In Defense of “Uubomba Mwibala Alya Mwibala

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President Lungu addressing Copperbelt residents at Simon Mwansa Kapwepwe Airport

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.

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52 COMMENTS

  1. If you are running a business, and you hear one of your workers say ubomba mwibala alya mwibala, how do you react?

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    • Tell us something else,this Bemba axiom has been around for hundreds of generations and today you want to mis-interpret it just because you want to defend Kak0swe’s ar$e? We all know what it means and it means stealing chapwa. Corruption has gotten into your mind such that you don’t even think before you act. Shame

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    • I like the garden of Eden adam & eve analogy with ubomba mwibala alya mwibala, there is indeed a big difference between the owner and the steward, it’s up to the owner to tell you when, how and where to eat from, i hope the owners of the zambian field have given him a go ahead to eat whatever he is eating.

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    • Well written article and proper interpretation of exactly what president lungu meant. The president was encouraging civil servants to steal period.

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    • Zambia is now almost Chinese Zambian let me advise you Jonathan stop talking about uubomba mwibala during the Chinese new year because the Chinese tradition is (and Zambia is defacto Chinese at the moment) the whole year we will be cursed with the ‘mwibala’ problem and Zambia will be on a standstill. Shut it Jonathan!

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    • By proclaiming “uubomba mwibala”Lungu is not encouraging stealing BUT justifying the rampant theft/corruption/Chinese bribes/overpriced contracts/Mukula Tree logging etc. that he & his followers have busy with from the day they entered office.

      Right now there’s nothing left to steal as the country is broke & in debt ($23-Billion). I personally have a friend (PF) who was eagerly waiting for the IMF $1.2 Billion bail-out in order for his over-priced contract to go through.

      The Emperor is NAKED but there are some F00LS who are still arguing that the new robe is beautiful.

      Lungu should learn from Jacob Zuma who a few days ago was the most powerful man in Africa but will soon be changing his designer suits for an orange (jail) jumpsuit.

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  2. Come on this Bemba axiom has been around for hundreds of generations and today you want to mis-interpret it just because you want to defend Kak0swe’s ar$e? We all know what it beans and it means stealing chapwa.

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    • If you are my worker and you use that idio t sorry idiom at my organisation, i will squeeze your family jewels boy.

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    • but you the bemba cannot even justify the true meaning of this phrase. when are you going to cut the crap on tribalism if you do not have anything sensible to add on the subject keep quiet.

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  3. If a Pastor uttered those words, we would interpret them differently because over time, usage and meaning of that proverb has changed. However, when a thief utters the same, he does not mean
    well as there is no thief in the world who brings
    positives to the table. President Lungu is on record
    of having stolen from where he once worked. Why
    should we believe he is using the acceptable
    interpretation?

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  4. We are not st upid, I’m from Chilubula and understand Bemba perfectly, so please try something thing else

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  5. It does not take genius to conclude that we have a wrong person in the driving seat of this great nation. He does not have the intellectual capacity and creative leadership qualities to function in that high office which he has gone and made so cheap. Under his stewardship the country has regressed to be classified amongst the three most corrupt on the continent, while he oversees the massive plunder and pillage of national resources! The country is the most indebited in the region with not much to show for it. State assets are delivered into Chinese hands on a silver platter for personal gain (in kickbacks), while the people continue to wallow in poverty. This so called leader who has presided over a most corrupt cabinet would do the country a great favour to resign.

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  6. @Mwape, your knowledge of icibemba is limited and corrupted. Chitimukulu can disown you if he heard u misinterprete such rich idiom.

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  7. Pure bemba from Nkolemfumu, Kasama. The proverb was wrongly used considering the allegations labeled against our leaders, it was an admission period.

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  8. There is no point defending this idiom. No one does not know that Bemba culture and particularly this idiom represents and encourages theft at work and everywhere.

    The best that can be done now is to retract the statement and apologise to the nation. Defending theft does not work. Zuma tried, he failed.

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  9. Why are you complaining? Zambia is now a bunch of complainants. Even when you see your own shadow you want to complain. The government should reintroduce compulsory ZNS Military training for all grade 12 school leavers, this way we are going to have a disciplined society and a nation at large.

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  10. 2013 someone said the same and explained those working for the party must be rewarded for their services. The rest you’re free to add and hope you remember the gentleman who said this.

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  11. Let us be sincere to what our president said not always politics. It is true Ubomba mwibala alya mwibala, this is my language…..it does not mean that the president was encouraging corruption,instead he was only telling his subordinate to be careful as they are doing the job entrusted by Zambian people that you gets your wages but dont let the works suffer because you are paid this is what it means. i dont know if hh,gbm and all who are criticizing the president dont get paid let us be serous and if gbm and hhz businesses do not generate profit for them to eat…. bring other issues to debate not these cheap politics you are bringing. The president was very much right every body eats were he works from i think Kambwili and other oppositions they have run out of what to politicize.

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  12. This article only goes round in circles.

    The Idiom allows eating as long is you are still in the garden…theft
    as long as you don’t eat seeds. appalling to say the least

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  13. Who advises the President please! listen to cynical King Solomon 7 That night God appeared to Solomon and said to him, “Ask for whatever you want me to give you.”

    8 Solomon answered God, “You have shown great kindness to David my father and have made me king in his place. 9 Now, Lord God, let your promise to my father David be confirmed, for you have made me king over a people who are as numerous as the dust of the earth. 10 Give me wisdom and knowledge, that I may lead this people, for who is able to govern this great people of yours?”

    11 God said to Solomon, “Since this is your heart’s desire and you have not asked for wealth, possessions or honor, nor for the death of your enemies, and since you have not asked for a long life but for wisdom and knowledge to govern my people over…

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  14. Adam was not a worker, you twit. The Bemba idiom is very clear even to me who speaks Nyanja. Keep your understanding to yourself, we hand already seen ukulya mwibala now it has been confirmed. Why do you waste time?

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  15. ONLY A TONGA MUST LEAD UPND says Sejani. Joinnus I totally agree with you, what you have said is the precise meaning behind this bemba idiom. Some of us who studied bemba in school as an option understand the underlying message in this idiom and what the president meant. Unfortunately to UPND and the author of this article, in particular, want to take advantage of their ignorance regarding this idiom to harvest some cheap political mileage and to try to label the lungu administration as corrupt. I have always said that this Kasonso is a disgrace to us accountants because his analysis of political issues is always flawed and biased towards UPND. This guy has been anti Lungu and his government and so his criticisms are not constructive. He is cut from the same cloth as Laura Miti,…

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  16. Saimbwende you are right let us not only follow blindly you see Mwaliteta who was a failure in the constituency you follow, you see Kambwili talking about corruption and oppression of media ….forgetting that he was the one who started the battle to fight the post when he was the minister of information and ate lot of money when he got about 60% works to construct schools in Luapula were he went and found himself in accident. Not only that how about in Luanshya were he was paying peanuts to us as his employees today people claps as if he is a saint…..He even started a cold war with tonga tribe it was him who introduce all bad vises in our country thinking he was untouchable…. Now i believe it is painful to be in the opposition because Kambwili and other are just bitter and not true…

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  17. The author of this is a piss ant and should find his mind in the bush before the monkeys pounce on it. That idiom just means one thing. STEALING.

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  18. Saimbwende and joinnus!!!you are the ones playing cheap politics and don’t think you are the only pf,you are behaving like beheaded people..there is no doubt that you can even ask if a dog is dressed or not,of which you can tell by looking…this idiom was there for decades and it was interpreted as stealing,so it is up-to time….so take your cheap explanation to your students in class..

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  19. I’m a bemba and the proverb mean stealing.it was used by people who justified stealing.Lungu should know the history of these proverbs.He should fisrt consult real bembas.Twasebana mayo.
    The history is this.One worker was caught stealing then he said tamwaishiba ati ubomba mwibala ilya mwibala.Therefore it doesn’t mean the salary.

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  20. Excellent article, especially where the author (Dr Kasonso) raises issues of context. Those who listened to the context of the speech, it included telling the subordinates to overstate their budgets by 10% so that they could eat! The context was certainly encouraging pilfering and the proverb was quoted to mean steal, but don’t steal the seed!

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  21. This Kawalala can go to hell. He is a curse to Zambia and if God i truly there, he needs to kill this worthless piehole and his corrupt minions. Zambia has suffered a lot at the hands of this clown.

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  22. 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.”

    No one should be eating from the Zambian enterprise without authorization from the Zambian people.

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  23. *It was an owner-worker and his family or workgroup. 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.* It seems to be redundant to say that you have the right to eat from your own garden, it is in the very definition of owner, if you don’t have the right to eat from your own garden, then you are not the owner. The phrase doesn’t mean the obvious. Cf: Ockham’s razor: The principle that gives precedence to simplicity: of two competing theories, the simpler explanation of an entity is to be preferred.

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  24. The axiom was qualified by “not eating the seed – stealing. This is only good for debate and nothing more. When you work for the Govt as a civil servant where does your livelihood (earnings, income) come from? If you work for Zambian breweries where does your income or livelihood come from? If you are a pastor where does your income come from. It is as simple as that.

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  25. To insinuate that a head of state is encouraging stealing from such a statement is the dullest insinuation by the so called learned indivuduals.

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    • I am actually very confused at the facts coming out of the debate that this Country is full of uneducated people. The level of ignorance of the simplest of the Bemba language is appalling.

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  26. @24 GK. I suspect you didn’t read the article to the end. If you did, you would have picked the author’s conclusion about ECL’s use of the now (in)famous saying.

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  27. The saying in question, simply means: STEALING – in the absence of the owner. Similar sayings were common in: Serfdoms, Slavery, Chibalo, Wenela, and Kaboyis of colonial times..
    Similar sayings are still common among : House, Farm, organizations, Companies and Government workers.
    The saying is still being used to denote, STEALING.
    The late President of then Zaire, now DR Congo, Mobutu Seseko, didn’t mince his words, when he advised his Ministers and people in DR Congo: “KUBA NA MAYELE”- Ukwiba na mano- Steal Cleverly.
    President Chiluba (Ba Kiluba), who hailed from Congo, took his Mentor’s words to the letter. During Chiluba’s KABOKE’s Dynasty, he , together with his”Uncle”, Benjamin Ilunga Yotam Mwila, another Congolese and other Congolese disguised as Zambians, corruptly…

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  28. You made your point very vividly @ 35 Col SG Musonda (Ret). Thanks for elaborating sir.
    The spill-over effects of your explanation have made me curious about ancestry, citizenship and international boundaries. I mean Take the Chewa people, for instance. Senior Chief Gawa Undi has traditional authority among Chewas in Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia. I am sure there are relations spread across these countries among Chewas. How should we resolve this while respecting current boundaries and country-specific citizenship rules? Dual or Multiple citizenship? What are your thoughts Col SG Musonda? It was not your main point. I am just thinking.

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  29. A well laid article but its a shame that some bloggers can’t understand the conclusion. I blame our poor reading culture

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  30. I now conclude that Bemba people are not on social media.
    Its so full of hate and petty jealousy not typical of North.

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