By Eneyah B. Phiri
EVERYONE thinks they know the story of Professor Nkandu Luo.
A successful scientist and politician like Prof Luo is guaranteed to snatch headlines and acquire near Rockstar-like celebrity status in a country with few women in the higher echelons of academia and politics.
Have no doubt, Prof Luo’s fame across the plains and hills of Zambia is well deserved; it would be a modest exaggeration to say that the country’s first female professor’s name is known even to children who have barely had their last milk before being weaned off.
List this in your mind: three Certificates in Immunology and Immunopathology of Infectious Diseases, Flow Cytometry and Epidemiology and Medical Statistics, respectively. Further, a Master’s degree in Microbiology, another Master’s degree in Immunology and a PhD in Immunology. Added to this are professional accolades too numerous to mention, including being one of the first health professionals to discover and subsequently spearhead the control of the HIV pandemic in Zambia. Prof Luo’s academic achievements are too bright even for the most cynical of her opponents to throw proverbial shade on.
But that is not all the professor is. At her core, she is a caregiver, a mother of two, a grandmother of four and a sister to seven (two diseased). If you ask her, this is what best defines her. She is most at peace playing with her grandchildren or tending to her gardens on a Sunday afternoon. Among her hidden talents is dancing, the professor is well-versed in the cha-cha, tango, and others.
Perhaps most intriguing is how she managed to transform from the Microbiology microscope to the lens of national politics barely three years after her appointment as Head of Unit at the University Teaching Hospital in 1993. Previously, she had been offered a Ministerial position by then-President Chiluba. She denied the offer to focus on her professional career, much to the shock of the Head of State.
1996, Prof Luo, in quintessential fearless and bold fashion, thrust herself into what was then a hostile post-one-party state, a political theatre rife with news of suspected assassinations and assault on politicians.
As a testament of her urban, cosmopolitan and statesperson nature, the daughter of traditional Bemba and Bisa royal families chose not to launch her career in her native Chinsali but the ethnically neutral Lusaka as Member of Parliament for Mandevu Constituency in 1996.
Unlike most Zambian politicians who have used financial, ethnic, or social connections to prop up their careers, Luo’s political spaceship took off on a platform of academic and professional achievement. In no time, 1997, she was appointed Deputy Minister of Health.
From 1996 to date, over 25 years in the political arena, Prof Luo has remained focused, steering clear of infamous corruption allegations that have haunted the lives and careers of many young and old politicians who have come before and after her.
Even as she contests in this election, her opponents have little if no mud to sling at her despite her many years in politics. Meanwhile, some newcomer politicians are battling corruption allegations in the courts. Her detractors have made a meal of her bold decision to withdraw allowances from UNZA and CBU. Strangely, they don’t talk about the thousands of vulnerable, deserving students from other, newer universities that have benefited from this decision through extended bursary support. It begs the question, wasn’t the sacrifice of the few to benefit the many justifiable?
To people close to her, her integrity is what has confined her to modest assets as she is not one of the super-rich politicians of today’s Zambia.
Now the Wina connection.
Did you know that Prof Luo has twice succeeded Vice-President Inonge Wina at two ministries that the Vice President held? If the opinion polls are anything to go by and the PF emerges victorious on August 12th, it would be the third time she will be taking over a seat warmed by Wina.
In 2012 when Wina left the Ministry of Chiefs, it was Luo who took over.
Again, in 2015 when Wina left the Ministry of Gender and Child Development, do you know who took over her office? You’re right. It was Prof Luo yet again.
2021 is here. Will Prof Luo again succeed, Wina?