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EXTRACT: A Casualty of Power (2016)

A Casualty of Power by Mukuka Chipanta (Weaver Press, October 2016) is a fast-paced contemporary fictional tale about a young man, Hamoonga Moya, who grows up in a small Zambian copper mining town, Kitwe. He leaves behind his familiar surroundings in pursuit of a college education in the bustling capital city, Lusaka. His studious college life is suddenly upended when he is wrongfully implicated in the disappearance of a piece of precious contraband belonging to some powerful politicians. He then suffers the grave injustice of being incarcerated for several years before being released and returning to his home town a jaded man.

Hamoonga struggles to find work before a serendipitous encounter leads him to secure employment as a laborer in a Chinese-owned copper mine. An acrimonious relationship exists between the indigenous African mine workers and their foreign supervisors over unsafe working conditions and low pay. Tensions reach fever pitch when the Chinese supervisors shoot and kill an African mine worker during a labour protest. Hamoonga finds himself unwittingly sucked into the fray. Will the mine workers succeed in their plight to secure more humane working conditions, or will their efforts be quashed by the weight of those in power?  A Casualty of Power brings to light the often uneasy relationship that exists between indigenous Africans and the new wave of Chinese migrants on the continent. The proliferation of Chinese investment has brought about much needed infrastructure development to the African continent but there are many who see it as a new form of imperialism, a price perhaps too high to pay.

Mukuka Chipanta is an aerospace engineer and author currently living in the Washington DC metro area, USA. Born in Zambia, he spent his formative years in the mineral-rich Copperbelt Province near the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo. For more information see Mukuka Chipanta’s Bio and book reviews by Dr Stephanie Lammert and William R. Shreck. Jr.

Mukuka Chipanta will be appearing at the Africa-China Journalists Forum and Photo Exhibition at Wits on November 1 2018, and signed copies of A Casualty of Power will be available for purchase at the event.

Awards for A Casualty of Power:

  • Best First Book – American Literary Classics Awards (2017)
  • Gold for General College Level Book – American Literary Classics Awards (2017)
  • Longlisted for 9Mobile (formerly Etisalat) Prize for African Literature (2018)
  • Adopted as teaching material at University of Zambia

Below follows extracts from A Casualty of Power. Be sure to catch Mukuka at the Forum. 

Chapter 3 – The Hone

Temwani and Maya arrived on time at 5:30 p.m. for the Thursday evening Journalistic Ethics discussion group.  Brave and Bernice were already present as were Hamoonga and Ken. Ben was missing from the group. He had gone off campus earlier in the day to visit relatives and would most likely be a no-show. Seeing the two women arriving at the door, Hamoonga rose from his seat to welcome them.  Giving both ladies a warm embrace, he trurned to the rest of the group: ‘Hey guys, this is Maya and this is Temwani.  I’m sure you’ve seen them in class. Temwani, Maya – welcome to the group,’ Hamoonga smiled broadly. There was a collective, ‘Hey!’ before they proceeded to make individual introductions.

Both girls looked beautiful. It was clear to Hamoonga that Maya had made an extra effort. Her braided hair was neatly coiled into a bun at the back of her head; her brown lipstick complemented her almond skin. Maya had a round face; she was not beautiful in the conventional sense, but her pleasant smile had an inviting charm. A pale blue chiffon dress swung just above her knees. She wore a modest par of slippers revealing her toenails, which she had taken care to paint in a dark brown gloss.

Temwani was classically beautiful with high cheekbones on a perfectly chiselled face and slanting brown eyes. Her natural hair was cropped and well oiled. A huge pair of wooden oval earrings completed her ethnic look. The two young women sat next to each other in the neatly arranged circle of chairs.  Hamoonga and Maya exchanged glances like two lovers sharing an inside joke.  She averted her eyes first.  Brave, who was sitting between between Ken and Temwani, spoke first.

‘So, as you all know, the topic for our next class is about how we, as journalists, should contribute to the social discourse on the recent takeover of the country’s mining industry by the Chinese. How, essentially, should we cover the issue in a manner that is balanced and informative, without compromising our civic responsibilities as African citizens?’ Brave loved open-ended debate; he liked to set the ball rolling and play devil’s advocate in heated discussions.

‘Well,’ Bernice said, adjusting her braids, ‘I think, first of all, that your preamble is flawed. Your supposition is that the mining industry is being ‘taken over’ by the Chinese. I think that creates a false premise that somehow the Chines are the aggressors and the Africans are powerless bystanders. I reject that notion. We, as Africans, are equal partners at the table, good or bad; we are co-conspirators in what is happening within our mining industry. It’s not a case of the ‘Evil Red Empire’ subjugating the African people; no, we’re part of it!’ Bernice was a great debater, with good previous experience in the Roma Girls Secondary School team.

‘I agree with Bernice,’ Temwani began as everyone turned to listen to the newest member of their group. ‘We as Africans, need to take ownership of the decisions we make. Yes, good or bad, we accepted the Chinese into our country and they are merely doing what was agreed to by consenting parties. I think that as journalists we should be fair and cover the Chinese perspective as well as the Zambian perspective.’

‘You say that they, the Chinese, are merely doing what was agreed by consenting parties,’ Brave began his stern rebuttal. ‘But was the negotiating done on an equal platform? I contend that our copper mines were sold off well below fair-market value. It was and still is daylight robbery! As journalists, being led by a strong moral compass, it is incumbent upon us to report this atrocity and let it be known to any ear that will listen that African nations are being bamboozled. The Chinese are robbing us of our children’s inheritance!’ Ken and Hamoonga shared a quick glance, taken aback by Brave’s emotive views.

‘Is it the fault of the Chinese if African countries don’t present themselves well at the negotiating table? Temwani asked. ‘Is it not essential that African countries put their best foot forward and get the best deal they can when selling their assets?’

After a brief moment of thoughtful silence Brave responded. ‘But what you have here is imbalance. The Chinese come with a war chest of money. They can afford to get the best lawyers that money can buy, they have time to wait until we’re desperate enough to make a deal and, above all, they can appease our corrupt politicians through graft.’

‘But again, is it the fault of the Chinese that we’re led by charlatans?’ Temwani retorted. She raised her hands, as if daring the group to respond.

‘Yeah, whose fault is that?’ Ken interjected awkwardly.

A dismissive look flashed across Temwani’s face. Ignoring Ken, she continued, ‘I say, business is business. Who would pass up a good money-making opportunity? I believe that if the tables were turned, we’d do the same.

‘What do you think, Maya?’ Hamoonga asked trying to broaden the conversation. The entire group turned to face Maya. The sound of footsteps echoed in the corridor outside as they all waited for her to speak.

‘Hmmm,’ she mused for a moment. ‘Well, I see both sides of the coin, but let’s get back to the topic at hand. I don’t believe that its up to the journalists to judge which point of view is right or wrong. Ours is to report on the facts and let them tell the story’.

Hamoonga was genuinely impressed. He smiled broadly at Maya as she fidgeted nervously with the hem of her dress. ‘I like that perspective, yes, but being stakeholders ourselves, it’s very difficult for us to remain impartial. I mean, the copper mines are the lifeblood of our country. We know we need to guard them jealously for generations to come, but we can’t let that blind us to the facts. I think these are pretty clear: we have corrupt, incompetent leaders representing us at times. It is also a fact that the Chinese are not necessarily considering our best interests. They’re looking out for their own; you can’t blame them for that! I mean…’ ‘Hold on!’ Brave interrupted. ‘I think we can and we should blame the Chinese. They need to play by ethical rules. I’m sorry. I just don’t believe that it’s right for one country to knowingly enslave another just to capitalize on an arbitrage opportunity! No, that’s colonialism all over again!’ Brave’s right fist was clenched.

Ken leaned back in his chair and lifted his arms in the air. ‘Hey man, but it’s all about the paper!’ he said matter-of-factly.  Temwani rolled her eyes. Ken was failing to impress.

Brave shook his head at Ken’s comment. ‘So as journalists, how should we cover a story in which over ten thousand out of a working force of thirty thousand mine workers are laid off in a period of two years by the so-called Chinese investors; the same people who promised our government they would retain jobs? How are we to report on the loss of hospitals, schools, and other social services previously offered by government-run copper mines? How do we report on the massive influx of Chinese workers taking up jobs previously held by local Africans – and even including the menial jobs? Tell me, how should we report on the Chinese owners that mistreat African employees, underpaying them and overworking them? How can we cover stories of Chinese firms that plunder our natural resources and pollute our rivers and streams, disrupting our farms and making our children sick?’

Brave’s ruthless characterization of the Chinese mine-owners had brought the animated discussion to a thoughtful pause.

‘I guess there might be a place for the activist journalist then,’ Bernice broke the silence. There were a few concurring nods.

‘One thing I keep thinking about is how the media only seems to focus on the men who’ve lost their jobs in the mines. What about the impact on women?’ Maya asked, offering a change in direction for the conversation.

‘How do you mean?’ Hamoonga asked.

‘Well, as journalists, I think we should cover the effect that these job losses are having on women. You see, the typical family in the copper-mining towns consists of a husband who works long shifts, his wife, and three or four school-going children. It is the women in this family who plays multiple roles: cooking, cleaning, taking care of the children and in most cases bringing in a second, supplementary income to sustain the household.’ Maya looked at Temwani, who nodded in agreement. She went on.

Chapter 13 – Into the Belly of the Beast 

Chishimba Mine, Copperbelt Province, Zambia

September 2011

‘We need you on our side, Hamoonga, we need your voice in this struggle,’ Kalala said as he walked faster to keep pace with Hamoonga’s long purposeful strides. ‘The Chinese supervisors listen to you. If you can just speak to them, I think our message will be brought home.’ Hamoonga remained silent, he didn’t want to get involved in workplace politics. ‘Hamoonga, the majority of the workers have little or no education,’ Kalala went on. ‘They can’t express their grievances in a way that management will listen to them. I’ve been trying my best, but you know the Chinese have labelled me a troublemaker and my days here are numbered. If you speak up, both the workers and the management will listen. I know they will!’

Hamoonga stopped and turned to face the persistent Kalala. He was tired, it had been a long shift, and he could feel his lower back and shoulders aching. The last thing he wanted to do was to engage in a futile conversation about workers’ rights and Chinese imperialists, so he sounded as cynical as he felt at that moment. ‘Can’t you get it into your head that nobody cares? No amount of discussion, lobbying or whatever you want to call it will make any difference. In this world you have the powerful and the weak; we, my friend, are the weak. That’s the system that operates in this country, it’s all about patronage; this is not a meritocracy, you rise and fall based on who you know not what you know!’

‘You’re right, but we can change that if we group together and present a united front!’ Kalala ignored the bitterness that laced Hamoonga’s words, happy to finally get a response out of him. ‘A united front, a united front?’ Hamoonga repeated mockingly. ‘What power does a lowly mine worker have? How can a lowly mine worker stand up to the Chinese who are backed by big money and powerful politicians? Besides, what grievances or struggles are you talking about?’

‘Ah, my brother, one or two lowly mine workers for sure cannot change anything. However, a few hundred … a thousand mine workers will surely turn some heads! You see, what we’re fighting for is to have an equal seat at the table. Right now, you’re correct in saying that powerful politicians and the Chinese management hold all the cards. Between these two camps they have shared the spoils. What we need to do is to ensure that we take what is owed to us; us the people!’ Kalala clenched his fists as he made his point. ‘Just as it was during the fight for independence from the British, we must rise up and claim what is rightfully ours!’

It was growing dark, an amber sunset was fading into the western horizon behind the large man-made hills of copper-processing waste.  Hamoonga could see fellow mine workers hurrying toward the townships.  His thoughts travelled back to Cha-Cha-Cha prison.  The cold, damp cells, the beatings, the long empty days without news of family or friends. ‘So you believe that we can just band together and demand higher wages from our Chinese bosses?’ he asked in the full knowledge that he was oversimplifying things.

‘In a nutshell, yes!’ Kalala replied without hesitation.  ‘First, we need to bring the key people within our ranks together, those who can bring other workers with them.  After that we can list our demands and put a plan of action together that will ensure we get what we want.’

‘And what about the Mine Workers Union?  I thought it was the forum to air mine workers’ grievances?’

‘Hamoonga, dont you know?!  It’s the worst kept secret that all the MWU leaders are in the pockets of the Chinese and the politicians.  No, the MWU doesn’t serve anyone but its own leadership.  Kalala’s face expressed his contempt.

‘But what specifically is it that we want as workers?’

‘We want better conditions of service, we want to ensure that safety protocols are enhanced and followed.  How many of our colleagues have died on the job just within the past year?’  Kalala shook his head.  ‘We want livable wages.  Mealie-meal has risen more than a hundred percent in the last two years but our wages have remained stagnant.  We want good healthcare services for our familites; ever since the mines were sold to foreigners, we’ve not been able to get good affordable healthcare!’  Kalala was on a roll.  He raised his palms above his shoulders like a preacher behind a lectern.  ‘We need and demand respect and better treatment from our management.  How often do you hear our supervisors addressing us like bastard children or worse still like animals? This is not the nineteenth century or the pre-colonial time; we need to be treated with dignity and respect!’

Hamoonga listened quietly to Kalala who was like a human-rights activist on his soapbox.  ‘But why do you need me specifically?’

‘Hamoonga, like I said, you’re educated and articulate, the workers admire you, and the Chinese supervisors hold you in high regard.  I’m certain that if you join us more workers will follow,’ Kalala replied.  ‘I’m not asking you to decide now, but think about it and perhaps join us when a few of us meet after work next Thursday at the Insaka Bar.  It’s a friendly atmosphere, we’ll be happy to have you.  You can just listen and observe.’ Hamoonga was non-committal, simply turning and resuming his brisk walk back home.

That evening, as he lay on the sunken sofa, Hamoonga stared up at the three wooden trusses and the thin corrugated roofing of his sister’s house.  It was raining and the drops pinged noisily against the metal.  Kalala had made some good points.  The miners’ working conditions were deplorable and they were growing worse by the day.

Gone were the days when a mine worker could provide his family with a decent living.  Most workers were just grateful to be employed, but their existence was pitiful.  On a mine worker’s wages one could not afford to buy a month’s groceries, school uniforms for the children, pay medical care, and rent.  Nearly everyone was behind on one or all of these essentials.

But what could be done about it?  The system was rigged in favour of the wealthy elite and their cronies.   It was the greedy politicians who had neglected the plight of their people by selling off the country’s heritage to foreigners.’

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