He is 88 years old now, Zambia’s founding father, and the hand that carries a trademark flowing white handkerchief at the ready (because, for all that he has seen, he still is moved easily to tears), now also rests on a cane. He led the fight for his country’s freedom from British colonialism, turning the more than 70 tribes that made up Northern Rhodesia into “One Zambia,” and served as his country’s first president for nearly three decades. In the midst of that, Kenneth Kaunda led another fight, telling his fellow Zambians in 1987 that his son had died of AIDS. His presidency ended more than two decades ago, but he continued to serve as a standing soldier in his country’s fight against the epidemic, a fight that has lost many on its front lines to the disease itself.
And on Sunday he showed that while others talk of donor fatigue and apathy, he held on to the spirit of struggle. He sang.
“In the name of greater freedom, we will fight, and conquer AIDS,” the former president crooned sonorously. He got the crowd to join him, in harmony, “In the name of greater free-ee-dom, we will fight, and conquer AIDS!”
By coincidence or not, the name of the event, a gathering that half-filled session room nine in the late afternoon before the opening of the International AIDS Conference this evening, was “One SADC (Southern African Development Community), One Vision, One Way: Harmonizing Integrated Approaches to HIV and AIDS, TB and Malaria.”
But for all it was about harmonizing, until Kaunda’s appearance, it was not about a joyous song.
Former Botswana President Festus Mogae had spoken of progress and victory, in his own hard-hit country and across Africa, but he also spoke of his fear that gains would be reversed. Lagging donor commitment, faltering national support, he said, was his greatest fear. It would lead to a scenario, he said, “too ghastly to contemplate.”
And while there was talk of shared resources, regional cooperation, partnerships in skill building, and integrated sustainable health systems, “realistically, Mogae has a good point,” UNICEF HIV/AIDS Program head Craig McClure warned.
Then Kaunda sang. The crowd gave him a standing O.
Afterwards he said he is doing well, his family is fine. He will be here all week. He doesn’t know if he will speak again, he said. But, yes, he said, he will sing.