E. Munshya, LLB (Hons), M.Div.
There is no evidence to suggest that Nevers Mumba had, two weeks ago, approved of the action by MMD party cadres to sing lyrics mocking the disability of Hon. Nickson Chilangwa. In this article, I make no such allegation against Mumba. However, that unfortunate event provides us with an opportunity to address such issues. Chilangwa has lived with a slight physical disability since childhood. He limps in one of his legs. Mumba was addressing a political rally in Luapula Province when this happened. Chilangwa is a Member of Parliament and senior PF party leader in Luapula.
In responding to the cadres’ behaviour, Chilangwa expressed regret that Mumba could allow such terrible scorn at a political meeting. He also mentioned that he has learned to overcome stigma associated with his disability. This week, MMD Secretary Muhabi Lungu exonerated his boss, stating that Mumba is of such good character that he could not possibly have mocked a Zambian based on their disability. I believe him. However, the fact that a few rogue cadres could use Chilangwa’s disability as a mocking point deeply disturbs me. Our nation needs to move beyond stigma of the disabled. Zambia is one nation. In this nation we have people living with different challenges and yet they are all part of the tree that keeps the roots of our nation vibrant.
Academia refers to this kind of stigma as “Ableism”. According to Carmelita and others (2010) ableism is -
“an all-encompassing system of discrimination and exclusion of people who live with developmental, medical, neurological, physical, and psychological disabilities”.
Schwarzbaum & Thomas (2008) defined ableism as a “negative judgment about the characteristics and capabilities of an individual with a disability.” According to J. Mung’omba (2008), Zambia is home to over 256,000 people living with some form of a disability. About 5% of these live with mental disabilities.
Ableism could be attributed to our traditional worldview, which regards suffering in general and disability in particular as bad omens. Such suffering is usually blamed on the spiritual world. It is, therefore, not surprising that a Zambian would seek to “establish communication with the spirit world” to manipulate it in order to “bring security in a dangerous world” (Turaki 2006). Both Gray (1990) and Kunhiyop (2008) acknowledge that Africans’ conception of evil takes it as that which destroyed life, health, strength, fertility and prosperity. Suffering at both personal and community level was believed to be evil, and was mostly attributed to lack of adherence to taboos and rituals. It was believed across tribes that non-adherence to strict religious ritual would naturally invite the wrath of the gods and, therefore, cause untold suffering. The consequence of such a worldview translates into “ableism”. Unfortunately, each time a person living with a disability is mocked; we give credence to such ideas, which belong to a generation more barbaric than ours.
Ableism could also be attributed to scarcity of economic resources. Zambia has a population of 14 million living in an area of approximately 750,000 kms2. The gross domestic product of Zambia stands at $20 billion. Following the 3-years of gross economic mismanagement by President Sata and his crew, we could be talking of lower figures by next year. With so many people chasing so few resources it is clear that those living with disabilities become the casualties of this stampede for resources.
Zambians need to address some disturbing beliefs that perpetrate ableism. Some of these beliefs are a combination of tradition and plain nonsense. For example, albinos just on the basis of their skin disability are quite mistakenly considered to have some extra-spiritual powers. In neighbouring Tanzania, ritual killers, believing that albino body parts can be used to make someone rich, have murdered albinos. Even though this situation has not reached this level in Zambia, it is clear that there is a general stigma attached to albinos perpetrated by myths that don’t make sense.
Hon. Chilangwa as a person living with a slight physical disability has done well for himself. He is a faithful member of the United Church of Zambia. He also runs successful businesses. He is living his great potential as a member of parliament. Nevertheless, our parliament should continue advocating for legal reform in this area. J. Mung’omba (2008) does cite the Persons with Disabilities Act (1996) as one of the most forward-looking legislation. However, we must not stop there, we should also work towards reforming laws such as Article 65 (1) (b) of the Constitution which disqualifies a candidate who is “under any law in force in Zambia, adjudged or otherwise declared to be of unsound mind”. While the constitution does not define “unsound mind”, this phrase could be used against some people faced with even mild mental illness.
The impact of ableism is obvious. Just like other forms of prejudice, ableism discriminates against citizens. It makes the majority feel that they are superior. It leads to all forms of unfair treatment of the “other”. Zambia is celebrating 50 years of political freedom. But what value is this political freedom if, 50 years after independence, we would still be mocking some among us simply because they do not share the same physical abilities as we do?
Ableism causes the nation to not use the full potential of its citizens. People who live with a disability are as gifted, in so many ways, as anybody else is. The consequence of discrimination is that the society would not benefit from their talents and abilities.
Ableism also leads to discrimination in education sector. In spite of poverty, most children in Zambia do get into grade one. However, many of these grade one spaces are designed for able-bodied students. In addition to the fact that there are no suitable facilities for use by the people living with disabilities, there are not enough spaces in schools that would be more geared towards teaching children living or born with disabilities (Nabuzoka & Rønning 1997). Failure in the special education sector means that young children are left without an education, critical to their service to the country. Once you add stigma to this mix, schoolyard bullying becomes even more lethal. We must end stigma against our people.
Chilangwa is 45 years old now. He is a senior leader of our country. He has overcome the stigma in many ways. Mocking him should not be justified in our society. He is an inspiration to all young people. If we are to build Zambia, we will build it together as one people, regardless of our physical abilities. It is one Zambia, many abilities!
Suggested Citation: Munshya, Elias (2014), “Limps of hope: Hon. Chilangwa, stigma and hope for Zambians living with disabilities”, Elias Munshya blog (8 August 2014) (www.eliasmunshya.org)