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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.

1 comment:

Thandi Haruperi said...

Yes we believe. Thank you for an honest, angry yet proud and emotionally cathartic piece. What happened in Bata on Wednesday wasn’t just an ordinary win. It was a vindication of hope, national pride and honour for those who lost their lives chasing this victory. Whatever the outcome of the final match, Zambia’s place is already sealed in history. Gone but never forgotten, may our beloved departed ones rest in peaceful sleep, knowing the score has now finally been settled. As we look to Sunday when the Chipolopolo boys take their biggest test yet, let’s not forget to pray hard and faithfully. If the Ivorian goalkeeper's fasting is anything to go by, it would be folly of us to ignore his conviction that “you need Grace from above, and not just rely on talent and preparation to win”. Lord bless Zambia!