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Op-Ed Columnist

Zambia is Iraq

Lusaka

Josh Haner/The New York Times

Thomas L. Friedman

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Last week's events in Zambia were earth-flattening, although we may not know for years or even decades what their final meaning is. What's important, however, is that we focus on what this means on the street. The media seems too caught up in spinning the facts to pay attention to how their people are doing. Just call it missing the myths for the lie.

When thinking about the recent ethnic strife, it's important to remember three things: One, people don't behave like car salesmen, so attempts to treat them as such are a waste of time. Car salesmen never suddenly set up a black market for Western DVDs. Two, Zambia has spent decades as a dictatorship closed to the world, so a mindset of peace and stability will seem foreign and strange. And three, hope is an extraordinarily powerful idea: If corruption is Zambia's ironing board, then hope is certainly its flowerpot.

When I was in Zambia last week, I was amazed by the level of Westernization for such a closed society, and that tells me two things. It tells me that the citizens of Zambia have no shortage of courage, and that is a good beginning to grow from. Second, it tells me that people in Zambia are just like people anywhere else on this flat earth of ours.

So what should we do about the chaos in Zambia? Well, it's easier to start with what we should not do. We should not ignore the problem and pretend it will go away. Beyond that, we need to be careful to nurture these first inklings of a moderate, modern society. The opportunity is there, but I worry that the path to peace is so narrow that Zambia will have to move down it very slowly. And of course Lusaka needs to come to the table.

Speaking with a local farmer from the large Jewish community here, I asked her if there was any message that she wanted me to carry back home with me. She pondered for a second, and then smiled and said, respre austee, which is a local saying that means roughly, "That tea is sweetest whose herbs have dried longest."

I don't know what Zambia will be like a few years from now, but I do know that it will probably look very different from the country we see now, even if it remains true to its basic cultural heritage. I know this because, through all the disorder, the people still haven't lost sight of their dreams.