Mpundu Mutembo: restoring the national symbol
“THAT is me,” says Mpundu Mutembo, pointing to a statue towering a few metres above us. I couldn’t have believed him if I hadn’t been told who he was before we met. The solid black figure he was pointing at did not really mirror the light-complexioned man standing next to me. Time has separated old Mutembo from his ageless youthful figure cast in stone.
Unveiled on October 23, 1974, the Freedom Statue has come to symbolise Zambia’s freedom from the British colonial regime, and has earned its place on some of the country’s most important articles, including its currency.
But for Mutembo, the statue represents much more than that; it is his life.
Back in 1954, aged only 18, Mpundu Mutembo and his twin brother Arnold got involved in the political struggle against the colonialists in their village in Northern Province.
The twin brothers’ efforts to climb the education ladder had only taken them up to Standard Four.
They dropped out of school after their father’s death and joined the political struggle led by Kapasa Makasa and Simon Mwansa Kapwepwe.
But it was the younger of the two brothers that would have a monumental contribution to the country’s independence.
In 1957, having already made his impact in Northern Province, suffering imprisonment and beatings in the process, Mutembo, along with seven others were sent to Kenya where Dedan Kimathi was leading a rebellion against the colonial rulers. Their mission was to learn how to carry out their own rebellion back home.
When he returned, Mutembo worked closely with Kaunda and Kapwepwe, following them on their campaign trail.
"Since I was a youth, I was usually the first one on stage before Kaunda and others came to speak. I would explain to the people how bad the colonial government was and the reason for the struggle," he says.
An old black-and-white photograph at the Lusaka Museum shows a toga-clad Kaunda, like some ancient prophet, surrounded by his usual compatriots – Mainza Chona, Simon Kapwepwe and others.
In the corner of the photograph is a young man with both hands extended toward Kaunda, supposedly chanting slogans. “That is me,” says Mutembo full of excitement.
On October 24, 1958 at a location in Chilenje, the young freedom fighter got his pet name “Zanco”; and it was also here that the unborn nation was christened.
According to Mutembo, the name was proposed by Kaunda and Kapwepwe
"We had wanted to call it Zambezia, but we settled for Zambia. When we chanted the name 'Zambia, Zambia, Zambia!' it sounded very nice and we all started dancing like small children,” he recalls.
According to Mutembo, the moto “One Zambia, one nation” was also coined and adopted at the same meeting in Chilenje, which also marked the formation of the Zambia African National Congress (ZANC).
Early 1960s, Kaunda had written the governor, Sir Arthur Benson, to protest against a clause in the constitution that gave Europeans an upper hand in the legislature. But who would deliver the letter to Government House (now State House)?
Zanco jumped to the challenge.
“I have a message from president Kaunda,” he announced when he met the governor. He still can't explain how he gained entry to the building.
“It was just God,” he says.
On his way out, however, he was arrested and tortured. About 15:00 hours that day, he was taken to Kaunda's office in Chilenje where he was celebrated as a hero.
Dauntless, about 03:00 hours the following day, Zanco was taken to Cairo Road where he climbed a tree with a megaphone to denounce the new constitution.
At 06:00 hours, he started proclaiming his message, but was soon surrounded by police who threatened to shoot him if he did not get down. He was arrested.
Today, that tree still stands opposite the Main Post Office and later came to be known as Zanco Tree.
Zanco also recounts a rather funny incident when he appeared in court after been involved in a political brawl in Matero. Zanco had been badly beaten in the fight and lost two of his front teeth, a mark he still bears.
When the judge asked him to demonstrate to the court how he had been beaten, the young freedom fighter walked across the courtroom from the witness box and, reaching where one of the prosecutors - a white man - was standing, he did the unthinkable. He punched him in the face, giving him a bloody nose. His action was a blatant show of rebellion in the face of the colonial government.
He chokes with laughter as he narrates the story.
At the end of the trial, Zanco was sentenced to 10 years in prison plus four lashes for punching the prosecutor. He was sent to Livingstone State Prison where he was held in chains.
"It was a very bad cell," he says. "If I had a chance, I would like to go and see if it still exists."
It was also at Livingstone prison that Zanco was forced to witness executions of three black men accused of murdering a white man.
After spending a year in Livingstone, Kaunda negotiated his transfer to another cell.
“When Kaunda came to visit me, he started to cry when he saw me,” he recalls.
Later, he was transferred to Mukobeko Maximum Prison.
Zanco had been imprisoned several times before independence. Dr Kaunda himself bears witness to his imprisonments in one of the letters to Cabinet, referring to him as "one of the most patriotic citizens".
On December 31, 1963 - with independence now imminent - Sir Evelyn asked Kaunda for a symbol the new nation would be known by. Would it be the Victoria Falls or perhaps the Muchinga Escapement, or any other natural resource. Kaunda, however, had other ideas.
"Kaunda called me and told me that I had been chosen to die for the nation and he told me to be strong," says Zanco.
Later that day, he drove with Sir Evelyn in his official vehicle with a mounted police escort down King George Avenue (now Independence Avenue) to Police Force Headquarters.
"I was the first man to ride in the governor's car. We passed right here," he says, pointing to the road clogged with vehicles before us.
At Force Headquarters, after being interviewed, he was taken to a room where 18 military officers stood with guns at ready.
He was then handcuffed to a chain ordered to break free.
“Zanco break the chain. If you fail we shall shoot you!” the soldiers were shouting.
Someone was taking pictures of the freedom fighter.
"It was really hard, and I was sweating. After pulling so hard, the chain snapped and the governor raised his hands," he narrates.
"You are now the symbol of the nation," announced the governor.
Zanco then made his demands as rehearsed by Kaunda and Kapwepwe before the governor.
“I told Sir Evelyn that we wanted independence on October 24, remembering the day when ZANC was formed,” he says.
At the end of the ceremony, Zanco was made to swear on the Bible and drove with the governor to his residence where he stayed for four days.
"I was the first person to be shown the secret tunnels at Government House,” he says, refusing to give more details.
Later, Zanco was taken to a house about two kilometers from Government House. It was to be his new residence for the next few months.
"I was brought to this house on January 5, 1964," he says. "There were white police officers guarding me and I was given people to prepare my food. It was like a dream.”
The house at six Nalikwanda Drive is now private property and has been converted into a pre-school, but its memories are still locked in Mutembo’s mind.
“I can never forget this house,” he says, pointing out some of its old features.
Zanco was also given an official vehicle - a Land Rover station wagon – bearing the initials of his status "SNNRG" (symbol of the nation Northern Rhodesia Government) and a Union Jack.
Zanco’s life is full of symbolism. He still carries a staff given to him by chief Mpezeni back in 1958 and wears a royal blue tie with small white prints of the British royal crest given to him by Sir Evelyn in 1963 when he was his guest at Government House. And he still wears a 1964 T-shirt bearing the image of the Freedom Statue.
In March 1964, he was summoned to Government House by Sir Evelyn.
"I found the governor waiting for me at the door to receive me," he says.
The governor invited him on a trip to Abercorn, now Mbala.
In Mbala, Sir Evelyn gave Zanco a piece of land as a token in recognition of his status. The five-hectare plot sits in an area which saw the last combat of the Second World War.
Zanco stayed in Mbala until October 17, 1964, when the colonial government sent a plane to bring him back to Lusaka.
And it was on the plane that Zanco had his first glimpse of the Zambian flag.
A week later, he was standing a few metres from Kaunda and Queen Elizabeth II.
"After the ceremony, Sir Evelyn Hone handed me over to Kaunda as the symbol of the nation,” says Mutembo.
And on October 24, 1984, Zanco was honoured with the Companion Order of Freedom by Dr Kaunda for his contribution to the liberation struggle.
When Dr Kaunda was removed from power, however, Zanco became a forgotten figure.
He says despite several efforts to be handed over to Dr Kaunda's successor, Frederick Chiluba, it never happened.
The former freedom fighter is now fighting to get his status back.
“They didn’t pick me from the streets to become Symbol of the Nation. No. I was chosen for what I did,” he says.
According to letters of claim, Zanco stopped receiving his monthly allowance in 1991.
"It's a life pension and no-one is allowed to take it away from me,” he argues.
And he has made his demands clear in letters written to the President.
He wants a car, house and his monthly allowance, but even more, he wants recognition by the government.
”I must be invited to all state functions in respect of my status,” he says.
But it is his claim of five per cent of every national budget that raises eyebrows.
With today’s K17 trillion budget, five per cent works down to K850 billion; maybe too unrealistic by all standards.
No government has ever honoured that agreement, wherever it exists and Zanco pushes it only reluctantly.
But he is determined to regain his status.
“I will not go back to Mbala until I'm handed over to the President,” he says.
At 76 years old, the freedom fighter still looks strong, but he knows his days are numbered and does not hesitate to talk about his death.
“When I die,” he says, “I must be accorded a state funeral because of what I did.”
Zanco claims the grounds where the Freedom Statue stands also contain two burial spots – one for him and the other, for the county’s founding father.
Zanco’s twin brother died much earlier, beaten to death along with seven others by police officers trying to quell the political unrest at the height of cha cha cha in 1961. The killings took place near Senga Hill in Northern Province.
This story was published in The Post on Mon 15 Nov. 2010