I don’t remember April 28, 1993. I was only four years old at the time. I first heard about the Gabon Air Crash via a family friend in the late 1990s. My friend showed me a scrapbook he had kept ever since he was a young boy which featured newspaper clippings of former Zambian national soccer teams, including the ones who perished that fateful day. He told me that when he first heard about the crash, he ripped out some of the pages in anger. His sentiments can be compared to Morris Gwebente, a soccer fan who was interviewed by Sports Illustrated in October 1993. “For that entire week, I wasn’t worth anything. I thought about those guys. I knew them all. How could it be that I will never see them again?” I interviewed a former Daily Mail journalist Jay Mwamba (now based in New York) who covered the sporting tragedy and was close friends with some of the players. He was told of the news by sporting legend Kalusha Bwalya, who was meant to join the team in Senegal, as he was a foreign based player. ““Hi…,” Kalusha replies. “…I just got a call from FAZ in Zambia…The plane….”He doesn’t have to say more. I’d already processed the tragic news.” I asked Mwamba how he was able find the strength to separate his emotions from his journalist duties. He said “I had been a journalist for over a decade when the crash happened, so your professional instincts take over. It’s like in any emergency. You do what you have to do first and then reflect on the situation later.” After the crash, a new team was formed with Kalusha at the helm. Long time sports commentator Dennis Liwewe was optimistic. (*Note: That is an actual BBC recording from 1993).“From the ashes of the disaster, our soccer program is headed for glory, glory, and hallelujah”.
While I was too young to remember the specifics of the 1993 crash, I remember exactly where I was on February 12, 2012 as the Chipolopolo boys took on Drogba and his teammates from Ivory Coast. I was standing in a subway station in Greenville, Maryland. It had probably been the worst weekend of my life. My cousin had just passed away in a road accident in Lusaka. Interestingly enough, his last tweet was about how he couldn’t wait to watch the final. I had to rely on my friend who was watching the game to update me on the penalty shootouts. My twitter friends also chimed in with their updates. When I heard that we had won, I can’t describe my feelings. I was weak with happiness. I almost cried. I had dared to dream that the copper bullets would slay the elephants. I had never given up hope in my boys, even though I was continuously harassed by my friends from Ghana (who we defeated) and more. I don’t think most Zambians even expected us to win. Jay Mwamba himself said “frankly, I wasn’t a hundred percent confident of victory before the tournament. I was also of the opinion that if the knockout draw was favorable, the semis is was far as we would go”. But as we got close to the finals, the mood changed. Africa is A Country said “their success hasn’t been lucky or accidental. They haven’t had an easy route to the final. They have simply been brilliant.. Chipolopolo played the best football, scored some of the best goals, and provided the best goal celebrations at AFCON 2012 (African Cup of Nations). The ‘goal celebrations’ were a dance called ‘Donchi Kubeba’, a popular song by Zambian artist Dandy Krazy. It literally translates to ‘Don’t Tell Them’ and was a campaign slogan during elections for current president, Michael Sata.
Others believe Zambia’s epic win was meant to be. Their coach Herve said “it was written in the stars that we had to return to Gabon in order to honor the memories of the national side wiped out in 1993”. Interestingly enough, in a Sports Illustrated article dated October 18 1993; Kalusha Bwalya said “In Africa, we believe the spirits must be satisfied. If someone dies, everything must be done properly for that person. These are the spirits behind us. They are not forgotten”. The AFCON 2012 team visited the shores of the Atlantic Ocean in Libreville and laid wreaths to pay homage to the team before the final.
When the newly crowned champions returned to Lusaka, Zambia, thousands of jubilant fans decked out in red, gold, black and green were at the airport to greet them. Some walked as far as 15 miles to catch a glimpse of their ‘heroes’. Seeing the pictures via news outlets made me think of the 1993 May 3 burial of the team. The ‘fallen heroes’ arrived in caskets to about 100,000 bereaved fans. They were laid to rest at the Independence stadium in a moving public ceremony where the president at the time Frederick Chiluba wept on national television. Apparently 130 people collapsed, while two women went into labor.
Comparisons between the 1993 team and the cup of nation’s champions are inevitable. For instance, the 1993 goal keeper Efford Chabala was applauded for his skill, as was the current one Kennedy Mweene, whose saving skills guaranteed him a plot of land in his hometown as given to him by his chief. I particularly appreciated his ‘I don’t see you’ John Cena style hand gesture to Didier Drogba after his penalty miss in the finals. According to Sports Illustrated, the 1993 team was “the first country this far south of the continent that had ever qualified for the final cup round” (in reference to the 1994 world cup qualifying round). The AFCON team was the first Southern African team to win the cup of nations since South Africa in 1996. The same article stated that the 1993 team was “not some put-together outfit for a wide –eyed shot at notoriety. It was a veteran team”. The same could be said for the AFCON team as many of the players, including Chris Katongo and Rainford Kalaba had been on the squad for years. Mwamba has a different take. He states, they were “Two totally different teams, different playing styles, different coaching. The biggest difference is that ‘93 squad was obviously much more talented. But without putting the Nations Cup winners down, it’s hard and not fair to compare teams from two different generations.” Another difference is that the AFCON team came in as underdogs. The odds were stacked 40/1. But in true African fairytale style, they left as heroes. How did they do it? In my opinion, other than destiny, I believe they wanted it more than any team. And I’m not the most religious person on earth, but if you watched the final penalty rounds, you would notice that the Zambian players sang Christian gospel songs throughout. A BBC fan said “Did anyone notice a total first? In my 50 years of playing and watching football, the Zambian players singing on the throughout the whole shootout..not only the bench guys and the huddle in the midfield, but also the shooters. Has anyone seen anything like it?” One of the many chipolopolo motivational songs that were released before the final said “ Te juju, ni Mulungu. Na coach Musungu” which can be translated to “It’s not witchcraft, it’s God. And a white coach.” I say it’s a well-kept Zambian secret. Donchi Kubeba (Don’t tell them).
Mazuba Kapambwe is a Zambian New York based Blogger, Writer, PR Manager, Radio Co- Host and future film maker. She has written for sites and magazines such as Africa Style Daily, Afripop, Mimi, Face 2 Face Africa, Applause, Young African Visionaries and more. Her blog afrosocialiting.wordpress.com chronicles her attempt at balancing her college life with her life as an ‘Afrosocialite’ who attends African inspired events in New York.