We Zambians will not forget in a hurry the events of July 3, 2008. I don’t know what to call it; the day President Levy Mwanawasa ‘died’ or perhaps the day he did not die? I don’t know, but what I do know for sure is that after one year, I’m finally able to see some humour in that rumour that made world news. The brief background is that after suffering a stroke at an African Union Summit in Egypt, the President was evacuated to Percy military hospital in Paris. While we waited for an update on his condition on that particular day, South African talk radio 702 broke news of his ‘death’ and media all over the world picked the story. This was followed by then South African President Thabo Mbeki observing a moment of silence. And in curious fashion, Zambian media was completely without such news, fuelling a level of speculation I had never imagined possible. We were later told he was alive but not before expending huge amounts of frantic energy and imagination – and that’s where my story begins. I was home for vac and the news found me in Ndola City, on the Copperbelt province, where I was visiting family. I was getting into the CBD when a friend called to confirm what he had heard. And so, “have you heard?” and “is it true?” became the order of the day. Soon I was repeating to each caller what the previous one had told me, each version slightly differing from the other such that within an hour I had passed on so many versions it was difficult to believe it was all about the same event!
Although Ndola City was hosting the annual Zambia International Trade Fair which is a big event, the talk in the CBD was mainly about the President’s ‘passing’. A few people were openly weeping, some speculating about his burial place, some convinced that the wise thing to do was rush home and stay indoors as none could tell what the coming days would bring and others totally indifferent to the news. A few were convinced it was all untrue and malicious. Anxiety, grief, fear and plain shock were evident in the countless conversations triggered by the news.
Now you see, every sister who knows what time it is (i.e. cultured in the enlightened ways of the big city!) has certain places she will not be found dead and certain rules she lives by, yet in the few hours of guesswork I went not to one but several of such places. I broke all the rules of the sisterhood and went on an uncharacteristic spree: eaves dropping, joining in conversations and arguments with strangers and even standing on tip toe behind any cluster of people on the street hoping to get some ‘411’. How I got to such extents beats me to this day. But like many people, my Levy’s ‘death’ verification exercise had begun in earnest and logic was the last thing on my mind.
Street hawkers were already cashing in on the desperation for news by selling printouts of the 702 story. Needless to say I bought a copy and what a struggle reading it was! The ink was so faint it could hardly be seen. If there was a Body Parts Rights Movement I’m very sure my eyes would have reported me for gross abuse! I decided I had had enough of ‘wrong’ places and ‘wrong’ crowds; surely how could I listen to street talk when I knew not only where news was found but also who found it?! So I got my phone from my gigantic handbag (yes, trends have to be followed even if it means carrying 4 Kgs on your shoulder everyday!) and called eight journalist friends in different newsrooms and all they knew was that the chief government spokesman would soon be addressing the nation. Not good enough. I sent countless texts to people I thought might know but nix, most of them did not even bother to reply. And so I was back to street news (put in my place is really what happened but heck, do you really think I will say that about myself?? lol). Besides, one thing I know about home is that “do not talk to strangers” does not work, at least not in ordinary people’s circles. People talk and if you care to listen you don’t even have to read the papers to know what is in the news, you just have to be in a public space like a minibus, a bank queue, a beauty parlour etc to get the 411 for free. I can’t begin to say how familiar I am with conversations that start with a head emerging from some newspaper with something between a laugh and clearing of the throat….. I digress!
Although I keenly chased this news, I was not sure if I wanted to know the truth especially if it was a confirmation of the ‘death’. I must admit that I was not Mwanawasa’s greatest fan: I was critical of and even angry at a number of his policies, but at the same time I recognised that the positive side of his presidency was positive indeed. He had scored several successes and made Zambia a country worth believing in again and I remember how proud I was to tell my non Zambian friends about him and his courageous ways. I had the privilege of meeting him a couple of times between 2002 and 2007. And just months earlier (Christmas of 2007) I had visited State House for an interview with the First Lady and throughout our talk she, in addition to other issues, repeatedly told me what a supportive and inspiring husband and father he was, how much his family had learnt from him, how disciplined and dependable he was and she painted a number of scenarios that made me see the first family in a different light. It was a family just like mine, bound by love and countless memories. And so now apart from my own fear of losing a President and the possibility of political and economic instability, I thought about a family that would have to learn to live without one of its foremost pillars and decided all over again that I wanted him alive.
I walked into an internet cafe and promptly googled the president’s name and there was nothing new. I went on face book and found almost all my Zambian friends had changed their statuses to an assortment of XY is shocked at President Mwanawasa’s death, BC has a dead president or does she? etc. Still on face book a group called “Is President Mwanawasa really dead?” had been formed and already had members. Although all the computers in the cafe were taken, people kept coming in and just hovering behind those browsing! Soon it was a chaotic joint effort with suggestions flying “let’s check state house website” and we would all rush there, “French embassy website” and so on. Our State House website took three lifetimes to open and when it finally did there was nothing close to the news we were dying to hear. People would talk on the phone and share whatever they had learnt. And soon the creative became evident among us as people started going “I have just talked to my uncle’s old neighbour whose ex-wife’s step brother’s workmate’s niece’s friend (or some such creative arrangement! lol) is friends with one of the President’s children” and not to be outwitted another would go “my cousin’s friend has a child with one of the presidential drivers and he has just told her now that no one is crying at state house… so I’m very sure he’s alive” “now come on even if he really is dead you don’t expect those ‘some of us’ (slang for the elite) at state house to wail!?” another would respond. Someone would start “I have a ‘connected’ friend in Paris who might know…” and even though it was a poorly told lie and just as likely to be true as Nicholas Sarkozy sending ME a “Please Call”, someone would promptly offer “use my phone…” and so the panic and guesswork grew. The things I would normally never give a second of my time, I found myself giving my all and then some to. By the time the news was officially dismissed as false, I was well and truly exhausted. I was also very convinced my stilettos and ‘half my weight’ handbag were punishing me for all my life’s sins! I headed back home my initial mission in the CBD completely forgotten.
The official announcement drew its own reactions but that’s really a story for another day, and whether one believed the first or second statement was really an individual choice.
As for me it is enough to say that strange as it was, July 3 brought to the fore our way of life in Zambia, reminding me how phenomenal our conversation skills are: how we love, bond, share, fight, boast, resolve conflict and heal through talking! The economy may have changed how we live as Zambians such that strangers may no longer be welcomed with a meal or drink but there is no shortage in smiles and especially good conversation!