Pressed Into Service

Written By: The Lowdown - Sep• 30•12

FrontcoversmallIn December 1976 I was one of a class of high school girls that were bussed and ‘trucked’ hundreds of kilometres from Lusaka for what became popularly known as ‘National Service’. Any decent dictionary will define this as “the system in some countries in which young people have to do military training for a period of time”.


When my editor read last month that Government intends to re-institute mandatory National Service where school leavers will undergo skills training she was wildly enthusiastic as she felt that finally someone was taking some positive action to address the children who are passing though our schools but who have no marketable skills at the end of it.  Given my experience in the 70’s, she thought that it would be a good time to take a look at what happened then so that we make sure that we do not make the same mistakes again.


When I was initially approached to do this article I was quite upbeat. A good search in some of the older bookshops in Lusaka may bring up a gem of a book called ‘Maliongo’s Adventures’. It is the comic account of a gentleman who must have attended national service about the same time I did (the camps were separate for girls and boys). Well illustrated and very well-written, it will have you in stitches, especially if you can relate to similar experiences in boarding school, and if you are generally not very reverent about authority.


However, the deeper I got into my draft article, the more depressed I found myself becoming. I believe this the sombre realisation of the adult obligation of having to report accurately but to also take specific account by deciding on whether to support the reintroduction of this compulsory service ‘sans military component’ or not.


There exist in the twenty-first century, some countries which constitutionally will not go to war except in self-defence and some others that have done away with a standing army completely.


The existing Zambia National Service (ZNS) infrastructure – the camps, quarters, industrial plants and farms dotted across the country – could probably well be used for the purpose of ‘skills training’ that is being suggested. Almost forty years ago now, the idea was that once graduated our physical and military training would reinforce the regular army, a sort of ‘reserve’ or ‘land’ force if you like. If we extend this to what is being proposed, then the young people trained in carpentry, bricklaying, tailoring? would then be expected to ‘reinforce’ regular tradesmen and women currently in industry.


TEVETA advertising from our well-known vocational training provider is on billboards across Lusaka. TRADE training is anything between six weeks and a year; CRAFT training is usually not less than two years. To achieve proficiency several factors must be present including qualified instructors, readily available material, equipment and tools,  a basic academic aptitude of the recruits to handle the complexity of the actual tasks and the opportunity for repetition and practical industrial experience to name a few. It is no state secret that basic military training is designed at an individual level to put an assault weapon on the ground, point it in the general direction of a target, fire, and contribute to an enemy body-count.


Let us remind each other that we are in the 21st Century.


Trade and Craft schools require multiple pieces of modern machinery to effectively teach even basic skills such as auto-mechanics or electrical and electronic maintenance and repair techniques. A quick look on the internet will give you the US$ (or ZMK prices if you insist) of a Kalashnikov and if you care to, you can compare those to prices of a medium-sized lathe that could be found in a small garage repair shop or a standard ‘butcher-boy’.


Going back to my personal experience of ZNS instruction, there were some intrinsic benefits which have continued to shape my character.

– It was my first ‘survival’ experience, having been a day-scholar all my life, in institutional meals and overcrowded sanitary provision, which combination of both, most likely contributed to a severe bout of dysentery in my first month of training;

– A peak fitness level, never before or after achieved after several months of “road-running” which school sport and cultural restrictions would normally never have exposed me to;

– Male-dominated instruction provided insights the home and a girl’s convent can never avail you; and

– I internalized an irrevocable sense of NATIONALITY (or was it NATIONALISM?).


However, there was a down-side to all this – depending on your point of view – which roundly described by our instructors as “using your initiative”. For some significant time I can safely say that I lost my sense of individual integrity and my experience reinforced a skewed reliance on both force and the force of numbers as opposed to negotiation. As a secondary characteristic, similar to the description of learned behaviour of juveniles imprisoned with hardened criminals, I also adopted a potentially abusive and violent approach to problem-solving. But, then again we are saying that this new ‘national service’ will not include military training, and who’s to contest that I was the delinquent exception and my fellows passed out pussy-cats, so we have nothing to worry about do we.


How did it all end? Sometime in 1981 or 1982, I am unable to recall exactly, compulsory ‘National Service’ was summararily halted because of several deaths of high-school recruits that had occurred as a result of a typhoid epidemic. But did it really end in 1982. A whole cohort of grade 12’s from those seven years went on to become a next generation’s parents. We have never researched what this has meant. It is important to recall that at that time almost all grade 12’s were guaranteed further education and employment and are, therefore, the majority of senior directors of industry!


If someone is out there listening then, in my humble opinion, Zambia already has first class training fields for our youth which are relevant and hungry for VOLUNTEERS and can provide challenging work experience and a trade in an industry which is still in sovereign hands. They are the vast grounds of Zambia’s National Parks and Game Management Areas in mostly ‘rural Zambia’ (you know, where Peace Corps go).


This industry is only comparable to the Copper Mines in the variety of trade and craft that is necessary to successfully protect and develop the country’s natural resources: not only carpentry, auto-mechanics, and tailoring?, but forestry, veterinary assistance, safety inspection, river navigation, track and trailing skills can be taught with the assistance of whichever local tourist operators or village communities have traditionally fished, farmed or hunted there for living memory.


And instead of a wholesale approach, can we have some studies, some ‘pilot’ projects to ascertain how this all fits in with existing trade and craft training institutions like TEVETA? If the ‘cabbage boys’ have outlived their usefulness in ZNS, then maybe the future are the ‘green girls’ of ZES – Zambia Environmental Service?  In retrospect, I regret taking on this article, because nothing short of the same is going to cheer me up, Yes Saaah Yes!

By Chuundu

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