Mwizenge S. Tembo, Ph. D.
Professor of Sociology
The year was 1962 and I was 8 years old. My father was a teacher at Mafuta Primary School which is 30 miles or 48 Kms. along the Chipata-Lundazi road in the Eastern Province of Zambia. One morning, a two door yellow Land Rover sped along our dusty road and quickly pulled up to the school yard. The passenger door opened and a large bundle of papers with many colors were tossed to the ground. As the papers blew all over the school yard, the Land Rover quickly sped away.
My parents later explained that the people in the Land Rover were members of the African National Congress (ANC) who had tossed some flyers to recruit people to join the political party. The reason they sped off very quickly is that they knew this was a strong hold of their rival United National Independence Party (UNIP). They were afraid to walk around because they could be beaten up or even killed. Harry Nkumbula was leader of ANC and Kenneth Kaunda was the leader of UNIP. This was at the height of the heated struggle for independence against British colonialism in the then Northern Rhodesia now Zambia.
This was my earliest exposure to what campaigning and electoral politics were. The impression was not positive. As my parents talked about politics as a child, I wondered why people would beat up and even kill each other because of belonging to different political parties. The most notorious and violent in Fort Jameson (now Chipata) was Lushinga who was said to be a member of ANC. Word was that he was so vicious that if he found you riding your bicycle along the road, he would not only knock you over with his vehicle, he would follow you in the bush driving the vehicle in order to kill you. The ANC were called mainyong’o among adults in this area which was a derogatory term in the Nyanja language.
The members of the political parties would sometimes burn the grass huts at night of their political rivals killing them. As political protest of defiance against the Britidh colonialism, some Zambians burned down schools. One such school was Dzoole which
was burnt down to ashes. My father had the difficult assignment of reopening the school in 1963. He taught his first Sub A (Grade One) class under a large Kachele tree before the Parent Teachers Association (PTA) rebuilt the school. As a child at this time, my thinking was if it was so bad, I did not want to be any part of any campaigning or being part of a political party. At that tumultuous and tense time at 8 years old in rural Zambia, there was no way I could have guessed what would happen in my future: that 46 years later, 10,000 miles or 16,000 Kms away on the other side of the world, I would be part of the most important and thrilling election campaign in history: the Obama 2008 campaign. How did this happen? Why was this unwilling author involved with no experience in electoral campaign? What suddenly motivated him? What was the improbable journey and the drama of the Obama campaign given the overwhelming and daunting historical odds against an African American or black candidate in white American society?
Politics in Zambia: 1962 to 1964
British colonialists had occupied, oppressed, exploited, and in many cases humiliated
Zambians on their own land since the early 1900s. By 1962, Zambians had been fighting for independence for more than 20 years. The only difference between 1962 and 1964 is that they could smell victory. The British had imposed the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland in 1953 on the 3 territories over the vehement opposition and objections of Zambians and Africans. This became one of the major rallying points for the decade that was to follow in the struggle against colonialism.
As children in our household, my father and mother frequently referred to the tensions and violence among the UNIP and ANC political operatives in the region. My parents said a man known as Kenneth Kaunda of UNIP and Harry Nkhumbula of ANC were fighting for our freedom. Once we were independent, my parents explained, we would have freedom to do what we want. Our government would build schools, hospitals, roads, and create jobs.
As children you always react to the mood of your parents and the family to any outside events that you might not even understand fully as a child. One day as the 1962 general elections were taking place, my parents said something very new and strange that excited us all children. My parents said that soon after the elections, the British colonialist bazungu would leave and we would no longer be Northern Rhodesia. We would be the new free and independent country of Zambia. My brothers and sisters looked at each other with tense smiles. We children immediately ran outside and began to scream in unison as we jumped around.
“Tifuna Zambia!! Tifuna Zambia!!! (We want Zambia! We want Zambia!)
“Ndani afuna Zambia?!” (Who wants Zambia!???) I led the chant screaming at the top of my 8 year old voice.
“I-i-i-ine!!!!”, (Me, me, me) my younger brother and sisters responded loudly. We marched around the house many times screaming. We were to do this for months to come.
“The Federation was dissolved in December 1963 and universal adult suffrage elections which Zambians called One Man One Vote were held in January 1964 in which UNIP won an overwhelming majority of seats in parliament 56 and ANC won only 9.” (Tembo, 2012:215)
Over the years as I have reflected over our Zambian struggle for independence, I have always wished I had been an adult to contribute to the struggle. During independence from 1964 to date 2016, an opportunity to even be involved in Zambian elections campaigns and let alone vote had never come up.
Obama Campaign 2008
African Americans have a long history of enduring racial brutality and oppression from whites over the last 300 years. Voting and let alone any African American aspiring to be
President was so out of the question many in America believed it would never happen. So when a little known African American Senator from the State of Illinois with a strange name, Barack Obama, that did sound like Smith, Brown, or Johnson announced his candidacy for the Presidency of the United States, nearly everyone dismissed it as a joke or impossible. Barack Obama announced his candidacy on a cold morning in February 10 2007 in Springfield Illinois. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gdJ7Ad15WCA At that time Hillary Clinton, the leading Democratic Party candidate, had 45% in the opinion polls and Barack Obama had only 12% and was behind in the polls by 33 points. Not too many Americans had reason to support or waste their vote on an African American or black candidate that was so behind and would never win the primary and let alone the General election.
Jumping into the Campaign
After almost a year of campaigning, an election result that stunned not only the American nation but the entire world: little known Barack Obama had won the Iowa caucus primaries on January 3, 2008. Obama had won by 37.6%, John Edwards by 29.7% and the heavy favorite Hilary Clinton came in third with 29.5%. I saw Obama’s electrifying victory speech on TV that night. I was mesmerized. The whole nation was mesmerized.
When anyone decides to be involved in a major event, one can remember the exact moment when it happened. In April 2008 at my college campus, I had just finished my working out at our college gym and was walking out. I casually picked up the Newsweek magazine which had an article titled “Barack Obama: How He did it”. I read it all. That was my tipping point. I decided there and then that I was going to get involved in the Obama campaign.
I first read Obama’s book “The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream”. Later I read: “Dreams from my Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance”. Barack Obama’s ideas not just impressed me but his experiences convinced me that I shared lot in common with him. The part of his life I found most appealing was that in his quest to understand his father and Obama’s own African heritage in Kenya, he did something unusual may be for many people who have been
westernized: he visited his rural remote home village in Kenya. These are places that are often dismissed as just primitive. This is the place and heritage that terrifies Westerners and urban people in general. He had lived in Indonesia and had gone to Harvard. He had endured some racial victimization in hotels even when he visited Nairobi in Kenya. In my view, this man was truly so educated, sophisticated, and optimistic, and humble at the same time. I believed he would make a huge difference if elected to live in the American White House.
I had to first contact local Democratic Party organizers. I was supposed to go to Zambia that summer to help build the NKhanga Village Library in Lundazi. My mother-in-law had just passed away after battling cancer for nearly 2 years. My wife, I and the entire family were in grief. I also experienced the worst headaches I had never had before and since then. When I saw the doctor, my blood pressure was sky high. The doctor advised against flying out of precaution. I therefore dedicated my entire summer from May to August to the Obama campaign.
As Obama campaign picked up momentum from January 2008, it captured the
imagination of millions of Americans and even the whole world. There were regular Democratic Party campaign offices. But then thousands of citizens, both white and black, volunteered to open campaign offices using their own homes. This happened in small and large towns. Obama gave electrifying campaign speeches to large mass rallies ranging from 5,000, 10,000, 20,000 to as large as 75,000. Obama’s wife, Michelle gave campaign speeches in support of her husband to smaller venues. Volunteers were needed to make phone calls, conduct door to door campaigns, distribute yards signs, and write to the local press. Monetary and food donations were needed to fund the campaigns. I participated in voter registration for both Democrats and Republicans at my college among students and faculty on the college campus dining hall lobby.
The first Obama campaign office was opened 10 miles or 16 Kms. north of us in the City of Harrisonburg which has a population of 52,478 of whom 78.4% White, 6.4% Black or African American, 0.3% Native American, 3.5% Asian, 0.1% Pacific Islander, 8.2% from other races. A couple who are residents of my home town Bridgewater volunteered for
their house to be the town’s Obama campaign headquarters. Bridgewater has a population of 5,644 of whom 95.18% White, 2.48% African American, 0.12% Native American, 0.42% Asian, 0.94% from other races. The town of Staunton which is 25 miles or Kms. South of Bridgewater has a population of 23,746 of whom 83.29% White, 13.95% Black or African American, 0.22% Native American, 0.46% Asian, 0.01% Pacific Islander, 0.52% from other races. I attended all the 3 official opening receptions the new Obama campaign offices in the 3 towns. It was very heartening and such a joyous occasion to see the beaming faces of men, women, old, young, children, white, black and all races working to make the Obama campaign a success.
Over the months I checked on the computer every day to see which primary election Obama had won that day and which one he had lost. I checked every day to see the election opinion polls to see how many points Obama was up or down. I put up campaign signs in my front yard. I donated crates of soft drinks, cookies or biscuits, and sandwiches for campaign headquarters volunteers. I saw many citizens bring cooked food to the campaign headquarters. We went on door to door campaigns in our neighborhoods. The momentum for the Obama campaign had built so much in the entire country of 305 million people that there were so many campaign buttons that represented various campaign groups that had mushroomed all over the country. There were groups such are Police officers for Obama, Women for Obama, Children for Obama, Fire fighters for Obama, cyclists for Obama, back packers for Obama, Volunteers for Obama, Joggers for Obama, Athletes for Obama, Book Lovers for Obama.
After 10 months of heavy campaigning, the Election Day had arrived. My wife and I woke up early. There was a long line at 6:00am already. I took some photos. According to instruction, I was on standby all day to find out if I needed to drive any voter to the voting precincts. As it was getting dark in the evening, an old car pulled in front of our house. An old white woman slowly walked toward our house and knocked on the door. When I opened the door she asked me if I had already voted. She was just checking to make sure. I had tears in my eyes just to think so human beings at their best during the entire long campaign.
That evening on November 4, 2008 my wife was sitting in bed and I was about to go to the bathroom when TV announcers said that Barack Obama had just passed 270 electoral votes. He would be the 44th President and the first ever African American or black President of the United States. The camera panned to the large crowd that had gathered in Chicago in Barack Obama’s home town. It showed Jesse Jackson, Oprah Winfrey, and many others in the crowd in tears; they never thought that a black man would ever be President of the United States in their lifetime. The election results were that 69,498,516 or 52.9% of the American voters had voted for Barack Obama and 59,948,323 or 45.7% had voted for his Republican Party opponent John McCain. It was one of the most gratifying, exciting, and memorable events I have ever been involved with in my life. There were so many great memories of the goodness of the American everyday citizen and how we can pull our hearts together to achieve something that no one ever thought could be possible. That was a message from a great nation that I would never have known I would be part of those days in Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) when I was 8 years old in 1962.
- Obama, Barack., Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, New York: Three Rivers Press, 1995, 2004.
- Obama, Barack., The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream, New York: Three Rivers Press, 2006.
- Tembo, Mwizenge S., Satisfying Zambian Hunger for Culture: Social Change in the Global World, Xlibris Corporation: 2012.