Saddam Hussein Avenue in Lusaka, Zambia, with its grassy road divider and a roundabout on each end, was deserted. No cars. No pedestrians. No other bikes. But Kezzy could not stop to panic. Squeak of chain that needed grease. Heart pounding against light blue t-shirt, in time with his thighs. Handlebar winching metal into his calloused palms. He had never heard his breath before on this road, with the noise of traffic drowning it out. The short high call of doves that lived in the multi-story birdhouse on the roundabout accompanied the whoosh of Kezzy’s bike as he passed by, the white birds in their roughly hewn ‘apartments’. It was good to hear the sound of something harmless.
Paraded and killed, the man on the radio had threatened this morning. This Captain Solo, he took over the Mass Media complex and announced that the Chief of Police and the Army Commander were officially dismissed, along with the President – who was to be killed and paraded. Maybe not in that order. Wouldn’t more be achieved by parading a dead President than a live one? It should go: killed, then paraded. Unless the look of abject terror on the short man’s face was what you were after. Frederick T. Chiluba was a scarce five feet, and wore platform shoes for his public appearances.
Kezzy racked his memory to think of a neighboring country where this had happened. Not Zimbabwe. Not Mozambique. Not Angola. Not even South Africa. Congo? Lumumba was chopped up by the CIA, thrown into a pit, and dissolved by acid. Not paraded and killed.
It had always been like this in Zed; threats of violence undercut by elements of the absurd. As a child, the family had to turn off the lights after 7 pm, so Ian Smith’s Zim planes would not mistake their house for a terrorist stronghold. Because the ANC had found safe harbor in some of the homes he was riding past right now. Kenneth Kaunda, the former school teacher turned first president, espoused nonviolence, and invented a brand of Socialism tailored to Zambia, and then hired vigilantes to patrol the streets, lest anyone question the humanity behind Humanism. He couldn’t blame Zambia, though; that whole generation of African leaders could have done better. That was why Kezzy got on his bike that morning: he had never been convinced of anyone’s true authority.
A passive people, his Harrow teachers tended to say, though gently. A bit pathetic, really, but when he looked at Congo or Angola or Mozambique or Zimbabwe, and never mind South Africa, he understood that worse things could befall a nation. Land mines. Basements full of political prisoners. The burning tire necklace. His people were peaceful, and knew nothing of planes dropping bombs from overhead, or limbs packed around bodies in mass graves.
It was 7 am when Solo’s voice came on on Radio Phoenix, all the more threatening for its lack of self-control. Was he drooling? Did he have a speech impediment? Or was it, like Kezzy’s, the voice of a man still drunk the morning after? Had the guy just overthrown the government as easily as walking into a pharmacy and buying a packet of Panadol? No one had seen it coming. Among all his friends, some whose fathers had been executed for treason a generation ago, the Apamwabma, someone should have known what was coming.
Kezzy switched off the radio and as quickly as he could dress, was on his bike. He could get to his mother’s house on Prospect Hill in twenty minutes, before the state of emergency went into full effect. Nothing in Zambia happened on time.
There was no question of taking the car. You didn’t move around in a BMW at a time like this. No one was staying with his mother at the moment, and her gate was made of dried grass. If there was to be a transition from a nascent two-party democracy to an unconstitutional military government, Kezzy was not going to let her go through it alone She would be anxious by now, almost an hour after the announcement. He could picture her broad, even face, watching the TV but no updates coming through. Sitting on the blue velour, arms resting on white doilies she had crocheted herself. Hands folded, frozen, silent, unsure what would happen next.
The real Captain Solo in this town is me. Out of all the family, he was determined to get there first. His two sisters would not travel across town with children. His young brother was away at school in the Copper Belt. His father would already be at his office by 7 am, before the news broke. And he was sure that this time, she would not greet him with that face of tired tolerance. Tempered disappointment. Variations on, What is it now? Not the genuine affection she showed the other three.
Kezzy passed the Lusaka golf course on his right-hand side, the sprinklers click-clicking in ignorant circles, oblivious that its shaded clubhouse and flamboyant trees were under threat. The golf course was across the road from the Presidential Palace, the closest open space to commandeer – if that was Solo’s intention.
A man who calls himself Captain Solo without irony does not play golf, Kezzy reasoned. There was Captain America, and there was Han Solo, and perhaps he had conflated the two. Or he hadn’t heard of either. Maybe no one knew this was coming because this guy was unconnected to their circle, a man who had not been to boarding school, who was not invited to parties where cantaloupe and prawns were passed on trays.
Kezzy turned left at the Italian Orthopedic Hospital and headed towards Yotam Muleya Road. Normally he heard firing practice or choral counting of calisthenics filtering through the gate of the police yard.
—Iwe! A ZPF officer stepped out from behind a tree. His shirt was untucked, as if he had been on duty for a long stretch, and he smelled like nshima that had crusted over.
—Bwino bwangi, Officer. Adrenalin shot through Kezzy, threatening the sweet smell of Lifebuoy soap that wafted off as he peddled.
—What are you doing outside? the officer demanded.
—Uh…uh…the car is broken. I have to get to my mother.
—The officer stared at him like nothing he said was logical. —Are you mad? Riding your bike at a time like this?
—My mother is sick! Kezzy hit upon this too late. His mother had to be sick, otherwise there was no excuse for defying the daylight curfew of the first coup in the country’s history.
—IT IS A STATE OF EMERGENCY! The officer was in a panic already, before this clown pedaled past. Since 7 am, no one knew who was in charge, who was The Real President, and now, he had to deal with shani-shani boys like this.
Killed, then paraded, thought Kezzy. In desperation, he switched to vernacular. —Me, I am telling you, I am going to see my queen.
—You cannot be out at this time.
—Eh, I am going to bring her some medicine. Kezzy patted the bag he had slung across his shoulder, which contained two bottles of Mosi. He had planned on drinking with lunch.
The officer put his hand out, so he could check the bag, but Kezzy pulled it closer. Under normal conditions, the well-traveled, deep-English speaking Apamwamba always trumped the uneducated hired gun, and if that failed, the chief of police was a friend of his father’s. But today, chaos was the victor. A slurring man had taken over the government without a fight and whatever Kezzy might have fallen back on, his various tributaries to power, had run dry.
—My bru, you must be thirsty. You have been standing out here in the sun. Kezzy pointed up, away from the shade of the jacaranda the soldier had been standing under. —I want to buy you a Coke. He reached into his pocket. Dammit. Only his national ID card and passport in his wallet. All his cash was spent at the Blue Nile the night before.
He had spoken to soon. The only thing worse than bribing a police officer was offering to bribe a police officer and then having no cash. He had no choice. Only the Mosis could save him now. He reached into the red backpack and produced one amber bottle, ripe with condensation, then another. If it was too obvious to sigh in disappointment, this did not prevent an opaque hiss leaking out.
The officer’s eyes lit up. Two cold Mosis, at ten in the morning, were really more than he could have hoped for at a moment like this. History was being made, and he was going to sit under a jacaranda tree and enjoy it.
Kezzy slung the bag onto his back and hoped that his mother would serve something more potent than tea with lunch.
He was close to home now. At the top of the hill on Manenekela, the security walls of Nsumbu Road were solid and electrified. Purple jacaranda towered and drooped, too fluffy for real life, for electrified wire and its implied threats. No matter. His anticipation crested as he locked his left knee down and coasted towards his mother.
The middle-of-the-hill road, Ngulube, displayed security walls that were more utilitarian, made of rougher cement, with shards of broken bottles stuck into the walls. When it rained, these middle-of-the-hill houses absorbed some of the run-off from the top, but the water continued down the hill where the gates were made out of grass, where his parents lived. Some of the fences had gaping holes that needed repair, while others had waist-high chain-links, better for keeping the chickens in than the thieves out. The three little pigs, from brick to stones to grass. Once, his father could have afforded a house at the top of the hill, when KK was still in power.
Kezzy’s mother opened the grass gate in her white and blue church choir uniform and looked her son over. —Are you crazy! The short black hair of her wig swished as she shook her head, its shiny nylon picking up the morning sun. —No one is out on the streets, except for soldiers. What if someone saw you?
—Someone did see me.
—It was nothing. No one.
—Was it one of Solo’s men?
—Solo doesn’t have any men, Ma. If he had men, we would know it by now.
—It’s a state of emergency! It’s the first coup we’ve had in this country. You could have been thrown in jail. Do you not have the sense of a chongololo? To curl up and pretend you see and hear nothing? This is not a game, son.
Kezzy’s eyes sunk backwards. Why did he do this to himself? Each and every time. —I told them I had to get to you. To make sure you were OK. I told them my mother needed me.
—Me? Iwe! I am just OK. I’ve got Miriam, and I was watching television. Long ago, at university, Kezzy used to hope that the long hours she spent singing about God and forgiveness would translate into a more charitable attitude towards him.
Kezzy wanted to tell her that the guard was happier to see him than she was. That look on his mother’s face existed, but not for him. He could not remember a time when he came to the door and saw the same expression on her face she gave his sister Mulenga, not when he was six years old and returned home for dinner after catching a jar of inswa for her, not after graduation from boarding school. What made him think today would be any different, just because the country was under threat and he alone, Solo, had taken to the streets for her?
—I knew Pops would be at the office, and with Bwalya away at school…if something was going to happen.
She walked across the flagstone path to the one-story house that squatted between the chicken hutch and a clothesline, and he followed, noticing how rough and twiggy the grass was, inhospitable, like a thorn bush laid on its side.
In the kitchen the maid was washing the dishes. She smiled warmly and he nodded in her direction. —Muli bwa, he greeted, turning back to his mother. —I didn’t want you to be alone. (Stupid. Stupid. Still hoping.)
—But me, I’m not alone. You see? She sat down at the linoleum kitchen table where her Lipton was getting cold, back straight against her chair, despite her pudgy frame. Kezzy slumped down across from her, head almost touching the metal rim.
The kitchen was falling apart. Two dials were missing on the electric stove, and the cement floor showed remnants of tile from the previous owners. He tried to remember a time when the stove had all its parts. When KK was still in power, and his dad worked for the Ministry of Lands? No, the cement floors had never been smooth, and he had never enjoyed his mother’s affection. As a toddler, it was the maid who tied him to her back.
The metal of the kitchen chair dug into the backs of his legs. Cushions. At least, his mother could top up with some cushions. Kezzy tried to remember the way he felt coasting down the hill, the kind of hope you hold against all evidence to the contrary, thinking that change was possible. It was no surprise that men like Captain Solo sprung up out of nowhere, grasping for their last chance. A person could only take so much.
—You were supposed to have choir practice today? He pointed to her white top.
—I got dressed before I heard the news.
He and his mother hadn’t been together like this, just the two of them, around the kitchen table, since Kezzy returned from gem-finding at Lake Bangweulu. It was dead silent outside, except for the soft clucking of the chickens. Kezzy braced himself for the pop of gunshots, the whoop of newly armed soldiers, the grind of pick-up truck tires.
—It was so quiet on my ride over. I didn’t know what was going to happen.
She shook her head, refusing to acknowledge his bravery. —I fear only God.
This, he had heard before. —I think the question is, does Captain Solo fear God?
Miriam set down a cup of tea for him. —Biscuits? he asked the maid, for his mother had not offered.
—Eh, but he sounded like a drunkard, Gladys mused.
Kezzy stiffened at the slant of accusation. The possibility that she could smell it, coming through his pores, made him pick up his tea.
—Not you, his mother clarified. —On the radio. He was slurring. I thought I heard giggling in the background when he made his announcement. Eh, us Zambians, drinking too much.
—Well, Mum, it’s too soon to tell. You never know who put him up to this. KK has never acknowledged Chiluba’s victory. He’s been nursing a grudge for the past five years. Maybe he finally found a front man.
Gladys was not convinced. She had lived through two political transitions: self-rule, and then multi-party democracy. —If KK wants to pull the strings on a new President, let him send one of his sons. Not this shani-shani boy.
Kezzy imagined the opposite. Guerillas stationed on a carefully plotted grid, at strategic points, ready to overtake. Like it should have been in 1964 when the Brits pulled out. Choreographed. It was something he craved like his mother’s affection, the idea of plan and execution, step by careful step. Such things happened all the time in other places. Roads were built. Power flowed uninterrupted. Not in Zed. Not yet. Not ever. He was perpetually impatient with his own people, who seemed not to rise to the challenge. Forty years after independence and his country still needed everything – irrigation, power, roads, good teachers, good doctors. Drinking chibuku at 10 am in bars without a proper roof, while other countries raised skyscrapers. Why did every Zambian with a PhD move to another country? His friends from boarding school were abroad, ignoring his arguments about coming home. Maybe Zambia did need a coup, to get everyone to wake up.
They sat for the second hour, the uncertainty elongating the minutes, scraping against what should have been comfort between a mother and her eldest son. She looked towards the analog radio on the peeling counter by the sink, its antenna stretched out, making no sound but static, as it had done since Captain Solo’s announcement.
No tea was poured. They did not move from the kitchen table, entrusting the radio to update them ahead of the TV. Mostly, they waited in silence. Gladys had no need for small talk.
—I told you about Polar Dream.
—And how I’m getting the production line going.
—Mmm. Gladys stiffened.
—Let me tell you what happened. I couldn’t believe my good luck. A few nights ago, I was playing pool with the foreman from Cook’s, and it turns out they have been stockpiling their cream, waiting for the market to turn. They are looking for a buyer.
—After the paté, we thought we were finished, but then there were the gems. You were sure that was going to profit the family. And what did you come home with? Where is our investment?
—But I’ve found the missing link for my product – the cream. With a new president, there could also be new contracts. The Minister who’s got his fingers in Parmalat could be out of a job by Monday. Things could open up, and I…
—You risked your life to come over here and ask me for money!? In the middle of a coup!? Gladys was a placid woman, but when she exploded, her voice trembled from the depths. She stood up, readying herself.
Kezzy stood up, facing her. —No, mom, I came here because I thought you needed me.
The next time there was a state of emergency, Kezzy was sure about one thing: he would not risk his life to help his mother. Let the woman sit in her house with Miriam, and see what her trusted maid would do for her. He stewed and churned inside as the static on the radio cleared.
At 9 am on this Tuesday, 29th October, 1997, Steven Lungu, otherwise known as Captain Solo, was apprehended at Mass Media. He will be tried for treason and punished accordingly, the announcer said before the President’s voice took over. Paraded and killed, Kezzy thought.
Gladys twisted her head left as the familiar voice of their President came on the radio. The Lord is keeping His hand over our nation. The Lord Jesus is in full control; be not afraid. There shall be no power greater than that of our Lord Jesus. In person, Chiluba was a short man, in his platform shoes; but today he was tall, booming, priestly. Utterly soothing.
Gladys took her son’s hand, as if to say that she and Chiluba saw the world through the same Christian lens. —What a foolish, foolish man, she shook her head and her hair swished in time. —We might have choir practice today after all.
Kezzy wasn’t listening. Only in Zambia could a coup start and finish three hours. Only here could a drunken ex-soldier take over the country like he was walking into a drugstore and buying some Panadol. But it didn’t make him feel pathetic; it made him proud. A gentle people like nowhere else in the world.
—Stupid, Kezzy agreed, but he said it affectionately, like Captain Solo was him.
Tej Rae is a freelance writer currently living in Dubai after 12 years in sub-Saharan Africa, where she founded Africa’s first children’s museum. She has taught creative writing to high school students since 1994. Her work has been published in The Washington Post Sunday Magazine and BBC Focus on Africa Magazine, on the web at http://www.artzone.co.za, Fiction365, openSalon, and Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, and Zambian magazines Time Out Lusaka and The Lusaka Lowdown. She has two children and travels with her husband, who works for the United Nations.