It was hard to believe the young lady was beaming and her face betrayed a genuine smile. A quick scan around the room revealed how miserable her immediate environment was.
She had been glued to the bed for close to two months now. The University Teaching Hospital (UTH), Zambia’s largest referral hospital, had become home. Not the best of places and one had to admire Mwila as she radiated her natural warmth.
Mabvuto was an energetic toddler, enjoying the innocence of childhood. He sprang out of the sack covered pit latrine, rushing to rejoin his friends as they splashed the muddy water after some torrential rains.
The excitement was as bright as an October sunrise. There was no evident thought of concerns that the water could be a medium for disease. This is what they knew and had lived with for as long as they had walked.
Moreover, his mother and a host of other women were a stone throw away and had not raised any objection. Fathers were nowhere in sight this time of day!
As Mabvuto’s mother sauntered to the house with a tray of pounded groundnuts, she stared in the boys’ direction. Her little boy, her sixth at 28 years, was a part of the group in the pool of water. No worries. It was a safe game.
A hostile reality
The picture portrayed in both cases is but a simple reflection of what is out there. The fate of the common man is dire.
I watched with suffocating sadness as the Vice President Dr. Guy Scott visited the Mukobeko Maximum prison recently. His face told the whole story. Those walls hid the gloom, filth and inhuman face of a system that cares less about others.
Yes it is a maximum prison and a place for the condemned. But do they lose their dignity as human beings? Do they cease being human?
Let us step away from the prison. What about the hospitals? The courts of law? The densely populated townships littered with chaos, disease and debilitating poverty. Have all these people ceased being human and deserve less dignity than others?
What has gone wrong?
There clearly is something, fundamentally, that is not as it should.
We see it in overcrowded wards, filthy prisons, delayed court cases and in the compounds. A visit to our villages paints an even bleaker picture after all the further away from civilisation you are, the more irrelevant and less of a factor you are.
My mind battles with whether this is a result of failed planning and execution. Or is it perhaps leadership that neglects the needy? Or is it us a people that laze through our lives expecting all good things such as health, education, infrastructure etc to pop into our world?
It seems to be a mix of all these factors. Hence my challenge is not only with the authorities that aid this deterioration. It also lies squarely on the shoulders of the “common man” that plays a part in not holding leadership accountable and also a chronic failure to properly manage what is built.
How many times do we hear of vandalism of critical installations? How many empty packs of opaque beer do we find in ditches leading to blocked drainages where these exist?
These are but a few examples of a society so desperate for mindset and attitude change. Both for those that lead and the led.
The insignificant commoners
The common man only seems to matter when elections are near. That is the only time all top politicians visit the compounds, the crowded hospital wards and villages with promises to turn things around. Turn them around only if they could be given that vote.
As gullible as poverty and desperation makes one, the common man falls into this promise trap in exchange for opaque beer, pieces of cloth, mealie meal and some kwacha notes which also go into alcohol consumption at most.
Fast forward to elections and the commoner is back in the world of poverty. The 4×4 luxury pick-ups that were a usual sight during campaigns have disappeared. The promising politicians and leaders are a distant feature only seen on television screens or heard on radio.
What is there left to do for the commoner? One after the other, they fall into the routine of apathy, alcohol abuse, thuggery, illiteracy, disease and poverty. If they make it alive to the next campaign, maybe once again they will be the centre of the world, important people.
Is there any hope?
Absolutely. It will be a long journey but who says long means impossible? The cliche is that a thousand miles begins with a step.
Where then can this change start from?
Accountability- Leaders are responsible for everyone. This is a role that bestows privilege and must sober anyone up especially in Africa. They are millions that look to their leaders for a way out of their squalor.
This is one aspect of service that is neglected. Whether it is deliberate or not is speculation. The people that mattered when votes were needed matter less post-elections.
There is need for leadership accountability. The vote is the performance contract between the people and government. This entails that the primary focus for any leader is to remember the poverty, misery, disease and lack they have witnessed on the campaign trail. This must spur them into pursuing what will make a difference in the lives of the masses.
Reviewing service delivery- What governance structures are in place to support deliberate interventions? We must assess current local and central government structures and the checks in place to device user friendly structures that ensure delivery. Further, it is imperative to explore more efficient ways of governance to guarantee timely service delivery.
How do we ever get to the pathetic hygiene levels we see around? Litter everywhere, poor sanitary conditions for a huge population in compounds and an army of uneducated people.
We must get to a level where water borne diseases are not an annual event. We must start dealing with the seemingly small things that characterise our present conditions. Unkempt surroundings, street lights with no lighting, uncollected garbage, the list is endless.
If in these small things we do not strive to do the right thing, can we even begin to think of medicines in hospitals? Children in schools with the right materials and teachers?
To set this in motion, the planning and resourcing perspective needs to be right. This will stimulate the focus required to start driving the change we need to see.
An empowered people- The commoners and downtrodden that wallow in poverty must be an active part. They must realise that their importance is not just a pre-election ingredient. There is need for an urgent wake-up call, a call that will make them believe that they are stakeholders and have a right to demand development.
For as long as this aspect remains an unknown authority, there will be no meaningful change. This is simply because the people that must demand and also drive the change are unaware of what authority they yield.
This is the power to influence change that must be exercised so everyone in leadership remains aware of their role to serve at all times in whatever capacity. Then no leader will be selfish in this noble undertaking, opting instead to serve the best interests of the common man.
Same bed of thorns for all- Why does a man peddling a finger of drugs rot in jail while the owner roams the streets freely? Why do the known and connected citizens spend only an evening in a jail cell at most while you have individuals in Mukubeko that have gone for a decade without their appeal heard in court as Dr. Scott came to learn in Kabwe?
Why do we have patients dumped in UTH with no access to prompt attention yet the prominent get the best attention in record time, even from the farthest land on earth?
There is a place for the rich and powerful at the high table. The poor remain insignificant and even the loudest of voices can not be heard by the privileged. It is true it seems that on Animal farm, there are animals more equal than others. It is there for all to see.
This is the way it is but this is not the way it ought to be. The privileged must be troubled by the poverty, disease and filth the commoners endure. Yes they have worked for their privilege(for some) and must enjoy it. However, should those that have more not also have some to share with the less fortunate?
Even if the lucky and “haves” do not, this is mandatory for any leader. A leader cannot choose whom he serves, works or assists. They are in those roles to reduce this misery and deliver progress to the masses.
Justice not for the lazy- I speak in this way not in support of laziness. Those ready to change their lives and how they think should be the priority, the focus of development.
There are those we see around whose defeatist mindset makes them wallow in self-pity, drowning in daily drunkenness, resorting to thuggery and recklessness. There are some among us unfortunately that just want to sit back and await development. These I do not condone. When opportunity is granted for an education, work or skills training, it is met with complaints or shoddy performance.
Effort should apply to and for those willing to make a difference. The employees in hospitals, public service etc that demand higher and decent pay must be those that exhibit quality in applying themselves. Not the lot that will spend an entire day under a tree but demand higher pay.
This does not in any way mean the lot in Mukobeko for instance must be let loose. They too must pay the dues for the wrong choices made. However, it does mean that those that have appeals to be heard must rightly have them heard. Those that have been incarcerated erroneously must be released from an unfair system that has caged them.
This also means the leaders must access the same medical facilities that we all do. Only then can they be desperate to make a difference rather than end up in a 5-star facility in a foreign land.
It follows then that all have a part to play to bring development to life. The commoners and privileged. The illiterate and educated. The employed and the unemployed.
Only when this collective resolve takes root will we realise our elusive aspiration.
Institutionalised development- To deliver this development, someone must be responsible, it must be tracked and therefore a comprehensive framework must be in place to support this quest.
Development and related initiatives must never be the preserve of the elected elite or a privileged few individuals. There must be institutions with longevity that will remain in place even when individuals change. Only when this is the case will we guarantee a structured approach to development.
This is more sustainable without being underpinned on what the politicians want to pursue. That way too we curb the trend of every successive administration running the risk of throwing everything out on account of it having been driven by their predecessors. A trend that has seen us move backwards or stagnate with every change that befalls us.
Pain of the status quo
Mwila has been on that UTH bed for two months now, having survived an accident. An excited public bus driver had rammed into them after watching the Chipolopolo national team win a game at the Afcon 2012 tournament. She awaits a theatre appointment that on three occasions has been deferred for various reasons.
No electricity at the theatre. A delay in taking blood to the theatre. A much publicised operation on another poor young man that had been allowed privileged access to medical facilities via presidential intervention. Those have been the reasons Mwila has not been operated on.
Mabvuto kicked his ball through the contaminated water, bursting with childhood energy in a game of soccer.
This was the life he was born in and knew. A life of uncollected garbage, ponds of rain water, deadly sanitary conditions, the hopelessness of an absent father swimming in daily drunken stupors or seasonal jobs in the plush residential areas. A hard working mother that made sure they had a meal each day, even if it mostly meant some greens from their backyard garden. At least today, there were some pounded groundnuts to go with it.
Mukobeko and the many other prisons across the country remain overcrowded. Filled with those that have not seen the inside of a courtroom for a decade. Behind bars for being conduits of crime perpetrated by the powerful and well connected perhaps that remain free.
All these realities present evidence of a rotten society, driven by the selfishness and neglect of those blessed and empowered to make a difference. Aided also by the inevitable and unfortunate resignation of the commoners, the less privileged.
Yet it is these downtrodden and commoners that have the power and authority to make a difference. To demand change and development. To hold themselves and their leaders accountable for what we all want to see in our world.
But as long as this remains an unknown force that the commoners do not believe in, the present truth will firm its hold. The harsh truth that the poor must shut up. They have no voice, no place at the high table or clout to influence any meaningful change.
It seems when you do not have the voice, clout or privilege, you deserve what you get and remain mute.
The pain of being a commoner. The agony of being poor with the world expecting you to just shut up and take it.