JACK ZIMBA, CHANDA MWENYA, Lusaka
AN OLD black-and-white photograph shows a man dangling precariously from a tall pole, flashing a V sign. Watching below is President Kenneth Kaunda and four other African presidents.
“That is me,” says Leonard Mpundu, pointing at the man up the pole.
For 30 years, Leonard was the pole dancer who entertained presidents.
And when Queen Elizabeth II visited Zambia in August 1979, Leonard was there to entertain her.
Queen Elizabeth is said to have been so amused by Leonard’s performance that when he walked over to her and extended his hand, she did not decline to take it.
“I shook hands with Queen Elizabeth. I think she wanted to feel if I had anything sticky in my hands,” he says.
Now 71, Leonard has hung up his dancing shoes, instead devotes much of his time making traditional musical instruments at his home in Kaunda Square Stage One.
And whenever he can find someone receptive, he tells endless stories about his life: how he travelled around the world with his dancing group, performing before world leaders.
His group was a bunch of unschooled individuals who had made dance and music their career – their life.
Many stories of individuals who have attained great heights start in obscure places, and this one is no different.
Leonard was born on a remote island on Lake Mweru called Kilwa in 1947 to Anthony Kabeba and Phalesi Chiboshi.
Leonard and his twin sister were the last-borns of nine children.
He does not know much about his parents because they both died before his fourth birthday. He was only a year old when his mother died.
“I don’t even remember their faces,” he says.
Leonard started dancing at an early age.
When he was about four years old, his guardians sang him poetic songs about his own misfortune as an orphan.
They were songs that should have made the little boy cry, but he did not really understand their meaning at the time, and so he danced to them.
By the time Leonard was in his early teens, his fame had already spread beyond Kilwa Island.
Leonard had invented his own dance.
He called it tongosa. It involved some daredevil acrobatic moves on an erect pole, high above the ground.
“There is no-one else who danced tongosa apart from me. I composed the songs and created the dance,” he says.
“I never used any magic, it was just practice,” he adds.
What about school?
“I never went far in my education because I had no one to support me,” says Leonard. “We were so poor, that is why music became like my father and mother.”
In 1964, when Zambia gained its independence, Leonard went to live on the mainland, in Mwata Kazembe’s area.
In 1966 when he went back to his village, he found his twin sister had been engaged to a police officer, who reportedly beat her sometimes. When Leonard confronted him about his behaviour, a scuffle broke out.
Leonard was jailed nine months for assaulting a police officer.
He was sent to Nchelenge Prison, but he would soon dance his way out of prison. No-one could cage Leonard’s musical spirit.
Just a few days behind the prison walls, Leonard decided to start entertaining his fellow prisoners through music and dance.
One day when he and other prisoners had gone to fetch fire-wood in the bush, he got an eight-metre pole, which he erected within the prison grounds.
And using make-shift instruments, the inmates set the prison alight with music and dance. Leonard was the star of the show as he danced on the pole.
Coincidentally, that was the same day some senior prison officials from the Copperbelt were visiting his prison.
“When they arrived, they found a big crowd of people at the gate watching what was happening inside, and the prison warden got scared when he saw the senior officers and he started chasing the crowd and ordering us to stop,” he says.
But instead of being furious at the sight, the senior prison officers were happy with the initiative by the prisoners.
In 1968, when President Kenneth Kaunda was visiting Nchelenge, Leonard requested the prison officials that he and his rag-tag band of fellow inmates be allowed to be part of the groups entertaining the presidential party.
The prisoners did not disappoint.
The following Monday, Leonard had a visitor at the prison. It was Kapasa Makasa, who was provincial minister at the time, and one of the icons of the freedom struggle.
At Mr Makasa’s order, Leonard’s sentence was reduced by two months.
Two days later, the district governor further reduced his sentence by a month.
After his prison term, Leonard did not return to Kilwa Island. A government messenger was waiting for him at the gate and directed him to his new work station.
Leonard had been given a government job as a fuel attendant.
For a man who had not seen much of the classroom, it was a very good job offer.
But nothing could satisfy Leonard more than dancing.
In 1969, when Dr Kaunda visited Mansa, Leonard was there to welcome him.
His performance immediately earned him a place in the national dance troupe, and he relocated to Lusaka.
Within days of his arrival in the capital, Leonard was issued a passport and travelled to Senegal for a festival. Algeria followed shortly.
That was the beginning of his world tours.
Leonard has visited about 30 countries around the world during his career spanning about four decades.
Some of the countries he visited are Cyprus, Romania, Italy, Japan and East Germany, where he won a grand prize at a film festival.
But he says his best experience was in Russia, which he still calls by its old name, USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics).
“When I went to Moscow, I was treated like someone very important with security and escort vehicles wherever I went. It was very nice,” he says nostalgically.
He was given a similar treatment in Malawi in July 1973 when he was part of the entertainment groups during the country’s independence celebrations.
The country’s President, Kamuzu Banda, was so impressed with the performance he allowed Leonard to hug him.
“It was difficult to please Kamuzu Banda, but when I danced, he stood up and I went to him. I put my arms around him [and] we both fell in the seat where he was seated,” he says.
President Banda also asked the Zambian team to stay behind and tour the country.
Leonard, the star of the show, rode in a Mercedes Benz car with security and escort vehicles.
For a long time, Leonard had earned himself a somewhat permanent spot at Lusaka’s international airport, performing for all heads of state who visited the country.
“From 1979 to 1990, I was there to receive all the presidents who visited Zambia,” he says.
When Samora Machel visited Zambia as a freedom fighter, he requested that Leonard should be part of the entertainment when the country gained independence.
“In 1975, when Mozambique became independent, Machel sent a plane from Maputo to Lusaka to pick me and four of my colleagues,” says Leonard.
He travelled on that plane with Grey Zulu, who was one of the top government officials at the time.
By this time, Leonard had taken up a job as a civil servant, working in the department of culture as a music composer, choreographer and costume designer.
Musician Alick Nkhata was a director in the department.
In 1977, Leonard married his wife, Dorothy Kambo. She was only 15-years-old when he married her, and had joined the dance group a year earlier.
The two would travel together to many countries.
Despite his risky stunts, Leonard never had any accidents, but he says he had many near-falls. One such incident was in 1979 when President Kaunda was seeing off Botswana president Ketumile Masire.
Leonard was ordered to perform the pole dance to entertain the two presidents.
And they hurriedly erected the pole on wet ground.
When Leonard climbed to perform, the pole began to tilt towards the two presidents at his weight.
The dancer quickly descended the pole and avoided an embarrassing accident.
Dr Kaunda was furious at the incident. One minister and a director lost their jobs as a result.
In 1978, Leonard was offered a job at Evelyn Hone College, teaching music and art.
But in 2009, he was asked to leave the institution because he had no academic qualifications. He was paid a measly K900.
Leonard still thinks he did not deserve that treatment.
“I told them I was born with a qualification from my mother’s womb,” he says.
In 2010, Leonard organised a bunch of friends into a singing and dancing group called Madalas Cultural Ensemble.
The group comprised Joseph Chibiya, Obino Mwela, Rodgers Mokola and Leonard Njamba and his wife Dorothy.
But they later changed the name of the group to Edwin Manda Cultural Ensemble because young people had joined the group and the name madalas (old men) was no longer appropriate.
But his desire is to set up a culture and art school to teach street kids and orphans about culture.
His project proposal has been collecting dust on the shelf for want of funds since 1980.
Leonard and his wife have seven children and they have followed in their parents’ foot-steps.
The couple’s first-born child is a dancer in Livingstone, then the second child is also an award-winning dancer.
The fourth child, Brisky (stage name), is a rapper and dancer. The third child is also a dancer.
“My family is a family of dancers,” says Leonard.
Leonard danced his way to the top and to many great places, but he regrets that it did not earn him a lot of money or even honour.
He thinks if he was in Europe or other parts of the world, he would have been a wealthy man.
JACK ZIMBA, CHANDA MWENYA, Lusaka