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Working with women: Lewanika’s experience

INONGE Mbikusita-Lewanika made history in the 1990s when she became the first woman to head a political party in Zambia called the National Party. But then, that was just a fraction of what this gallant daughter of the Zambian soil had already achieved and was yet to achieve in life, according to the information gleamed from the book, ‘WOMAN POWER IN POLITICS’.
But her first disappointment with women in Zambian politics came during the era of Movement for Multi-party Democracy MMD) under President Frederick Chiluba when women were lobbying for inclusion in government. It transpired at the time that some women were soliciting for personal appointments at the expense of the united women’s stand.
When Dr. Inonge Mbikusita-Lewanika started out in politics she was supported by a number of professional women, as well as ‘ordinary’ rural and urban women. This support was communicated to her through letters, telephone calls and by word of mouth. This support was short-lived in some quarters.
“As soon as I rose to head a party, and my name was floated for the national presidency, some women leaders went cold on me. Incredibly, some women started spreading stories about me, even though they were not in contact with me.
“Some women started repeating what I said, sometimes word for word, while others reproduced my papers under their own names,” she wrote in the book ‘WOMAN POWER IN POLITICS’. Fortunately, those women were few.
This book project was funded by the Netherlands Embassy and published by the National Women’s Lobby Group in conjunction with the Zambia Women Writers Association in 1998 to cover as many women as possible, and not only one woman’s experience.
It was Dr Mbikusita-Lewanika’s wish to write her own autobiography but the embassy, in its desire to see NGOs co-operating on different projects, encouraged the National Women’s Lobby Group and the Zambia Women Writers Association to work together and produce the book.
When she was defeated at the National Party convention in May 1994, some women were very upset. She asked them if they were at the convention. Some said they were non-partisan because of the kinds of jobs they did. Others would not be bothered about politics. They would only vote in general elections.
Dr Mbikusita-Lewanika asked them who they thought would vote for her at party conventions if they sat in their air-conditioned homes and offices, away from where the action was. She pointed out to them that even if they feared for their jobs, they could have mobilised others, including their grown-up children, to assist her in various ways.
For example, they could have helped out with typing, delivering mail, making posters and so on.
“I realised that many women waited on the sidelines, eager to jump in and lift the trophy if the game was won but quick to turn their backs and disappear in the crowd if the game got rough or the home team lost,” she said.
Her experience at the time was that no woman would win any elections, unless she enlisted the support of men, as well, and did not solely address herself to the women voters.
She added: “At the risk of becoming boring, I repeat what I have said often: by women I don’t mean those used for window dressing, those bought or bribed, or those who are simply grateful to have a job, a vehicle, petrol and a big house.”
Under her leadership as interim president, the National Party attracted a significant growth in membership. Zambia was inspired that a woman was heading a party for the first time since independencein October 1964. It was only later that she was followed in her footsteps by Edith Nawakwi, who was elected and still remains the president of Forum for Democracy and Development (FDD).
While on my diplomatic tour of duty in the United States of America, I saw Dr Mbikusita-Lewanika being honoured and also together witnessed other Zambians receiving awards from international bodies for their outstanding contributions. One such grand occasion was in 2004 in New York when Sarah Longwe was honoured with the Africa Leadership Award by The Hunger Project.
Mukwae (princess) Inonge Mbikusita-Lewanika was then serving as Zambia’s Ambassador to the United States of America, based in Washington D.C. at the time but had travelled to New York to receive her award.
Dr Mbikusita-Lewanika was also asked to serve as one of the 10 Eminent African Women in the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), the fore-runner to the current African Union(AU) and has been involved in Mediation and Conflict Resolutions in many African countries.
A community activist, she has been part of the Zambian and African Women’s Movements and among those who lobbied for the 50/50 women representation at the highest levels of the African Union. She initiated and ushered in the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325.
Men were among her most faithful supporters in words and deed. They helped her in many ways, soliciting and buying air tickets, giving her lifts to and from the airport, bus stops, among others.
Dr Mbikusita-Lewanika’s greatest joy is to serve people and to put back in society what it invested in her. She comes from a family of 13 children, and she is the fourth born.
This explains her love for people especially children who have been her life-long passion and obsession, her profession up to PhD studies.
“UNICEF tracked me to Zambia to join the RegionalOffice in 1980 because they noticed my interest, involvement and work in Zambia for and with children,” she said.
Dr. Inonge Mbikusita-Lewanika worked in 42 countries with UNICEF. She initiated children’s policies in Africa and received UNICEF Outstanding Award for Service to the Children of the World.
In Zambia, she led an initiative and pioneered the Zambia Pre-School Association, introduced training of pre-school teachers and suggested the creation of the portfolio of a Ministry of Child and Youth Development.
She went to Costa Mesa Junior College in California, United States of America, in 1960. She immediately found a Methodist Church where she became active and taught Sunday school. She also became a member of the Christian student movement. After a two-year stay at Costa Mesa, she moved to San Luis Obispo State University, still in California.
Back in Zambia, she taught child development and home economics at Lusaka’s Evelyn Hone College of Further Education as it was called at the time.
She did not only continue with her Christian wok, but got involved in NGO work as well. Some of the NGOs were the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), the Girl Guides Association, the Red Cross, the Child Care and Adoption Society and the Zambia Association for the Prevention of Blindness.
On women, she said: “Those who say we are not ready for woman president usually come from cultures where historically they have had no women rulers and decision makers; also those few in communities and families where there is no women leadership or have not experienced as they grew up, so they tend to generalise that ‘women cannot lead’ because that’s their experience.”
Her father was Akabiwa Mbikusita-Lewanika, crowned as Litunga of Bulozi (Western Province). He was educated at Barotse National School (BNS), South Africa and the United Kingdom where he did post- graduate studies in Industrial Psychology at Swansea University, Wales.
Mr Akabiwa Mbikusita-Lewanika was the first president of the Northern Rhodesia African National Congress and one of the founders of the African Trade Union movement in Northern Rhodesia (Zambia).
Her mother was Namaya Maibwe Ng’umbi, the first woman to register as a voter in Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) and member of a political party, the Northern Rhodesia African National Congress. She taught at Wusakile in Kitwe on the Copperbelt with Harry Mwaanga Nkumbula and Simon Mwansa Kapwepwe and taught many Zambian leaders.
In 1967, Inonge Mbikusita-Lewanika married a former diplomat, Kabuka Nyirenda (now late). She describes the marriage as a disaster right from the start. “We were both naïve and we had no pre-marital counselling,” she says adding that society is very unkind to divorcees and judges them harshly, especially women.
Her divorce was used as a whip at the time she headed the National Party. “Interestingly, those who tried to use my divorce as a campaign issue were silenced by the fact that most leaders were divorced, some several times.”
Dr Mbikusita-Lewanika describes divorce as a very painful experience which can shatter one’s life. However, for her, God put the broken pieces together and made her whole again. She has two daughters: Mwakawaza Sandi Twagirayesu and Nawina Mutumbaetwa Matshona and eight grandchildren, among them a set of twins.