Among its shimmering lights and shiny packages, the end of the holiday season brings with it deep reflection upon what friends and family have meant to us throughout the year and throughout our lives – parents, uncles, cousins, brothers, sisters near and far.
However distinct from human manifestations, cities have such meaningful relationships as well. Certainly, last year, Los Angeles’ relationship with its sister city in Zambia, Africa – Lusaka – was strengthened, seeing great strides that will benefit the two in 2023 and for years to come.
But then, the connection has long been mutually beneficial. One of a couple dozen sister cities Los Angeles can boast of, Lusaka—Zambia’s capital, a hub for trade and a terminal for Southern Africa air travel—is L.A.’s first and oldest African sister city.
The Los Angeles-Lusaka Sister City Committee formed as a nonprofit corporation in 1967, operating under the auspices of the Mayor’s office and the Mayor’s Council on Sister Cities, a few years following President Eisenhower’s launch of the greater concept as a means of fostering international peace, trade, cultural and educational exchange, as well as social and economic development.
And why not? The resemblance of these sisters is striking. Like Los Angeles, Lusaka is large, urban, with 1 million people inhabiting its towns and cities from over 70 different ethnic groups. English is the official language. Both depend heavily on ports. Their interdependence was inevitable and their potential together great.
Between 1974 and 2004, the Los Angeles-Lusaka Sister City Committee deployed a medical support team that collected and delivered medical supplies, pharmaceutical items and emergency room equipment to Lusaka that reached the university teaching hospital and made possible the treatment of a wide range of health issues, including HIV and AIDS.
Under former Mayor Tom Bradley, a $50,000 USAID grant provided social development and education support in the form of classroom textbooks, scholarships, and student exchange programs to Zambia’s largest education institution, Evelyn Hone College of Applied Arts and Commerce. One of the architects of that exchange program in the mid-1990s, alongside the Los Angeles Community College District, was Dr. Earnestine Robertson, who has served as chairperson of the Los Angeles-Lusaka Sister City Committee through five mayors and five presidents in the Republic of Zambia, not including its new president, Hakainde Hichilema.
Her passion for the mission of the committee is clear. “One nation’s resource is the link to another nation’s survival,” said Dr. Robertson. “We are living in an interdependent world wherein no one nation has a monopoly on oil, gold, wheat, water, territory, nor technology combined. Thus, it is our responsibility to work together, according other countries the same respect we seek for ourselves to ensure greater prospects of peace in our world.”
Case in point, Zambia is a primary resource of copper, zinc, lead and cobalt, which links the country critically to health, housing, and industrial groups in the United States. Copper, which endures for 100 years, has been used in the re-piping of homes instead of galvanized steel, which lasts a fraction of that time.
Interestingly, although it is a primary source for this element, Zambia has not been able to keep stride with the modern world it is helping to develop. Dr. Robertson would like to see the country empowered rather than exploited, being positioned to benefit economically from its own resources.
Robertson has worked in collaboration with the International Visitors Council of Los Angeles and the National Coalition of 100 Black Women to put on educational forums at Los Angeles Southwest College with aim to educate the greater public about Zambia’s contribution to the development of the modern world.
Among other programs Dr. Robertson and the Los Angeles-Lusaka team have crafted over the years as a means of supporting the greater vision of peace and mutual progress is an annual Women’s Entrepreneurship Program focusing on microfinance. Established in 2011, with donations from local communities, the program made it possible for 53 Lusaka-based women to receive funding to startup or improve upon existing businesses, from grocery stores to apparel shops. The funds the entrepreneurs were lent came back, not to the committee, but to the next year’s group of women, paying it forward, and compounding the reward.
If the apparatus for reciprocity isn’t immediately clear, Dr. Robertson, who recalls the care former Mayor Bradley took during the 1984 Olympics to ensure all African countries and consulate representatives were recognized at major receptions, offers key context.
“By our citizens participating in this citizen diplomat approach to international affairs and interdependence, it gave us an opportunity to do something about the philosophy that we embrace,” said Robertson.
“We were matched with a country that embraced that philosophy of democracy and equity as well. It also gave our people on a local level an opportunity to be exposed to people of the world. We are local, but we are also global because we understand the interdependent nature of the world, and there cannot be prospects of peace if we do not embrace that.”
In modeling this approach, the idea is that Angelenos benefit by having an influence on the minds of other countries. Wise from a business and humanitarian perspective, especially for younger generations.
Given that the continents’ 55 countries make such significant contributions to the modern world, including some Indium tin oxide, which is critical to the production of cell phones, Robertson believes the future will find other continents becoming more dependent on Africa and that Los Angeles should increase its number of sister cities from the continent.
In the meantime, another of the committee’s programs, Youth Ambassadors of Los Angeles for Lusaka, ensures that young students can learn early to confer with international counterparts.
Dr. Robertson, who taught political science and international relations for ten years, noted, “We must educate our students toward the concept of peace and learning how to negotiate as opposed to the concept of force and war, where we learn to obliterate other people and other countries,” she said.
This leads to opportunities in trade and exports as well as job prospects.
“A lot of markets are global,” said Robertson. “Young people can be trained to those markets that will help negotiate business products for the United States while increasing the prospect of peace.”
Citizen diplomacy also supports the related goal of parity with other industrialized nations, behind whom American students often lag in math and reading scores.
While the marketplaces in Zambia, and Lusaka in particular, are robust, occasionally, as it goes in dry climates, there are fires, and with merely two fire stations as recently as four years ago, these instances often prove deadly as well as destructive to infrastructures and businesses on the whole. A domino effect takes hold as residents then must find new food sources among other basic needs.
To bolster the city’s capacity to manage such incidents, in 2019, the Los Angeles-Lusaka Sister City Committee collaborated with Tom Gilmore and the Los Angeles City Stentorians, as well as Chief Ralph Terrazas, Deputy Chief Graham Everett, and inspector Gerald Durant of the Los Angeles Fire Department to donate three fire trucks.
In an example of community, city and county entities working together for good, the $50,000 effort was supported by then-County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, L.A. Councilman Curren Price, and Captain (now Councilman) Jonathan Bowers of Compton. Along with emergency supplies, breathing apparatuses, turnout gear, and repair parts, the trucks were shipped to the principal Port of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, thanks to the fundraising assist of Dr. Mwelwa Mulenga, Los Angeles-Lusaka’s esteemed vice president of Energy and Infrastructure.
Water is critical there, as it is everywhere. This is why Los Angeles-Lusaka Sister City Committee project director, Lidia Mongerie Brown, spent three months in Lusaka to implement a Clean Water Project in 2013 that integrates the provision of clean water with other environmental considerations such as water and waste treatment measures in an effort to ensure disease reduction.
“This project set the stage for three small-scale, fairly sustainable developments in intensely underdeveloped pockets of Lusaka,” said Dr. Robertson. These included the installation of two small water units in the villages of Kalama and Kanswa.
Coincidentally, during this time it became apparent that some Lusaka children were playing in water that was connected to a sewage line. Los Angeles-Lusaka successfully advocated for closing that sewage down and funded the 20-25 families who were collecting water from that location as well as a laundry site and other facilities.
The financing of water for those families has been in place ever since, with the last year and a half seeing Brown raise $10,000 toward the cause. With the help of a young fraternity organization out of University of California-Davis, Dr. Robertson raised $15,000 for the purpose of purchasing a water tank. Local Los Angeles donors included residents who themselves have gained much from the citizen diplomacy experience.
With this tank, 300 other families in addition to the previously mentioned 25 will have the benefit of access to that water. It will also create jobs, which will enhance the community. That check will be delivered in 2023.
Also in 2023, Sister Cities International, the Africa region, led by Lorna Johnson, JD, will host its first summit in sixty years, in South Africa. Los Angeles-Lusaka intends to participate, sending representatives including students from Zambia. One of the chief goals of this conference, in keeping with Dr. Robertson’s analysis, is to increase the number of sister cities.
For more information, visit sistercities.lacity.org.