15 June, 2013

Notes on the Accommodation of the Choma Museum

We read daily how well the Zambian economy is doing and how well the government is managing the national finances. These positives stand in shrill contrast to support and guidance given to the few museums we have in this country. We have only seven museums and these are supposed to preserve and present our national cultural heritage well and nationwide. The prevailing lack of appreciation for the cultural heritage and the role museums should play is outrageously demonstrated by the attempt to deprive the Choma Museum of the accommodation it restored at a very substantial cost. The facts are below......

The Choma Museum and its premises are among the very few  attractive public places  in Choma.


by Gijsbert Witkamp, founding Director of the CMCC (“Choma Museum”).
Choma, 4 June 2013

The issue
Recently the Choma Museum received letters from the Acting Provincial Education Officer of Southern Province saying his office is to “repossess” that part of the former Beit Boarding School for Girls that presently accommodates the Choma Museum, and during 1964 - 1988 was part of the Choma District Education Office. A similar effort made in 1993 was not successful.

The building
The building was constructed in 1927 with funds from the Beit Trust and served until Zambian Independence in 1964 as a boarding school for girls known as the Beit Boarding School for Girls. After Independence the building fell to the Ministry of Education of GRZ and became its Choma District Office. By 1987, due to lack of maintenance, the now historical building was in a seriously dilapidated state. Parts of it could not be used because of the danger of collapse, the building was heavily termite infested, the surrounding grounds were used as grazing grounds for cattle and public toilet. Its inner courtyards, during the rainy season, were mini-lakes with water rising over 2 feet high. The building, furthermore, was too large for the District’s Education Office and hence underutilised.

Origin of Agreement of Shared Occupancy
In 1987 the government of the Netherlands adopted a development project then named the Gwembe Valley Tonga Museum and Crafts Project. This project was renamed the Tonga Museum and Crafts Project (TMCP) and in 1995 became the Choma Museum and Crafts Centre Trust Ltd. (CMCC or more conveniently “Choma Museum”). The expert who in 1987 performed the project feasibility study recommended, following discussion with the Choma District Education Office and the National Monuments Commission, that the museum and crafts project be established in Choma; in the former Beit Boarding School for Girls, now serving as offices for the Choma District Board of Education. This way a historical building and part of the Zambian architectural heritage could be restored and preserved, and be better utilized. Following her recommendations discussions were held involving the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs and of Development Cooperation via its Embassy at Lusaka, the Netherlands Development Organisation SNV, the Society of the Gwembe Valley Tonga Museum and Crafts Project, the Beit Trust, the National Monuments Commission, district and provincial officials of the Ministry of Education, and other major civil servants including the Political Secretary and District Governors of the Southern Province.

The agreement to establish a museum at the Choma District Office of Education is in the Minutes of the Regional Council of Education Meeting of 29th December 1987, and was made unanimously by the Provincial Political Secretary, the assistant Permanent Secretary, the Chief Education Officer of Southern Province, and the District Governors of Namwala, Gwembe, Mazabuka, Monze and Choma. In attendance were the Deputy Chief Education Officer; District Education Officers of Gwembe, Choma, Monze and Kalomo; the Assistant District Education Officers of Mazabuka and Livingstone, and other senior education officials.

The understanding, in principle, was that:
  1. The Netherlands Government, in the framework of its Bilateral Aid Agreement with the Government of Zambia, was to restore the entire building.
  2. Such restoration was to be performed by the National Monuments Commission (now National Heritage Conservation Commission).
  3. Following the restoration the building was to be partitioned between sections for the District Education Board and what became the Choma Museum. The partitioning was approved by the Provincial Board of Education and was laid down in a map. The Northern section was to go to the Choma District Education Office, the Southern part was to accommodate the Museum and Crafts Project.

It is noteworthy that:
  1. The decision was made at provincial level with consent of the Provincial Education Officer by general administrators (i.e., the District Governors, A/Permanent Secretary and Political Secretary). Prior to that the Choma district education office had welcomed the establishment of a museum and crafts centre at its building in its meeting of 9 December 1987 that included the Country Representative of the Netherlands Development Organisation SNV.
  2. The decision to establish a museum and crafts project at the Choma District Education Office from the very beginning involved the National Monuments Commission (now the Heritage Conservation Commission) in recognition of the fact that the building belonged to the Zambian Heritage and therefore was of national interest.
  3. Museums at the time fell under the Ministry of Energy, Natural resources and Tourism. This ministry, through the National Museums Board, also became an interested party especially as of 1993 when the Tonga Museum and Crafts Project (as the project then was named) was given grant aided status. Other Ministries involved have been and/or are the Ministry of Education, Works and Supply and presently of Chiefs and Traditional Affairs; all at the highest level.
  4. The commencement of the restoration from the beginning involved international relationships between the Netherlands Government and GRZ. Later other governments substantially contributed to the improvement of this GRZ owned building; in chronological order these were the governments of Norway, the Czech Republic and the USA.

Origin and History of Conflict of Occupancy
The origin of the conflict lies at the absence of a proper contract prior to the commencement of the costly restoration works at the former Beit Boarding School for Girls at Choma. This omission painfully illustrated very different interpretations of the initial arrangements by Netherlands government officials and notably several Provincial and District Education Officers.

The Netherlands government, financier of the project, assumed that the costly restoration and the services thus provided justified the free use of the southern section of the building by the project as by initial agreement and understanding. These services and benefits were and are:
  • Providing the Choma District Education Office with decent accommodation,
  • Restoring and maintaining a GRZ building and its premises that are of historical importance,
  • Offering  the general public a cultural service (the museum),  that also contributes to the tourism industry,
  • Offering the peoples of the Southern Province in particular a cultural service by creating a museum to preserve and present their cultural heritage and by developing a crafts project enabling artisans to generate income from crafts making and market their crafts worldwide.
The District Office of Education read the arrangements quite differently. The Office was poorly funded and in dire need of money. As of 1988 a whole series of requests were made to the project. The first one involved a renegotiation concerning two rooms allocated to the project but wanted by the Choma District Education Office. The project agreed for the sake of good neighbourly relations. Subsequent requests ranged from providing stationary, building materials, continued maintenance of the District Office part of the building and fencing it, to rental charges. These requests culminated in 1993 by the then Provincial Education Officer reclaiming the entire building.

The matter became an issue of the bilateral discussion between the Netherlands and Zambian governments in 1994. Dr RMA Chongwe brought the matter to the attention of then Minister of Education, the Honourable A.S. Hambaya. The Minister in his letter dated 20 March 1995, having read the report by a committee that looked into the issue, decided that the Choma Museum be offered the entire building on the condition that it would facilitate alternative accommodation for the District Office of Education. The report concluded that the Choma District Office of Education was not capable of looking after the building, whereas the Choma Museum did look after this heritage.

The management of the Choma Museum indeed for some time pursued that course, notably by calling on the Beit Trust for assistance. This attempt, however, was not successful.

The matter remained dormant until the Acting Provincial Education Officer for Southern Province in a letter dated 4 May 2013 claimed to “repossess” the Choma Museum part of the building.

Notes to the above:

  1. My personal involvement covers the period January 1989 to November 1997. The project as of November 1997 has been managed by a Zambian Director.
  2. My stance concerning this issue is expressed in a letter dated 14 October 1992 to then Local Government Administrator Mr Matibini (now Speaker of Parliament), with copies to the relevant parties. My main point was that the District Office of Education now, after the costly restoration, should not come up with conditions which, had these been put forward at the onset, would been unacceptable for the Netherlands Government and its development organizations involved in the Museum and Crafts Project – meaning they would not have gone ahead with the financing of the restoration of the building. The inclusion of the cost of restoration of the former Beit Boarding School for Girls as part of the project budget served to secure long term accommodation for the museum.
  3. It should be borne in mind that the initial Netherlands investment in the entire building was in the order of USD 300,000 (value at the time of expenditure), that such money could pay for 6 medium-large houses and therefore would have amply sufficed to construct entirely new accommodation for the museum and crafts project.

The issue of the occupancy of what now is the Choma Museum at the former Beit Boarding School for Girls as of 1987 involved local, provincial, national and international levels.
  1. At the national level several ministries are or have been involved (Education; Works and Supply; Local Government and Housing; National Resources, Energy and Tourism and now also Chiefs and Traditional Affairs). Decisions about the accommodation of the Choma Museum should be taken at the national level involving these ministries.
  2. Relationships between GRZ and several governments are involved; all of these in the framework of international development cooperation. The moneys spent by these governments served to provide a permanent cultural service for the Zambian people and not to solve the urgent need of the Provincial Board of Education in 2013 for office space. Decisions made about the accommodation of the Choma Museum should enhance rather than damage Zambia’s image as a partner in development.
  3. The peoples of the Southern Province are and have been the special beneficiaries of the project as the project established a regional museum and crafts project. A decision to destroy their museum by depriving it of its accommodation is not going to be kindly received.
  4. A lasting, just solution must be arrived at that honours past commitments and is in the national interest.