Zambia has won the Africa cup! Those words sound magical, a fictional line in some science fiction plot. Yet there are no Harry Potter illusions here, no mythological beast that has been slain. Zambia beat three African soccer giants to lift the cup, Senegal, Ghana and Ivory Coast and the cup will no longer reside north of the equator. The tide has changed. The constant stream of images being posted by Zambians of the Lusaka celebrations are making me nostalgic. I would give anything to be at home right now, side by side with my country men dancing and singing. Alas, it is not to be, and all we can do on this side of the Atlantic is bask in the glory that is emanating from nine thousand miles away.
The day of the final, I bundled up my teenage daughter and we trekked 32 miles into Silver Spring, Maryland to join about seventy Zambians at the Nectar Grill on Georgia avenue. We had to find a group of Zambians watching the game, somewhere, anywhere. At this restaurant/bar/night club, we found a mass of Zambian revelers dressed in whatever version of green and copper they could find. Images of the Zambian national flag abounded and Nyanja and Bemba greetings and questions reminded you of a typical day on a Lusaka street. This was the atmosphere necessary for such and occasion, win or lose I wanted to be with my people to share in the joy or pain of the moment.
As we nestled in, I engaged in a conversation with the Nigerian husband of a childhood friend who noted just how calm Zambians are, and paid homage to Dr. Kaunda as soon as his face flashed on television. He spoke of how growing up in Nigeria, K.K. was the face of African peace. A Ugandan seated nearby joined the conversation, commenting on how -given the technical difficulties which made us miss almost 20 minutes of the game- the Zambians in attendance where as calm as ever. "If this had been West Africans, there would have been a riot in here!" he exclaimed. I told him that as far as I can remember it has always been our way, this passive strong resistance which prefers compromise over conflict.
We have a strong national identity buoyed on the shoulders of a nationalism indoctrinated by UNIP and Kaunda. We are a proud people, knowing and recognizing our heritage. You will rarely find Zambians involved in some international internet scam trying to 'make your money disappear'. We watched the second half of the finals on a small Samsung smartphone, no loud grumbling, no chair throwing or fighting. Huddled together at one corner was a large group watching on a laptop. Music started playing and Zambians started to dance as the technicians tried to fix the problem. During this time, we missed Drogba's penalty and as the phone died and relocated to a freezing SUV outside to charge and watch catching part of the overtime.This experience was about more than the game, it was about camaraderie, national spirit, community. We needed to be with other Zambians, who had felt the same scorching sun on their backs, walked on the same dirt, knew what town and flats mean. I needed to meet Vincent and reminisce about Munali, when Katongo almost scored. It was important that even in America, I was in a Zambian room, if but for the moment.
We would eventually get to see the penalty kicks on the restaurant big screen. The air was palpable, throbbing with anticipation. Unfamiliar people holding onto each other, screaming at a wall. When Toure missed, we almost lost our minds. When Mayuka missed it was no different. As Gervinho walked up to the ball, I waved to the DJ to cut off the music. This was no time for dance-hall reggae, it was a moment of silence. Gervinho missed and in that moment, I knew in my heart it was ours. Sunzu scored and the place erupted! Tears of joy, screams, chants of "Iyeee Chipolopolo!" Deep in my heart, I felt the collective sigh of over eight million people. The dreams that have floated and dissipated on the shores of Gabon finally lifted and started making their way home. "It is finished!" I heard them say, "We are going home now!" Home, for that is where the cup was headed, to a place that has needed it for so long. A place where the healing of wounds inflicted by neglect were sutured by twenty three young Zambian players who were but babies when that plane went down that fateful day in 1993. Our dream is now a reality, we are the African champions, Zambia and Southern African soccer will never be the same. Most of all, the pride we have always felt, just got a whole lot stronger.