Sunday, June 20, 2010


The military camp of the Mufulira Engineering Corps was situated about a kilometre away from my school. During my stay of twenty five years in Mufulira, I had gone there two or three times on some business related to my school, but never had taken my vehicle beyond the sentry box at the main entrance as civilian vehicles were not allowed in without a special pass. I was always accompanied by a Zambian colleague who would talk in 'cibemba' (local language) to the sentry who would then allow us to go in after leaving the vehicle outside. There was a government primary school within the campus. It was mainly for the children of the military personnel. Some of the teachers of that school were our former colleagues who used to drop in to borrow some science equipments or for a friendly chat. Major Mwambwa, one of our colleagues who used to be in charge of the cadets in the school had acquaintances among the army people. Being a foreigner working in Zambia, I did not have any close contact with the army people.

It was my final year in Mufulira. About three months before my retirement, there was an 'end of the term’ party, at the school. Party times were when all staff members would come together and spend a lot of time singing and dancing. Some of us who were not singers or dancers would be merely sitting around sipping a Coke or Fanta and watching. As in most get-together parties in Zambia, a lot of beer would be flowing and those who were habitual drinkers would be having a ‘really good time'.

We could hardly make any conversation because of the music that was blaring. The volume knob of the amplifier was turned to the highest degree. The pupils were given a "free" afternoon because of the staff party. Even the clerical staff and laboratory assistants left their cubicles and joined the crowd of dancers in the school hall.

While I was trying to make some conversation with one of the colleagues sitting next to me, Mr. Mweshi came to me and said he wanted to talk to me. Mr. Mweshi was a good friend of mine. He was one of the organizers of the staff parties. I asked him what the matter was. He wanted me to go with him to the military canteen and bring from there a few crates of beer in my station wagon. I said I would talk to the boss and then accompany him. In fact it was a common practice among the staff that those who had their own vehicles would make trips for the school or for other colleagues if the need arose, as the school bus was not available most of the time due to one reason or other.

When we reached the camp, I was about to park my vehicle outside the gates as I had done in the past. Mr. Mweshi told me that we would have to take the car inside as the canteen was situated at some distance away from the main entrance. He talked to the sentry in the local language and mentioned the name of the officer whom he was going to meet. The sentry talked to someone on the telephone and then opened the gates for us to take the vehicle in. Mr. Mweshi got in beside me and gave me directions. We travelled some distance and reached an area where some large trees stood majestically. I could see many low, single storied buildings beyond the belt of trees. Mr. Mweshi told me to park the car under one of the trees and wait for a few minutes so that he could go in and organize the stuff. I settled down in the front passenger seat and started reading a book which I had with me in the glove compartment of the car.

As I was deeply engrossed in the reading of the book, I did not realize the passing of time. When I checked the time, I was surprised to note that almost an hour had passed since Mr. Mweshi left me for "a few minutes". Before I diverted my attention to the book, I noticed someone standing at a distance, without any movement. I watched him for a few minutes and realized that he was looking intently in my direction. He was in army uniform. Even though it was not uncommon to find a uniformed soldier in an army camp, I felt a little discomfort at seeing him there, probably watching me surreptitiously for how long, I did not know.

He might have stood there for another ten minutes or so and then walked away. By this time I had lost all interest in my reading and followed him with my eyes. He went inside one of the buildings and remained there for some time. Then he came out along with another uniformed soldier who had a rifle slung from his shoulder. They walked slowly in my direction and stood at the border of the belt of trees, presumably watching my vehicle and waiting to find out what my intention was.

I panicked. I have heard of stories of foreigners who had strayed unwittingly to sensitive areas having been apprehended and then disappearing without trace in some African and Latin American countries. Whatever the military would do to a suspected “spy” was their business and was beyond any routine enquiry. Occasionally we used to read in the newspapers about people of other nationality who were "found spying for an un-named foreign country" and taken into custody by the security men. Here I, a foreigner, had been inside an African military camp for the past hour or so with no legitimate explanation to offer and could easily be mistaken for a spy. There was no sign of the person whom I accompanied and I did not know even the name of the officer whom he had gone to see. In the meanwhile, I thought that the two soldiers whom I had noticed before were advancing slowly in my direction.

While I was thus engrossed in my thoughts in a panic-stricken state of mind, I hardly noticed someone coming from the other direction. He too was wearing an army uniform and glanced casually in my direction as he passed on. All on a sudden he stopped in mid-stride and came back to my vehicle. He looked in, addressed me by name and asked me what I was doing in their campus. He was smiling broadly. I got out of the car, still wondering who this person might be . In the same instant that recognition came to me, he said, "I am Mishek Musonda, your former student, now a captain in the Zambian Army" and caught hold of my hand in a firm grip as a prelude to a hearty shake-hand. He asked about my family and we spent some time chatting. Then I told him the reason for my presence there and added that I had been waiting for more than an hour for Mr. Mweshi who had gone in. The captain remarked with a smile that Mr. Mweshi might have been doing a little bit of "warming up" in the canteen and forgotten all about his errand. He promised to go and look him up. He also said he would find some "boys" (junior soldiers) to carry the crates to my vehicle and then left.

After the captain's departure, I remembered about the two soldiers who were watching me and who, in all probability, were about to pounce on me, but could not see any sign of them. They might have made a hasty retreat when they saw the familiarity with which the captain treated me.

I got into my vehicle and settled comfortably in the driver's seat, awaiting Mr. Mweshi's return.