President Kaunda: First Time I Met Him – Part One


Mwizenge S. Tembo, Ph. D.

Emeritus Professor of Sociology

(Names of people have been changed to respect their privacy)

My intense interest to meet President Kaunda started 61 years ago in 1962 when I was eight years old. My father was a teacher at Mafuta Primary School in Chief Mafuta’s area 30 miles or 48kms north of Chipata along the Chipata-Lundazi road. There were political tensions, skirmishes and violence as the United National Independence Party (UNIP) and the African National Congress (ANC) were vying for power in the fighting for independence against the British colonial government in the then Northern Rhodesia.

President Kaunda in his office in Lusaka the Capital City of Zambia in November 2012

Violent clashes between UNIP and ANC supporters were common. As they were discussing what was going on in the country in animated, tense, and sometimes hash-hash tones in our house, I would hear my father and mother mention “AKaunda” and “ANkhumbula” “UNIPI” “KONGRESI” also “Welensky”. This is how my young ears were exposed to the political founders of independent Zambia such as Kenneth Kaunda, Harry Nkhumbula, Simon Kapwepwe, Reuben Kamanga whose home constituency of Chitandika was just west of Mafuta, Munukayumbwa Sipalo, and many others. As a child I often wondered what it would be like to meet some of our great legendary leaders such as Kaunda, Nkhumbula, Sipalo, and Kapwepwe.

After being elected the first President of Zambia at independence in 1964, President Kaunda often toured all parts of Zambia to unite the young fragile country. When I was in Form I or Grade 9 in January 1967 at the prestigious Chizongwe Secondary School, students from the school walked to the Lundazi-Mfuwe road to see, cheer, and wave our small Zambian paper flags at President Kaunda who was touring the Eastern Province. His fast motorcade was driving from Chipata Airstrip. Kaunda’s motorcade zoomed by in his black swift Mercedes Benz as he waved his white handkerchief smiling from the back seat. Later that afternoon, we students walked 5Kms to Mpezeni Park in Chipata where President Kaunda addressed a massive rally. I was fortunate to be close enough to the podium in the massive crowd that surged forward when the President arrived. The rally was a very electric political spectacle.

During my first year as a student at University of Zambia in 1972, I bought and read on my own Kenneth Kaunda’s “A Humanist in Africa”. It was his celebration of our Zambian/African culture and his thoughts about our African politics of liberation at the time leading to 1964. Kenneth Kaunda the President and his philosophical ideas began to intrigue me. “Who is this man?” I began to ask myself as I was to read all his five books the next eighteen years. I began to ask myself what would happen if I met this man face to face? What questions would I ask him about his ideas and about being President? He became my hero who I greatly respected and he became center of my admiration.

The opportunity to meet President Kaunda never occurred when I was in Zambia for 13 years in the 1970s and 80s. I was abroad most of that time doing my Masters and Ph. degrees which the Zambian people had paid for. The precious opportunity to meet President Kaunda did not occur until 2006. President Kaunda was to participate in the African President-in-Residence program at Boston University for one year. I was a lecturer or Assistant Professor teaching at Oakhill University College in the United States of America. The small body of 1500 students was mostly white. I thought that the students would learn a lot about my African or Zambian culture if the college invited President Kaunda to come and address Oakhill University College. This is how for four months, I called President Kaunda’s assistant Mr. Mufwaya to ask and arrange for President Kaunda to visit our college. President George Hansen, who was my boss at the college, was enthusiastic and encouraged me to work on inviting President Kaunda to pay our small rural Christian college a visit.

President Kaunda was a busy man at Boston College as so many organizations all over the United States were inviting him. This is when I suggested to President Hansen that I go to visit President Kaunda in Boston so that I could talk to him face to face about the invitation to visit our college.

As soon as my boss approved my trip to Boston, I was thrilled, scared, and nervous as hell. What profound thing was I going to say face to face with President Kaunda? This is the man who had been President of my beloved country for 27 years. He had dined with Kings, Queens, and Presidents. I was a nobody. I knew there would probably be a long line of dignitaries waiting to see him and I would be lucky to have even just five minutes to talk to him. My nervousness became worse when I realized this was my hero who I tremendously respected and was eager to impress.

During my one-hour flight from Washington, D.C to Boston, I carefully rehearsed what I would say to President Kaunda in five minutes. I caught a train from the airport to the City of Boston. Another of President Kaunda’s assistants, Mr. Phiri, met me at the railway station. We walked three blocks to President Kaunda’s flat or apartment. When we entered the apartment building, I realized the great moment had come. We had to climb 15 stairs to get into his apartment. My heart was thumping into my throat each time I climbed one step closer. I saw President Kaunda sitting upright in a dining room chair with a second chair next to him. He was not wearing a black suit with a tie. He was wearing casual clothes. There was no line of people waiting to see him? How lucky was I? Did I come too early? Nothing looked normal about meeting a former head of state. Something had to be wrong.

“How are you, Professor?” President Kaunda smiled as he rose and we shook hands.

“I am—-alright, Your—– Excellency,” I faintly stammered as I cursed my stupid heart as it was still racing and thumping in my throat. I was as nervous as hell. Remember what you have to say, remember what you have to say, I reminded myself. I feared my stupid heart was going to waste my five precious minutes with this busy man.

……to be continued.