Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church

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Umuntu ni Lungu

Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church - Outreach - Blogs - TEEZing Out The Roots

What a man this Lungu. That's the basic translation of "Umuntu ni Lungu," the ubiquitous slogan that has been plastered all over Zambia the past several months. Apparently it is a slogan that works. Edgar Chagwa Lungu of the Patriotic Front (PF) party, the incumbent president, has been declared the winner of the 2016 presidential election after an exhausting and nailbiting five days of counting.
As soon as it was announced this afternoon, the streets exploded with dancing and the PF campaign song that I fear will be stuck in my head for years to come (Dununa Reverse by JK if you want it in your head as well!). Sorry for the strange orientation of the photo!
It has been a particularly passionate and fraught election season for the country. Edgar Lungu became president last January after a special election to replace President Michael Sata, who died in office. Michael Sata has achieved almost saint-like status here for running the country with integrity and charisma, knowing the plight of people of all areas and all walks of life, and battling corruption. So, for many people, a vote for Lungu this time around was a vote to honor the legacy of Sata and the party he founded.
On the other side was Hakainde Hichilema of the United Party for National Development (UPND). A perennial candidate, he came within around 20,000 votes of beating Lungu in last year's special election. He continues to have a massive following, with his strongholds amongst the Tongas in Southern Province and the Lozis in Western Province. He has defied accusations of tribalism, evidenced by his surprisingly broad support amongst many though not a majority of Bembas and related tribes. For many people a vote for Hakainde Hichilema...or HH as he is most well known...was a vote for change after a very difficult year in terms of the economy.
Seven other candidates ran for president, including the third-place Edith Nawakwi, who in my opinion would have been best for the country. This election was the first in Zambian history to require a 50% + 1 vote majority to win the presidency, and many of us are shocked that this happened on the first vote (50.35%). Usually the winner in this multi-party democracy only garners between 40 and 48 percent. On this front, I am sure there will be legal challenges and calls for recounts. An actual recount, however, seems unlikely.
Edith Nawakwi wowed me with her speech at a recent event
Another major change this election was the addition of running mates on the ballots who will become part of the succession (much like the vice presidency in the U.S.). The last two regularly elected presidents--and wildly populary presidents I might add--both died in office, leading to poorly attended by-elections and therefore murky mandates for their replacements. The addition of running mates is meant to prevent such a situation. Inonge Wina, the first woman vice president of Zambia, is now the first popularly elected vice president of Zambia.
Perhaps the most important outcome of this election, and the least talked about, will be the yet-to-be released result on a referendum to add a bill of rights to the Zambian constitution. This measure has been controversial on multiple fronts. Since it was pushed heavily by the ruling part and opposed mightily by the opposition, there is a concern that people are voting based on the popularity of ther respective presidential candidates rather than the actual content of the referendum. Further, the broad consensus is that most people simply don't know the content. It is difficult to find the actual document, and most people do not have access to it. Therefore they are voting on something that they know little about (I know we do this all the time, but it is still disconcerting). I have read the thing and am certainly not thrilled about certain measures therein, but it could be worse. Finally and most bizarrely, the symbols for voting on the referendum were an eye for yes and an ear for no. How the heck do those to body parts represent yes and no? The issue here is that many people associated the eye with the freemasons and therefore with satanism. The things we need to think about when it comes to true enfranchisement!
In conclusion, there will be many people upset. There will be many people overjoyed. There will be challenges to the results. There will be failed candidates agonizing over what they could and should have done differently. There will be drunken fistfights and unfortunately probably some deaths due to the toxic mixture of over celebrating and driving. There will be confusion. There will be calls for peace.
But, no matter what, there will be dancing.
Posted August 15, 2016


in Hope

Democracy, Disillusionment, and Glimpses of Hope….Oh My!

Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church - Outreach - Blogs - TEEZing Out The Roots

To be honest, democracy has got me down these days. The overarching driving force of this down-ness is the bedlam of national elections in the United States and Zambia this year. Demagoguery crosses the world and mixes with ideologuery, creating a mess of roguery and violence—social, emotional, and physical—sometimes strategically targeted and sometimes aimlessly indiscriminate. It’s frightening and exhausting in a global sense. 

The more specific democracy blues I have, though, are the result of TEEZ’s biennial organizational meeting this past weekend. We have been facing some significant mountains in the office over the past several months (financial woes, a botched leadership transition, and subsequent loss of confidence by stakeholders), and we had perhaps naively placed our hope in this meeting to move those mountains, or at least help us to summit them. This meeting was attended by high-level leaders from our member churches as well as a couple of former TEEZ directors and training managers. In other words, these should have been the people most aptly placed to help us work through our difficulties and come to some healthy resolutions.

It quickly became clear, however, that the scourge of institutionalism would plague this institutional democracy. There was a lot of passion in the room to tackle the aforementioned mountains by debating what had befallen the organization in order to address the causes and develop solutions. The chairperson of the meeting, though, had a direct interest in blocking this conversation; the botched leadership transition and loss of confidence by stakeholders could ultimately be laid at his feet. So, masterfully exploiting parliamentary procedure, he stopped the debate in its tracks. He used a strategically vague agenda to punt contentious questions to other parts of the meeting and then used time constraints to cut them short in those punted-to other parts. When debate did break through his barriers he maintained a strict “speak through the chair” method that silenced natural conversation. He would listen, nod, and then say that there were no motions presented and therefore no actions to be taken.

In my life I have been to many such meetings in which the exact same thing happened. Rules that are meant to ensure equality of representation and input for the sake of a just and fruitful discussion in a meeting with the sole purpose of serving the mission of a certain institution are manipulated to do the exact opposite. The result is that those with regularly disproportionate power control what is presented and what is resolved. Other voices are marginalized and brushed off. The status quo is maintained. The leaders insulate themselves from criticism and blame. All others feel trapped by the rules but don’t know how to respond because we place so much faith in these rules. Unreasonable plans and demands are placed on the implementers of the organization’s mission by those who make decisions but have no clue whatsoever about the actual goings-on of the organization. The real issues go unaddressed. Afterwards everybody smiles and congratulates each other on the success of the meeting. It frustrates me to the point of rage every single time.

This time was no exception. I was furious. Weeks of hard work by our office to facilitate this meeting seemed wasted and unappreciated. It was a slap in the face for our staff who have dedicated themselves to this ministry for decades. And all of this was so that those with power could dodge responsibility and still maintain their power. At the end of the meeting the quorum nearly unanimously voted to keep him as chairperson for the next two years. Ouch.

Obviously I am still riled up about this meeting. I recognize that this is so because I feel such deep passion for this organization, its staff, and its mission. It is also so because it is a microcosm of what goes on in the macrocosm. Disenfranchisement and impunity are very real phenomena in all democratic institutions. People with institutional power exploit the system for their own gain. The voices of those without power are drowned out or even stopped before they can be vocalized. We have given the name “democracy” to a process that is fundamentally undemocratic. Because we have idolized and idealized democracy, we then see any challenge thereof as blasphemous. Such is the case even though the thing as it is practiced is not actually the thing that we have christened it to be.

My disillusionment is all the more potent because the democratic institution is what makes Presbyterian polity…well, Presbyterian. Our distinct form of governance is exactly this system of committee and assembly meetings that make decisions for the implementation of the mission of the Church. So, in order for me to exist in this specific expression of the body of Christ, I will need to come to terms with the polity. It is something in which I deeply believe theoretically. My lived experience, though, makes me doubt the possibility in practice. 

I am thus learning that I need to explore creative expressions of true democracy. I need to seek out the Holy Spirit’s movements through and in spite of current democratic systems. I need to find more examples of people breaking through the exploitations and manipulations of those with power. I need to experience rules of discussion that maintain equality rather than reinforce power relationships. Maybe this will require a radical restructuring of the very institution of a meeting. Maybe it will simply mean getting back to the spirit that created the rules to begin with…before they were mastered and monopolized by an oligarchic few. Maybe it will be an entirely new creation.

And I have had glimpses of hope. In the U.S. movements like Black Lives Matter are challenging the very systems of democratic institutions, breaking through inscribed barriers. Judges are finally striking down draconian attacks on voters’ rights in many states, re-enfranchising thousands. In Zambia there is a history of single party rule moving to a multiple party system. This year there will be more positions chosen by popular election than ever before. In the Presbyterian church our assembly-based decisions are slowly marching us towards progress. I have seen Sessions and committees that operate with love as a foundation rather than power. Even in this TEEZ meeting I saw hope in a few individuals who refused to back down from challenging the chair. I saw hope in especially the women representatives who stood up and said, “Nope. We know what is happening and we know what should be happening. This isn’t our first rodeo. We will make this organization great again.”

I pray that these glimpses of hope along with exploration of effective and creative action will get me through. Please do let me know if you have experiences of democratic systems that work for all the people involved, especially in the Church. 

Posted August 2, 2016


Posted by Tyler W. Orem with

Being planted in the rich soils of Zambia to inspire regrowth at home. “Other seed fell on good soil and bore fruit” -Matthew 13:8