ABDON YEZI, Lusaka
ON JULY 15, 2007 a Yezi-Arts team headed to Luangwa district on the Eastern end of Lusaka Province on a two-fold mission; firstly to site
locate a place for the shooting of some scenes for the feature film, Nkhondo Ya Mkwezalamba, and, secondly to work on two TV documentaries (one focusing on the attacks on Kavalamanja and tracing the intriguing mystery behind Maina Soko).
The then district commissioner, Captain Stanislaus Mumba Kalunga – a very hospitable and insightful man, offered the services of his office. Amongst the much assistance he gave the team was the choice of our tour guide, Lawrence Henry Tapiseni – a former messenger, and then local court justice, with credentials that are a subject of this article-cum-obituary.
We slept over at one of the lodges owned by a Mr Makayi and his wife, Mac Chilo Lodge, looking forward to visit an area we had so much heard about (ironically, it may not be the case for the majority of the Zambians).
The place is Kavalamanja.
Early the next morning, our journey began and the first person we met was Mr Tapiseni. As he came out from his bamboo-windowed house (one of the oldest in the district), and overlooking the Luangwa River as it crawls its last run to meet the Zambezi River to form a spectacular confluence, the man was already up-beat and looking forward to imparting knowledge through oral history to his guests.
“Good morning gentlemen and lady,” he greeted us with all the humility, and as we shook hands with him, he continued to introduce himself: “My name is Lawrence Henry Tapiseni, a local of Luangwa Boma. Has any of you visited this district before?”
Our answers were mixed, as only three of us had, namely Bright Banda (director for the film), Richard Likumba (co-producer) and the author (also producer for the film). Our two other colleagues, Francis Mwiinga (director of photography) and Ardesi Suntwe, were coming to know the place for the first time, and were particularly amused about the beauty and picturesque of the confluence and the shared border of the three countries (Zambia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique).
Indeed, Luangwa district is not just an ordinary district. It is perhaps one of the most richly endowed and recorded historical towns in Zambia, dating back to the early 1600 when it used to be a slave market – mostly for the Portuguese. The name Feira means slave market, while information we also gathered pointed to the prior name of the place being De Niro (though we also found a school on the way called Janero – may be a localised version of De Niro). It is also not surprising, as the monument states that even the spread of Christianity in that part of the country is closely linked to the place.
When the Dominican Fathers came to this area, they settled first on the Mozambican side, but after two battles with the Senga chief, they relocated close to 50 kilometres, upstream the Luangwa River at a place called Katondwe, where now stands an established Catholic community with schools and a hospital among others.
The place was preparing to celebrate its centenary of existence, having been established in 1912. Close to the memorial site, though looking bare on the banks of the Zambezi, used to stand a big tree, at which the renowned David Livingstone is reported to have taken a rest.
But our mission was to go to yet another historic area, as it links to Zambia’s contribution to the liberation struggles of southern Africa.
The place is Kavalamanja.
As we got on the solemn Kavalamanja Road, the team went silent even when our guest had beckoned that we were on the 14 kilometre stretch that remains impassable save for four-wheel drive vehicles. The silence in the vehicle was a result of the fear we had. The road had reportedly been landmine-infested, particularly by anti-tank landmines –which were attested by a United Nations report – during the liberation struggles.
On the sides of the road, as we drove through, was littered by trenches used by the combatants, mainly freedom fighters from the late Joshua Nkomo’s ZIPRA forces (a military wing of the Zimbabwe Patriotic Front – ZAPU).
“This road has not been worked on using graders but mostly using labour-intensive means, but the landmines, particularly on the main road, were cleared by the defense forces. They had a three-month operation, sometime back,” said Mr Tapiseni, seemingly as an assurance to the visiting team.
We observed other debris from the war, though it was also mentioned that there was a ‘mopping up exercise’ which effectively took away most of what would have shown the effects of the war that the area suffered.
After a long drive, we stopped close to three kilometres away from Kavalamanja village. The place as outlined by Mr Tapiseni, was a freedom fighters camp housing an approximate 120 troops, who were killed during the March 6 – 9, 1978 attacks by the Southern Rhodesian air-force in an operation code-named “Operation Turmoil”.
By this time, we had acquainted well with our guide.
Mr Tapiseni was born in Luangwa district, from parents, whose parents had originated from colonial Mozambique. He was married, with a family of 10 children (four who had since passed on), while the others worked in different responsibilities in the district. He had worked in the area under the Ministry of Agriculture, before joining as a messenger under the district governor’s office.
He retired, but before long he was asked back to duty, in his contracted role position as the Local Court Chief Justice for Luangwa district.
While working with the Ministry of Agriculture as an extension officer, briefly trained at Chalimbana In-service College, one early morning, he single-handedly apprehended a Portuguese rebel, in full military attire, armed with a carrabina military classified weapon loaded with 32 rounds of ammunition. The rebel was subsequently taken to Luangwa Police Station for onward police action. The period was between 1967 and June 1969.
According to sources, they acknowledge that this single act was courageous and saved the innocent lives of Zambian’s who lived in terror during the liberation struggles for Mozambique until June 25, 1975 when Mozambique attained its independence. Not long after that, he had to join efforts in liberating Zambia’s other southern border neighbour, now Zimbabwe.
“We were mobilised by the Zambian government to join the home guards and prepare to defend ourselves in the likely event of war breaking out. We underwent military training. I think I was 38 years old then. Part of our activity was to dig a running trench from the Luangwa-Zambezi river confluence, upstream beyond Kanyemba getting close to Kavalamanja. We were also armed, and slept with our AK47s in homes because the enemy would strike at any time,” he narrated.
Indeed, the enemy struck on Luangwa Boma at exactly 09:45 hours on March 6, 1978, with bombardment that shook and spread terror in the area – a battle which went on until late in the evening of that day. Smith’s air force commanded the airs as they unleashed weapons of destruction in the Boma, killing many innocent people.
“Two jets came from the South, targeting their bombs on the water tanks and at ZESCO. Thereafter, we got reports of bombardments in different parts of the district. Everyone had gone into hiding, including the district governor. We all went to find solace at a nearby school about 7 kilometres from the district. Yes, the name of the school is Kakaro. You will see it when we visit the place,” Mr Tapiseni recounted.
While in the Boma, though later in the day, they got reports that the village of Kavalamanja was under a fire-force attack. The battle went on and lasted for close to 72 hours. At this point, one of God’s prized creation, mankind, had been a victim. Reigning bombs, rattling machine guns had brought to end lives of many innocent locals, freedom fighters, soldiers from the Zambia Defence Forces and rebels from Ian Smith’s army.
It was simply another example of mayhem.
“It was a day that changed my life. I had just started resolving a case in my Kuta when two jets came to drop bombs. We all scampered into the bush, and at that time it was each one for himself,” Francis Malunga, former Senior Chief Kavalamanja, whom we met among the many people interviewed in Kavalamanja village, said.
“Soldiers from Zimbabwe were parachuted, and these caused a lot of deaths in cross-fires, and many of our people died. For three days we were hiding in the bush. I remember one soldier who stood ground, near the school. His gun continued rattling until we could not hear it anymore. We knew, then, that he was dead. His name was Captain Kalima. We buried him under that big tree”.
On the other side, behind Chilombwe Hill – a beautifully scenery on the western side of the district, Mr Tapiseni, who was now working as a messenger under the district governor’s office, was tasked to go and bury the remains of six innocent victims of the war at Kakoro village. Driving a land rover, two military jets preyed and unleashed machine gun fire followed by bombs that effectively annulled the lives of among others, a person known as Chabu-Cheka and James Malaya (an employee of the national registration office, his uncle is current Headman Sinjela, whom the author met on a prior assignment).
The bodies were only buried after three days, and were in an extreme bad state. Like those that demised in Kavalamanja, none of these people had the honour of a decent burial – nor did their graves show any form of respect.
When Mr Tapiseni led us to the burial site, we were terrified with the stories that we heard.
But for Mr Tapiseni, it did not end there as on the same day, they had another burial of victims – mainly identified as a crew of freedom fighters, driving a military truck which was also bombed (at least the remains of the truck were found by our team).
“After burying those six people, we again came here to bury those that had been killed at this point. We used my shovels, and I remember throwing them away when we had finished. On our way back to the Boma, two jets came towards the military truck we were using, and shot at the vehicle. I, and other people, who were behind the moving vehicle, driven by a soldier only known as Mulenga, jumped off the truck and ran into the bush. That is how we survived!” he said while looking down, beckoning to the point where they buried the victims.
Our mission to Luangwa concluded on July 17.
We had accomplished a number of things, among them, getting grounded experiences of what happened in the period March 6 – 9, 1978 (a product captured in the documentary, “Battle of Kavalamanja”). Secondly, we were resolved to use the memories and people of Luangwa in the film. Thirdly, we shared with the people of Kavalamanja and the surrounding areas, the grief and triumph of their sacrifices. But mostly importantly reminiscence on the person who had assisted us so much in gathering information in the area, Mr Lawrence Henry Tapiseni; he is a repository of history, an accomplished hero at the frontier.
In our own words, we met an “authoritative but humble man”.
(Lawrence Tapiseni, who was honoured by President Michael Sata in 2012 at an investiture ceremony for his contribution to the country, died on Monday and was put to rest on Wednesday in Luangwa where throngs of people attended his burial. Mr Tapiseni served as chairperson for the Kavalamanja Liberation war struggles).