Kaunda

Turmoil

Following the recommendation of her doctor, Mabel traveled abroad to get checked on her pregnancy. As the work was rather pressing, I did not go with her but remained in Lusaka, still moving daily to and from Chilanga.

One day, while returning from Chilanga with a colleague from Tanzania called John, a few kilometres before getting to the Kafue roundabout (the entrance to Lusaka city at that time), we started seeing a few cars doing U-turns in total disregard of the traffic. I was still surprised when we also noted a lot of cars with their windscreens smashed and waving their arms at us, and the cars before and after us, to stop and turn back. Then we heard explosions. It took us a few seconds to realize that there were gunshots! Something very odd was happening but we could not know what!

Without a second of hesitation, I turned the pick-up around and started to retreat back to where we were coming from. It was then that we saw a large of crowd of people blocking the road ahead of us and throwing stones at the cars that tried to break through. Clearly, we were trapped between rioters. The area we were in was quarried for stones and there were usually many piles of rocks while people waited to sell them. We knew that there was plenty of ammo to smash our car so, unable to move through the road, I engaged 4WD and headed for the bush, hoping to be able to avoid the trouble and rejoin the road further on. It was not to be so we decided to abandone the car somehow hidden, hoping that the rioters would ignore it, being stationary and unoccupied.

We hatched a plan B that was to walk through the bush, attempting to get to the house of Des, my mechanic that was a few kilometres away. However, we had not yet walked more than a dozen paces when we heard a voice that, through a megaphone, asked the rioters to stop. We saw a couple of pick-ups loaded with soldiers and a convoy that was forming behind them. Without thinking twice, we run back to our pick-up, did another turn to now face Lusaka again and joined the convoy. Clearly, the intention was to attempt reaching Lusaka and we were prepared to take the risk rather than to remain where we were.

Soon the convoy started to move towards the city while the megaphone continously asked the rioters to clear the road. Many did but others would continue to attempt to block the road while still throwing stones to them. Then the soldiers replied by shooting above their heads and a stampede of riotrs ensued and, in a few seconds, the way was cleared!

We had a window of opportunity and we took it without thinking. I drove fast with my adrenline flowing, trying not to lose contact with our “protectors” regardless of the serious rock piles that were placed to block the traffic. It was a bumpy ride, but I managed to keep up while John held on to any available handle inside the car to avoid being knocked about by my rough driving. Luckily, we avoided injuries and damage to the car.

Once we entered the city, the soldiers continued through the main road while we deviated towards the East as I took John to his house. The air was heavy with tear gas and helicopters were flying above our heads when I dropped John and finally headed for home.

I got to our house and when I stopped the car I could still hear shooting and a far off murmur that clearly indicated that people were still revolting, despite the Government attempting to control the situation. The minute or so that Lemek, our gardener, took to open the gate felt like an hour and, as soon as the gate was opened, I rushed in and parked the car. I stayed a while re-gaining some degree of calm after what we had gone through. I felt as exhausted as if I would have driven hundreds of kilometres! I then made sure that the front gate was securely locked and told our employees to stay inside as I was not sure of the extent of the revolt and how it would end!

I then went inside and phoned Mabel to tell her that I was well so for her not to worry as I was sure that the BBC would be reporting on the events already. I got in touch with the project personnel and told them not to move from their houses until further notice. Luckily, Bruno was in Lutale, far away from the problems.

I locked the house and switched on the SW radio tuned to the BBC as the local radio was of not much use and got the UN VHF radio to participate in any security checks that they may do as well as getting information on the situation in the different areas of the city. What I heard was quite worrying as it seemed that the riots were spreading and luting was rampant.

It was Monday the 26th. of June 1990. Earlier, President Kaunda had announced an increase of more than double in the price of maize meal, the staple food of the country. The people were answering to these measures.

The night was reasonably quiet although sporadic shooting was heard. The following day we heard shouting outside the house. It was our turn for the rioters to visit us, probably on their way to the nearby shops and the supermarkets. Quite a few stones were thrown towards the house, but the house was quite far from the road and nothing was broken. To my relief, the crowd continued moving along.

The riots intensified over the next three days. A curfew was imposed, and I stayed home. Luckily, we had sufficient food in the house to last me for a few days. To my relief, on the 28th., the UN VHF radio announced that calm had been restored and essential personnel could go back to work.

The central and some of the commercial areas of Lusaka were severely damaged and most shops showed signs of having suffered a total loss. An estimated twenty-four people died and about one hundred and fifty were injured, many by gunfire. It was the most severe crisis that President Kaunda had suffered during his twenty-six-year rule and his power was severely weakened. When he addressed the Nation later, he repeated his offer of holding a referendum on the introduction of multi-party rule that he had mentioned the previous May.

A charged calm was restored but another surprise laid in waiting. On Sunday 1 July Lieutenant Mwamba Luchembe of the Zambian Army staged a coup d’état attempt [1]. At 3 am the coup’s leader announced via the Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation that the military had taken over the government and he cited riots of the previous week as reasons for his action.

The move only lasted about six hours. However, when people learnt that the military had overthrown Kaunda, hundreds of people demonstrated celebrating the event and, in the confusion that followed, there were rumours of some other military joining the coup.

At 9am, the Army loyal to Kaunda crashed his attempt and Luchembe was arrested although I do not recall that he was put on trial. The coup attempt added to the increasingly fragile situation of the President who, a week later, announced that a national referendum on whether to restore multi-party government would be held on 17 October 1990. We will go through these events later on.

[1] See: https://www.zambianobserver.com/mwamba-luchembe-and-his-failed-coup-of-1990-on-kenneth-kaunda/

The bowtie country

Landlocked Zambia got its independence from the UK in 1964 and for a number of reasons it got its shape that reminds me of a bowtie (a “Club round” type one for the specialists!). The knot squeezes and splits the Lusaka and Central Provinces while the left bow (Northern, Eastern, Luapula and Muchinga Provinces with small parts of Central and Lusaka Provinces) slightly smaller than the right one (Southern, Copperbelt, North-western, and Western with the largest portions of Central and Lusaka Provinces).

This rather special shape means that it is much closer to travel from Mansa, the capital of the Luapula Province to Kitwe in the Copperbelt through the Democratic Republic of the Congo, if that trip would be possible!

Although, if interested, you can search for Zambia in the internet and find lots of information, I will give you a few facts that should help to put our life there in context.

Among the twenty largest countries in Africa with 752,618 km2, Zambia has borders with eight other countries, quite a record! To the north there is the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tanzania to the north-east, Malawi to the east, Mozambique to the southeast, Zimbabwe and Botswana to the south, Namibia to the southwest, and Angola to the west. It is truly at the junction of Central, Southern and Eastern Africa.

In 1953, the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland that grouped together Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and Nyasaland (now Malawi) was created despite a large majority of the population opposing it. Kenneth Kaunda led this opposition that ended in its dissolution in December 1963. Zambia was born and Kaunda became its first President.

Kaunda was still there when we arrived, after 26 years. He did not have long to go but more about that in future posts. His party, the United National Independence Party (UNIP) ruled the country as a one-party state with the motto “One Zambia, One Nation”. Although there were about 73 ethnic groups, most of which Bantu-speaking, nine were the main ones, the Nyanja-Chewa, Bemba, Tonga, Tumbuka, Lunda, Luvale, Kaonde, Nkoya and Lozi. Although the tribal groups were important, rivalries as we had seen in both Kenya and Ethiopia were not evident, something I attributed to Kaunda’s “humanistic” ideas.

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Tribal and linguistic map of Zambia. Credit: Collection African Studies Centre, Leiden (The Netherlands). Author Unknown. Public domain. Via Wikimedia Commons.

My first blunder seeing many vehicles with the UNIP logo was that I thought that they belonged to one of the United Nations peace keeping organizations operating in the country. Luckily, after a couple of days of living in Lusaka, someone corrected me, not without some amusement.

Agriculture was important for the rather underpopulated country of 8 million (now 18 million) but mining, particularly copper extraction was the overwhelming driver of the economy and that was evident seeing the hundreds of lorries loaded with copper ingots moving through the country aiming for the ports in Mozambique and Tanzania.

Zambia had a difficult start as an independent country as, naturally, Kaunda supported the guerrilla war against the white-ruled Southern Rhodesia. This led to the militarization of the country and the closure of their border in 1973. The war escalated and in 1978 it reached Zambia’s territory when, after the shooting down of an Air Rhodesia passenger plane by the guerrilla, Southern Rhodesia retaliated with an attack to their enclaves throughout the country, including their military headquarters outside Lusaka.

Later, Kaunda played a key role in the resolution not only the conflict in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) but also in Angola, and Namibia and, while we were there, supported the anti-apartheid movements in South Africa that culminated in the liberation of Nelson Mandela in February 1990 and the restoration of black rule in the country.

In 1990, there was still tension, not with Southern Rhodesia that was already Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe but with South Africa. Zambia was supporting the various organizations fighting against apartheid and South Africa retaliated striking at dissident targets so, there were strict restrictions on taking pictures not only of the airport or any military facilities but also of bridges that were guarded by camouflaged anti-aircraft guns and controlled by army roadblocks.

Apart from the developments with South Africa, to make matters worse, the security situation was also bad and armed robberies were very common, particularly in Lusaka.

And then we arrived! It was late January 1990 during the rainy season to a rather steamy Lusaka. We stayed at the Andrews Motel, located a few kilometres beyond the “Kafue roundabout”, then the end of the city while we searched for a house. I do not recall much of the place as I was out most of the time but Mabel had to put up with it for a couple of months until we found a house.

While looking for a house we received lots of advice on where to live and what kind of house would be safe. “Get large dogs”, “it should have a good wall with razor wire”, “you must get a gun”, “do not rent a house without bars in all openings” and “your house must have an inner protected area” were some of the phrases we heard repeatedly, apart from recommendations on which suburb to pick!

Rather edgy we embarked in house-hunting and looked at a few houses within our rent bracket and settled for one in the Roma suburb, close to the city showgrounds (where the Annual Agricultural Show was held). More exactly we were at Nyoka road. Njoka meant Snake in Nyanja [1] and we hoped that it was only the name! This was confirmed a few months later when we became aware of the abundant rat population in the area as observed feeding on the fruits of the guava trees.

Although Mabel disagreed, I wished that a njoka would appear to take care of a few! Although Inky, our Siamese cat, caught some, Tigger, the marmalade was utterly useless, so we resorted to traps and shooting them with the pellet gun while feeding on the guavas!

The house fulfilled all the necessary security features that were apparently needed, particularly that, as a project manager, all project cars would be parked at my house every night as the stealing of cars was almost as frequent as the house robberies.

A poor picture showing the garden and the perimetral wall from one of the windows.

The house’s bedrooms were higher than the rest of the house and their windows looked down on the garden, a good vantage position to be. It also had, as repeatedly recommended, a strong “rape gate” (a rather straight but commonly used terminology to indicate the gate that isolates you and your family in the bedrooms while thieves steal your electronic stuff) fitted with two enormous padlocks housed inside steel tubing, very difficult to reach from the outside of the gate.

The house came with a caretaker called Mr. Phiri (not his real name) [2], highly recommended by Mrs. Wilson (not her real name), a former stewardess of the Union de Transports Aériens (UTA) [3], and the owner of the house.

As it was common those days, the house had a good vegetable garden that also came with a gardener called Mr. Lemek as well as an ample enclosure where we found a few hens and ducks as well as a number of rabbits housed in cages. Luckily, Mr. Lemek took care of both vegetables and animals and soon we added four Rhode Island Reds that produced lots of eggs all over our stay while the rabbit meat was mainly consumed by our house staff.

We installed “panic buttons” that, if pressed, would bring a contingent of guards that would enter the property to deal with the problem. We also recruited our own security guard, Mr. Nelson, an elderly gentleman that mostly sat in his guard house reading the Bible from his arrival at 18hs until he fell sleep, as most security guards do, until his shift was over at 6hs. There were also two resident dogs, Nero and Ginger, that we decided to keep as we were told that they were good guard dogs and they got on well with Mr. Nelson. In addition, we also were provided with a United Nations VHF radio to be used in emergencies.

Aware that security guards were usually the ones suffering injuries during armed robberies in Lusaka, we gave Mr. Nelson a whistle and instructed him to blow it if he saw something unusual and to run towards the staff houses at the back where he could seek refuge among the other people staying there, our gardener and the caretaker. Despite my objections, he insisted on keeping his catapult for which he made perfectly rounded clay balls to use as ammo.

The recommendation of getting a fire arm seemed very reasonable to us hearing of all incidents that were taking place in the city so I got a shotgun and a few cartridges that I was meant to use as a final line of defense in case the robbers attempted to break our final gate. Although I had shot partridge and hares in Uruguay during my youth, I am not a fan of firearms so, I disassembled, packed it carefully and hid it inside a trapdoor in the ceiling of our bedroom where I expected it to be for all the time we would be there.

So, we moved in although we only had very few personal effects for the reasons named in my earlier post and that took five months in arriving! It soon became clear that all we had been told about the insecurity was true and shooting was heard almost every night and we knew of several neighbours that would come out at night and shoot in the air in an effort to deter would be robbers! In addition, there was a “neighbourhood watch” formed by some neighbours accompanied by the police that would patrol the various neighbourhoods. I declined the invitation to join but, for a while, contributed financially to its operation.

Clearly Zambia was wild, and we had not yet seen the bush!

[1] Nyanja or Chewa is a Bantu language spoken in Malawi and Zambia, where it is an official language.

[2] People in Zambia were always referred as Mr. or Mrs., I believe this was due to Kaunda’s humanism emphasis on respect.

[3] UTA flew weekly to Lusaka until 1992 when it was taken over by Air France.