The skyline of Lusaka, Zambia. Photo by Africadventure
By Julie Mellin and Anamaria Karrels
In August 2021, millions of Zambians went to the polls to participate in the country’s ninth general election since returning to multi-party democracy in 1991. Fueled by a record turnout of first-time women and youth voters, perennial opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema secured a landslide win on a platform of democratic and economic reform. Hichilema’s resounding victory at the polls—after five attempts and 15 wrongful arrests—halted years of democratic backsliding under the previous government and led to Zambia’s third peaceful transfer of leadership in 30 years.
Hichilema put autocratic governments in the region on notice by inviting prominent opposition leaders from across the continent to his inauguration. President Joe Biden sent a Presidential Delegation, led by Enoh T. Ebong, director of the U.S. Trade and Development Agency, signifying a new chapter in the bilateral relationship. A month later, Hichilema traveled to the United States for his first international trip as president, addressing the United Nations General Assembly in New York and meeting with Vice President Kamala Harris. Harris, who lived in Lusaka as a child, shared childhood photos from her time in Zambia with Hichilema, the first Zambian leader to visit the White House since 1992.
The United States and Zambia have enjoyed decades of partnership centered upon a shared commitment to democratic values and mutual recognition of the importance of diversity. The national mottos of the U.S. (“E Pluribus Unum” or “Out of many, one”) and Zambia (“one Zambia, one nation”), exemplify the value both countries place on national unity. Zambia is home to more than 70 ethnic groups and languages—it is not unusual for Zambians to speak at least two local languages in addition to English, the country’s official language.
The United States was the first country to recognize Zambia’s 1964 independence from the United Kingdom. Zambia’s founding father, Dr. Kenneth David Kaunda—a charismatic pan-Africanist—recognized the important connection between the struggle for equal rights in the United States and colonial Africa. Four years before becoming the first president of a newly independent Zambia, Kaunda traveled to the United States to celebrate Africa Freedom Day in New York City, where he addressed a Harlem crowd and met with Malcolm X. Kaunda then traveled to Atlanta, where he formed a close relationship with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose approach to non-violent civil disobedience aligned with and reinforced the foundational strategy for Zambia’s own liberation struggle.
While Kaunda’s government eventually banned all opposition political parties in 1973, Zambia’s return to multi-party democracy in 1991 ushered in a new era of political stability. In the years following the 2015 election of former-President Edgar Lungu, Zambia saw a gradual erosion of fundamental freedoms as his administration consolidated power and suppressed opposition voices, culminating in the closure of independent media outlets and arrests of opposition party leaders.
Embassy Lusaka played a pivotal role organizing diplomatic responses and ensuring that the world’s democracies spoke out against violations of Zambians’ rights to share information, assemble, and criticize the president. During the 2021 elections, embassy staff and their international counterparts deployed across the country to monitor elections and ensure that Zambians were able to exercise their constitutional right to vote.
With the election of Hichilema, Zambia’s rapid reorientation toward strengthening governance and democracy-building provides Embassy Lusaka staff a unique opportunity to work closely with their Zambian government and civil society counterparts to effect positive change in several key issue areas. Chief among them is supporting Zambia’s efforts to address its debt crisis—the country’s external debt currently sits at $17.3 billion—and helping to strengthen Zambia’s democratic institutions, increase foreign direct investment, and build capacity in the country’s health sector.
Decades of U.S. development assistance and investments in the Zambian people have helped them live longer, healthier, and more productive lives. For example, during the time that the U.S. and Zambia have partnered on public health issues, average Zambian life expectancy has increased from 44 in 2000 to 64 in 2020. The United States is Zambia’s largest development partner. Funding under PEPFAR remains the largest portfolio for Embassy Lusaka. Since the inception of PEPFAR in Zambia in 2003, the U.S. government has contributed nearly $6 billion in support of Zambia’s national HIV response, supporting more than one million Zambians with life-saving HIV medications. PEPFAR-supported programming increases evidence-based prevention, including the prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV, health system strengthening, and capacity building, the foundation upon which Zambia’s COVID-19 pandemic response was built. U.S. government health sector assistance also increases access to quality health care, prevents and treats malaria, improves maternal and child health, and supports monitoring, detection, and response to disease outbreaks including the current polio vaccination campaigns and COVID-19 response.
In addition to Department of State staff, Embassy Lusaka is home to large USAID and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention missions, as well as the Peace Corps, the Department of Defense. Additionally, the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) will return soon to administer a second MCC Compact—a five-year project that will help reduce poverty and provide inclusive economic growth. With more than 120 U.S. direct hires and over 360 local employees, the community represents a wide range of backgrounds, experience levels, and interests.
In March of this year, Zambia became the first country in the world to welcome back Peace Corps volunteers after worldwide evacuation in 2020. Zambia has traditionally hosted one of the largest Peace Corps programs worldwide, with volunteers working alongside communities on projects in agriculture, education, environment, and health.
Regardless of agency or section, Zambia’s exotic wildlife, safari, and camping opportunities provide countless options to explore on weekends and holidays. Kafue National Park, which spans more than 8,500 square miles, is less than a day’s drive away and offers both budget camping and luxury safari lodge options. For thrill seekers, Livingstone is a six-hour drive or a short 45-minute flight away, where visitors can view Victoria Falls from a helicopter, whitewater raft down the Zambezi River, or bungee jump off the Victoria Falls Bridge.
Zambia’s climate allows many of these activities to be enjoyed year-round. The hottest months, October and November, are the best time for spotting wildlife. During the December to March rainy season, the country turns lush and green and provides the perfect environment for Zambia’s farmers to plant their crops. From February to May, Victoria Falls, one of the seven natural wonders of the world, is at its highest and most impressive water flow.
Zambia hosts many natural wonders, including 18 waterfalls and 20 national parks teeming with wildlife. South Luangwa, Kafue, and Lower Zambezi National Parks rank among the finest game parks in the world, boasting more than 200 mammal and 700 bird species. Zambia is also home to many historical sites. Through the Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation, Embassy Lusaka supports the preservation and development of the Mwela Rock Art National Monument, which is under consideration to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site and features more than 1,200 Batwa paintings dating back to more than 2,000 years ago.
Embassy Lusaka also works with Zambian partners to advance stability in the region. Since 2014, the United States has invested more than $8 million in assistance for eight iterations of pre-deployment training for Zambian Battalions, the contingents of Zambian troops that deploy to the Central African Republic and other countries in support of U.N. peacekeeping missions. The embassy also helps Zambian law enforcement combat wildlife trafficking, illegal logging, and corruption in several industries.
People-to-people ties are the foundation of the U.S.-Zambia relationship. Embassy staff frequently travel to remote parts of the country to strengthen relationships with contacts outside of Lusaka and to observe some of Zambia’s 90-plus annual cultural ceremonies. These ceremonies, which convey traditional customs, rituals, and spiritual beliefs, provide a valuable insight into diverse traditions that have been passed down for generations through oral history.
Embassy Lusaka also helps build mutual understanding and learning between Americans and Zambians through academic, cultural, sports, and professional exchanges. Through the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI), Embassy Lusaka has supported over 200 Zambian young leaders to participate in YALI’s flagship program, the Mandela Washington Fellowship. The fellows are accomplished youth leaders who promote innovation and positively impact their communities and country. Through its three American Spaces, the embassy regularly holds entrepreneurial workshops, investigative journalism seminars, and training courses on a wide variety of topics. More than 400 Zambians study in the United States each year, in large part due to the embassy’s strong EducationUSA program.
Many American officers serving at Embassy Lusaka choose to extend, citing the city’s temperate weather and laid-back pace; the chance to play a role in a momentous era in Zambia’s democratic growth; the friendliness of the Zambian people; the embassy’s close-knit community; and the wealth of local and regional travel opportunities.
Julie Mellin and Anamaria Karrels are deputy public affairs officers at Embassy Lusaka.