NDOLA, Zambia — Public drunkenness is not pretty. It’s sloppy, dour, and usually embarrassing. Moreover, it feels and appears a lot worse when the person is a public official. Frankly, it should, because public officials have taken a sworn oath to serve the people, not to serve themselves. Yes, they should be held to a higher standard.
I’ve had the good fortune to experience a lot of Africa. From scenic drives to wild life safaris, from cultural performances to conversing with the locals, I’ve had many an “African moment”. Perhaps the most “African moment” (if one can be qualified) was an encounter with Richard Kalasa, Kanini Ward Councillor of the City of Ndola, Zambia on 11 February 2013. It was an “African moment” in that it, unfortunately, filled my head, if momentarily, with many of the cynical TV images that come out of Africa, the kind that pervert all the beauty, richness, and promise the tapestry of Africa truly offers. It was slightly scary, a little surreal, very disheartening, and very much frustrating. It was a brush with abuse of power, authority, and office. But mostly, it was a moment of shame.
I was based in Ndola for two nights in order to photograph Jewish sights there and in the nearby towns of Kitwe, Luanshya, and Mufulira. I spent most of my time with Sam Leibowitz, the son of Gus Leibowitz who is the last remaining permanent Jewish resident of Kitwe, the nation’s second most populous city, some 40 kilometers to the northwest, in the heart of the mineral-rich Copperbelt that was, in many respects, built by pioneering Jews of the early 1900s. Sam graciously gave me the better part of his time during my visit to drive me around and to be my local friend. One of the places we visited was the Pioneer Jewish Cemetery, a small, mostly-forgotten cemetery betwixt a little patch of forest and underbrush practically in the center of town.
My first glimpse of the cemetery told me it clearly had not been visited in a while. It was completely overgrown, and at one end, a mound of fetid rubbish was spilling over the wall of an adjacent house and beginning to tumble into the cemetery enclosure itself. We delicately tread our way over the rotting mess and whacked our way through the flora to access the cemetery itself.
Knowing that I was there to document the cemetery, and wanting to have things look right, Gus ordered two of his workers (from Kitwe) to tidy up the cemetery, and the next day, I was back again to what now appeared as a charming, tranquil eternal resting ground. It was upon leaving the cemetery after photographing it for the second time that we encountered Mr. Kalasa and his entourage and my African moment.
As Sam, his friend, the two workers, and I returned to the oversized 4×4 vehicle parked on a sort of dirt lane driveway about 100 meters off the main road, we came face-to-face with several well-dressed men encircling an irate Mr. Kalasa. With arms akimbo and standing askance, he burst forth, thinking it was his place to teach us lessons in protocol and respect.
“I’ve been waiting to get out of here for 30 minutes” he wailed. “But you have blocked my way!”
There was more than enough room for his driver to pass our vehicle. Sam offered an apology but it was rebuffed.
“You have made me late,” he exclaimed as the whites of his eyes grew bigger. “Have you no respect? You need permission to be here.”
None was needed as far as we knew because the lane and the cemetery were not on private property.
“There are procedures to follow! You have to respect the rules!” he continued.
Again, a few respectful apologies were offered with little impact.
“You have no right to cut the trees here,” the councillor declared. I wondered how a city councillor could be upset by someone taking the time and interest to clean up a corner of town.
As Mr. Kalasa was carrying on, it dawned on me that his behavior was not just over-reactive for the size of our alleged infraction, but abhorrent and peculiar. His language turned ugly. I wondered if he were drunk.
“Look at your nose,” he demanded of Sam. “And look at mine!” He put his finger to his nose.
“What did he just say?!!!” went through my mind. “No, he didn’t just make a Jewish slur.” Zambia is not a country with a history nor culture of anti-Semitism.
My pulse quickened and the hairs on the back of my neck stood up as I ruminated his words and my thoughts. It’s amazing how much one can ponder in a split-second. I wasn’t sure whether this was the moment I should interject, nay, put an end to his deplorable conduct by giving him a lesson of my own or simply by telling everyone to get in the car and go. But the councillor continued before I could speak.
He pointed to his forearm, stroked his skin up and down, and said disdainfully, “Look at the color of my skin, and look at yours. Who’s the Zambian here?!”
I was silently shocked and livid. Yet, with that comment, I knew he had not made a Jewish insult. I felt an odd sense of relief for a joyous split-second. He meant that Sam didn’t have a common broader “African nose”.
Sam swallowed hard, then answered the incensed man with a softly spoken voice: “We’re all Zambians here.” His words were met with a momentary silence, a sort of knock out blow to the drunken official. But inside my head, there were cheers and a rousing, “Right on, Sam! The perfect response. You just put him in his place.”
So Mr. Kalasa turned his focus to me. “Are you a journalist?”
I assured him that I was not.
“Come here,” he ordered with a flick of his hand.
“No,” I said. “What for?”
Well, my demur challenged his authority, of course, and he didn’t like that one bit. How dare I say no to him?
“I am not going to kill you,” he said. An odd remark, I thought. So he came over to me, and, strangely, simultaneously shook my hand and hugged me tightly (the former, I did not want; the latter, I did not like). And then, just like that, everything made sense: Indeed, he was drunk. He reeked of alcohol.
He backed off with, curiously, an invitation to me: “Come stay at my house. You are welcome.” But all I could think was, “You’re a drunken, embarrassing fool.”
His assistant handed me Mr. Kalasa’s business card just so I could keep in touch, I supposed, or reserve a night at the councillor’s house. By then, he had simmered down, and he seemed content with a final word of contrition. Councillor Kalasa and his attendants climbed into their SUV and drove off in a dusty plume. I wondered if it followed him where ever he goes.
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