My Dad, Kenneth Kaunda
My Dad, Kenneth Kaunda
|Dr Kenneth Kaunda.|
KAWECHE Kaunda is one of Dr Kenneth Kaunda’s nine children. Born in June 1959, he was five years old when his father became the first President of Zambia in 1964. In a special interview with JACK ZIMBA, to mark Dr Kaunda’s 93rd birthday, Kaweche gives his own perspective of the man who was Zambia’s President for 27 years, but whom he calls dad, or cheekily, the old man.
BEING A KAUNDA
BEING part of the first family must surely come with many privileges – money, private schools, cars and personal helps and bodyguards. Not really so in the Kaunda household.
According to Kaweche, if there was one great lesson that Dr Kaunda instilled in his children early enough during his presidency, it was that “State House was just a temporary home, and we were made never to forget that.”
He says his dad tried hard to give his children a normal life even within the confines of Plot One.
“He kept telling us: ‘Zambia has one President at a time, and right now, the President is myself, Kenneth Kaunda. There will come a time when another President will come, and you guys are not little presidents running around State House. You are just ordinary children who happen to be children of the man who is at this particular time president.”’
The children generally understood Dad’s lesson about being ordinary.
“That sunk in with us the children. The problem was those who looked after us. It didn’t sink in as much. They treated us in a particular way,” says Kaweche.
During the early days as President, whenever Dr Kaunda was returning home from abroad, State House staff would pick up the children from school and take them to the airport to welcome their dad.
It happened for some time, until Dr Kaunda asked: “How come these guys are always on holiday whenever I arrive?”
That practice was soon stopped.
And the President’s children were driven to school in a black Rose Royce. But Dr Kaunda did not approve of the luxury treat, and the super luxury car was soon replaced by the modest Peugeot 404.
“They looked at us as the President’s children and we had to be pictured and presented in what they imagined a President’s child should be seen, but the old man himself didn’t want that,” says Kaweche.
Dr Kaunda also refused to send his children abroad for school, which was common practice among well-heeled families at the time.
“Most of our friends, who were ministers’ children at the time, when they completed grade seven, their parents would send them to school in England or somewhere else, but my father refused.”
Dr Kaunda’s argument was: “If me as the President I’m sending my children away, what does that say about the schools we are expecting the rest of Zambians to attend?”
So, all the Kaunda children attended local schools, save for Masuzyo, who for a short while went to school in England. And that was because at home, he was perceived as a trouble-maker, bound to embarrass the President.
Kaweche, himself attended Woodlands Primary School, and later went to Kamwala Secondary School.
“He wanted us to be just like the other children out there,” he says.
“I know he knew it was a difficult job, but he tried to play that balancing act, together with the old lady.” By “old lady”, Kaweche is referring to his late mother, Mama Betty Kaunda.
But the Kaunda children were no ordinary children.
“We started noticing as we were growing up certain things that we would be doing, that our friends never did. And as much as the old man and the old lady tried to make sure that we lived a normal life as possible, even within the confines of State House, there were still certain things that happened that told us we were different,” says Kaweche.
“We weren’t allowed to just walk out the gate and go to our friend’s houses, but when our friends came to see us, they would come walking through the gate,” he says.
And at the height of the Northern Rhodesia war in the late 1970s, spilling into the 1980s, Kaweche noticed that on his school trips, it was no longer just the driver and him on the vehicle. A second man would always travel with them.
Each of the Kaunda children now had a bodyguard due to the threat posed by the Rhodesian government which saw Zambia as an enemy.
“When we went to State House, we didn’t have bodyguards,” he says.
He adds: “This is why I tell those who come after us that look, this thing of bodyguards didn’t come to protect us from Zambians, it was the external situation at the time that caused us to have bodyguards. I felt very sad when those who came after us were using bodyguards as a status symbol. It was to me ridiculous. If they knew how it started, they wouldn’t have behaved that way.”
“So, what was it like being the son of most powerful man in the country?” That is a question Kaweche has to answer many times from friends and others.
“At the time we were there, we knew he was President, but in terms of the power that he actually wielded, it didn’t occur to us until we left State House,” he says.
Kaweche says being the President’s son “was on-the-job training. We had no one to learn from when we went there. So whatever it is that we were going through, we had to learn.”
WHERE IS DAD?
But it must have been hard being President Kaunda’s child.
“We hardly saw him. His schedule usually was that he would be in the office before sunrise, like five, six or seven. Then he will be back after midnight. So when he comes home, we are sleeping, when he leaves, we are sleeping. So we hardly saw him,” says Kaweche.
Being an absent father is something that bothered Dr Kaunda too.
In his book ‘Letter to my Children’ Dr Kaunda talks about the price his own family had to pay for freedom.
He wrote: “I don’t regret exchanging the life of a schoolmaster for that of a politician over twenty years ago, though I have paid the price for that choice in all sorts of ways. What worries me more is that your dear mother and yourselves have also had to pay for that decision of mine to enter public life. Maybe you don’t see it that way yet, though you must sometimes wonder why your father is virtually a stranger to you.”
To make up for his absence, twice a year, Dr Kaunda would take his family to Mfuwe in August, and Christmas time would be spent in Chinsali.
“On Christmas Day we were usually at Lubwa Mission in the church which grandfather built,” says Kaweche.
The first family would then go to Kasaba Bay to spend the rest of the holiday there.
“But even there, we used to see planes come bringing ministers for meetings. So, you would say, ‘Dad tomorrow can we go game viewing?’ The next thing there is a plane landing bringing a prime minister from such and such country. So even when we went to these places, he was still working. It wasn’t like for the next two weeks the President is out of touch, leave him alone. It was never like that.”
As a 12-year-old, Kaweche came up with a plan to spend more time with his dad.
“Personally, what I did was I went to the private secretary’s office and look at his diary. And if I find that he has a trip and I’m on holiday I would ask, ‘Dad can I come?’”
“So from the time I was about 12, I would usually travel with him. It didn’t matter where we went, I just wanted to be with dad, because at home, I didn’t see him,” he says.
But one of the memories he treasures very much was to see his father come down from his office upstairs to join the children while they played soccer on the State House lawn.
“Those are memories that I really treasure because it was rare for us to play with our dad,” he says.
Family bonds are usually strengthened during meal times, but for the Kaunda family even those moments did not guarantee dad would take his seat at the table.
“In the beginning we had our own dining room, which we used to call the school room. Then the old man and the old lady used to eat on their own,” says Kaweche.
He thinks the eating tradition was something inherited from the former governor.
“After some years, we started having dinner with the old lady, and I think she started insisting that dad must come home for dinner and then if he wants, he can go back to the office. So that started happening and it helped in building that family set-up,” he says.
As a father, Dr Kaunda was strict. In fact, Kaweche thinks Dr Kaunda was harder with his own children than other people.
“He was strict in terms of how we behaved and you didn’t want to get a lecture from Dad because it was very to the point. You couldn’t argue, not because he was president, but what we were taught is that you don’t argue with your father,” he says.
“It took me to be an adult before I ever argued with him about something,” he says.
Kaweche says his dad would not let the children use government property at will.
He recalls once, when he was about 23 years old and needed transport, but could not be given any vehicle by State House staff. He then decided to get a Mitsubishi car that had been given to his mother as a gift by Mitsubishi Motors, but which bore a GRZ registration.
When the President heard about it, he was angry, but Kaweche argued his point, and that incident could have altered the way transport is managed at State House to this day. From then onwards, it was decided that some vehicles at State House would have private numbers to allow private use by members of the first family.
Kaweche describes his own relationship with his father as “one of being very blunt with my dad.”
“If I see something that I don’t like, I will tell him. Sometimes, he will get angry, but I will stand my ground,” he says.
As the children grew older, they would drop a word with their father on what was happening in the country.
“We had the privilege of what was being said outside the walls of State House. What he heard was either from his trusted lieutenants or those who had an ulterior motive so it was difficult for him to decipher what was really out there, and what the best thing to do was,” he says.
Kaweche also describes his father as a deeply religious man. “He has always been.”
He reveals one of Dr Kaunda’s religious secrets - alms giving. Every Saturday, whenever he could, he drove out of State House incognito to any place within the city where he could find a poor person. He would then get out of the car and hand them money.
Dr Kaunda continued with the practice even after leaving State House.
Kaweche narrates that one time, years after he had left State House, Dr Kaunda was visiting his daughter in London, and he asked her to drive him around. Upon seeing a homeless person, he asked his daughter to stop the car. He then asked her for some money. Not knowing what her father planned to do with the money, she gave him a £100 bill. He then walked up to the man and handed it to him.
Dr Kaunda is also not known for being materialistic.
“Can you imagine how much money we would have if he was [materialistic]?” asks Kaweche.
“I remember some of my friends, other president’s children, saying to me ‘ah you guys how many hotels you have in Switzerland?”’
“We used to have all these rumours that our father had hotels in Switzerland. Even my own cousins would come and ask me. Now if my own family believed that, what more the ordinary citizens?”
Kaweche says he still comes across some people who think his dad has a lot of wealth hidden outside Zambia.
“I have heard even from my friends in England ‘I hear your dad is one of the richest people in Africa’ I just laugh about it. I’m still waiting to see where that money is.”
“Sometimes, I’m so broke and I have to go to my friend and say ‘boyi ni pempako K20’ and they say ‘but your father was president.’”
“Whatever the old man has is out of goodwill of people or what he has earned as retirement from Government,” says Kaweche.
“Unfortunately, most presidents in Africa do have a lot of personal stuff, but the old man and some of his friends never went down that path,” he says.
“To me, it’s a good thing that he didn’t live that life of acquiring wealth, because what do you do when that stuff is taken away?” he asks.
Kaweche says even when he was President, Dr Kaunda converted even stuff he was given in his personal capacity into state property.
“Every time the old man was given a vehicle, he would hand it over to Government,” he says.
So what does he think of Kaunda the man?
Kaweche paints a picture of his father as an over-trusting, and less suspicious man.
“The old man as a person is very trusting, and I think that to me, to some extent, has led to a bit of problems in his judgment of things. Because when you are honest, you think everybody is honest, and there are many who took advantage of him that way,” he says.
“He trusts very easily, and I think it is a weakness to some extent. It’s a good character to have - to be trusting - but when you are in a position of power like he was, sometimes it can be detrimental,” he says.
“He is not suspicious. It takes him a long time to be suspicious of others,” he says.
But he is also a strong-willed person.
“He’s never been one to be cowed into a situation or to back down from what he believes,” he says
As for birthday celebrations, Dr Kaunda had his first big celebration when he turned 50 in 1974.
According to Kaweche, the family then decided to celebrate it in a big way, and in the end it became a national event.
“He has reached a stage now where every birthday is a treasure. I think it means a lot to him now,” he says.
Dr Kaunda is said to have been looking forward to his 93rd birthday.