By Jones K. Kasonso
This past week the Bemba axiom “Uubomba Mwibala Alya Mwibala” got a bad rap. The proverb can be translated as “the person who works in the garden eats in and/or from the Garden.” During his recent visit to the Copperbelt President Edgar Lungu used this maxim in his prepared remarks to an audience of senior party and government stalwarts. Clearly, from his perspective he was giving constructive counsel to his subordinates that they were at liberty to eat in and/or from the government coffers.
Inadvertently, given the recent allegations of contract racketeering and widespread corruption this has caused a firestorm both on social media and political minds at home and abroad. Many sections of our society have received this as a shameless and bold statement by the head of state. Some have even conjectured that President was advocating for plundering government coffers except for operational funds or seed money as the President was quoted to have said.
In this article I attempt to defend the nobility of the proverb “uubomba mwibala alya mwibala.” I believe it is getting a bum rap and creating an unnecessary insinuation that the Bemba speaking culture justifies stealing public resources and corruption. First, let me state without shame that I spent more than ten years of my childhood in my mother’s village in Samfya District in Luapula Province and I heard the proper usage of this axiom many times among my mother’s Bemba speaking kindred and their contemporaries.
Moreover, a decade ago, I learned in seminary that context is King. That means the key to appropriate usage and application of ancient wisdom is to consider the context in which it was crafted and used first. Then observe a fitting parallax in current situations to find the correct usage or constructive application. In this case understanding the way of life for the people who use or used this phrase is critical to determining whether the president used it properly or in fact mischaracterized an otherwise noble axiom as an excuse to justify apparent or perceived corruption surrounding “developmental” projects.
In my mother’s village the people were mainly fishermen, hunters and subsistence farmers. In simpler English they hunted and grew their own food. Therefore, the “uubomba mwibala”(the person who works in the garden) was not an employee or temporary steward. It was an owner-worker and his family or work group. In this way the usage of the proverb means the owner-worker of the garden has the liberty to eat in and/or from the garden without reservations. This is clearly the purpose of subsistence farming. The liberty to eat in and/or from the garden except for eating the seeds rests with the owner-worker of that garden in the Bemba speaking culture. It was also used as motivation to grow enough not only to feed family but bountifully self-reward from the produce of the garden. Therefore, to eat from the garden without objections a person must combine the roles of owner and worker of the garden at the same time.
Where this axiom was loosely used in relation to the employee or worker it only referred to the worker receiving his wages or bonus from the owner out of the produce of the garden. This is consistent with the wisdom from my father’s village in Solwezi which counsels that: “Muzungu wabula kajo kafwako kumu sebenzelane” (there is no working for an employer who doesn’t pay proper wages). In both cultures there is no liberty to the employee or assigned worker to eat the produce of the garden they don’t own. It’s totally unacceptable and reprehensible.
However, what can’t be denied is that over the years and in most compounds of low wage employees in the cities a secondary and perhaps the most well-known usage has emerged. This adage has been fondly used as rationalization for pilfering among many unscrupulous employees appropriating contraband from work for themselves. Many of the President’s hearers in Zambia and abroad have heard this noble adage used in this fashion and that’s where the problem lies.
In its purest form “uubomba mwibala alya mwibala” cannot be applied broadly to an employee, an assigned worker, civil servant, or temporary holders of political office. Those positions are not ownership but stewardship positions. A steward is an estate manager i.e. a person who holds a position of trust over another person’s assets or estate. There are always ghastly consequences for a steward to indiscriminately appropriate this axiom. A well-known example is in the Bible. About 6000 years ago God had planted a garden and called it the Garden of Eden. He assigned a worker called Adam and allowed him to eat produce in and from the garden. This was clearly his remuneration for the work done. Adam was not the owner, God was! Apparently, the law specified Adam’s remuneration which excluded produce from a certain tree in that Garden.
Excluding seeds, although you may work in the garden not everything is available for personal consumption in a garden you do not own. I am almost certain that if Satan spoke Bemba when he arrived in the Garden of Eden on that one fateful day, he probably whispered to Adam and Eve whilst pointing at the forbidden fruit [Lungu style] “uubomba mwibala alya mwibala.” When the first man and his woman obliged, they lost their jobs, they were removed from the Garden, and the rest is history.
Nonetheless, there is a premise for suggesting that the President, as a make-believe Bemba speaker, he probably used this noble maxim as it is used by unscrupulous low wage workers who appropriate contraband from work. He was calling on his subordinates to emulate him in this post Koswe Mumpoto era. In the recent past we have seen high profile cabinet ministers who have exited government and joined the chorus of the opposition in pointing out widespread corruption in the Edgar Lungu administration. Where “akanwa kamilandu kalaisosela” (the mouth of the criminal confesses the crimes) it would appear as if in using the adage the President was unequivocally disclosing his modus operandi or business techniques that he used for his unprecedented upward mobility. From the net worth of K2 million in 2015 to over K27 million in 2016 (one year) and then the net worth of around 400 million dollars as at the end of December 2017, to now number 2 on Forbes richest people in Zambia. Perhaps it’s is the pervasive application of the axiom uubomba mwibala alya mwibala. Harvesting where you did not sow. Using a temporary stewardship position of president for self-aggrandizement rather than improving the standards of living for our majority poor country.
King Solomon once observed an irrefutable principle that: “Wealth from get-rich-quick schemes quickly disappears; wealth from hard work grows over time. [Proverbs 13:11, NLT]
King David also counselled that: “Don’t make your living by extortion or put your hope in stealing. And if your wealth increases, don’t make it the center of your life.”[Psalm 62:11NLT]
After rebukes and shaming from several sections of our society a band of yes men and women have leaped to the president’s defense for his indefensible remarks. But if the President can in good faith claim that he used the adage in a noble sense (as some of embarrassed supporters are claiming) then he should shoulder the accusations and scorn for lack of depth, style and moral authority. The context of his speech and message clearly cannot be supported by the original context of noble usage. The President and his officials are not owner-workers of government but temporary stewards in government over national resources.
My question to all my countrymen and women is; is this the best we can do for President sure? We must introspectively answer this question as citizens and only fold our arms if we agree with this kind of presidency. Are there no gallant men and thinking sons of the soil that we must constantly be treated to this level of intellectual poverty?
The future of the republic is in peril for having a President without an ideology based on a constructive philosophy of governance or specific policy initiatives other than borrowing for capital projects to fuel widespread pilfering. We are not going anywhere as a country with this shambolic type of leadership. It’s time to sweep our government offices of this obscenity, drunkenness, and rampant exploitation.
We need public policy that is based on constructive values. We need research-based solutions to the problems of our country. The non-thinking and non-reading approach of Mr. Lungu is detrimental to the destiny of Zambia. We must reposition with a new bread of leaders that can liberate our country from this corruption vending administration drowning our nation in debt. We need to craft governance grounded in constructive public policy as a down payment on a bright future for our country. Zambia, we can do better!!!
The author is a Zambian, An Author, A Consultant and Accounting Professor in Washington DC and holds Ph.D., CPA, CGMA, MBA, BSc., NATech qualifications.