Africa Is Slowly Changing – Tribal Kings In Zambia May Have to Go But "Mwami" will be missed

WASHINGTON – He was just another participant in the Livingstone Workshop aimed at discussing foreign investment issues with many officials representing the Zambian Provincial and District Governments. He was an elderly gentleman wearing glasses, dressed very informally and somewhat reserved.

His Royal Highness

But when we started our proceedings it was obvious that he was different from the others. When the Provincial Minister formally opened the meeting, the elderly gentleman was deferentially addressed as “Your Royal Highness”.

Yes, he is a King, in as much as he is the Chief of one of the tribes. A Chief is a King. Hence the deferential form of addressing him. And so it went. “His Royal Highness” sat with all the others for two days. No special seating or other arrangement. But nobody would fail to use the formal and ceremonial title when addressing him.

Kings have legal status

While informality and jokes were fairly common among all the others, no one joked with the King during the proceedings. And, in truth, the title “Your Royal Highness” is not just a remnant of the past.

The role of tribes and chiefs is enshrined in the Zambian Constitution. For one thing, the tribes own most of the country’s land. Therefore, anybody wishing to do business in their territory, including of course foreign investors, (investments was the topic of our workshops series around the country), has to deal and negotiate with the Chiefs.


And so, as we continued our discussions about investment issues, “His Royal Highness” was addressed many times. But, as we went along, the stiff and longish English title “Your Royal Highness” was more and more frequently replaced by the local language word “Mwami” in addressing the Chief. And I was intrigued, as this word sounded nice and soft, in the way they pronounced it. There is a slight pause on the “w”…And so it sounded more like “Mw…wami”….And the sound of this word is more like a gentle pleading…It is just like a child saying “Ddaa…ddy”

I found out later on that “Mwami” in the local languages is the equivalent of “Your Royal Highness”. But it is a bit more informal, I was told. And so the tribal Chief, without any problems, attended the donor sponsored Workshop, mixing with his people and with me, the foreign consultant. And at our first lunch he engaged me saying: “So, it appears that China is growing as an economic power, soon to surpass the United States…”

Mwami, caught between tradition and modernization

As the work progressed, the formal or not so formal addressing of the Chief as “Mwami” resonated with me. And this local language word that sounds a bit like a pleading or a prayer describes an important element of the complex transformations that Africa is going through.

On one side tribal leaders and a communal society; and on the other, still hazy but progressively more real, economic development plans, founded on principles of individual accountability, and laws guaranteeing individual property rights.

Kings still matter…

This new capitalistic approach at least conceptually collides with the communal society and its recognized institutions, the Chiefs first and foremost. In the still existing context, the Chief is the authority within the communal society.

He presides and adjudicates within a system that is somewhat cumbersome. The solution to any problem is to call everybody to a meeting. Issues are resolved at the communal level. Not exactly the best way to have swift action within a modern or modernizing economy.

But this was and to some extent is still is the way.

Clearly, honoring Mwami is more than just nodding to old traditions. Today, Mwami has a real role, side by side with “modern”, westernized governmental institutions.

…But they have to go

And here is the issue and the contradiction. In this changing Africa that modernizes itself by moving away from the old communal system, today there is still a legitimate place and perhaps a yearning for the old paternalistic system where the tribe elders decide and provide for all the others.

Uttering the word “Mwami” to me sounds like a pleading to a gentle, higher authority. An authority that embodies indulgence, understanding, help, fair administration of justice.

Caught in the middle of the transformation of a society that would like to go beyond the old tribal system but is not in a new place as yet, Mwami is still there –with the full force and authority of his office, prestige and functions. And yet, with his cell phone and special food prepared especially for him, he takes part in the donor sponsored workshop –just like all the others involved in discussions about investment promotion. Still, for all those present there, for the time being he is and will continue to be “Mwami”, the authoritative but gentle Chief.

Modernity requires modern institutions

Yet, for Africa to really develop and take off, Mwami –and all the heritage and tradition that his role as Chief embodies and represents– will have to go.

Mwami will have to go in the same way in which monarchies and aristocracies in Europe have gone; may be not formally –as there are still Kings and Queens in Spain, Great Britain, Denmark and elsewhere — but certainly in terms of real functions and governing power. What is left of the old monarchies is at best a symbolic, ceremonial role; but no real authority.

And yet, in this slowly growing Zambia that still honors Mwami and is deferential to him, who or what will take over the substantive role of this soft-spoken, articulate and dignified gentleman? Who will take the office and perform, in a new and meaningful way, the important functions of this representative of the tribal past?

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