The Changing Role of Women in Zambia after Independence

We lived in Samfya and Luwingu for nearly a couple of years before being transferred to Lusaka a few weeks before Independence in October 1964.  In Samfya I only had one woman friend who was black – she was the wife of the Chief Accounts Clerk who was a colleague of my husband. He was a district officer at the Boma.  We went to their wedding at an Anglican Mission in Fort Rosebery (now Mansa) District – I think we were the only whites invited.  We both had our first babies at around the same time and we are still friends more than 50 years.

Once we moved to Lusaka I met many more African women who had received the equivalent of full secondary school education at the only secondary school (Chipembi) for girls in Northern Rhodesia.  They were an elite group, often married to men who had been to Munali School, the equivalent high school for boys before Independence.  Several of these women were members of the YWCA in Lusaka.  The most prominent was probably Inonge Wina; others were the wives of senior civil servants and some of them, too, were holding senior posts in the government and private sectors.

Many expatriate women joined the YWCA as well.  Like me, they had the time to volunteer in different “Y” activities, for example in the craft shop and nearly-new clothes shop, and in the running of a primary school for girls who could not find places in government schools. I was one of the volunteer teachers and eventually was in charge of organising the school.  I taught cookery and nutrition  For fun, I also taught Scottish Country Dancing – the girls took to it like ducks to water – and I discovered that several of the Zambian women had been taught SCD at school, presumably by other Scots’ teachers.

The permanent staff were Zambian women; they were good to work with and at the regular meetings and functions I had the chance to meet quite a wide range of the first generation of Zambian professional women. Over the years they grew in confidence and took on greater responsibilities.  They were also home-makers who held their families as well as the work places together.  I thought they were more responsible than some of their men folk for whom success went to their heads.

The best thing the UNIP Government did immediately after Independence was to build a secondary school in every District.  Moreover, they encouraged girls as well as boys to continue at school and then go on to higher education.  Within a few years a new generation of confident young women appeared.  They were especially visible in the streets of cities like Lusaka.  Some of the old guard politicians objected to their miniskirts, their straightened hair and wigs and their “fanta-orange” faces (to quote the late Simon Kapwepwe).  Yes, I knew these face lightening creams could cause skin damage.  Nevertheless, it was a sign that these young women were prepared to cock a snook at the old generation and lay down their own.

We stayed in Lusaka until the end of 1975.  It was a happy time in our family’s life.  In spite of the shortages of much of that period and the tense security situation (which we didn’t notice all that much) we were always treated well.  If ever there was a colour-blind society it was at Woodlands Primary School which our three older children attended. There were very few white kids so nearly all their friends were black.  There was no bullying of them because of their colour. One day I heard my eldest son proclaim the words of a popular James Brown song “ Say it loud, I’m black and proud!”.  I made friends with other mums and dads at the school gate and my husband was elected Chair of the Parent Teachers Association.  Our children got a good traditional, “3 R’s” education and when we eventually returned to Britain they were ahead of their peers in humdrum but vital aspects such as arithmetic and spelling.  What they gained most, probably, was an attitude to people – that all are equal irrespective of colour.

That’s why all of the family look back on their years in Zambia with great affection.

You may be interested in this story of my brief experience of village touring with my husband.  It was in the middle of 1963, a little more than a year before Independence. My husband was visiting villages in the Twingi Peninsula, a sliver of land that sticks southwards into the Lake.  We slept in a tent and cycled from village to village. Sometimes I took a shortcut, guided by a District Messenger, because I was pregnant and not able to cycle the full distance that my husband did.  On this occasion I reached a village to await my husband’s arrival.   The village women clustered around, all wanting to shake my hand.  I think very few had met a white woman before and definitely not one paying their village a visit.  Some of the bolder ones asked if they could touch my hair because its texture was so different to theirs. Of course I agreed because I understood their curiosity.

Shortly after my husband returned to the Boma he received a visit from the officer in charge of Special Branch who was very concerned that I had been allowed to go into the villages on my own. He had received information from an informer that UNIPofficials had arranged for the women to provoke an “incident” by asking to shake my hand and touch my hair.  What if I had refused?
My husband told him that the last thing I would have done was to refuse to shake anyone’s hand, that the women had been welcoming and  very friendly.  But such was the mindset of Special Branch officers in that period they always put an negative interpretation on the most innocent of human actions.

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