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Old Friend From Zambia Is Now the Prime Minister

April 17, 1986|DEBORAH HASTINGS | Times Staff Writer

ALTADENA — In Phil and Norma Elkins' home, the prime minister of Zambia is addressed with little formality. He is known simply as Kebby, an old friend they met 15 years ago in the African outback.

In his country, which was formerly Northern Rhodesia, Kebby Musokotwane is the head of Parliament. But in Altadena, where he visited the Elkinses on Tuesday, Musokotwane will always be remembered as the tribal chief's son who went against tradition and accepted the marriage of a white missionary to a village woman. And he will be remembered as the man who drove 400 miles to the nation's capital to buy a coffin for the missionary when he was killed in a motorcycle accident.

Musokotwane came to the United States this week with plans to visit Texas and pay his respects at that state's sesquicentennial celebration. "Sometimes I make what you call bogus trips here," the prime minister said Tuesday, seated in the living room of the Elkins home. "I had to find a reason to come to Los Angeles and visit my old friends." He laughed. "I should be in Texas, which is the main reason I'm here."

He will indeed visit Texas in the next few days. But first he sought a reason to stop in Southern California. He found it in an invitation from World Vision, the private Christian relief agency that is providing $1.3 million in aid this fiscal year to Musokotwane's south-central African country.

On Wednesday, the 39-year-old foreign dignitary addressed the organization at the First Lutheran Church of Monrovia. But before that, he spent a quiet evening with the Elkinses, eating a home-cooked meal and reliving old times.

In 1969, six years after the Republic of Zambia was formed following the dissolution of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, the Elkinses and three other families traveled to Zambia on a fact-finding trip funded by the San Fernando Valley Church of Christ. Although they considered themselves missionaries of sorts, their intent, Phil Elkins said, was not to force their religion on the Zambian people, "but to live with them for two years and learn what their needs were."

They chose the village of Mujalayana, populated by the Tonga tribe, in the southwest corner of the country that is bounded by Tanzania on the north and Zimbabwe on the south. It was there that they met Kebby, the son of a neighboring tribal chief and a primary school teacher in the village.

Musokotwane was disillusioned with missionaries at that time, he said. Most of them came to town only on Sundays, delivered their sermons, and left.

"Phil was a bit unique because he lived in a village with the people. He actually stayed with the people in the village. He ate what the villagers were eating," Musokotwane said.

Foreign Business Interests

And Phil Elkins, now an entrepreneur with various business interests, including gold and diamond mining in Liberia, remembers that Musokotwane was one of the first people to tell him that "what we were doing wasn't crazy. He affirmed what we were doing as good."

What impressed Phil Elkins the most, he said, was that Musokotwane was not afraid to speak his mind when he thought something was good, or to cross cultural lines to do so, as he did when he gave his blessing to a group of white missionaries living in a remote village and to a mutual friend of theirs, George Triplett, the white man who loved and wanted to marry a young woman in the tribe.

The Elkinses stayed in Zambia for five years. In 1973, Musokotwane, then 26, told Phil Elkins that he was toying with the idea of running for Parliament in the upcoming elections.

Elkins said he was not surprised. "That's what you were destined to do," he told the young man.

Political Career Began

Musokotwane won the election with 59% of the vote, and became the youngest member of Parliament. "I thought that I wouldn't go through the elections. I didn't know anything about politics then," he said.

From there, Musokotwane's political career was meteoric. Four years after his election, he was appointed minister of lands and natural resources. In 1979, he was named minister of finance. And in 1985 he became the youngest prime minister in the country's history and the first who was not a member of the Central Committee, the executive organ of the country's ruling party which has precedence over Parliament.

Musokotwane said Tuesday that his primary goal as prime minister is to help his country reorganize its economy. Long dependent on copper mines as its economic base, Zambia is now in a period of transition. The mines are exhausted, and the country is now looking to diversify into agriculture, oil wells and precious gem mining, Musokotwane said.

But in a country with 6.7 million people and 73 dialects, the most important task of political leaders is to "be able to continue to unite the people," Musokotwane said.

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