struggle, she ensured that the family needs, particularly those of the children, were catered for.
She turned to charcoal burning to ensure that the family had food on the table and that the children were able to attend school as her husband traversed the country mobilising the masses.
While Dr Kaunda was away, say in prison, the colonial administrators on the other hand tried to bribe her and other freedom fighters’ wives with food and money.
“We accepted their food and money but we never submitted to their corrupt motives. We were threatened but we stood firm. The colonial masters threatened to send us back to our villages after our husbands were arrested, but we refused.
“I received a lot of encouragement from my husband who wrote me letters telling me not to move out of our Chilenje house and ensure that our children were going to school,” Mama Betty, who was bestowed with the Indira Gandhi non-violence award by UNIP not too long ago, said.
Dr Kaunda certainly knows Mama Betty’s worth!
During celebrations to mark 66 years in marriage, the former President, a guitar-playing musician himself, specially dedicated the song Pagan Moon, originally from the 1931 film Safe in Hell, to her.
And what a choice! I can remember that night in your arms/Underneath the pagan moon/Beneath the light on a pillow of palms/Underneath the pagan moon…Maybe this was a sweet maiden’s prayer/To your eyes and your lips and your hair/Only the dark came a little too soon/As we watched our pagan moon.
If there is a person who truly earned the title of mother of the nation, then it is Mama Betty Kaunda.
In his book, The Long Sunset: My Reflections, veteran diplomat and politician Vernon Mwaanga describes Mama Betty Kaunda as a “true mother of the nation who did not interfere in state affairs”.
When VJ, as the former Foreign Affairs minister is fondly called, says she did not interfere in the State affairs, it is not like she was just some statue in State House. Freedom fighter Mama Chibesakunda Kankasa clearly remembers the role Betty Kaunda played during the independence struggle and also as first lady.
“We hosted Dr Kaunda in Kitwe in 1955 when he was ANC (African National Congress) secretary general, he came with his wife. We hosted them for a week and had an opportunity to talk to her, she spoke lots of words of encouragement to both her husband and us women, Harry Nkumbula was also there with his wife.
“When I headed the UNIP women’s league, I came to know her even more. When we hosted liberation leaders from other countries, she ensured that they were provided with whatever was needed,” Mama Kankasa said in her eulogy. Agreed, the position of First Lady carries no official duties, so each one has served her nation according to her own wishes and interests. Some have played an active role in policy making, some have devoted themselves to humanitarian and charitable work and others have focused on family and social responsibilities.
The American people have of course made the role of the First Lady one of the most important jobs in their country. There, you have the likes of Dolley Madison, who dazzled Washington with her social skills and also aided her husband’s presidential activities, Sarah Polk who acted as the president’s private secretary, Mary Todd Lincoln who spent hours visiting with wounded Civil War soldiers, Lucy Webb Hayes who deeply touched the nation with her compassion for the poor and less privileged and Edith Roosevelt who sewed for the needy.
Although Mama Betty led a largely quiet life compared to most modern-day first ladies, she was hugely admired for her graceful nature. When there was a mine accident in Mufulira in 1967, Mama Betty was in the forefront helping to raise funds for widows as well as console them.
“She was a true Christian with a very good heart, a member of the United Church of Zambia. That is why we should mourn her in a Christian way, I remember her helping in fundraising for the wives of the miners who died in a mine accident in Mufulira,” Mama Kankasa says.
Not surprising, all the country’s subsequent first ladies have in one form or another, been inspired by her life. Maureen Mwanawasa, the country’s third first lady after Vera Chiluba-Tembo, describes Mama Betty as a woman of excellence whose courage and resilience should inspire the current generation.
“She exhibited a lot of resilience and courage, but also humility, playing the role of husband, wife and mother during the struggle. Being First Lady is not a simple thing, but she managed to look after herself, her husband and her family as a whole.
“She has died a great woman who travelled extensively with the president and represented the country well. Her death has come as a shock just like any other, especially that Zambia has lost so many leaders in the last four years, we need to pray for grace and remain united,” Maureen, who was First Lady from 2001 until her husband’s death in 2008, says.
Grace and prayer are indeed needed especially for Mama Betty’s soulmate Dr Kaunda who at many public fora has openly stated the influence his wife Betty has had on his political career since the turbulent years of the struggle for independence. At many functions which the couple has attended, Dr Kaunda has sung love songs specially dedicated to Mama Betty, who in 1967, co-authored a book with Stephen Mpashi titled Betty Kaunda: Wife of the President of the Republic of Zambia.
You may not have heard speak regularly in public, but whenever she did, there was a lot of substance. She was clearly concerned about Zambian society.
Like her husband who threatened to quit the presidency because of excessive beer drinking in the country, she was equally concerned.
“What is even more worrying is that our politicians encourage the young people to drink beer especially during campaigns. This is all wrong, there has to be dignity even in politics. What kind of a country are we trying to build for ourselves if there is so much beer drinking among the youths?” she lamented in an interview with the local Press. Mama Betty, who was born to Kaweche Banda and Milika Sakala Banda in Chitulika village, Mpika in 1928, urged politicians to genuinely assist youths to overcome some of the challenges they face such as lack of employment and access to education instead of enticing them with beer to win popularity. She proposed that the illicit brew commonly known as kachasu should be banned because it is destroying people’s lives.
“When people drink kachasu, especially in rural areas, they become completely unproductive. Government should do something about this situation so that discipline can be restored in our country,” she said.
That could have only come from Mama Betty. And as the nation mourns, people know that they are mourning for virtuous person.
Mama Betty, as she was popularly known, will be remembered by many as one of the matriarchs of the freedom struggle who rendered invaluable support to the fight for political emancipation of our country.
She was more than just a wife, companion and friend of one of Africa’s best known freedom fighter, Dr Kenneth David Kaunda. She was, in many ways, a “mother” to many freedom fighters whom she sheltered and supported during the era of “Cha Cha Cha”, the period of heightened civil disobedience campaign in the early 60s as the independence struggle intensified.
Dr Kaunda and many of his compatriots were incarcerated in prisons across the country. Dr Kaunda was imprisoned in Kabompo in North-Western Province as the colonial administration launched a crackdown in an attempt to halt the “wind of change” which was blowing across the African continent.
In spite of the hostile environment, Mrs Kaunda refused to submit to intimidation and stoically supported the freedom movement and proved to be a dependable ally of all the nationalists who were fighting alongside her husband to end white minority rule and usher in a new era of multi-racial politics based on universal suffrage or, as the nationalists put it, “one man, one vote.”
The Kaunda’s home in New Chilenje, now a national monument, was home to many of Dr Kaunda’s comrades and numerous other political activists. Needless to mention that the countless visitors felt welcome because of the woman who welcomed them, a woman who shared their political aspirations and vision of a free and independent country.
During her stay in State House, the former First Lady endeared herself to the public because she was an embodiment of extreme modesty. She was a quiet, meek and humble person despite the trappings of office, and also had an affable personality.
For Dr Kaunda, who recently celebrated his 66th wedding anniversary with Mama Betty, he has lost a dear wife and companion, a woman who provided him with immeasurable inspiration during his entire life.
As we mourn this great matriarch, we hope the selfless attitude and indefatigable fighting spirit she displayed during her lifetime will be emulated by others so that national interest may always supersede selfish, narrow personal agendas.
The history of Zambia is intrinsically tied with that of eminent personalities who played a leading role in the emancipation of the country from the yoke of colonialism. Many of the unsung heroes and heroines of the freedom struggle have passed on and little mention is made of the sacrifices they endured to free our motherland.
It is our humble submission that the history of Zambia’s political struggle would be incomplete without a mention of Mama Betty Kaunda. The heroes and heroines of the struggle for independence deserve to be honoured. — Times of Zambia.