CHIMWEMWE MWALE, Lusaka
â€œTHE President of Namibia Hage Geingob has not forgotten about me ever since he left for Namibia about 25 years ago after serving him as a driver for 14 years. I am so grateful that he still remembers me,â€ an ecstatic Edson Phiri of Lusakaâ€™s Chawama narrates his unbroken relationship with the new Namibian leader.
Mr Phiri, 62, was among special guests invited by the Namibian President-elect to attend silver jubilee celebrations and the inauguration ceremony of Dr Geingob as that countryâ€™s third president.
He also attended a special banquet in honour of several visiting heads of state and former presidents and other invited guests. Among the heads of state in attendance were President Lungu, Zimbabweâ€™s Robert Mugabe and Kenyaâ€™s Uhuru Kenyatta.
But just who is this man â€˜with clean hands to dine with eldersâ€™ after â€˜winningâ€™ Dr Geingobâ€™s heart?
Mr Phiri is the first child in a family of five children born to Samson and Jesinala in Chipataâ€™s Chitindi village in Chief Madzimaweâ€™s area.
He started school at Manjanja Primary School where he did Sub B (Grade one) in 1959.
He had an educational stint at Chilanga Mission School in Malawi before coming back to Zambia in 1964 where he continued education up to form three (grade 10) at Chizongwe Secondary School.
After completing form three, Mr Phiri set out on a â€œfortune-seekingâ€ mission to Lusaka where he was later employed as a general worker in 1969 at the then Colcom Zambia Pork Product (CZPP) which was later called Zambia Pork Products (ZAPP).
â€œIn 1970, the production manager at CZPP, a Mr Huse, sent me to a driving school where I obtained my driverâ€™s licence. I was later promoted as a salesman until I quit employment at ZAPP in 1974,â€ he recalls.
January 13, 1975 marked the beginning of a working relationship that would forever help shape Mr Phiriâ€™s livelihood and that of his family.
Mr Phiri secured employment as a driver at the United Nations Institute of Namibia (UNIN) headquarters in Lusaka. UNIN officially opened in 1976.
â€œI started driving the UNIN director [Dr Geingob] until July18, 1989 when he left for Namibia to take up an appointment as South West Africa Peopleâ€™s Organisation (SWAPO) director of elections.
â€œIn 1990, Namibia got its independence and Dr Geingob did not forget me. He invited me for the historic celebrations. What a good man to remember his driver who struggled with him!â€ Mr Phiri reminisces.
After the closure of UNIN, Mr Phiri continued working as a driver for the Norwegian Embassy before moving to Professional Insurance and later to Professional Life Insurance until 2012 when his contract expired. He also worked briefly at the Brazilian embassy.
And make no mistake, the energetic sexagenarian is still passionate about his job as a chauffeur and would not hesitate getting another if opportunity strikes.
Asked if he can take up a job if offered by President Geingob, Mr Phiri quips in the affirmative, is quick to point out that he is not a pauper.
â€œDr Geingob has been supporting me financially over the years and I have built three houses in Chawama. I live in one of them and I am renting out twoâ€¦thatâ€™s how I am surviving, but I am also ready to work.
â€œIn fact when I recently met Dr Geingob, he asked me if I have a job and I told him that I do not and he said but there is work here (Namibia) for you. So I am yet to communicate with him, I will be glad to go and work,â€ a jovial and enthusiastic Mr Phiri says.
He considers his relationship with the now Namibian President as a blessing and a rare privilege as he has never imagined being acknowledged by a foreign head of state.
Mr Phiri says the invitation for the silver jubilee festivities was a big surprise of a lifetime because he had no clue that Dr Geingob would one day become Namibiaâ€™s President. He was very happy to be invited with Joyce, his wife of over 33 years.
â€œI never dreamt that Dr Geingob would one day be President. I only served him with all my heart as a humble driver. I got a call from the Norwegian embassy, his former employer, saying there was a message from Namibia, and that is when it clicked that it could be from my former boss. The former Zambian High Commissioner to Namibia was tasked to look for me.
â€œThey searched and found me through my former employers where my contact was availed. I later received a call from Windhoek asking if my wife and I had passports and we later received air tickets and left for Windhoek on March 18 and we were accommodated at Kalahari Sands Hotel,â€ the father of nine and grandfather of one recounts.
Mr Phiri adds that Dr Geingob later called on him at the hotel describing the gesture as overwhelming and humbling.
â€œHe came to check on me at the hotel. He hugged me as we exchanged greetings. It was a wonderful experience,â€ he said before laughing hysterically.
If you reckon this was enough, the veteran chauffeur was also acknowledged in Dr Geingobâ€™s first public presidential address at the fully parked Independence Stadium where heads of state and dignitaries from various countries had gathered to witness the colourful ceremony.
Mr Phiri was given an ovation after being introduced by President Geingob as a â€œspecial visitorâ€ at the ceremony.
â€œI was so humbled to be recognised in his speech at his inauguration ceremony. The President clearly appreciates the services I rendered because he also told the crowds that I am one of the people who helped him become Presidentâ€¦and I wondered how when I am only a simple driver!â€ he says.
Mr Phiri also stole some glare of media publicity when urged the people of Namibia to â€œrally behind President Geingob and work with him as you did with the first and second presidents. Do the same to the third President.â€
â€œDr Geingob is a good, charismatic and exceptional man. Some people in senior positions look down on drivers and treat them with contempt, they forget that driving is also a profession deserving respect and appreciation just like other jobs,â€ Mr Phiri says.
CHIMWEMWE MWALE, Lusaka