children walked by to collect their food.
It was Wednesday and my colleagues and I were serving the guests lunch.
By the time the last man passed his dinner plate in front of me, we had served over 350 meals.
“My mother would have died without a rescue mission,” Mrs Sylvester-Johnson told me.   
Arthur “Three” Brown
I do not know what the “Three” stood for, but the fact that he decided to add it on his business card means it has a significant meaning.
After driving around a few blocks looking for a barbershop that could handle my type of hair, we finally stumbled on one called First Impressions in a predominantly black community. And that is how I met Arthur “Three” Brown.
He spoke with an impossible drawl; I could hardly pick his words, except the man he pronounced at the end of each sentence. So I just sat my arse in his swivel chair and let him do his thin. You know w’am sayin?
A number of brothers in sagging buggy trousers from the ’hood dropped by just to say, “What’s up? How you doin, man?
“Cool, man,” responded Arthur.
For some reason, I started thinking about drive-by shootings and dope.
But then I realised just how the hip-hop culture and the media’s portrayal of black America had shaped my thinking. That, however, does not take away from the fact this neighbourhood has one of the highest crime levels in the city of Roanoke.
Driving back home, I was overwhelmed by a deep sense of sadness that I was unable to connect at all with people I believed shared my heritage, though now lost in time. Maybe I had the wrong-perception glasses on.
Super-size America
Sitting in a restaurant one Sunday afternoon, I was so conscious of a rotund, flabby woman and her obese son sitting two tables away that I kept lifting my eyes towards them. I wondered if they were as conscious about the state they were in as I was. I felt sorry for them, but then, they seemed happy.
Obesity has got to be America’s “next big thing”. The media is awash with stories about good lifestyles and healthy diets.
CNN repeatedly ran a report about a young woman who got into a feat of rage after an airline requested her to buy two seats for herself because one seat was not enough for her.
Then there was the woman in Los Angeles who collapsed while eating what the reporter called “an artery-clogging meal” and smoking at the same time.
Obesity has become an obsession in American society, and here is the reason why.
According to official statistics, 70 million Americans are obese, that is one-third of the population.
One hospital that offers free medical services to people who cannot afford medical insurance, lists the top conditions treated by the institution as depression, anxiety and obesity.
And despite the huge campaign to eat healthy, one medical expert expects the problem to grow even worse.
Another health expert, Laura Pole, noted, “Americans love to hear good news about their bad habits” to justify their lifestyles. For example that chocolate is good for your heart.
And Americans, it seems, love everything big, from the cars they drive to the food portions they eat. Sitting down to a meal in one restaurant, I counted 12 greasy chicken wings in my plate. “Dog pack, please!”
Happy people of Floyd County
The road to Floyd County from Blacksburg in Virginia is winding with gentle slopes that create picturesque scenes – more like a slide show as you drive by.
Floyd is a small town with only one set of traffic lights and streets lined with art shops, art studios and a Mexican restaurant at the corner.
But one store stands out of the rest and has become world famous – the Floyd Country Store.
Every Friday evening, residents of this old-fashioned town gather at the store to listen to old gospel music for an hour and then the traditional bluegrass music played by a live band using banjos, cellos and violin. The music draws clog dancers to the wooden platform. 
It was here that I met a blonde named Sally. She wore a red dress way above her knees with matching stilettos and black tights.
She walked towards me across the dance floor and, without a word, extended her hand towards me. I found her bidding irresistible, not just because I found her elaborate dress fascinating and broad smile inviting, but because Sally was in her late 60s, maybe even 70s; yet she seemed so full of life. Later, I discovered that the Old Diva – for that is what my colleagues and I called her – was a regular at the Friday night jamborees.
So together we did the clog dance, bouncing and clacking our heels on the wooden floor like little children. I must confess that I thought the dance looked rather silly at first. But when I got into the rhythm, it was lots of fun.
The clog dance has its origins in Wales and England and was introduced in the Appalachian region, which includes much of Virginia, in the 18th century.
I had many happy nights in America, but perhaps the dance night tops them all.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Betty Kaunda: ‘A wonderful girl’

Dr Kaunda singing a love song to Betty during my interview with her in 2007
On Tuesday September 19, Mama Betty Kaunda, wife of Zambia’s first president Dr Kenneth Kaunda, died in her sleep in Zimbabwe. A media-shy woman throughout her life, Mama Betty rarely gave interviews. Jack Zimba got one of those rare moments with Mama Betty and now reflects on her life.

Mama Betty Kaunda or just Betty, as she was fondly known, was not born for the limelight. In fact, as she told me in a rare interview five years ago, she hated the blaring sirens of the presidential motorcade and the heavy security that went with it. And she hated the flashing and clicking of the cameras of a prying media.
“I never liked it. I never, never, never,” she told me matter-of-factly.
And as first lady, she chose to play a supportive role to her husband who, for almost three decades, had a larger-than-life presence in the country and internationally. Betty was always a step behind her husband, not wanting to involve herself in the politics of running the country.
“I advised him, but just in small things,” she told me. “I also advised him on things concerning the family, but not on national issues. I never interfered.”
To Betty, it seems, running her home was more important than anything else and that is where she made a lasting impression, raising the couple’s nine children while the president made numerous travels away from home on national duty.
In his book, Letter to My Children, Dr Kaunda acknowledged the fact that he spent little time at home and that it was Betty who bore much of the burden of raising the children.
“Those of you who are older,” he wrote, “will remember the stirring days of the freedom struggle when I was always on the move, travelling around the country, even popping in and out of goal while your mother tried to keep a roof over your heads and something in your bellies. Now that Zambia is a free nation, things don’t seem much better: our family is still in turmoil. I’m no longer on the run, but I am certainly kept on the trot - throughout Zambia and beyond.” 
Betty took the role of motherhood seriously and she kept the family together through some great difficulties during the struggle for independence which happened in 1964. 
Betty Kaunda as a young lady.

In 1954, for example, life had become tough for the Kaunda family and so Betty resorted to making and selling charcoal to support her family while her first-born son, Panji, worked as a caddie at the Lusaka Golf Club in-between school to supplement her mother’s efforts. She had wanted to leave, overwhelmed by those challenges, but her mother told her to stay. She did and soon the couple had their fourth child, aptly named Tilyenji.
Betty was proud of the way she raised her children.
“I raised good children because I was with them full-time,” she said.
Betty also fancied herself as a great cook, though as first lady she was never really allowed to do the cooking herself, not even for her husband. The family had a coterie of workers – cooks, maids and drivers – at their disposal. 
Although she hated that sort of life, likening it to a prison, she eventually got used to it. “No washing, no sweeping, no cooking. You just run the water to bath,” she said.
And she enjoyed being first lady. “It was very nice,” she said.
She mentioned her shopping trips to London, for that is where she had her chitenge suits made by Ghanian tailors. On Dr Kaunda’s request, she had completely abandoned her Western suits because he wanted her to look African.
She also enjoyed the company of some high-profile women, some of whom she counted as friends, like Graca Machel the wife of Mozambican president Samora Machel. But when Graca got married to Nelson Mandela in July 1998, the two friends drifted apart.
She also named Cecilia Kazamira, who was at that time Malawi’s de facto first lady (she was president Kamuzu Banda’s friend and not wife) as one of the people she was close with.
But Betty knew that kind of lifestyle would not last forever, a point she also emphasized to her children.
“I knew that one day we would enter a new life,” she said.
In 1991 when her husband was defeated in multiparty elections, Betty accepted the change that life outside State House brought.
However, she talked about how the family was treated afterwards, being made to move houses three times and not having a car of her own because the cars were taken away from them by the state.
“The thing that upset me most was that they grabbed all the cars. I had a small car, they took the small car. I took it with me outside State House, but they sent a driver to come and pick it. I was very upset,” she said.
“Then we had a car which was given by Saddam Hussein, we left it there. I told my husband to get that car, but he said ‘no leave it.’”
Betty expressed a deep desire to go and live in Chinsali in the mansion the state built for the first family, but she also knew the place would not be ideal for her husband with the work that he was involvement in. And she herself needed to be near a good hospital because of her health condition.
For four decades, Betty had been a diabetic, a condition that later in her life had caused her to suffer a stroke, making her movement difficult. She usually relied on a wheelchair.
Two events, both tragic, had also left Betty’s heart deeply scarred. One was the death of her son, Masugzyo, who succumbed to AIDS in the mid-1980s. The other was the cold-blooded killing of her third-born son, Wezi, in what many, including the Kaunda family, believe was a state-managed murder by the Chiluba regime.
“That was very painful,” she said.
A strict mother
Of all that she ever was, Betty was a moralist - a bit old-fashioned maybe - who stuck to the belief that women were not supposed to wear trousers. And she saw to it that no girl wore trousers in her home, including her two daughters Cheswa and Musata.
“Even as little girls, she made us wear nightdresses to bed,” Cheswa, who is now 48, told me.
To this day, the two ‘girls’ still won’t wear trousers before their father. The weekend before her mother died, I had watched Cheswa see off her father at his office in Kabulonga where she also works. Behind her father’s back she removed the chitenge she had used to cover the pair of jeans trousers she was wearing before jumping into her car. Her mother’s teaching had not worn off all these years.
Betty expressed deep sadness and fear at the growing influence of the Western culture.  
“This nation is going to be a lost nation years to come,” she told me, her voice filled with concern. “We have stopped wearing dresses, we’re wearing trousers and sometimes we want to be like ba zungu, but we are Africans.”
“But even if I feel sad, it’s not helping me,” she said.
She, herself, talked strongly about how she grew up as a “very good girl”.
Betty nee Banda was born in Chinsali in what is now Muchinga Province on 17th November 1928. Her father, Kaweche Banda, was a storekeeper for a popular chain store called Mandala.
But she grew up in the neighbouring town of Mpika, and it was also here that she started her school, aged 11.
She later went to Mbereshi where she completed her studies, returning to Mpika in 1946.
Her father wanted her to travel to Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) to study nursing, but her mother refused to let her go.
In 1946 Helen, Dr Kaunda’s mother, took notice of Betty while visiting her parents’ home. It was actually Mama Helen who chose her as a bride for her last born son, Kenneth.
That act had perhaps left a big impression on Betty and built a strong bond between her and Mama Helen. She usually spoke very highly of her mother-in-law.
“She was the best mother-in-law,” she said.
Even the couple’s first meeting was somehow arranged by Mama Helen, who had also played the role of midwife at Betty’s birth.
Betty recounted the couple’s first meeting with a sparkle in her eyes.  
“The first time I met him he was coming from a scouts meeting,” Betty told me.
She described him as a “tall, handsome and smart boy” in scouts’ uniform.
But there was even more about the young Kenneth that enchanted Betty – his ability to play the guitar.
“He played so well,” she said.
And for Betty, maybe it was love at first sight. “When I saw this young teacher, I was interested,” she said.
“My dream, when I was a little girl, was to get married to a teacher. Nobody else.”
And on August 26, 1946, Betty’s dream came to pass when she and Dr Kaunda tied the knot in what was the first ever white wedding in the small town of Mpika.
Betty wore a floral dress with a train made from material cut from a mosquito net.
“It was really nice,” she said.
Her father, who was also a hunter, had gotten permission from the district commissioner to fire his riffle into the air to celebrate his daughter’s marriage.
To Betty, that gun salute was the best moment during the wedding.
Unfortunately, there is not a single photograph to show the couple’s happy union.
One man was supposedly taking pictures of the wedding ceremony, but when he was approached for the photos afterwards, he revealed his mischievous did – he didn’t actually have any film on his camera.
“I was very disappointed,” Betty said, although she still found that account humorous.
Betty’s marriage to Dr Kaunda lasted six decades, although the president’s numerous travels then and after leaving office meant the couple spent a lot of time apart.
She sometimes disapproved of her husband’s numerous travels, especially after leaving State House.
“He always wants to work I don’t know why?” she said. And yet she still understood his passion.
“He likes travelling and that helps him to be strong,” she said. “If he stops travelling, he is going to be sick.”
“Sometimes I want him to go. I want to be happy alone. It’s nice to be free,” she said.
And yet the two always seemed inseparable.
“Time is gone now for us to separate ourselves... No. We have to be together all the time. Time counts now. We’ve been together for a long time now,” she said.
To Betty, being married to Dr Kaunda was the best thing in the world.
“I married a wonderful man. He has never beaten me; not even a single day,” she told me.
And, yes, she was, truly, his better half.
Betty talked about their friendship. “We’re like brother and sister now,” she said.
Dr Kaunda usually preferred calling Betty “my girl”, although she objected to being called that sometimes. “I’m too old now,” she said.
Betty, on the other hand, like most of the people surrounding the former president, usually called him by his assumed title, “The Old Man” or “ba Shikulu”.
And she made fun of his bent frame and bald head. “He used to be tall with nice hair, but now he’s bending,” she said amidst bursts of laughter.
That they were truly in love was, perhaps, without doubt.
Dr Kaunda always sung the love song Pagan Moon to Betty to express his love for her.
The song talked about kissing and lying in each others’ arms under the moon.
Dr Kaunda learned the song from his Polish teacher in 1941 and he sung it for Betty during their brief courtship and a countless times thereafter – on her birthdays, his own birthdays and any celebration where he had an opportunity to sing. A few months ago, when the couple celebrated their 66 years of marriage, Dr Kaunda, his once mighty and intimidating voice now croaky with age, did a rendition of the Pagan Moon for his adoring wife. Betty’s reaction to the ballad was almost always the same – she would curl up and break into giggles like a teenage girl. Dab her eyes to stop a tear or two from rolling down her cheeks.
Sometimes, though, she tried to stop him. “He shouldn’t sing about me because now I’m too old,” she said.
Of course that never stopped Dr Kaunda from singing the song, which seemed to have the same effect on him as on her.
And in what seemed like a real romantic ending to a love story, the last time Dr Kaunda sang the song for Betty was the night she died. Dr Kaunda was in South Africa to receive a peace award from the Mahatma Gandhi Foundation and Betty was in Zimbabwe visiting with their daughter, Musata.
“My wife of many years is not here to listen to the song, but my daughter (Cheswa) who is here with me will listen for her,” Dr Kaunda told the audience at the award ceremony.
The following morning the news of Betty’s passing was broken to Dr Kaunda as he prepared to return to Zambia. He was a broken man.
When I asked the former president - five years ago - how he wanted Betty to be remembered, he cast a thoughtful look on her and said: “A wonderful girl.”

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