Friday, March 27, 2009

Zamunda: A cautionary tale

Zamunda is the imaginary African kingdom in the Eddie Murphy classic Coming to America. In February 2003, I wrote a short story about leadership in African countries. Claimer: The events and characters in the story ARE based on actual events and characters from Zambian history. To give some context: About a year earlier, in January 2002, Levy Mwanawasa became President of Zambia after 10 years of increasingly corrupt rule by his predecessor. He had been handpicked by the incumbent. The questions that were in the minds of all Zambians at the time were whether President Mwanawasa would be his own man and just what kind of President he was going to be. As things turned out, he proved to be a pretty good one, a saint of a President indeed by African standards. The title I gave the story back in 2003 was Ali Baba and The Forty Thieves, a title somewhat lacking in subtelty and tact it seems now six years on! The story is allegorical. See if you can spot the good old British Empire; Zambia's first President, the freedom fighter Kenneth Kaunda; Zambia's second President, the wily Fredrick Chiluba; and Zambia's third President, the late, great Mwanawasa. The story seems to suggest that it's all cyclical and that progress is only illusory. Such was my pessimistic, and yes perhaps even cynical, view at the time. I hope I was wrong.

Anyhow, here it is, the complete and unexpurgated original text:

Once upon a time, in the land of Zamunda, there were multitudes of chiefdoms: lots and lots of chiefdoms, some small, some big, some isolated, some integrated, trading, warring, intermingling, living chiefdoms. And so they had gone on, century after century. And so it seemed they would continue into perpetuity.

But one day a group of itinerant bandits, forty in number, happened upon the sleepy land of Zamunda. They were led by Zaafira, a fierce and crafty woman, who had earned the nickname 'Bandit Queen'. Zaafira and her men raided the Zamundans continually and robbed them of untold quantities of golden grudas. They stowed their spoils in an immense secret cavern on the periphery of Zamunda.

On one particular occasion as Khalil, a poor Zamundan (indeed all Zamunda had become impoverished), was foraging for food in remote parts, he saw the bandits approaching on horses laden with sacks of grudas. Having concealed himself, Khalil saw Zaafira stop at a certain spot and say: "Open, Maize-ame!" Immediately the door of the secret cavern flew open and the Bandit Queen and her men hid their treasure inside. Once the bandits emerged from the cavern, Zaafira sealed the entrance of the cavern with the magical words: "Shut, Maize-ame!" And the bandits rode off.

When it was safe, Khalil approached the secret cavern and tried the magic words. Once again the cavern door opened and Khalil was able to carry off many grudas. In keeping with the meaning of his name ('friend'), Khalil shared the wealth he retrieved from the secret cavern with all the people of Zamunda. Khalil shared the secret of the wealth with key Zamundan leaders. Eventually, the Zamundans regained their wealth and their pride and they were able to chase away the bandits.

As the years went by Zamundans forgot their past woes, as it seemed their former idyllic existence had been restored. In the course of time, however, they were to face the usual adversities that visit any society. And by this time, Khalil and almost all Zamundan leaders, had forgotten the magical words to open the secret cavern. They tried "Open, Rice-ame!" and "Open, Wheat-ame!" and all manner of grains, except maize. Meanwhile, the Zamundans grew increasingly restless and, once again, came to know poverty. Almost all Zamundan leaders had forgotten the magic words, save for one, that is: Ali Baba. It was he that came to the rescue of all Zamunda. Or so it seemed at the time.

Ali Baba kept the magic words to open the secret cavern all to himself. Once he had ensconced himself at the helm of Zamunda, he formed a group of what he called the forty operatives to extort what few grudas the Zamundans still had. For the first time in its history, Zamunda became a single chiefdom.

One day Ali Baba yawned and realised he had grown quite bored of ruling Zamunda and decided he wanted to become a professional philosopher. He would have liked to install one of his sons as chief in his place, but, alas, they had inherited all of his brains (which is to say very little) and none of his cunning. And so, Ali Baba appointed the aptly named Mustafa ('chosen') instead, shared with him the magic words, and embarked on his philosophical career.

Mustafa, unfortunately for Ali Baba, turned out to have ideas of his own. He wished, in order to consolidate his own position, to be sole possessor of the knowledge of the magic words, and had Ali Baba discredited and thrown into a lunatic asylum for the rest of his days. Mustafa continued his reign until, in his turn, he played Ali Baba to his own Mustafa.

And that, according to legend, accounts for the cyclical history of Zamunda and the poverty we now find ourselves in. My son, it's late. Go to sleep. Get some rest. Mustafa's workhouse awaits us in the morning...

1 comment:

ambersun said...

Hi again

What a lovely, interesting story - full of twists, turns and characterisation.

I liked the first guy best - the one who shared the goods. I hope that's what I'd be like if I came across untold prosperity.