Once in Zambia: in memoriam

Mara boys 2

On the Road in Africa

You could say that both this image and the survival of its medium (old film)  is fleeting. The original photo was taken from a passing Land Rover on a dirt road. As you can see, I’ve been playing about with it. But it struck me, too, that there is a deeper meaning here. Life can be all too fleeting in the non-industrial world, and especially on bad roads. See for instance Jujufilms , a blog that shows both the dark side and wondrous vivacity of Nigerian life.

But this reminds me of another kind of disaster. When Team Farrell was living in Zambia in 1992-3 there was too much dying going on  – from famine, TB, malaria and cholera. And then there was one especially tragic event that touched all Zambians. Our passing connection with it began when we did something that we have never done since – we went to a football match. On 30th January 1993 Zambia was playing Namibia in the World Cup qualifying round at Lusaka’s Independence Stadium.

The reason we were in Zambia was because  in November 1992  Team Leader, Graham, had been seconded from the Natural Resources Institute, Kent, to the EU Delegation in Lusaka to manage the distribution of European food aid to upcountry Zambians. There had been a bad drought in southern Africa during that year, and President Chiluba, who had recently succeeded Kenneth Kaunda in the first multi-party elections since Independence in 1964, did not trust his ministers to distribute the maize flour and cooking oil fairly, or even at all. Instead, he said, international donors were to use Missions and NGOs to reach the starving villagers.  And so this was Graham’s own mission – organising food deliveries to far flung corners of the Zambia.

Famine, though, was not the only problem at that time. There were guerrillas from Mozambique spilling over Zambia’s remote eastern borders to predate on poor villagers. Then from the north came the unpaid members of Mobuto’s Zairian Army. To make up for a lack of salaries, they would drive down into the Copper Belt, or even as far as Lusaka, for a spot of night-time looting and pillaging. (It will be remembered that Mobutu was another dismal world leader put into power by Western governments). Last but not least, Son of Kaunda, doubtless suffering the loss of the family power-base, was plotting a military coup.  All seemed precarious, then, a situation made much of by British-born locals and EU diplomats who never tired of telling us of their hair-raising confrontations with rapacious gunmen stealing even their curtains, or how our Suburu would surely be car-jacked if we were silly enough to drive into the city.

Going to a football match, then, suddenly took on an element of foolhardiness. It was one of Graham’s colleagues, David Walker, visiting Zambia for a short stint of crop storage consultancy, who said we must go. And since his enthusiasm was so infectious, go we did, although it took much persistence to get tickets; none of the European Zambians had any idea how we might buy them; nor could they imagine why we would want to. It was Wilfred, the EU Delegation’s driver who told us when and where to go for them.

And so, come match day, on a hot Saturday afternoon, we set off in the Suburu that was ‘bound to be car-jacked’. Independence Stadium is a little way from the city, out on the Great North Road. There were no signs, only two brick gateposts in the middle of nowhere. We simply followed the trucks and pick-ups jammed with excited fans, and the thousands and thousands of pedestrians. It was a real family outing – mothers, fathers, children, alert but placid babies tied to their mamas’ backs.

When it came to parking, Graham soon struck a deal with two boys to ‘guard’ the car. A young police woman politely asked if, Madam, could she see what I had in my basket, and briefly explored our picnic. Soldiers checked our tickets. And as the ugly concrete stadium filled, the Namibian team entertained the crowd with a synchronized warm-up to rhumba rhythms.  The only dint in the general good humour came  when a Zambian team official began to announce line up changes over the PA system. The whole stadium groaned.  “Now just listen!” said the official in the manner of a thwarted school teacher. And everyone did, while he spelled out the reasons for the substitutions.

At five minutes to kick off, the presidential motorcade swept round the ground, releasing the diminutive President Frederick Chiluba in front of the grandstand to greet the teams. The military band struck up the national anthems, the President was installed in his executive armchair, and the TV camera woman atop her scaffold was ready to roll. Zambia needed four goals to qualify. There was a general air of speculative optimism: was it too much to ask? But fifteen minutes in, with the first goal scored, everyone was certain. Their heroes would not fail. This was the team that had thrashed Italy 4 –0 at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. This was the team set on winning the first Africa Cup of Nations trophy. They were going places, taking with them, Zambians’ highest hopes.

It was not the greatest match.  There were groans, then laughter at many missed chances. Being no football expert I would have to say that the Namibian team’s best moment had probably been during the rhumba warm-up. But when the fourth Zambian goal was scored the stadium exploded with cheers of delight – everyone on their feet, babies held above the crowd so that their infant eyes might witness the scene of victory. A man in front of us  then threw up his arms and began to dance. And when that was not joyful expression enough, he turned, shaking our hands as he moved along the row. “My own young brother,” he said in disbelieving tones. “It was my own young brother who scored the fourth goal.”

The match won, the fans left quietly. We returned to the Suburu that had not been car-jacked, and paid the boys their kwacha. Leaving by car, though, was not so easy. We found ourselves locked in a vast sea of humanity. As we slowly edged forward, people rested their arms on the car window sills in a companionable way, exchanged a few words with us. Finally, a kind policeman waved us out onto the Great North Road where we joined the dash of fan-filled trucks, the smelly old bus that was transporting the military band back to barracks, and finally the Zambian team bus, that pulled alongside before overtaking. “My God!” Graham cried. “We’re in the procession.” We gave the team a cheer. It had been a thoroughly good-hearted afternoon.

Three months later the entire Zambian team was dead. On 27th April they were on the way to play Senegal when their plane crashed off Gabon. We had been out of the country when it happened, and returned to a nation that had had the stuffing knocked out of it. President Chiluba declared a week of national mourning. The radio played only funereal music and, on the 3rd May 1993, Zambia’s team and Zambia’s hopes were buried in state on ground near Independence Stadium. The tens of thousands of people who attended wept. The President wept – real tears, not like the ones his predecessor was wont to weep. 

“Today we inter our heroes,” he said, “but we do not bury their dreams and aspirations.”

And so the building of a new team became a touchstone for the greater struggle of building a new nation. I thought of the man who had danced his joy and shaken our hands, and wondered how he was. Cool Britons that we were, we had not asked his brother’s name.

Now, twenty years on, Zambia is a nation on the up, and when the Zambian people finally receive the full value of the mineral wealth extracted from their land by international companies, they will surely do a lot better. But when it comes to the 1993 disaster, the families of the dead team and air crew still do not know why the crash happened. The aviation report is yet to be released. Somehow it means the grieving just keeps on going.

© 2013 Tish Farrell

File:Lusaka Heroes Acre - memorial.jpg

Heroes Acre Memorial, Lusaka

Francis Alisheke / zambianfootball.net  Wikipedia Commons gabon+pyra.jpg

Memorial to the 1993 Zambian team. Both photos: Lusaka Times

Efford Chabala (goalkeeper)
John Soko (defender)
Whiteson Changwe (defender)
Robert Watiyakeni (defender)
Eston Mulenga (midfielder)
Derby Makinka (midfielder)
Moses Chikwalakwala (midfielder)
Wisdom Mumba Chansa (midfielder)
Kelvin “Malaza” Mutale (striker)
Timothy Mwitwa (striker)
Numba Mwila (midfielder)
Richard Mwanza (goalkeeper)
Samuel Chomba (defender)
Moses Masuwa (striker)
Kenan Simambe (defender)
Godfrey Kangwa (midfielder)
Winter Mumba (defender)
Patrick “Bomber” Banda (striker)

Coaching staff
Godfrey “Ucar” Chitalu
Alex Chola
Wilson Mtonga (doctor)
Wilson Sakala

Michael Mwape (FAZ Chairman)
Nelson Zimba (public servant)
Joseph Bwalya Salim (journalist)

Colonel Fenton Mhone (pilot)
Lt Colonel Victor Mubanga (pilot)
Lt Colonel James Sachika (pilot)
Warrant Officer Edward Nambote (fitter)
Corporal Tomson Sakala (steward)

22 thoughts on “Once in Zambia: in memoriam

  1. Very interesting story. The picture too, makes a very good illustration of the fleeting nature of sight seen along the way, and I like the way you played with the image, though it might have been better to have repaired the scratches on the negative before turning the image towards the abstract.

  2. “…We simply followed the trucks and pick-ups jammed with excited fans, and the thousands and thousands of pedestrians. It was a real family outing – mothers, fathers, children, alert but placid babies tied to their mamas’ backs…” – you are a great story teller, Tish!

  3. A momentous moment in time, I was enthralled with this story from your past and especially reading it as the World Cup is once again stirring up people’s emotions. I could feel the genuine sorrow of a nation and your lead photo is a very appropriate

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