Tenacity re-invents Vera Tembo

This was no safe seat. She is the first woman ever to hold that seat, located in the heartland of the United National Independence Party opposition stronghold.

Tembos’ return to political life followed a series of difficult personal battles, which attracted much unwanted public attention.

Tembo’s departure from State House in 2000 happened under a painful cloud of scorn. Her husband of nearly thirty years, second president Frederick Chiluba, cast her out of his life and more shockingly, brought their marital problems out into the public domain.

The media had a field day. Without hearing her side of the story, they published and ran stories about the allegations that Chiluba was making – that she was an adulterer. Almost everyone ignored her denials.

To add insult to injury, Chiluba’s uncle divorced her in a local court on behalf of her husband, in accordance with the customary law that allows a member of the husband’s family to ‘divorce’ on behalf of their relative. Once the divorce was final, Chiluba went on to marry his girlfriend, Regina Mwanza.

Tembo, with her children, tried to pick up the pieces of her life away from the public glare. Of very humble education and suffering ill health, she relied on the largess of her friends and relatives, with few expecting that she would seek employment.

Her financial troubles even further attracted public derision, and the media closely covered her unsuccessful attempts to access alimony.

This year saw Tembo rise far above these difficulties. She discarded her married name and reverted to her maiden name, Tembo. She entered the political arena with a vengeance, joining the ruling MMD, a party that her ex-husband once headed. She won the position Chiluba’s new wife once held, Chairperson for Women’s Affairs.

Few respected her choice and drive. Rumourville swung into overdrive, and many labelled her the vengeful ex. Others said she was joining politics and aligning herself to incumbent president Levy Mwanawasa, taking over a position Mwenza once held, to spite the couple.

Mwanawasa and Chiluba are not friends. Chiluba faces corruption and theft charges by Mwanawasa’s government.

Though continually asked about them, she has avoided talking about Chiluba and his new wife. Her standard answer is, “It’s in the past, I am a woman of the future.”

While still euphoric about her parliamentary win, Tembo admits she still has her demons to deal with. Public speaking is one of them. Years of coaching and tutoring while she was first lady did not succeed in making her a confident orator, worsened by the fact that this was her erstwhile husband’s greatest strength. She still hears him laughing at her public speaking.

She realises being a parliamentarian, she will have to overcome her nervousness and develop a thick skin. Already the opposition is trying to resurrect her divorce and calling her a ‘fallen woman.’ Nevertheless, she is ignoring them. She is determined to succeed.

Naturally, the interest in her former life has resurrected, but Tembo believes it is for a different reason now. It is because people want to see for themselves the scorned woman rise and lift up her head again. She says also that she wants to show women that there is a life – a useful life, after divorce.

Her doubters forget that, as the first lady, she changed the meaning the role, making it more relevant to Zambian society. She started up a charity, Hope Foundation, which became immensely popular. She was sorry to abandon it when she left State House.

By acquiring political office, she believes she is once again in the place where she always wants to be – helping people.

l Zarina Geloo owns and edits The Guardian Weekly in Zambia. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service.

October 2006
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