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‘Kopalas’: Their language and style

IN RECENT weeks I have had the privilege to hear some real kopala language on the streets of Lusaka, reminding me of those days when I walked the length and breadth of the Copperbelt; particularly Kitwe and Ndola.
In Lusaka ‘kopala’ is a reference to anyone hailing from the Copperbelt, whether one is from a mining town or not.
The term connotes treachery, tenacity, resilience, hard work and industry.
It attracts either admiration or contempt, depending on the context in which it is being used.
But in most cases it is used as a compliment.
That’s why I don’t take offence when people call me kopala.
This particular day I was driving to work on a quiet Sunday morning in the capital city when I made a stopover opposite the main post office at the corner of Church and Cairo roads to have a look at the lead stories of the day’s newspapers.
Since I get a free copy of each of all the four dailies every day from my employer I just wanted to look at the headlines.
I saw a street toughie trotting down the flyover bridge towards the traffic lights.
When he reached one of the newspaper vendors he stopped, panting.
“Bakaamba, kale ntampilyokumifwaya aini (big man, I have been looking for you for quite some time now),” he said. “Kuli abalefwaya ka Sunday Mail (someone wants a copy of the Sunday Mail),”
“Oh, ndi fye pano pene. Seni musende ka pepa bakaamba (Oh, I have just been here; come and take the newspaper),” the newspaper vendor responded and started walking towards the other man.
The vendor handed over the newspaper to the other guy, who broke into a litany of gratitude.
“Thank you bakaamba. Natasha zoona. Efyo ifwilefyokuba (thank you big man, this is as it should be),” the recipient said.
He continued as he started walking away, “Bakaamba imwe mwaliba laka. Naya nokuya bakaamba natwala ka pepa (you a good person; I am now going, to deliver the newspaper),” he said.
The object of the platitudes acknowledged, “Cacine bakaamba; nifyo fine masta. Ifintu kwafwana bakaamba. Zoona masta (that’s it big man). Lelo namisova, naimwe mailo munkansova (today I have helped you, tomorrow it’s you who will help me).”
I followed the conversation with keen interest. As I drove away towards Levy Park shopping mall I reminisced about my days in Kopalaland.
The next day I was walking in the western verandah or corridor of the complex when I came across a boisterous knot of young men.
A tall youth in jeans trousers and top was speaking agitatedly.
“Ifwe nifwe ba kopala mwaice wandi. Waliwishibo mukuba ulya ongama futi wabwela (we are the real kopala young one; the copper that bends and returns to its normal position),” he said.
Ifwe tatuli mutofwe uwanaka. Nga waongama taubwela (we are not lead, which does not return to its normal position once it bends),” he said.
“Nifyo fine bakaamba. Mufwilefye mwabeba. Bomfwa fye ati ba kopala (that’s right big man; tell them. They just hear that there are kopalas),” another youth said.
On Thursday I was having a snack in my favourite restaurant at the city centre market when a hawker walked in and made for the crowded counter.
On his way he came to a table where another street hawker was seated waiting for his order.
“Shani bakaamba Ba Peter, kanshi naimwe muli muno (greetings big man Peter, so you are also here)?” he hailed his colleague.
Peter answered, “Ndifye best bakaamba. Ndelolela food. Ileenda shani imwe (I am alright, I am just waiting for my food. How is business)?”
“Ah, naikosa bakaamba. Kukosa (it’s tough big man, you have to be strong),” the hawker remarked. “Ndeti napitilo ku napitilo ku cimo cine fye aini (everywhere I go the situation is the same).”
Ba Peter shook his head and said, “Cimo cine naine bakaamba. So apa ndepinga fye ati nga nalya ka food kupalauka. Shino nshiku nshilefwayo kukokola mu tauni kuti waba stranded (I am not in any better position; I just want to eat and go home because it is not safe to linger in town for too long these days).”
“Cacine bakaamba nalelo kuti yazanda filya yavundwike mailo (you’re right big man, violence may break out again today as it did yesterday),” remarked the hawker.
The guys reminded me of my first few months in Lusaka when I shifted camp from the Copperbelt.
An office assistant was about to go into town and my workmates were giving him errands to run for them.
Some gave him money to buy them snacks and other things.
I wanted him to buy me a kilogramme of beef; so I called him and gave him some money.
“Wisenaunshitilako akanyazi ka K20 natu sonya twa K15 (you buy me some beef worth K20 and sausage worth K15),”
The office assistant just stood there staring at me.
“Are you not supposed to be on your way?” I asked the bewildered orderly.
“What’s inyazi and what’s sonya?” he asked sheepishly, and I had to aplogise and put it in plainer, non-kopala language.
“I am sorry, inyazi is meat while sonya is sausage. I forgot that you have never lived on the Copperbelt,” I said.