When I first met His Royal Highness Senior Chief Nzamane in Lusaka last week, I was ushered into his air conditioned hotel room where he was configuring Skype and a Blackberry phone on his new HP laptop. Chief Nzamane, or Nkosi as he is referred to by his people, is a very modern man.
Chief Nzamane is the Senior Chief of the Mfumbeni chiefdom, which is home to approximately 150,000 Ngoni people in the southern part of Zambia’s Eastern Province. The chiefdom covers about 1,200 square kilometers, encompassing 325 villages. Makwatata village, where I will be staying, is located within Mfumbeni.
Traditional leaders rule over the people of Zambia in a very different way to the government. The government rules in all matters relating to the state, politics and the economy, and the tribal chiefs, especially at senior level, are responsible for making decisions relating to custom and tradition for their people. There are 286 chiefs altogether in Zambia.
“Since 1964, we have been liberated from our colonial masters and have gained independence, but we have retained the British system of government to a large extent,” Nkosi explains. “But the government cannot provide everything that the people need. They also require leadership from the traditional leaders, from the chiefs.”
The Ngoni people, to whom Chief Nzamane belongs, trace their origins from the Zulu people of South Africa. There are Ngonis now living in parts of Malawi, Tanzania, Mozambique and Zambia. The Ngoni people now living in the Mfumbeni chiefdom crossed the Zambezi River in 1835, and settled in the Eastern Province in 1860s.
There are 10 Ngoni chiefs in total in Mfumbeni. The highest in rank is Paramount Chief Mpezeni, and Senior Chief Nzamane is second. Senior Chief Nzamane is advised by a council of elders, which consists of two head men called Chapitas. He must consult with them before reaching a decision on any matter relating to custom and tradition which will change tribal law.
95% of the population of the Mfumbeni chiefdom are peasant farmers. The area has suffered from underdevelopment, largely due to poor health care facilities, high prevalence levels of malaria and HIV/Aids, and natural disasters such as droughts and floods. Illiteracy and unemployment levels are also high here.
Chief Nzamane is a proactive man, intent on initiating lasting changes in his community. The respect he is shown by the people is clear evidence of the hard work he has done for them over the past decade.
In order to plan best for his chiefdom, Nzamane has produced a strategic plan for Mfumbeni, which was launched by President Rupiah Banda at the palace last month. The plan sets targets in relation to issues such as HIV/Aids, health care, education, gender, agriculture, development work, conservation of natural resources, and leadership capacity, which he hopes can be achieved by 2015.
“We are impoverished people, but we have to start somewhere. We need to plan, just like a household would, but on a larger scale for the whole chiefdom,” explains Nzamane. “Development in rural areas has to be planned carefully if it is not to be wasted.”
Mfumbeni is one of just three chiefdoms in the country to have a strategic plan like this for development in the community.
Nzamane believes that sustainable development can be achieved in his chiefdom if it is initiated, implemented, fostered and managed by the people of the area, in partnership with the government, local and international NGOs, Civil Society Organisations, and the private sector.
“We want to work with the government to make improvements for our people, we have invited the ministers to work with us, and we have the support of the president.”
“This is the way we think other chiefs should work in the future. Planning like this for rural communities is the way forward. As traditional leaders we have a lot of power, but we need to prioritise our work and use this power to make things better for our people.”
At 21, Tyson Nzamane Jere, as Chief Nzamane was known before he inherited the chiefdom, joined the army, but he left before he gained rank to work in a clothing company on the Copper Belt, the industrial province in the centre of Zambia. He married in 1975, and bore a son and a daughter before moving to Leeds in 1980, where he lived for three years studying textile technology. His wife and children remained in Zambia as she was training to be a midwife.
On his return to Zambia in 1984, he took up work in the transport industry. He bore two more sons before his father, Senior Chief Nzamane III died in 1996.
In accordance with tradition, one full year had to pass before Tyson could take up the position of chief. He inherited the throne from his father in 1998, and became Senior Chief Nzamane IV. “I knew I was the right person to take on the position, that I would do my best to help my people. My children were reluctant for me to move back to the village, with no electricity and no running water, but I told them that if I didn’t go, I would be denying my community a service that they deserve.”
Work began on the palace as soon as Chief Nzamane took up the throne. Improvements began with solar energy and a water pump, and now they have mains electricity and running water. “Everyone should be able to draw water from the tap rather than having to carry it on their head,” he says, explaining how he aims to improve the quality of life in his community one step at a time.
The palace is now a compound of several small, neat buildings. The main house has a sitting room, dining area and three bedrooms, similar to a small Irish farmhouse. There is an outhouse with two toilets and a shower, and a separate kitchen building alongside an open-air reception area where Nkosi and his wife Nkosikasi receive guests.
The family’s livestock are kept in the compound, and include cows, goats, chickens and rabbits. The surrounding land is currently being planted with tomatoes, bananas, onions, spinach, maize and sunflowers.
For the past few days, I have had the honour of staying with the Nkosi and Nkosikasi at their home. Here, I have been introduced to the head men of the surrounding villages, and learned from Chief Nzamane’s wisdom and knowledge of the surrounding area. He has a great interest in this project and is eager for me to learn and impart as much as possible about the Ngoni people, their traditions and way of life, the day-to-day challenges they face, as well as initiatives which are working to make a difference in the area in the long term. As a man held in the highest regard by his people, his support will be invaluable in the weeks ahead.