Sunday, 23 November 2014

Guy Scott: searching for how it all works


Dr Scott: I like to understand the world.



To some, he is a farmer who jumped on the right political bandwagon that took him to Government House. To others, he is just another mzungu bewitched by the Africa into which he was born. But as Jack Zimba discovered, there is much more behind the blunt, straight-talking man who is now Vice President of Zambia.

When other boys at school were dreaming of becoming teachers, scientists, lawyers or doctors, Guy Scott ‘s dream was to become a solver of mysteries. And he has spent most of his professional life doing just that.
The young Guy subjected himself to a long process of formal education, and he chose to study some of the most complex subjects imaginable, from mathematics to light. Light? Yes, he studied how light interacts with matter to form images.
“Me,” he told me as we sat on the verandah of his house in State Lodge, “I like to understand the world. And I like to prove that I understand the world by changing it.
“I’m a problem-solver by temperament. I see myself as a problem-spotter first of all. I see problems where others don’t see a problem and having spotted the problem, I like to solve it to show that it was a problem,” he said, before taking another gulp from his glass of Putinka, a classy Russian vodka.
Even as a small boy at school in Marondera, Southern Rhodesia, Guy Scott wanted to understand the world and how it worked. His good friend Stewart Fisher – one of his few close friends – who is a son of the late, highly respected medical doctors Monica and Charles Fisher of Kitwe, found himself sitting on a desk behind Guy one day in 1957. Both boys had great interest in science and would often study together.
“Guy was the sort of boy you could not ignore,” said Fisher, who went on to become a surgeon in London. Although he is now retired. Stewart visits Zambia every year searching out samples of the country’s unique butterflies, moths and other creatures, and studying the biology of its forests. He studies and collects degrees the way some people collect stamps, so in describing Guy he might also be talking about himself: “He was very controversial with a very questioning mind and was quite clearly the brightest boy in the class – by a long way I would say.”
Born in 1944 in Livingstone, Guy probably acquired his liberal political views from his father, Alexander Scott, a medical doctor, who in Northern Rhodesia formed an anti-racial party opposed to the Central African Federation which had sought to frustrate African liberation. Scott Snr was also founder of the Central African Post in 1948, which paper briefly became the African Times and then ended up as the African Mail which eventually became the Daily Mail of today.
At Peterhouse school in Southern Rhodesia, Guy’s school companions were generally sons of right-wing white tobacco farmers, and the boy from Livingstone delighted in picking arguments with them and with his teachers.
During those years when computers were becoming indispensible work tools, Guy was not satisfied with just knowing how computers and robots worked, he wanted to understand how they ‘think’ and so he went to study artificial intelligence at Sussex University in the UK where he earned his doctorate in cognitive science/artificial intelligence.
Then he went to Cambridge, where he studied mathematics and economics, coming away with an honours degree.
But just as in his early school life, Guy was a rebellious and controversial student at Cambridge who would often defy school rules. For example, according to Dr Fisher, Guy kept a shotgun in his room that he had wanted to use for shooting pheasants – a favoured pastime for the English gentry, which was a strange ambition for Guy given his distain for inherited privilege. “They never found his shotgun, otherwise they were going to expel him,” said Dr Fisher, who also remembers Guy skinny-dipping (nude swimming) in the icy waters of the River Cam which runs through Cambridge and is well-known for students rowing on it, punting on it, and skinny dipping for the more adventurous.
Later on, Guy devoted his life to studying computers and worked at Oxford University where he tutored in artificial intelligence. Also at Oxford he took up croquet at which he excels with a fierce competitiveness. But he was less than impressed with Oxford reactions to the way he dressed whilst playing – probably his normal scruffy casualness - and he has not forgotten the sniffy remarks to which he was subjected.
Always a bit bolshy, in the 1980s he got a job with an eminent professor of information engineering called Michael Brady to run a university robotics laboratory, but the two differed sharply and they soon fell out. “You’re not interested in true knowledge, you’re just interested in running a PhD factory,” Guy once yelled at Prof. Brady.
Guy’s tertiary education had been made possible by a Federal scholarship. When independence came along, he would not have been able to afford to continue but the new Zambian Government maintained the support and Guy was able to continue his education.
Said Stewart Fisher: “I think Guy got tired of artificial intelligence and he decided it was going nowhere fast and it was at that point that he came back to Zambia and became interested in politics” said Dr Fisher.
Back home, Guy found the Kaunda government on the verge of collapse and in 1991 he joined the Movement for Multiparty Democracy.
It was during the election campaign that Guy met his wife-to-be, Charlotte Harland, in Mpika where she was working on a donor-funded programme. The two were introduced to each other by an up-and-coming politician called Michael Sata. They married in 1994.
Guy became Minister of Agriculture in the first Chiluba government, and became known as “Mr Yellow Maize” when he imported yellow maize from the US to feed people in the drastic drought of 1991-92. They may not have liked the taste, but no one died in one of the worst droughts in Zambia’s history.
Then, Chiluba sacked him, almost before he had had a chance to work himself into the portfolio. The first Guy knew of it was when, returning from a visit to Zimbabwe, he was greeted by a border official who said, “Ah, so sorry Honourable…” Today, Chiluba’s letter of dismissal – giving no reason for the action -- is framed and hangs in a toilet room at the Scott’s house.
Charlotte speaks highly of Guy’s extraordinary intellectual capability and lists it as one of the qualities that attracted her to him. “He has a lot of gigabytes up there,” she said, raising her forefinger to her head.
The Vice President has a love for literature and poetry and has been known to recite long passages from renowned poets. In the right mood he will quote liberally from speeches in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, from Macbeth, from the Song of Solomon in the Bible or from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: “Awake! For morning in the Bowl of Night has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight: Lo.”
“He knows massive quantities of poetry. He knows it off by heart, how it gets into his head I’m not entirely sure,” says Charlotte.
Guy also likes composing songs as a hobby and, although he has long played the guitar, he never quite mastered the instrument.  “He can play, but he’s pretty rubbish,” said Charlotte. He and a small group of friends gather occasionally to drink wine and sing folk songs, usually the older the better, but with no pretence of being much good at either singing or playing guitar. It is the rough poetry of authentic folk music that is the attraction, music from the time when wandering minstrels sang the news of the day and reflected mostly tragedy, heartbreak and absurdity, much as newspapers do today.
In fact, Guy was briefly a journalist early in his working life when he wrote for Business Review, a monthly supplement put out by the Times of Zambia.
The new Vice President also has a rather more unusual way to relax. He turns to his favourite subject – mathematics – making what Charlotte describes as “horrendous calculations”. Obviously he likes to read. He surrounds himself with books and devours them. I found him halfway through an economics book. At home he’s more likely to be beguiled by a problem of quantum mechanics than by the rituals of domesticity.
Sometimes his single-mindedness annoys people. Friends say he is as likely, on entering a room, to find something interesting to read and sit and read it before acknowledging anyone else. He is not deliberately rude, that’s just the way he is – totally absorbed in what happens to capture his attention at the time.
So what does he make of being vice-president?
“It’s a very difficult position because always if you try to do too much people accuse you of barging in on their territory; if you don’t do anything then everybody accuses you of loafing. That is the standard challenge of vice-anything.
“So let me see if I can manage it. If I can’t manage it I will be fired. If I can manage it I will have it for a while and see what good I can do,” said Guy, who has now exchanged his baggy trousers, loose shirts and sandals for smart suits, though, frankly, they don’t hang on him very well at times. But would he care about that? “Not Guy,” said Dr Fisher, “he doesn’t worry about the image he is cutting.”
Charlotte now buys the Vice-President’s clothes because Guy doesn’t like shopping.
“He’s not a man who spends any time in shops if he can help it,” said Charlotte. “If he goes somewhere and comes back, then he probably does no shopping. He has to be forced to do it. He doesn’t like shopping at all. If he went to Johannesburg or London by himself I couldn’t expect any shopping when he came back,” she said.
Not that it’s something she is unhappy about. Charlotte herself is not materialistic and it is one of the attributes that got them together in the first place.
Guy almost glories in his anti-materialism: “Me, as long I have this garden and a nice house, even though it’s not a posh house, it’s a very comfortable house…and a verandah on that house and a bottle of whisky to occasionally sample; and children and grandchildren and a car which is reliable: I don’t care whether it’s a Hummer or Jaguar as long it’s reliable and can get me to where I’m going. Then that’s it, I’m happy,” he said.
“How can you be a materialist in a country where 80 percent of the people live on less than two dollars a day?” he asked. Whatever Guy Scott is interested in, money is not one of them. He has absolutely no interest in accumulating money. To him, it is boring, not a good enough reason to do anything.
After graduating from Cambridge, Guy Scott threw a party at his place where he promised to give away all his possessions. “He said the last thing he would give away was his record player,” recalls Dr Fisher. But with the party over, Guy gave away his books, some of his clothes, his guitar and the record player. “It was typical of Guy,” said Dr Fisher, laughing.
Guy Scott thinks it is this quality, which he also sees in President Sata, that could help bring sanity and development to the country.
However, even as he took up the position of vice-president, Guy knew the question of race would always come up. “People don’t know how to handle these racial things, they think it’s embarrassing; are we supposed not to notice he is white…? And I don’t help them,” he said.
In Malawi, at the recent COMESA heads of state summit, it was President Robert Mugabe who broke the ice by referring to Guy Scott’s skin colour and calling him ‘one of us’.
“He knew how to handle it, but the rest of them pretended they hadn’t noticed that I was white,” he said. 
“I had a choice of becoming a Zambian citizen or British citizen under the constitution in 1964, and I chose to become a Zambian citizen,” said Guy, who speaks about Western hegemony as though he has no roots there.
He expresses a deep desire to see Zambia develop. “I will be very sorry to spend another ten years of my life trying to make Zambia work and failing, and ending up with another corrupt society,” he said.
According to Charlotte, Guy was “absolutely bowled over” when he was appointed vice-president, and he still seems bothered by the presence of aides and security personnel around him and he sometimes seems indifferent toward them. He is frustrated by not being able to live his life as before.
“It can be very frustrating to not be able to get in your car to go and see your friends or go and see a movie,” he said. On the few occasions when he does “get out”, or when he’s being driven to his office, he faces complaints about his motorcade inconveniencing other motorists, but he said there is nothing he can do. “I’ve tried everything. I’ve tried driving myself. I’ve tried driving without motorbikes, only with escort vehicles. But it’s not possible because you get caught up in traffic and somebody recognizes you and the crowds start mobbing you, then you realise what the motorbikes are for,” he said.
The promotion to Vice President has not been without cost to the Scotts. Charlotte, for example, herself a PhD, is having to resign from her job as Chief of Economic and Social Policy and Evaluation at UNICEF, as her husband’s new role is believed by the UN to be incompatible with her role as a UN adviser.
So, summing up, what sort of man is Guy Scott?
Stewart Fisher sums it up in one word - acerbic. “He doesn’t like blunt things. He likes excitement and controversy. He likes unusual people. And he likes getting himself into trouble and getting himself out of trouble.
“Guy is Guy,” he adds.
At 67, Guy Scott can look a little weary and his shoulders sag a little, but he still believes in his childhood ‘Superman’ dream and continues to rake his mind for answers.
“I’m still sure there is a fraud in the middle of Western science. I want to get to it,” he says.

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