JACK ZIMBA, Lusaka
BEING First Lady of a country may be an enviable position for many women, but if you ask Esther Lungu, it is not all rosy.
“It is not easy to be First Lady,” says Mrs Lungu as she sits in her office at State House.
She is a little bit uncomfortable with interviews, but says she has become more confident with public speaking. Like her husband, Mrs Lungu is very accommodating and unpretentious, laughing easily.
“If you want to be in this office and serve the people, it is not an easy place because all the time you are thinking about how you are going to help the people of Zambia and make an impact,” she says. “It has a lot of challenges because you want to see that every Zambian lives a decent life.”
Though her life may be more privileged, Mrs Lungu says she constantly thinks about the poor because of her own background.
When her husband won the presidency in 2015, Mrs Lungu embarked on a tour to some rural parts of the country.
She says that the tour gave her first-hand experience of the hardships that people in the rural areas face.
“When I’m eating chicken or beef, I think of the children I found out there and I wonder, are they eating as well,” she says. “When I’m bathing, I think of the people out there like the poor mothers and their children and I wonder, ‘do they have enough water to bathe?’”
“It is my homework,” she adds.
And although she acknowledges some of the strides made in the health sector, such as the construction of new health centres in rural areas, Mrs Lungu feels more needs to be done.
She wants more schools built and well-equipped health centres.
Mrs Lungu’s desire to help the poor gave birth to the Esther Lungu Foundation, a charitable organisation that helps the poor in society.
She is happy with the support that her charity has received so far and the work it has done. The foundation has sunk boreholes in various places, distributed wheelchairs and other aids for the disabled, as well as giving school sponsorships to children coming from poor families.
“I don’t look at one’s political party when helping,” says Mrs Lungu. “Just like my husband, I’m here to serve everyone, even those who insult us.”
“God has given us the wisdom; He has given us good health and the tools to use in order for us to give a service to the people of Zambia. When God gives you a responsibility, he will give you the ability to achieve your goals,” she says.
To Mrs Lungu, her role as First Lady is to support her husband as he does his work.
“I’m there to serve my husband so that he can serve the people of Zambia better,” she says. “In order for him to have a clear mind and ability to go out there and serve the people, and travel out there and be seen to be a responsible President, it starts from our house and therefore it starts with me.
“I have to make sure that before he leaves the house, he has had the breakfast.”
According to Mrs Lungu, the President’s diet comprises a lot of fruit juice, potatoes and rice.
This, she says, was recommended by doctors in South Africa much earlier in his presidency when he suddenly fell ill.
“People thought he was going to die or be operated on, but we prayed about it,” she says. “We were really wondering because that was happening for the first time but when we got there, the doctors were shocked. There was a group of about eight doctors and they did all the examinations they could do and all they came up with was a diet for him, not very hard stuff, so that is how they came up with potatoes, rice and juices.”
But when it comes to the kitchen, Mrs Lungu faces the same old challenge that her five predecessors other have faced – she cannot cook for her husband for security reasons.
She is obviously not happy about it and she is still trying to change the old rule.
“That has been a challenge,” she says. “I’m still trying to gate-crash into the kitchen. I would like to cook for him the food I used to cook for him before.”
But at least she does claim some credit for her husband’s smart dressing.
She says she helps him pick his clothes.
Mrs Lungu says when her husband receives a gift of a suit, she has to check it to make sure it is suitable for him.
And it is clear the first couple usually buy each other clothes, but like most husbands, the President sometimes has bought something that the First Lady did not approve. Mrs Lungu says she has had to reject some of clothes her husband has bought for her.
“When he gets something which is not suitable for me, he won’t be surprised that I won’t accept it,” Mrs Lungu says. “I won’t accept it because I have to look presentable as First Lady.”
But she says she will not do it in a way that will offend him.
“I will say something like ‘this is nice but it won’t look nice on me, let’s look for somebody in the family who can fit in this’,” she says.
But she says that that rarely happens.
“Having stayed together for such a long time, I now know his taste and he knows my taste,” she says.
She is thankful to God for her elevated position.
“I praise God who put us here. People say ‘they didn’t even know that they would be in State House. Yes we didn’t know that we would be in State House. We had been asking God for blessings, but not to this level, but God saw it fit for us to be at this level and here we are,” says Mrs Lungu.
At the end of the short interview, Mrs Lungu’s parting words is a call for prayer for the country’s peace.
“As long as we remain prayerful and look to God, surely He shall keep us in His confines and we will remain a peaceful and happy nation.”