On 5 March 1988, Shem Michael Mlevhu, commonly known as Keith Mlevhu, a multitalented artist and upstanding citizen of our country ceased to breathe. Born in the mining town of Chingola 37 years earlier, on 14 September 1950, Mlevhu grew up on the Copperbelt, the economic power of Zambia and the training ground for political and musical education for many Africans. In his early twenties, as part of the exploration of his unique capabilities and interests, he took to the guitar and ultimately found a calling in giving expression to the deeper purposes of his life through music. From 1975 to his death, Mlevhu’s remarkable genius found manifestation through song. Through music, he sought to use the life, talents and opportunities he had been given to make the greatest and most valuable contribution he could to enhancing the lives of others and participating in writing a new script for the country. In the latter task, Mlevhu was helped by the wider context, including a government that attempted to create the larger narratives of nationhood through the use of the media (newspapers, radio, television), educational systems (classrooms from primary schools to university), church, popular forms of entertainment (music, theatre etc.) and other mediums that could bring various fora (be it chiefs, children, artists etc.) together to participate in the creation of a genuine national identity.
It was as if Mlevhu was spurred by the question, ‘how does one effect strategies for broad-based societal change?’ itself perhaps driven by his gradual loss of faith in top-down revolution and the belief that most societies transform when there is a sense of crisis, or a re-analysis of self after a crisis or following a serious conflict. How do we identify the narratives of the country crisis that are particular to us, tap into the spirit of the times and offer possibilities of what could be, and not only what is? Mlevhu appeared to have realised at a very early stage that the option to carve out a national agenda is open to whoever is willing to create larger narratives of nationhood through available media that resonate on a very phenomenological level with the masses and which would need to be hopeful and tempered by a hard realism of all needing to pull together. For him, music served that purpose and he deployed it with admirable skill as an effective tool of implementing social change from below.
Mlevhu, perhaps way ahead of his time, also warned we Zambians of the danger of unlearning all the useful things that ground us, such as land, the importance of kingship and heritage. He further urged Zambia’s leaders to watchfully guard the country’s sovereignty and natural wealth. Once lost, Mlevhu cautioned, taking back and reshaping our assets in our own ways would be a tough process, one that would require an ideological mind shift, a strong and enlightened leadership and significant consensus. People would need to be willing to endure a temporary period of upheaval. One of the most poignant and classic tunes that perhaps sums up Mlevhu’s foresight is Ubuntungwa, composed in 1976 and taken from the album ‘Love and Freedom’. Today, in honour of the memory of this unsung and extraordinary artist of our country who died 31 years ago tomorrow, Tuesday 5 March 2019, I reproduce the song’s lyrics below in their original language, Bemba, followed by the English translation and meaning.
Mu chalo chesu icha Zambia
Nomba mune wemwina Zambia wishitishe chalo
Nga wa mona umulwani aisa no lupiya ulwingi
Wikokola umusebe we mwine wa chalo
Ubuntungwa ubwa Zambia
Natusunge ichalo chesu
Webuteko niwe wine we mwine wa chalo
Pantu nga washitisha chalo ukepaisha abantu
Kanshi mune uchenjele kuli aba ba mwisa
Abalefwaya ukonaula ichalo chesu
Ala mune, ukose fye
Uchimfye abalwani mu chalo chesu
We attained our freedom
In our country Zambia
Now for you the Zambian citizen,
Do not sell our country.
When you see the enemy coming with a lot of money
Don’t even waste time; reject them, you the owner of the country.
Let us safeguard our country.
Especially you the government, the guarantor of the freedom we attained
Because if you sell the country, you will cause the death of many people
So please be careful with these foreigners
who just want to destroy our country.
Please be strong,
You have to conquer the enemy in our country
What would Mlevhu think about Zambia today? Were he to resurrect, I shudder to imagine what he would communicate to us in song. For one thing is clear: his head and soul would be pained and outraged by the pitiful state of our wretched existence today. He would, for instance, immediately find a most unequal society where obscene wealth live side by side with dehumanising poverty; a Zambia that is ripe for all sorts of extreme changes because the conditions of life are objectively demanding a revolution. He would find a shameless set of corruptible leaders, who have betrayed Zambia to foreign commercial interests, who pawn off the country for a few trinkets, who accumulate through brazen theft of public resources and massive sale of Zambian land to so-called investors, and who strut around with self-importance when they are nothing but disposable playthings of even bigger global kleptocrats. He would learn that the country for which he spoke is being completely ripped off by a very shadowy partnership between state actors and mining companies – it seems all the mining companies have to do is to pay peanuts into the back pockets of a few corrupt politicians, laughably known as our government. He would unsuccessfully fight back tears when he learns of the self-serving elite class at the heart of public life, including those who occupy key positions in several state institutions and are complicit in the fall from grace and selling of Zambia, and in sustaining our state of backward poverty and extreme cultural impoverishment.
Mlevhu would find chiefs, the custodians of our history and culture, who find no shame in adorning imported Western outfits and commemorating the same as part of our identity during significant traditional ceremonies – the Litunga clad in a uniform of a British admiral officer during Kuomboka, the Mwata Kazembe clothed in French national colours and a French fire brigade helmet during Umutomboko, the Chitimukulu clad in a designer suit complete with a necktie during Ukusefya pa Ng’wena. He would also find Chieftainess Nkomeshya in Brazilian hair, a royal princess who is also Zambia’s Vice-President Inonge Wina wearing an ugly wig, and learn that Mpezeni has banned the practice of Ngoni women baring their breast during Nc’wala and decreed that the boobs be tucked away in bras, blouses, T-shirts and all manner of Western-manufactured cloth. Mlevhu would further find a disturbing and growing particular kind of Christian theology that seem to have disrupted ideas of cause and effect among many Zambians. He would note that people no longer attribute outcomes to their likely causes, but often to supernatural phenomena. They do not recognise their own agency and the agency of those around them. He would weep uncontrollably on learning that at a time when others are talking about a ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’, we are reverting to some of the most backward and irrational modes of thought and practices. Pastors and men of the cloth preach from a gospel that is too foreign even to God Himself and use their positions to accumulate and support a leadership that is far removed from God’s words and teachings.
He would also learn that the University of Zambia, previously the hallowed intellectual site of nudging questions, rational inquiry and curiosity, is now reinforcing and lending comfort to the preconceived notions and outlandish ideas of the student, including subscription to superstitious and illogical beliefs that have anointed themselves with the sanctity of a religious faith. He would find that we still cannot speak to each other as Zambians because we do not have a cross-cutting indigenous national language; English, the language of a nation called England and a residue of British colonialism remains our ‘official’ language. He would note that the bar of leadership in the country of his birth has been dropped so low that it is literally on the floor now. He would discover that while we waste time on endless trivialities, forward-thinking leaders elsewhere are taking their countries to new heights; countries that were at war as recent as 20 years ago are catching up and even racing ahead of us. When those in charge of our country embark on self-congratulation and declare that Zambia is witnessing ‘unprecedented development’, Mlevhu would likely respond by reciting the lines from ‘The Nature of Man’, an incriminating and enlightening track composed in 1975 by his peer, Rikki Ililonga, another native superstar artist with exceptional musical talent who, like him, was genuinely committed to nation building:
In the township where I live
There is so much misery
Starving children and the sickly old
They are all living in a world of despair
I don’t understand
The nature of man
Who is to blame?
The nature of man
Up the hill, a politician stands
Preaching freedom and humanity
Hungry faces just below his nose
Hopeless despair on their faces
But then, being the optimist that he ever was, Mlevhu would also likely tell us that we retain the capacity to overturn our national plight into a better state; that our current deep-seated systemic and structural social, economic and cultural crises are a perfect foundation to begin to build a new national consciousness and psyche, to reject what we have become and begin to resurrect the human being in the Zambian. On noting our unacceptable situation of unguided national drift, dampened self-confidence and descent into the abyss, he would quickly remind us about what Ililonga once said in ‘Tree of Unity’: every country needs direction. Livid, he would implore us to refuse to be reduced to the subhuman status our current deplorable social and economic conditions confine most of us to, to rebel against this status, and then, in our many millions of personal life activities, to transmit this rebellion to others, to wage a war against influences in all spheres that define and confine us to subhuman existence. He would assure us that not all hope is lost; that our problem is that we are slow, way too slow, in moving in the right direction. Mlevhu would add that all we need to turn around the corner is a set of brave, enlightened, effective and ethical leaders; that the regression into primitive irrational beliefs and practices during times of great crisis is not unique to Zambia alone. In the absence of strong intellectual and political visionary leaders, people do tend to look for strong extra terrestrial father figures to see them through what they see as ‘impossibly hard times’. They yearn and seek for an external authority from themselves to liberate them. God, Mlevhu would say, is the easiest recourse, in such times.
Pressing us to reject the mediocrity of our lives and leadership, he would question, through song, the quality of a citizen or human being that tolerates a Lungu, a Sata, a Banda, a Chiluba, for a national leader. Then, with the corners of his mouth spontaneously curling up, breaking into a smile, he would possibly sing another song, perhaps entitled ‘Leadership Works’ and with the following lyrics:
Zambia, you have everything
Everyday, there is an opportunity to turn around
But learn this simple truth, country of my birth:
Everything rises and falls on leadership. Everything.
How long would it take for you to arrive at this realisation?
Leadership works, Zambia. It is the difference between you and Singapore
Once you internalise this fact, you are half way there.
Zambians, rescue the 1964 and 1991 dreams
From these who, though fellow citizens, are a part of the enemy forces
Determined to wreck the lives of many, to ruin our country
At present, you can only take the country back through avenues
Provided by our hard-won democracy – which itself may not remain for too long
Stand up, rise and fight, Zambians
Do not be afraid.
Like many other artists who have positively contributed to the rich diversity of Zambia, not anywhere in our country stands a statue or a monument that speaks to us and the future to say that ‘Once upon a time, Zambia was fortunate to have as its citizen this artist who though dead is brought to life by their musical works, the heritage of those that live today’. How invisible and undervalued the great works of some of the best of us. Their real honour comes by way of knowledge of the truth, the whole story that they know and with an inner smile, they narrate it fully to no other but their conscience. For Mlevhu was indeed one of Zambia’s finest stars, as he himself reminded us in another of his classic tunes, ‘I am your star’:
In a way, I appear looking so crap
Looking a tramp
I am your star people
You have got to realise who I am.
Rest in peace, Countryman.
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