This is a blog about me and the things that make me laugh, smile, hurt or cry!

Monday, November 11, 2013

God Bless America... I mean Zambia!

I took this picture in June 2011 at the Iwo Jima Memorial
(officially known as The Marine Corp War Memorial)
just outside the Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia.
This sculpture is massive and took several years to complete.

Two years ago, as we always do, the world and his dog followed the election in the United States closely. One of the things that fascinates me about America is that they seem overly enamoured with themselves, election or none. While it is shocking to observe how much they hate each other politically and that the health of the economy and welfare of human beings is inconsequential to one’s party coming out on top, in one thing, they are steadfastly united: they believe in the idea of America. They may disagree on how this ideal should be applied in different areas, and boy oh boy do they disagree, but they love their country. A good example is to observe the behaviour of Zambians versus Americans when they are at a function and hear the familiar tune of their national anthem. This is how Zambians react - with indifference. It is tedious to have to sing it and usually a child or school choir or lone muggins is given the chore of singing the national anthem while the rest of us a quarter-heartedly (half-heartedly is too generous) mumble a phrase or two. Contrast this with our friends across the Atlantic. I attended a ceremony a few years ago and witnessed the American colleagues singing the their national anthem while bursting with pride, standing ramrod straight and with their hands on their hearts because they meant it.

"My Country Tis of Thee..."

I know a lady that was invited to attend the dedication of the ‘new’ US Embassy building in 2011. She came back bemused that the dedicating prayer took 45 minutes. Forty-five Minutes to pray over a building. Why? Because it is not just a building to them, it is a small part of their nation right here in Lusaka. Last year or whenever it was that Whitney Houston died (my apologies to the fans), a lot was said about her performance of the national anthem at the 1992 Superbowl. I watched the video and then I decided to read the words of the national anthem. I felt that I kind of understood something about what they were going through. The song or poem or hymn is about the flag – the star spangled banner. It is about what it represents. It talks about the fact that in the morning after the bombs had burst throughout the night, he looks for the flag and it is still there as a symbol of hope.

Barack's Crib, aka The White House

So is this only an American thing? No. I have an Aunt married to a Tanzanian. Over Christmas she visited with my cousins. The youngest about two years old, was always singing a song whose main lyrics were Tanzania over and over. I asked my aunt if this was the national anthem and she said no. It is a patriotic song that is taught in pre-schools. Now I am not saying that this automatically makes people care about their country, but have you noticed how countries that systematically indoctrinate their citizens behave toward their country and the idea of their nation? Anyone who has studied in China or Japan or Cuba can attest to this. Similarly, anyone with friends or relatives with children in the US will tell you how disconcerting the indoctrination is, it begins at pre-school. How many people in Zambia can recite the US Declaration of Independence just because you have heard it countless times in movies and TV shows? You probably don’t even realise that you know the words.

This thing is huge!

Read what prompted this reflection on 'Amrika' here.

Honouring Our Heroes - the Fallen and Living

The National War Memorial in Lusaka

Today, the 11th Day of November is what the UK and Commonwealth nations call Remembrance Day (formerly Armistice Day). All week leading up to this people wear red poppies to remember those who gave their lives in military service. Americans call today Veteran’s Day. In America, Remembrance Day is actually commemorated on Memorial Day (in May) which is for those who died while serving, whereas Veterans Day is about appreciating the service of all military personnel, not just those who died. On the Internet, on Twitter and on Facebook, we have been inundated with gratitude directed toward US men and women in uniform being thanked for their service to their country and to protecting its freedoms. Many people will share the reaction of seeing how men and women in uniform are greeted in the US. People stop to shake their hands and to thank them for their service. It is quite remarkable to behold. Now to those of us well aware that many of these military incursions are not motivated by the greater good but control of oil and other resources it may seem baffling that they are so highly regarded. But I think I get it and I admire it.

The Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia - USA

'Our nation's most sacred site' - Arlington National Cemetery 

Veterans and freedom fighters do not get half the recognition that they deserve. My own grandfather fought in the Second World War in Fiji. Like many other young and bewildered Africans, he was carted off to a distant land to wage war in a battle he had absolutely no clue about and then was barely recognised for his service. The struggle for our independence is one that many of us now take for granted. Hindsight is 20/20 and we are fond of applying today’s insights and broad view to events of yesteryear. I think this is unfair because people did what they had to do at that time and so while independence didn’t work out all roses in the end, the sacrifices of those who gave their lives to wrest control of our country from foreign invaders should not be dismissed. These feelings came as a result of witnessing this reverence for military veterans on a visit to Washington DC a few years ago. I was fascinated by the memorials and cemeteries and general solemn acknowledgment of and gratitude toward those who put themselves forward for military service and more so for those who sadly perished. Once back home, the inevitable contrast ensued. That year (2010 or 2011), I watched the November 11th commemorations opposite Cabinet Office with interest. How many people know that pillar or whatever across from Cabinet Office is a war memorial? Visit the Ex-Servicemen's League of Zambia on Facebook to find out more.

The tomb of the 'Unknown American Soldier'. A comfort to families of those whose
bodies were never found or recovered.

The sacrifices of the past are one thing, but our attitude toward our current military is very different from that in the United States. I think there are a number of reasons for this. The military in Zambia are heavily subsidised and generally given a free ride in almost everything, resulting in a sense of entitlement that manifests itself in persistent bad behaviour and indiscipline (if peace keeping reports are to be believed). Add to that the fact that (apart from officer level), it is the less educated and not so academically gifted who often found their way into military ranks and you have an inferiority complex armed with a gun in an environment where civil liberties are restricted. Our attitude toward the military is not pride or gratitude but fear. This is unfortunate because by God’s grace we have so far survived without outright military conflict. Yes the army are deployed to support the ruling party and control large crowds, but that is about all they do. The recent terror attacks in Kenya’s Westlands Mall show that even peace loving nations are vulnerable. The enemy comes in many guises these days. I doubt if as a country we have the first clue of what to do or how to react were something like that to occur here (God forbid). The 2012 Afcon victory celebrations and 2011 Presidential inauguration are two recent examples of just how poor planners we are and underscore the woeful inadequacy of our preparations.

There are always dozens of tourists arriving to pay their respects every minute

But being in a military or law enforcement job means that it is not like being a teacher. Nursing and teaching are both noble professions and those who hold such positions make many sacrifices, but rarely would they be called upon to sacrifice their own lives for the good of others. Of course, even in America you often hear complaints that once their tour is over, veterans are just dumped back home without the proper support needed to re-integrate into society and make a meaningful life for them. No longer in uniform, the gratitude dries up and remains empty words. Because I have American friends whose children and loved ones are fighting in Afghanistan and other places, I have developed a deeper respect for what families go through waiting for a son or daughter to return safely. All the while worrying that should they come back alive, how different will they be.

JFK's memorial. Contrast this dignified memorial with the ostentatious one
for the late President Chiluba

So on this Remembrance Day, my thoughts turn to our fallen men and women. I remember my grandfather and his friends, but I can’t think of anyone beyond those long departed veterans. I don’t know whether or not to call them heroes because I don’t really know anything about how or why they died or even who they are. We commemorate Remembrance Day because it was instituted after WWI and we were part of the 'British Empire', so had to commemorate it too. And yet it didn’t really have much significance or relevance for us as being young nations, our Independence is what meant more to us and still does. So in this regard, Independence Day is much easier because I know, understand and am grateful for the sacrifice of our Freedom Fighters.

But still, I remember...

Courtesy of Facebook

p.s. These pictures were all taken by the author. Please email to ask before you use them.