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Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Destiny - Zambia Wins

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.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Zambia's Tragedy - 20 Years Later

The Zambian national soccer team is heading to the finals of the Africa Nations cup on Sunday. The roar of triumphant voices all over Zambia as the team beat Ghana in the semi-finals could be heard almost ten thousand miles away in America. Facebook streams, twitter tweets, texts, emails, the internet went crazy as we all soaked in the reality. Our boys are in the final! Representing our nation on the very soil where our lost heroes last touched earth. It seems to be a fitting scenario, a choreographed routine, as if the very hands of our lost players are somehow participating in this healing. In 1993 , trying to heal from the tragedy that is still fresh in our minds, I wrote; The Death of a Country . A story that eventually was quoted in the book, The Ball Is Round: A Global History of Soccer, by David Goldblatt.

In that article I stated; "Imagine loosing all the Red Sox players. No more Rocket, Pena, Vaughn, Fletcher, Greenwell, nothing. All gone. All at once. The budding Charlotte Hornets, pride of North Carolina. Larry Johnson, Alonzo Mourning primed, ready for the playoffs. Beating Boston, then gone. All in the blink of an eye. On April 27th, 1993, a military plane carrying 30 passengers crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Gabon. John Starks head-butting of Reggie Miller during the Knick-Pacer series received more media attention. The crash killed 18 of Zambia's top football (soccer) players as well as the hopes and dreams of 8 million people. The tragedy can be likened to the Peruvian plane crash that eventually became a movie. The difference is, no one survived. In Africa, death is viewed with reverance, so you can be sure there will be no movies. This was the team Zambians felt would; for the first time in its 29 year old history; take itself and the rest of the country to the world cup. The blend of international and local players was perfect. Kalusha Bwalya, Charles Musonda, Johnstone Bwalya, Kenneth Malitoli and Gibby Mbasela are the internationals that make-up the fulcrum of the team. I speak of them in the present tense because they, unlike their comrades, will play again. Local players like Derby Mankinka, Timothy Mwitwa, Samuel Chomba, Efford Chabala (once voted Africa's best goalkeeper) and Eston Mulenga all perished." (Click link for full story)

Many of us have been watching the streamed games on our computers. No major networks, not ESPN, ABC or NBC are carrying the Africa cup in America. We have not seen the customary sob story play itself out as an intro to competition. Some fervent journalist following the story of our team, recalling the tragedy, the hope and dreams of a nation, nothing. There is no ESPN cover story as we slay another West African soccer giant. There are no marines - having persevered some tragedy- taking the field before our games. No Bob Costas pre-game interview to wrench at our heart strings as he asks the deep penetrating questions. Just plain unadulterated competition and the silent breathing of people who can barely watch, as the minutes tick away. Over twenty years ago, off the coast of Gabon our dreams sunk into the Atlantic Ocean. We were left to reminisce and imagine just what could have been. That 1993 team defined a generation, and brought hope to the nation. We saw the World Cup in our sights being carried by a team we believed would walk American soil as the first Southern African nation to reach the cup. Alas, it never came to pass, we were robbed, our hearts ripped from our chests to float as bits and pieces of debris collected on a sandy beach in a nondescript West African country. What happened?

You see, this has been a long and painful truth, our unfinished business. We have never truly healed from what happened. In fact, playing in Gabon simply gives us an opportunity to look them in the eye for the first time in decades. We have held unsaid enmity, and they having never fully answered our questions, and they still don't get it. We are not content, we are not satisfied, we have unfinished business. So over the years we have developed conspiracy theories and the legend has grown. Was it a rocket propelled missile or did the Gabonese tamper with the aircraft? So as we sit here at the precipice of something we already consider an over-achievement, we are left reflecting, wondering what comes next? No one thought we would beat Senegal or Ghana, and we did. No one, including us, expected to get past the quarterfinals, yet here we are. There will be no sleeping Saturday night, no church Sunday morning. Whatever is on the agenda just got wiped off, win or lose, we will be watching to support our boys. I do not intend to hear a peep from my wife or kids. If the spirits of our lost lads are walking anywhere, let them come and take their rightful seats in the stadium, they deserve to witness this. They are represented by Kalusha Bwalya our legendary soccer god who has always reminded us of the potential of the 1993 team. As he utters small words for them, he speaks giant words for our nation. We are not afraid, we are not scared, in fact we have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Ivory Coast or as they are now known Cote D'Ivoire, should be afraid, very afraid because WE BELIEVE! We are here to finish what we started.