I did not know how he got his name, though I speculated it had to do with a signpost that he put outside his small restaurant. It simply read: ‘Ask the English.’ In Mala, a small multi-racial lumbering town, the message seemed to have a deeper meaning directed at blacks who constituted the bulk of the population. The town had some coloureds, a few whites, and two Asian shopkeepers.
Mr. English was my uncle though I called him ‘elder father’ in the African sense. I enjoyed going to his restaurant to while time or help in cleaning the place.
He lived alone but rumour had it that he had children in South Africa where he had lived for many years before coming back to Zambia.
I remember a day when Mr. English visited us, and I started whistling a song Aphiri Anabwera, which was very popular at the time. Mother pulled a face at me and I knew it was a warning for me to stop. At first I was she was just warning me not to whistle in the presence of adults.
Our guest was seating in the settee his bent right leg resting on his left knee. He gesticulated a lot like a white priest conducting a service in church. I sat in a wooden chair taking in everything between mother and our strange relative. They talked about many things that happened in the past which both seemed to remember with longing.
‘Mother of Penza,’ My Uncle said, his face breaking into a smile, which he rarely did. ‘Remember how I used to top the class before I was stopped from going to school to help with herding cattle.’
‘I do remember. Father meant….’
‘No.. I will never forgive him,’ Uncle said angrily uncrossing his legs and slightly stomping his right foot to the ground.
‘Remember you were father’s favourite’s son.’
Uncle did not answer. He shook his head sadly and his face turned into a grotesque mask as if he had remembered something bad. He looked up at some picture. It was a faded black and white picture of mum with some people I didn’t know and did not bother to ask. He suddenly stood up bidding farewell by bowing slightly in mother’s direction and raising his arm in mine.
When our guest had gone, mother lambasted me for whistling the offensive song. I understood why. The song was about a man who had left home and stayed abroad for many years till he grew very old. When he went back home with an almost empty suitcase, he found most of his relatives had died. I realized that there was great similarity between the man in the song and my Uncle. When she saw my guilt, she explained that he was angry about something else, not my whistling.
Mr. English’s restaurant was usually clean. The walls were painted blue matching with the plastic napkins on the tables. There were a few pictures on the wall. One was the coronation of the Queen of England. The other one was a full picture of Mr. English in an executive suit complete with a handkerchief peeping jauntily from his breast pocket. His large pants looked rather funny making him look like Charlie Chaplin in 'The Tramp'. He stared out of the picture, his big ears protruding comically from his head which had deep-set eyes that seemed to bore into you. He was in a pensive mood that had somehow become his trademark. His thick-spectacles enhanced his serious look making him look like someone who was bored with the business of existence.
I learned from my mother that Mr. English had worked as a cook for several white families in South Africa. His homecoming to Zambia without children depressed him though he seemed to be more disenchanted with life back home as compared to South Africa. He condemned everything under the black government. With him, it was always ' nothing can work under a black government. Why did UNIP chase whites at independence, you couldn't have had all this problems if we had whites. 'There is nothing good that a black man can do.'
When he was not in his restaurant or house listening to the radio, Mr. English would take a walk in the small wood tapping his cane on the ground rythmically. He would pause and look at a flower or a butterfly bending over it as if deep in thought.
His radio was usually tuned to some foreign station especially BBC Focus on Africa. It was a sky-blue Grundig radio that was clearer than any radio I had heard. I knew better but to keep quite whenever he was listening to Focus on Africa, his favourite programme.
Since coming back to Mala, Mr. English had established a reputation as an anti-party and frank critic of what he termed the ‘African problem.’
Whenever there was sad news on any African country, Mr. English would point at his arm and shake his head sadly muttering ‘ii nkanda te sana-This skin is not good.’
Many people in the area secretly considered him to be brave, though not everybody was impressed with his frankness.
Sometimes, he made comments that could have put him in danger with the ruling party UNIP many of its members who were anti-British. The party was notorious for labeling all critics of the government as 'dissidents.' and 'enemies of the people.' terms they got from newspapers. It was the period when nationalists in neighbouring countries like Southern Rhodesia and Mozambique were fighting for self governance with the backing of the Zambian government.
The party had an official security wing of thugs called vigilantes who were known for taking people 'by air'-literally lifting them off the ground. Mr. English called these vigilantes 'rascals,’ one of his favourite English words. The other word he was fond of was 'ridiculous' which he pronounced as 'roodclous'. Many people in the area considered him to be very educated. Yet all these pretensions on being knowledgeable 'on the whiteman's ways' failed to mask his little education completely. I soon learnt that though Mr. English bought the English daily The Times of Zambia daily, he could barely read. Later, as I furthered my education, I started questioning his English which at one time I thought was flawless. He was fond of shaking his head like a lizard when speaking and agreeing with the speaker with interjections of yeah, yeah, yeah, correct, correct, indeed.
On this particular day, it was a Saturday and a very sunny and hot day. Mr. English as usual was nattily dressed in an executive suit. No matter how hot the weather was, he always wore a suit arguing that a gentleman had no weather (another of his favourite dictums). I could smell beans cooking from the kitchen. There was a faint smell of insect killer. Mr. English saw one fly attempting to fly from the floor, he got the insect from the counter and sprayed at it several times before sweeping the poor insect away. He nodded me a greeting and went back to reading the Paper. I went and sat opposite him on a table. He took offence to being disturbed when he was reading. I knew better but to leave him alone. He was reading the Times of Zambia which had a banner headline 'Obote Ousted.' He read quietly but audibly. ‘Obote…Obote.’ I discovered that he could not read the word 'ousted' but he somehow knew that Obote, the former Ugandan president had been overthrown in a military coup. He kept muttering 'Oh too bad for the poor fellow.'
Suddenly, he seemed to be aware of my presence and thrust the paper at me. 'Heh, read for yourself what is happening to the African continent since blacks rascals started ruling themselves.' I missed the paper and it dropped on the floor. He picked it up quickly and shouted: ' Look, what you are doing! You are making my paper dirty!’ He handed it over to me after dusting it carefully. ‘Now read’, he commanded,' when I tell you blacks cannot rule themselves, you say I am out of my mind.
In fact most people thought Mr. English was mad or eccentric. I read the story loudly starting with the headline 'Obote Ousted.' Realising why he wanted me to read the paper I made explanatory comments on complicated paragraphs to which he pretended not to take heed. After reading the last paragraph, he reprimanded me for reading too loudly. 'Read like the English, boy. Remember, you are not at the market. What kind of education are you people getting nowadays.' However, I could see that he was satisfied with my reading and interpretation of the story.
‘A cup of tea?‘ he asked in English, his lanky frame disappearing behind the counter.
‘Yes,’ I answered in English, then I quickly realised that I had forgotten to add the word 'please.' He had on several occasions reprimanded me for not using the word when asking for a request.
'You should learn to say yes please.’
‘Sugar?‘ There was a mischievous tone in his voice. I hesitated fearing another reprimanding if I said I took my tea with sugar.
However, I could not take tea without sugar. After some hesitation, I blurted out 'Yes please, two sugars emphasising the word 'please.'
He laughed derisively, bending double and clutching his stomach with his hands. I then realised why he had laughed. Despite saying two sugars, I had gesticulated by flashing five fingers exposing my pretence that I took less sugar in my coffee. When he later came back with a steaming cup of tea, he was still laughing.
He was in a good mood. He had never offered me anything to eat or drink apart from asking me to do some chores in the restaurant.
As I sipped my tea, he busied himself with cleaning up the restaurant; mopping the floor and dusting the tables. The girl who helped him in the restaurant came in and wore an apron that was hang behind the counter.
People started coming into the restaurant. A well-dressed couple pushing a baby in a pram placed themselves in the corner and scanned the menu written on a blackboard painted on the wall.
There were a few menus with prices: chicken and chips, K 1 50 Ngwee; Chicken and rice, K 150 Ngwee; hamburger with tea, 50 Ngwee; pies 50 Ngwee with tea or coffee. The wall was full of messages. One read ' We are taking long in order to save you better. I always had an urge to remind Mr. English about the misspelling of 'save' instead of 'serve' but I feared it would lead to a quarrel. Another message read Mr. Cash was murdered by Mr. Credit. There was a picture of Mr. Credit with boxing gloves standing over a bleeding Mr. Cash sprawled on the floor. There was also a picture of a mountain scenery by some amateur artist. The mountains were painted green and the sky blue; no nonsense about shading.
The girl was by now busy serving customers. The couple in the corner ordered a meal.
My Uncle went to the baby and smiled at it, touching the side of the pram. Cute thing heh.. very lovely. The mother smiled encouragingly.
Mr. English contempt for the black government grew and at school teachers and pupils identified me with his growing reputation. Though I sensed some teachers agreed with him, they lacked the courage to speak openly against the government.
One day during school holidays, I went to his restaurant on a windy day, I found it closed. This was strange since it was a Saturday when it was usually fully packed. I saw a notice that looked like it had been hastily stuck on the door. It read: Restrant closed. To open on Monday. Sorry for the trouble.
I went back home and told my mother. She explained that Mr. English’s licence had been revoked because of the place operating illegally.
On Monday, the restaurant opened and I found Mr. English in his office marked: Private. He was doing some figures in a big ledger book. Without looking up, he greeted me and asked how my mother was.
‘I went to court. The case came washout..yes washout! They close my restaurant because I don’t have a UNIP card why why.? Roodclous!’ He shouted smiling at the turn of events. He put the book away and paced around the place. He was sweating though it was a cold day. He later sat on the chair and started tapping his fingers on the table still sweating.
I later learnt some UNIP party member had reported Mr. English’s anti-party pronouncement and influenced some authorities to close his restaurant. Mr. English had hired a lawyer and won the case. He talked about the victory to customers and anyone who would care to listen. I asked my mother what washout meant. She explained that Mr. English had been acquitted.
Mr. English attended English was a member of the United Church of Zambia and attended services every Sunday. The English service started earlier in the morning before the vernacular one in chi-Bemba. He prided himself for attending the services in the 'language of our friends' as he referred to whites.
I attended one such service with him and I was amused at his pretensions of attracting attention in church. He sang English hymns more loudly than the other members of the congregation. His favourite hymn seemed to be 'Rock of Ages' which he sang with gusto, his nerves standing out in his long neck. At the end of the service, he was all over the place greeting people warmly in English like a politician.
'Good preaching, So touching, I felt lifted in the spirit.' ‘Beautiful preaching.' Then he quickly looked at his Omega watch after dramatically pulling his left shirt sleeve and announcing hurriedly: ‘I have to rush home for some business.’
Despite considering him anti-social, many people found him amusing and his behaviour became part of the local gossip in Mala. Anybody who was showy or pretended to be superior was accused of behaving like Mr. English. A group of vigilantes who had been wrecking havoc in the area policing households to gauge people’s patriotism had got wind of Mr. English’s anti-party stance. It was election time and there was a carnival-like atmosphere of campaigning.
I was cleaning tables in the restaurant when I saw a Zambia Information Services (ZIS) land rover with a giant megaphone mounted on top. The van moved slowly like a hearse. There were posters of Kaunda and the local candidate pasted on it. The announcer was asking people to vote wisely.
‘Vote for a man of peace. Zambia is a lucky country which has never known violence. If you vote for the enemy, the party will find out and make your life miserable.’ Mr. English had mocked these elections as being unfair since President Kaunda stood against a symbol. Mr. English looked out of the window contemptuously and pointed at the van which was just disappearing at the corner.
‘You people are mad. How can you allow a man to stand with a frog? It is ‘roodclous.’ Totally roodclous,’ he said.
I don’t know if he was addressing the lone diner who kept eating without raising his head. When he realized that his addressee was not keen in joining the discussion, Mr. English continued muttering to himself.
‘All these years he has been in power. What has he done. Nothing! Completely nothing!’ The lone diner looked up at me and circled his right index finger around his head while shaking his head. I didn’t know if the sign made Mr. English was mad or big-headed.
I continued going to the restaurant to help with cleaning. On this day, it was cold and windy day. The wind was blowing things up in the sky. I saw plastic bags, papers and several things blown up by the wind. The wind kept blowing the poster with the words Ask the English almost uprooting it. The pole on which it was nailed bent like some reed fighting currents in a river. Even the mangy dog that hang around the restaurant kept howling despite just having finished chewing at some bones from leftover food. It barked madly fixing a wild look at me.
‘Chase that damn thing from there,’ Mr. English shouted at me. We will lose customers if we allow a wretched thing like that hanging around ’ I pretended to bend down as if picking a stone but to my surprise, the trick that had always worked before in sending the dog running did not work this time.
Instead the dog charged at me. I run back into the restaurant panting. The dog stopped at the door barking with its tail erect. It then yelped and ran away. Mr. English kept on with his business as if nothing had happened.
Later, I heard some rustling outside. Afraid of going out, I ignored the sound. Mr. English read my mind and went out to investigate. I heard him shouting at somebody.
‘Remove that poster from the wall, please,’ he demanded.
‘Why?’ the voice of a man answered back. There was authority and power in the tone of the voice. Sensing a confrontation with whoever he was talking to, I went outside. It was Bruno, the UNIP cadre. He was putting a poster of a Party candidate who was standing as a member of parliament in the area.
The poster showed the picture of Mr. Friday Mulenga, a popular Party official who had defended his Mala constituency for several years. The poster of the smiling candidate read: Vote for Friday Mulenga, the only man with integrity and openness. The symbol for the candidate was a hole. It was a common symbol among UNIP candidates. There had been a campaign calling people to Go Back To the Land and cultivate.
Bruno, who was big and black was wearing a Chitenge tunic bearing the message of the candidate. He was Mr. Mulenga’s right hand man and the leader of the dreaded Vigilante group. The other candidate who was standing as an independent Mr. Samson Nkonde wasn’t very popular. I had seen a few of his posters at the market. His symbol was a hen with chicks. It meant he would care for the people the way a hen cared for its chicks. I later learnt that Bruno’s vigilante group was the most dreaded and notorious for using intimidating methods against ‘enemies of the people.’ They were in reality licensed thugs who struck terror in the citizens.
I learnt later that Bruno had been chosen to stick posters at my uncle’s restaurant because the other Party members feared my uncle. Mr. English’s contempt for blacks and the black government was legendary.
Bruno pasted another poster on the far corner of the restaurant. His face glistened with sweat. His muscles and big frame would make one think God had abandoned creating him and allowed him to be born in a crude way. He worked deliberately and moved somehow challengingly. My uncle kept on telling him to stop pasting posters. When his efforts proved futile, my uncle tore the posters down forcing Bruno to stop his work.
He confronted my uncle pointing an accusing finger in his face.
‘I have heard a lot about you. You are always out to frustrate the Party’s effort. This is not South Africa where whites are in control. This is Zambia, an independent state with a black leader.’
‘So what….The party...’
‘This is private property. You have no right to stick posters here,’ my uncle shouted in English adding loudly ‘by law, by law’. He emphasised the latter statement by stomping his right foot to the ground. Bruno, who was only slightly more educated than my uncle laughed and repeated mockingly ‘by law by law’ I have a right to put posters on this wall. He was visibly enjoying himself.
A crowd had gathered by now to witness the scene which was entertainment in a dull place like Mala. Bruno, who seemed to know the power he welded against my uncle, was not in a hurry to pounce on the proud ‘black Englishman.’ Then he suddenly became seemingly lighthearted and took two posters from a bunch he was holding in his left hand and authoritatively handed them to my uncle.
‘Stick these to replace the ones you have removed.’
When my uncle hesitated, Bruno added:
‘Come on Mr. Gentleman, help with party work. Don’t just sit in your restaurant like a Big Bwana condemning the Party.’
Some people in the crowd laughed. My uncle was not impressed. He turned to the crowd and spoke in English.
‘Leave my premises.’ This is private property.’
I headed back into the restaurant but was forced back when I heard whack-whack-whack. It was Bruno. His hands worked like pistons. He was slapping my uncle in the face. My uncle blinked, dazed by the slaps from the thug.
‘Don’t hit my uncle,’ I said in English.
‘Mr. English has influenced the boy to speak in English,’ someone commented in the crowd. I could see a mixture of fear and embarrassment in the tumult.
Several other vigilantes appeared from nowhere and started hitting him. They rained blows on him and lifted him in what was infamously called ‘by air.’ They bundled him in a Party van which was driven away with uncle shouting: ‘This is what I keep saying, a black man cannot rule himself. Whites can’t do this.’ The cadres ignored him as the van sped off.
He was released without charge after spending two days in remand. He later closed his restaurant and left after saying a hasty goodbye. I asked my mother where he had gone.
‘ He went back to South Africa. One of his sons had called him back.’
The restaurant was later turned into a UNIP office and the poster Ask the English was removed.
Austin Kaluba is a creative writing student at Oxford University, UK. He worked as a features writer for the Times of Zambia before coming to the United Kingdom to study. His stories have appeared on several online literary sites like African Writing, Africa Writers and New Black Magazine. His poetry has been published in the UK’s The Voice.
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