Humanism and Humanism Week: the Forgotten Legacies

[By Dr Parkie Mbozi]

THIRTY YEARS ago last week was the last time we enjoyed what turned out to be the last of the famous Humanism week.

So as expected from all those who were not born then and those who were too young to remember, our Grade 10 son Hamwenda, asked, “Dad, our teacher told us that there used to be Humanism week just before Independence Day. What exactly was it? Hamwenda visited us over the long weekend after a break from his boarding school. We had sat in our farm insaka to go over what he had covered in various subjects since he returned to school on 28th September, after the six-month forced closure.

Both humanism and humanism week are forgotten legacies that no one in present-day leadership ever talks about. So below is my 40-minute history lesson to Hamwenda and, I believe, to all his peers across the country.

I will explain Humanism week in terms of both form and symbolism. I will first explain the origin of the philosophy of Humanism generally and the Zambian version of it as conceived by first Republican President Kenneth Kaunda. I will then end with a few examples of the practical applications of the ideology of humanism during the famous Humanism week.

In terms of form, Humansm week was the six days leading up to Independence Day, the 24th of October of every year. It was coined after the philosophy of humanism, which I will explain in a while. Symbolically this week was meant to remind Zambians about the needs of others in our society, in the spirit of Humanism or ubuntu, as they say in South Africa. Among the many things that took place during the Humanism week, institutions and individuals were required to help the vulnerable in society. The week was used to bring Zambians together under the spirit of One Zambia and One Nation.

All Zambians were also engaged in some form of activity or another, with some people cleaning the surroundings, or visiting the elderly and the sick. During this time, people were urged to look at each other as one, and this encouraged the spirit of hard work. In a nutshell, the humanism week was comparable to the famous Mandela week, which is aimed at celebrating the life of late Nelson Mandela world-wide.

In terms of origin, the word “humanism” derived from the Latin concept humanitas. It is reported to have entered English in the nineteenth century. It encompasses the various meanings ascribed to humanitas, which included both benevolence or kindness toward fellow humans. As a philosophy, Humanism emphasised the ‘value and agency of human beings, individually and collectively’. In general, however, it refers to a perspective that affirms some notion of human freedom and progress. It views humans as solely responsible for the promotion and development of individuals and emphasises a concern for humans in relation to the world.

As stated earlier, the philosophy of Humanism was conceived by Kaunda. After succeeding British rule, the government of Kaunda chose what it called ‘Zambian humanism’ as the Zambian national ideology and philosophy. It was a form of African Socialism, which combined traditional African values with Western socialist and Christian values. At the centre of this humanism were God and the human person, for God was known through the human person and also served through human beings. This belief created a very strong connection between God and the human person in Kaunda’s Humanism. The philosophy emphasized the role of education, none-violent resistance and hard-work in the process of liberation.

At the time it was the national philosophy of Zambia, Humanism was the basis of all the policies and programmes of the party and government. All the development effort in Zambia were based on humanism. It emphasized the importance of MAN as the centre of all activity. Zambian humanism also provided the moral basis for all human activity in the country whether it be political, economical or social.

The philosophy was the ‘social cement’ that held Zambian society together and inspired the nation in all human endevours, as Kaunda would say. One writer stated that, “Zambian Humanism is not like that shirt or that dress or that dress that we wear for special occasions. NO. Humanism is our dress for all occasions. It is like the skin we wear on our bodies. It is our way of life for all time.”

To understand what Humanism is about, we must first understand the political background against which it was declared as Zambia’s national philosophy. The forces which brought the people of Zambia together to fight independence were a direct result of years of colonial oppression – a system of government which denied Zambians all rights and privileges of MAN.

To change this unbearable situation the people of Zambia, then known as Northern Rhodesia, formed the United National Independence Party (UNIP) to spearhead our fight for freedom. It is important to note that during the struggle for independence, even while the battle against colonial oppression was at its most bitter point, UNIP consistently made it clear that the struggle was not racially or economically motivated, but by the desire for justice and for human dignity.

As a result of the struggle through UNIP, Northern Rhodesia became the independent Republic of Zambia on 24th October 1964. Zambia’s independence is also United Nations Day. It was chosen by UNIP because the party strongly supported the philosophy behind the United Nations and in particular the declaration of Human Rights, which is now part of the constitution of the Republic of Zambia.

Zambian Humanism rested on the social values of the Zambian traditional society as it was before it was distorted by the capitalist influences of western industrialism and colonialism. The founding fathers believed that traditionally MAN – whatever his station in life – had a place in society. Everyone regarded himself as subordinate to his community and not above it.

These are the qualities upon which UNIP believed it was building the then new social order–one in favor of the common man. Although this social order was new, it was believed that Humanism was not new to Zambia or to UNIP. It was a mere codification of the people’s ideas, which were there long before the party came to power. At the same time it was also regarded as the force that inspired, guided and helped to build the new Zambia of the UNIP era and for the future.

At independence, UNIP believed that we succeeded as a people in removing a colonist and oppressive government and replaced it with a people’s government- a Humanist government. In the words of the Kaunda, the revolution was a Humanist revolution. The founding fathers believed that they had been waging a struggle against imperialism, neo-colonialism, fascism, and racism on one hand; and hunger, poverty, ignorance, disease, crime, and exploitation of man by man on the other. They regarded victory over these vices was what their revolution was all about.

In the words of Kaunda, the most important thing to this nation was MAN. “MAN you, MAN me and MAN the other fellow. Everything we say and do evolves around MAN. Without him there can be no Zambia, there can be no nation. That is why we believe in Humanism. That is why we say MAN is the centre of all activities”.

Principles of Humanism

1. Man at the centre: “…This MAN is not defined according to his color, nation, religion, creed, political leanings, material contribution or any matter…”

2. The dignity of Man: “Humanism teaches us to be considerate to our fellow men in all we say and do…”

3. Non-exploitation of Man by Man: “Humanism abhors every form of exploitation of MAN by man.”

4. Equal opportunities for all: “Humanism seeks to create an egalitarian society- that is, society in which there is equal opportunity for self-development for all…”

5. Hard work and Self-reliance: “Humanism declares that a willingness to work hard is of prime importance without it nothing can be done anywhere…”

6. Working together: “The National productivity drive must involve a communal approach to all development programs. This calls for a community and team spirit…”

7. The extended family: “…under extended family system, no old person is thrown to the dogs or to the institutions like old people’s homes…”

8. Loyalty and Patriotism: “…It is only in dedication and loyalty that unity subsist.”

To ensure the implementation of the Zambian humanism, concrete measures were taken by the government. It was taught in schools and colleges. Civil servants had to go through various training sessions on Zambian humanism and in fact, their promotion depended on how much of it they knew the philosophy. A government ministry, called Ministry of National Guidance, was created to take charge of the spreading of the philosophy and its values: Seminars, workshops and short courses were also offered in universities on Zambian humanism. The media were also expected to play a very significant role in this direction.

Political historians report that Kaunda was so empathetic (of humankind) that he stopped eating meat at a particular time in his life after a horrible experience he witnessed. Ikeda (2005) quotes him to have said, “I can still see clearly in my mind that day when I watched a group of poor African women being manhandled outside a white-owned butcher’s shop because they were protesting against the quality and price of the rotten meat he was trying to foist off on them. I swore then never to eat anything my poorest fellow Africans could not afford”.

Apart from community service, some parastatals provided free services during the Humanism week. The United Bus Company of Zambia (UBZ), for instance, would transport us free of charge between town and UNZA. So too did Mulungushi Traveler, a company that was run by the Zambia Consolidated Copper Mines (ZCCM) on the Copperbelt and Zambia Railways for train travels. Some restaurants would offer free food and drinks, where they were readily available. Readers may add to the list of things they enjoyed free of charge during the Humanism week.

There have been calls from some quarters of our society, including in the National Assembly, for revival of Humanism week. However, the calls have fallen on deaf ears, at least until now. Notwithstanding its weaknesses, as highlighted by scholars, Zambian Humanism, like Julius Nyerere Ujamaa, provided some direction and values for the country, such as leadership code. The whole country was duped to buy into Frederick Chiluba’s hatred for Kaunda to “throw away the baby with the bath water.”

One would have thought that the moribund Ministry of Religious Affairs and National Guidance would have taken up this call and provide some work for itself. It is not to be. As things stand, the legacies of Humanism and Humanism week are lost causes. We are back where we started from, a people without a guiding philosophy. Perhaps Uncle Fred M’membe’s Socialist Party can adopt the ‘orphan’ called Humanism. The two seem a perfect fit!

The author is a media, governance and health communication researcher and scholar with the Institute of Economic and Social Research, University of Zambia. He was recently awarded a PhD in Communication and Media by the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal. He is reachable on pmbozi5@yahoo.com.

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