The Decolonisation of Alcoholism: Alcohol Abuse, Treatment and Prevention in Zambia, c. 1950-1970

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"The Decolonialization of Alcoholism: Alcohol Abuse, Treatment and Prevention in Zambia, c. 1950-1970"


Professor Charles Ambler

Department of History, University of Texas at El Paso, USA


In 1963, the year before British Northern Rhodesia became independent Zambia, six African men individually approached the local Alcoholics Anonymous organization for help.  The AA was then exclusively white and with the associated Northern Rhodesia Society on Alcoholism operated a residential alcoholism treatment facility.  These requests for help challenged the racial order; but at the same time they set in motion an examination of alcohol abuse in Zambia that led quickly to the closure of the clinic and to the creation of a new Zambia National Council on Alcohol and Addiction (ZNCAA)—with the blessing of Zambia’s first president, Kenneth Kaunda, a vocal critic of alcohol. 


This paper explores these developments in relationship to the constructions of intoxication and addiction that emerged in the Zambian case and in the broader debates on alcohol abuse and control in the “Third World”.   The closure of the clinic avoided the immediate problem of racial integration of such an intimate space; but closure was also a response to the perceived distinctive characteristics of African drinking problems.  Whereas alcohol abuse was defined among whites as an individual pathology, alcohol abuse among Africans was conceived in collective, racial, terms.  With independence, alcohol abuse in Zambia and measures to combat it came to be described variously in ethnographic, sociological and biomedical terms, but these descriptions, like those in the growing literature on Third World alcohol problems, often reinscribed the very racial assumptions that had characterized colonial obsessions with the “native mind”.  


The paper is drawn from the ZNCAA papers and other documents from the Zambia Archives and the archives of the WHO—including materials related to the 1970s WHO cross-cultural study of alcohol that included Zambia; and from published studies and reports on alcohol and addiction in non-Western societies.



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