Mr. Chibuye and the AIDS widows of Zambia

Bonaventure Anthony Chibuye’s entrance into the later years of middle age is signaled by the gray flecks in his hair and beard. Although small in stature, there is fire in his soul. He stares directly into the eyes of those to whom he speaks and has an earnestness about him that is tough to ignore.

Chibuye has served the public in one way or another for all of his adult life. In his various careers, he has been a university professor, a police officer, and served in a significant position in the Zambian government’s educational system. At present, he teaches in the Copperbelt University in Kitwe, Zambia. He has seen massive change in Zambian society.

Born under colonialism, he vividly recalls independence and the formation of his nation in 1964. For the first two decades of nationhood, Zambia’s economy thrived primarily because of extensive deposits of copper and cobalt. For much of the first half of its existence, the country had no debt and had a surplus. It was one of few African countries newly emerged from colonial days with a strong and vibrant economy.

Zambia’s first president, Kenneth Kaunda, began his regime with a kind of soft socialism that in time hardened into one-party rule and state takeover of the much of the economy and its businesses. From Kaunda’s perspective, the majority of the wealth of the mines was going into the pockets of foreign owners. With the promise of redistributing the monetary gain from the mines to the people of Zambia, his government gradually purchased 51percent of the mining industry.

Kaunda’s economic illusion was not corrected by experience. State control of the mines brought with it massive corruption and inefficiency. Convinced that the solution to early warning signs in the economy was to extend state control, Kaunda gobbled up the controlling shares of more industries. The global economic downturn in the 1980s, along with a drop in copper prices, led to a major crisis. Kaunda’s policy demonstrated that while the state is an effective spender of money in good economic times, it lacks the knowledge and skill to direct specific industry during critical periods. A new economic plan was put forward before the previous one had even begun.

The rest of the story is all too familiar in Africa. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank were called in to provide an injection of capital. In order to receive the money the economy needed, Zambia was forced to move toward privatization. Privatization, in the midst of corruption, has been no magic bullet. The same people who benefited from state control of mining and other industries grew even richer when these nationalized enterprises were sold off. Some businesses were sold to friends of the government who received generous loans from the government itself to finance their purchase. It is impossible to know how much money in kickbacks, bribes, and secret partnerships found its way into the pockets of corrupt political leaders. Some who bought the companies right away sold them off in pieces and put thousands of Zambians out of work. The government proved itself to be a foolish buyer, manager, and seller of the means of production.

Chibuye has watched this story unfold for 40 years, sometimes from within the government and sometimes from without. He has come to the conclusion that the fatal error Zambians have made is their belief in the ‘big man’ theory of political leadership. They replaced Kenneth Kaunda with Frederick Chiluba in 1991, only to be disappointed by what Chibuye describes as even greater corruption. President Levy Mwanawasa, who replaced Chiluba in 2001, makes headlines daily with fresh accusations of land grabs and corruption.

Chibuye has decided that this is no longer going to work. As a lay leader in his local Catholic church and a man who wants to make a difference in his community, he has started a unique form of community education for an oft-neglected portion of the Zambian society. The epidemic of AIDS has decimated families in his region and left hundreds of widows, young and old, with no means of support. With few skills and no pension, the future is bleak. Chibuye decided he would no longer wait for his government to address this issue.

His experience as a teacher made the development of a curriculum easy. It would include teaching communication and study skills, literacy, the language of business and the basics of how business works. In other words, he is teaching AIDS widows and other women how to be entrepreneurs in pottery, agriculture, and other businesses.

Insisting that this education cost the women nothing, he and his wife committed their limited resources to what he calls his ministry. The greatest challenge was finding a place to hold his classes. His university had space but was reluctant to grant him access for such a program. Being a man not easily discouraged, Chibuye told the head of the university that if classroom space was refused, he and his wife were willing to use the modest housing and car allowance provided by the university to rent a large tent and place it in the middle of the university square. The administrator who initially did not support the concept was convinced and has become one of the ministries most active workers.

Only last year, the fledging program graduated its first 90 women students and some are already in business. Chibuye is under no illusion that his program will solve all the problems of Zambia. But he believes that if he can help these women, if he can bring them to understand and accept that they are gifted, bright and dignified, if he can give them the basic tools of entrepreneurship, he can do something his government was unable to do with billions of dollars and 40 years of top-down policies. He believes he can bring hope. I believe he can, too.

Rev. Gerald Zandstra, an ordained pastor in the Christian Reformed Church in North America, is director of the Center for Entrepreneurial Stewardship at the Acton Institute in Grand Rapids, Mich. (