THE BIG READ: You lazy intellectuals
They call the developing world the lazy man's purview; the sluggishly slothful and languorous prefecture. In this realm people are sleepy, dreamy, torpid, lethargic, and therefore indigent - totally penniless, needy, destitute, poverty-stricken, disfavoured and impoverished.
In this demesne, as they call it, there are hardly any discoveries, inventions and innovations.
Africa is the trailblazer. Some still call it "the dark continent" for the light that flickers under the tunnel is not that of hope, but an approaching train. And because countless keep waiting in the way of the train, millions die and many more remain decapitated by the day.
"It's amazing how you all sit there and watch yourselves die," the man next to me said.
"Get up and do something about it."
Brawny, fully bald-headed, with intense, steely eyes, he was as cold as they come. When I first discovered I was going to spend my New Year's Eve next to him on a non-stop flight from Los Angeles to Boston, I was angst-ridden. I associate marble-shaven Caucasians with iconoclastic skin-heads, most of who are racist.
"My name is Walter," he extended his hand as soon as I settled in my seat.
I told him mine.
"Where are you from?" he asked.
He smiled, and in those cold eyes I saw an amenable fellow, one of those highbrows who shuttle between Africa and the US
"I spent three years in Zambia in the 1980s," he continued.
"I wined and dined with Luke Mwananshiku, Willa Mungomba, Dr Siteke Mwale, and many other highly intelligent Zambians.
"I was part of the IMF group that came to rip you guys off. Your government put me in a mansion overlooking a shanty called Kalingalinga. From my patio I saw it all - the rich and the poor, the ailing, the dead, and the healthy.
"I've since moved to another group with similar intentions. In the next few months my colleagues and I will be in Lusaka to hypnotise the [President Michael Sata]. I work for the broker who has acquired a chunk of your debt. Your government owes not the World Bank, but us, millions. We'll be in Lusaka to offer your president millions and fly back with a cheque 20 times greater."
At midnight we were airborne. The captain wished us a happy 2012 and urged us to watch the fireworks across Los Angeles.
"Isn't that beautiful," Walter said, looking down.
"That's white man's country," he said.
"We came here on the Mayflower and turned Indian land into a paradise, now the most powerful nation on Earth. We discovered the bulb, and built this aircraft to fly us to pleasure resorts like Lake Zambia."
I grinned: "There is no Lake Zambia."
"That's what we call your country. You guys are as stagnant as the water in the lake. We come in with our large boats and fish your minerals and wildlife and leave morsels. That's your staple food, crumbs. The corn meal you eat, that's crumbs, the small Tilapia fish you call Kapenta is crumbs. We, the Bwanas (whites), take the cat fish. I am the Bwana and you are the Muntu. I get what I want and you get what you deserve, crumbs. That's what lazy people get - Zambians, Africans, the entire developing world."
My smile vanished.
"I see you are getting pissed off," Walter said.
"You are thinking, this Bwana is a racist. That's how most Zambians respond when I tell them the truth. They go ballistic. Let's for a moment put skin pigmentations, this black and white crap, aside. Tell me, my friend, what is the difference between you and me?"
"There's no difference."
"Absolutely none," he said.
"Scientists in the Human Genome Project have proved that. It took 13 years to determine the complete sequence of the three billion DNA subunits. After they were all done it was clear that 99.9% nucleotide bases were exactly the same in you and me. We are the same people. All white, Asian, Latino, and black people on this aircraft are the same. And yet I feel superior," he said.
"Don't blame it on slavery, like African-Americans do, or colonialism, or a psychological impact or stigmatisation. Don't give me the brainwash poppycock. Give me a better answer."
He continued: "Excuse what I am about to say. Please do not take offence."
I prepared for the worst.
"You, my friend, flying with me and all your kind are lazy. When you rest your head on the pillow you don't dream big. You and other so-called African intellectuals are lazy, each one of you. It is you, and not those poor, starving people, who is the reason Africa is in such a deplorable state.
" Poor and uneducated Africans are the most hard-working people on Earth. I saw them in Lusaka markets and on the streets selling merchandise. I saw them toiling in villages. I saw women crushing stones to sell and I wept. I said to myself, where are the Zambian intellectuals? Are Zambian engineers so imperceptive they can't invent a stone crusher, or a filter to purify well water for poor villagers? Are you telling me that after 37 years of independence your university school of engineering has not produced a scientist or an engineer who can make simple machines for mass use? What's the school there for?
"Do you know where I found your intellectuals? They were in bars, quaffing. They were at the Lusaka Golf Club, Lusaka Central Club, Lusaka Playhouse, and Lusaka Flying Club. I saw alcoholic graduates. Zambian intellectuals work from eight to five and spend the evening drinking. We don't. We reserve the evening for brainstorming.
"And you flying to Boston and all you Zambians in the Diaspora are just as lazy and apathetic. You don't care about your country and yet your own parents, brothers and sisters are in villages, all of them living in squalor. Many have died or are dying of neglect by you. They are dying of Aids because you cannot come up with your own cure.
"You are here, calling yourselves graduates, researchers and scientists and are fast at articulating your credentials once asked. Oh, I have a PhD in this and that - PhD my foot."
I was deflated.
"Wake up you all," Walter exclaimed, attracting the attention of nearby passengers.
"You should be busy lifting ideas, formulae, recipes, and diagrams from US manufacturing factories and sending them to your own factories. All those research findings and dissertation papers you compile should be your country's treasure. Why do you think the Asians are a force to reckon with? They stole our ideas and turned them into their own. Look at Japan, China, India. Just look at them."
"The Bwana has spoken," he said, and grinned.
"As long as you are dependent on my plane, I shall feel superior and you shall remain inferior. The Chinese, Japanese, Indians, even Latinos are a notch better. You Africans are at the bottom of the totem pole."
He tempered his voice.
"Get over this white skin syndrome and begin to feel confident. Become innovative and make your own stuff."
At 8am the plane touched down in Boston.
Walter reached for my hand.
"I know I was too strong, but I don't give it a damn. I have been to Zambia and have seen too much poverty."
He pulled out a piece of paper and scribbled something.
"Here, read this. It was written by a friend."
He had written only the title: "Lords of Poverty."
- Ruwe is a US-based Zambian media practitioner and author. This is an edited version of an article that appeared online and has since gone viral