There's a story told about a famous Zambian who died. Thousands of mourners turned up at his funeral. One of the funeral orators was just reaching the climax of his impassioned eulogy, which had been met with the equally enthusiastic if necessarily muted approval of the crowd, when suddenly everyone's attention was drawn to the casket by an unmistakable cough. In the following moments, the corpse opened his eyes, muttered some inaudible words and climbed out of the coffin. The dead man walked calmly over to the astonished (and speechless) eulogist and took the microphone into his until-just-a-minute-ago-lifeless hands. The deceased motioned for the vast throng to be silent so that he could address them. By this time, all the wailing, tears and sombre expressions of the mourners had been replaced, first by incredulity, and then by indignation. "Just like him to be so arrogant and self-centred on an occasion like this," they said, "and shamelessly use it as an opportunity for self-promotion."
In truth, there's no such Zambian story. I just made it up for two reasons.
The first reason is it captures and illustrates something of the peculiarities of Zambian culture: the unstated rule that the eminent must be modest about their achievements; the generally unexpressed (to the living, at least), but nonetheless genuine, admiration for those achievements; the not-always-ingenuous respect for the dead; and, of course, the absurdist sense of humour with more than a hint of the macabre.
The second reason is I think it's a joke that Augustine Lungu, one of Zambia's most eminent and versatile artists and humorists, would have enjoyed. Augustine died, of an undisclosed illness, on the 19th of March 2010. He was only 39. At the time of his death, Augustine was Director of Programmes at Muvi TV, a private television station in Zambia. He is survived by his wife and four children. (And yes, as it happens, there were hundreds, and according to least one report I've seen thousands, of mourners at his funeral.) My blog has a special connection to Augustine because its title, Perfect for Biltong, was coined by him, albeit for an altogether different purpose: a Zambeef advert, as I recall.
Augustine Paul Lungu was born on the 12th of December 1970. (Augustine, here's another one. Question: Who said "Never trust a man with three names"? Answer: Francis Ford Coppola.) He was educated at Chelston Primary School and Kabulonga Boys Secondary School in Lusaka. It was at school, both primary and secondary, that Augustine's multi-faceted artistic talents began to flourish. He proved to be a natural and supremely gifted performer.
After school, Augustine went on to establish himself as one of Zambia's most accomplished artists and humorists. He was certainly the most versatile. During his career, he played many different roles, in both the functional and theatrical sense, each with distinction: actor, director, producer, writer, broadcaster, arts administrator and activist; comedy, tragedy, tragi-comedy, poetry; you name it, Augustine did it. As an actor and voice-over artist, he performed in (and probably wrote, co-wrote or directed) countless radio and television advertisements, including several instant classics that have become part of Zambian language and culture. He was a delightful mimic and could impersonate the voices and gestures of virtually anyone at will. He worked in and mastered all of the different media: theatre, film, radio, television, print, and latterly even the so-called new media. He was also a much sought after master-of-ceremonies for all kinds of functions like weddings, beauty pageants, corporate events, and so forth. He was equally adept in English, several Zambian languages, and various hybrids thereof, including Zanglish, or Zambian English. There are some fine examples of Augustine's comic writing in his "Just Musing" columns in Zambian Analysis magazine. His verbal and linguistic dexterity was just one of the weapons in a formidable arsenal which also included: a deep, sonorous and highly distinctive voice; large, expressive eyes; a face capable of displaying the most nuanced mood or emotion; a keen intelligence; and a seemingly inexhaustible creativity.
Perhaps his versatility, too, was reflective of the contemporary Zambian condition. For one can ill-afford to specialise in a country where "just" being an actor, or "just" being a director, or "just" being a writer, is unlikely to provide a sustainable income. And so, the typical Zambian thing is to generalise: to do a bit of this, and a bit of that, and a bit of the other thing in order to make ends meet. The surprising thing in Augustine's case is that he seemed to excel at virtually everything he did.
Augustine's finest hour internationally came in 2003, when he and Benne Banda starred in a two-man play entitled Footers at the Edinburgh Festival. Footers, or Headers and Footers as it was billed in Zambia, was written by the Irish playwright, Shay Linehan, who lived and worked in Zambia for many years before moving back to Ireland. Augustine and Benne played Zeddy and Yoyo, two uneducated and unemployed youths who have to live by their wits on the mean streets of Lusaka. The play is supposed to be satirical, and so it is. In many ways, though, it is an all too realistic and painful portrayal of the daily lives of many promising youngsters in Zambia. Footers was the first Zambian production ever to play at the Edinburgh Festival.
However, the most remarkable thing about Augustine's repertoire of skills was probably that they were all largely self-taught. He had no formal training to speak of, no diploma from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, or the New York Film Academy, or their Zambian equivalents (for none exist, in any case). But what he did have in abundance was talent, aptitude, determination, and an insatiable and indiscriminate love for the arts. He also had what every great artist must have: a personal taste and style all his own. He was--and is--inimitable in that respect.I had the great privilege of seeing and hearing Augustine perform in a variety of formats, including one incredible evening spent watching Headers and Footers.
But for me personally, the most memorable performance that Augustine ever gave must have taken place some 11 or 12 years ago. Augustine was already by then a household name in Zambia. I had gone to visit a friend, a mutual friend as it turned out, in Rhodes Park, one of the suburbs of Lusaka. I didn't know that Augustine was staying over at our mutual friend's house. Our friend had just let me into the lounge, when Augustine emerged from one of the corridors with both hands proferred in greeting. He had an extremely grave look on his face. I recognised him immediately and must have appeared somewhat bemused. Without missing a beat, Augustine shook my hand warmly and said: "Hello, I am Auntie Josephine!" The ice, such as it was, was instantly broken and I collapsed in an uncontrollable fit of laughter. Pure Augustine.
Augustine had the ability to make anyone that came into contact with him experience joy and laughter, a priceless gift in this world surely. I'd give my eye-teeth--now there's an Augustinian seed for a joke if ever there was one (what kind of word is eye-teeth anyway?)--but I digress (now, where was I?)--(oh yes) my eye-teeth to have heard what Augustine said to Saint Peter at the Pearly Gates. But that's a story for another life and another world.
Augustine, Zambia will miss you. Thank you for the unforgettable joy and laughter. Rest in Peace.
--Mjumo Mzyece, 28 March 2010.