By Field Ruwe
I had hardly settled in my seat before a monitor of a microfilm reader in the library when a bulky man with steel eyes, dressed in a charcoal suit, approached me.
“Are you Field Ruwe?” he asked.
The accent gave him away. He was Zambian.
His approach was confrontational, so I hesitated, but only for a brief moment.
“Yes,” I said.
He extended his hand. “I’ve been dying to meet you. We need to talk.”
A bolt of worry ran through my body. I was going to scream for help when my sixth sense calmed me down. There was a woman at the next monitor. She took a quick glance at us and continued with her work.
Okay. Let me pause for a sec and set the scene. First, I must explain what a microfilm reader is. It is a computer–like device that compacts and stores documents. Libraries use microfilms to archive old newspapers, journals and records from around the world in microform. Some date back to the Gutenberg Revolution of the 1400s. I had just accessed the Northern Rhodesia/Zambia section.
For the past month, I have been perusing microfilmed newspapers and documents to find supporting evidence of President Michael Sata’s life. To do so is like sifting through soil for Acheulean fossils in the Olduvai Gorge. I am not a Louis Leakey, but a historian and journalist trying to chronicle the life of my president in its entirety. Armed not with excavation spades and brushes, but with my pen, I am looking for skeletons in the cupboard, buried deep in the sands of time.
The life of president Sata intrigues many. It is a rags-to-riches blockbuster laced with perseverance, tenacity, trickery, vindictiveness, deceit, back-stabbing, malice, and venom. It exceeds that of most Zambian men who walk the corridors of power. He is not charming but cunning; not loved but tolerated. So why not put his life in perspective for the curious mind and the fervent reader. That’s what I am attempting. If I don’t, no one will. There is no presidential biographer in the land of fourteen million people.
We never chronicle our presidents. Apart from Kaunda who penned an autobiography “Zambia shall be free,” our leaders do not write their memoirs. They do not keep journals or diaries and when it is time to go, they leave not an iota of written life. We remember them orally for we are content with oral history—that branch of history that has earned us much scoff and ridicule. They say we muddle our memories in vagueness and imprecision. Our very own historians know this and yet choose to behave like scavengers feeding on Eurocentric acumen.
Perhaps the word “scavenger” is too extreme. There are some local historians who have made an effort. For instance Beatwell Chisala did an excellent job with “The rise and fall of Kaunda.” But many who have volunteered to document the lives of our leaders have been underrated, spurned, snubbed, held in suspicion, and turned away. This is the reason why my project bears the title “King Cobra: unauthorized biography of Michael Sata.” Before I embarked on the assignment, I took an oath to be fair and unbiased. I pledged to execute my work as both a journalist and historian, and not allow emotions get the best of me.
I had intended to kick off at the end of the spring semester and put the summer break to good use, but for a good while a spell of discouragement percolated in my mind like the devil’s wind. It was sparked by a caller one May day:
“I’m trying to reach Field Ruwe,” the caller said.
“Yes, this is he,” I replied. “And who are you?”
“Never mind,” he said. “I just want to warn you to stop writing garbage about His Excellency President Michael Sata and the PF government. I have…”
“Who are you?” I interjected.
The caller ignored me. “I have been reading your so-called ‘Hunt for Successor’ nonsense and I am least impressed. You’ve been tainting the good name of the president. You are portraying him to the world as an ignorant dictator. We know who is behind this and who is paying you. We even know how much. You are playing with fire my friend.”
“Who are you and who gave you my number?”
“You can’t hide,” he continued. “I know where to find you. I’ve all your cellphone and home numbers, your street address, and your exact location, even the plate number and make of the car you drive. For your own information, I’m not far from where you are. I know the color of your house. I even know the number of trees in your yard. They are eight. Count them. So, watch it. Stop the nonsense, do you understand?”
“You bloody assassin,” I countered. “Stalkers like you ought to be arrested and thrown in jail. You are the reason our country is stagnant. You are the ones who have turned your very own children, brothers and sister, nieces and nephews into lambs and dragged our country back to the stone-age. We can’t develop intellectually because of you.”
“Leave the president alone,” he retorted. “If you don’t I will make sure you are arrested and repatriated to Zambia to stand trial. Don’t say I did not warn you.”
“I’ll not be intimidated,” I replied.
“I’m coming for you,” he said and hung up.
For a while I was emotionally frayed. It was the third anonymous call in a month. The last one was from a woman.
“Mr. Ruwe,” she called. “I was your fan when you wrote ‘Zambian intellectuals are lazy.’ I felt inspired, but you began to criticize the president and our political leaders. I changed my mind. Why have you gone after politicians instead of concentrating on your message of invention and innovation? Do you know that defamation of a president is a very serious crime in Zambia?”
“Who are you?” I asked.
“I’m a woman who loves her country and respects her leaders. Of course you don’t. You choose to insult and demean them. You better watch your back.”
She hung up.
The very first call was short. It was male and deep-throated: “Don’t you ever think of coming back to Zambia. We shall feed you to hyenas. Stay where you are.”
A languid feeling coupled with a sense of insecurity began to filter in. I had forgotten that I belonged to a trodden people lodged in the grasp of one man—the president. In my country the president is supreme; nonpareil; and he is a quasi-deity. He can do whatever he wants even when he sleeps on a bed of thorns. It is illegal and certainly taboo to say or write anything negative about him.
For president Sata, uncritical support and naivety are a symbol of loyalty and patriotism. We are expected to worship him. We should mutely watch him squander our trust and mismanage our lives. He can conceal his life and reveal only what suits him; that’s alright. He can leave the country whenever he feels like at our expense; why not. Those who dare challenge his authority are considered contumacious and pay a heavy price. They are hunted, blackballed, thrown into TB jails and left for the dead.
The recent anonymous calls, hate mail, hackings, and the use of my IP to block me from accessing some of the online media outlets, were an indication that I was in a similar predicament; that I had aroused enough concern to be put under surveillance. If I boarded a plane to Zambia I would land at Auschwitz in the same cell with those who believe in the freedom of the press. The thought scared the bejesus out of me. I told my son I was abandoning “Hunt for Successor” series.
“I thought you taught me never to quit?” he said. “You did mean it, didn’t you?”
“Of course I did.”
“You said that when fear knocks I should slam the door in its face.”
“Yes I did.”
“So, why are you sounding like a coward?” he asked. “Why are you throwing in the towel?”
“Because I do not want you or any member of my family to be harmed,” I said. “The president is brutal. He’s pitiless. He’s throwing people with dissenting views in jail and shutting off any media opposition.”
“Tell me dad. If you quit, who is going to fight for those thrown in jail? Who is going to give Zambian journalists the full meaning of freedom? I thought by writing the series you were shedding more light on the untold stories and fulfilling the function of freedom of the press? If you are such a coward, why did you start the series? Didn’t you know the conditions under which journalists back home operate? Didn’t you know who you were dealing with? Didn’t you know it would come to this?”
My son had me thinking. I remembered the words of my professor in my investigative journalism class: “An investigative journalist must remain focused, fearless, and precise, just like a surgeon. He must have the desire to probe, prod, and uncover the truth. He must not wilt under pressure.”
This is the reason I became an investigative journalist and a historian. I have the desire to seek the truth and help to uphold democracy in my country. From the day Sata became president, the development of journalism has stalled. It is retarded. He has succeeded in blocking journalists from writing with a purpose of facilitating change and has instead turned them into propagandists. As a result Zambian journalists have become non-progressive. They are unable to fight the abuse of power, oppression, corruption, and nepotism. Those who feel a personal affront when they sense danger are banished. They are pursued, prosecuted, and persecuted. I am no exception.
I took another good look at my pursuer, the falconer in the microfilm room. For a moment I thought it was Wynter Kabimba. Obviously it was not. He was taller with thicker lips. His demeanor was best suited for a police officer.
He glanced at the monitor and caught the bold words “Zambia: Sata linked to emeralds scandal.” I had begun my day by reading a story in the Zambia Reports, written by George Mwenya, and featured on All.Africa.com.
“So this is where you do your research,” the man said after telling me his name was John Banda.
“John, how can I help you?” I was nonchalant.
“I need to speak with you,” he said. “Do you have a moment?”
“What do you want to speak to me about?” I asked.
“I can’t say it here. We’ll need to find a quiet place. It is important that I talk to you.”
All the while I was trying to connect his voice to the phone calls. I couldn’t place it. It was huskier with beer in it.
“I’m not moving out of this seat until you tell me why you are here,” I said.
I reached for my phone to call the emergency 911; that’s what the police had told me. I had reported the phone threats to them and they had assured me help would not be too far.
To be continued. Don’t miss Part II
Text Part 1 to a friend. Permission is granted to other media outlets to publish this story with acknowledgment.
Field Ruwe is a US-based Zambian media practitioner, historian, and author. He is a PhD candidate at George Fox University and serves as an adjunct professor (lecturer) in Boston. ©Ruwe2012