The former US President George W Bush was recently in the news. He alongside the current President Barack Obama and four former US Presidents converged on the Texas soil as they unveiled a Presidential library in honour of the 43rd US President.
This was the 13th library across the United States and officially came to life on 1st May 2013. Former Presidents Jimmy Carter, George Bush Snr, George Bush Jr and Bill Clinton joined President Obama during this occasion, a rare reunion as has been widely noted.
The fact that four former national leaders and a current one came together for a noble cause was a marvel from a Zambian perspective. Our country has witnessed acrimonious relations of current and former leaders.
However, the most intriguing aspect and reason for my article is the importance attached to history and the active intention to preserve it as witnessed by the library initiative pursued by the US.
A leaf to pick
This is an aspect that our nation must now pay attention to.
We must document our history and ensure it is shared transparently and
objectively so it does not perish with time.
The relevance and importance of this can be seen in how easily our history can currently be distorted with ease by anyone with ample energy and motivation to do so. This must not be allowed and we must never get to a stage where our roots or history are allowed to be relayed by those privileged to formulate an opinion and influence many others, possibly with bias.
Every nation, Zambia inclusive has a past and it is from that path that its life, its richness is captured. This also forms the basis for a nation’s heritage to be preserved and its tourism developed. Historians must be in the forefront of documenting this with no veiled interest or bias.
This guarantees that a nation’s history will be secured and shared with future generations that can
learn and connect with their heritage.
In South Africa, on the city bus tours, it is inspiring to hear the City’s history narrated, encapsulating the good, the bad and the ugly. Even the ills of apartheid are shared including a section of Cape Town that remains largely undeveloped to reflect the past.
This was a motivation on my part and it rode home the need for us to do the same for Zambia. This is also done in Livingstone on the African Queen boat cruise where the history of Livingstone is elaborately narrated.
This leaves me thinking and convinced about how much more we can do as a nation to tell the story of the Copperbelt, Eastern province, the Lozi, Lunda or Bemba Kingdoms and take it further to the nation’s
fight for independence both pre and post.
This would not only ensure this cardinal life of the nation is shared. But it too offers an opportunity for tourism as all visitors will be walked or talked through Zambia’s rich history city by city, town by town and moment by moment up until our present day.
Why should history matter?
A nation’s identity lies in how well it connects with its roots. Our children and their children must know what got us where we are. This is knowledge we can also only pass on if we ourselves appreciate our heritage.
If that be the case, then there must be deliberate investment of time and resources to track all our national moments and create that repository of information. This would be the official verified and authenticated reference for Zambia’s history. When this is not properly structured or highlighted, we expose ourselves to a distorted national memory. One where we all tell the nation’s story
as it has been handed to us or as we may have perceived it over the years.
In essence, even those with their own interests should not share a story that reflects their interests, biases or opinions. This must never be the case and all must refer to a shared history that is accepted as a truthful account of our
nation’s past and character.
For instance, Zambia today has a prominent story that is tagged to our leaders when they leave office. The next events in their post-leadership lives now seems to be appearances in court for corruption charges and other alleged misdeeds while
in office. This started when President Kaunda left office after serving for 27 years and has followed each President since except Levy Mwanawasa who died while in office.
There are two sides to this. One is the need for enhanced transparency and accountability for our leaders when in office so they serve as expected for the good of the nation. The other is the fact that these negative endings to their duration of service overshadow any milestones achieved during their term in office. As such, we have a skewed account of these episodes of their rule and the loudest account inevitably tends to be their bad. This also becomes the ammunition used by perceived enemies or parties with their own agenda to pursue. Thus the story always told becomes the story of failure and an unwanted checkered past.
However, history demands a totally different approach. It calls for everything to be accounted for as it happened.
Walking through Presidential libraries
Now back to the libraries. Institutional memory is cardinal for any nation. After all the players are off the national stage, their tale must be told with crisp clarity. The same principle that applies for cultural and even social national history is relevant for political and economic memory likewise. This is
what we see when we analyse the Presidential Libraries in the US.
Since its birth, the concept has led to 13 libraries. The system’s genesis is traced back to 1939 when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt donated his personal and Presidential papers to the Federal
government. With that and a partial pledge of his estate at Hyde Park to the United States, his friends formed a non-profit corporation to raise funds for the construction of the library and museum building.
Roosevelt’s motivation was his belief that Presidential documents formed part of the national heritage and
should be accessible to the public.
One may then ask that if such a library is put up, what documents should be there? This is especially so because we have been accustomed to associating the presidency with national secrets and security.
According to Wikipedia, the US libraries reportedly maintain 400
million pages of textual materials, nearly ten million photographs, over 15 million feet (5,000km) of motion picture film, nearly 100,000 hours of disc, audiotape and video recordings with approximately half a million museum objects. Interestingly even some of the gifts and awards the Presidents will have received from various local people, foreign dignitaries and institutions
while in office can be found.
When one recollects Zambia’s recent history, it leaves you with no doubt about the wealth of material that can be collected. The freedom struggle era, the early days of Dr Kaunda’s rule leading to his exit, his famous press conferences, the Liberation struggle, the dawn of mulitpartyism with Dr Chiluba at the helm through the transition to Levy Mwanawasa up until the Banda and Sata spells.
There have been papers created by these leaders, monumental speeches delivered, turning point decisions made, gifts received and even prominent visitors hosted. All this is sufficient material to retell in a structured way the past of a great nation such as Zambia.
A necessary project with untold benefits
There is a compelling need to engage our historians, people who will fish through all our documented, oral and even untold history. They will then collate what we have and will be discovered to form a pool of information on which the national memory and libraries will be anchored. We have history and research students, lecturers and respected authorities, even some surviving freedom fighters and
historical figures that can be of value in building this collection. From all these sources, Zambia is capable of putting together an enduring account of what makes it the nation she is today.
A project as important as this requires the best personnel to run with it so that it is effectively executed. Coupled with it, the administration thereof of the
libraries must be professional and top notch so that preservation of quality information and facility maintenance is guaranteed. Places of importance such as these must at no point be allowed to deteriorate to depressing conditions as we have become accustomed to.
It is a project that will form an accepted and respected reference point for all events the nation will have sailed through in the past. It can be of such value that even the children of today will have a place to go to understand their country.
School tours will even be more meaningful and so will it provide material to enrich our curriculum to incorporate relevant historical aspects that can further build collective national pride.
Sometimes, I worry and wonder how much we the young generation are able to pass onto our children. Are we able to confidently talk about Cha Cha Cha or the Choma declaration? Can we break down the story of the food riots and the 1991 revolution? The moment we are
disconnected from the past is when we begin to lose our identity. We do not need to have been there or gone through all these historical times but those that will have been bear the responsibility to share it with the future generations. It is for that reason that the present generation must endeavour to embark on this project lest we lose touch with our roots and consign our children to ignorance and a poor sense of identity.
Moreover, the benefits remain enormous. I recently listened to an official from the National Heritage Conservation Commission (NHCC) state that there had been an
increase in the number of visits to sites other than the major ones
such as the Victoria Falls. He went on to mention that more local people are visiting these sites including the Presidential Memorial Park.
With our libraries well established, we would further increase the number of sites that local and foreign tourists will yearn to see as a way of understanding who we are and where we have been. Each of our Presidents could have a Library set up perhaps in their home province or preferred area that best narrates the story of their life, contribution and milestones. That too would create opportunities for infrastructure development in such locations as a way of enhancing access and attracting tourists to the sites.
Zambia is a rich nation with an engaging history to share. Now is the time to take measures not to lose touch with this history but instead institutionalise the memory so that it can be known and celebrated many generations