When the storykeepers stitch together their tale for your history books, they hone in on your beauty marks—the delicate boundary lines that mark the beginnings of your body and the end of the next. In an Atlas, they point at the belly of Africa and tell you that from the sky, you are shaped like a butterfly mid-flight. You should ask who did the carving. Force them to explain how—to etch a shape into the earth, there must also be a gouging. You should insist on the origin story, where someone feasted on you like a steaming chunk of meat pie.

But no. You smile when they sing of your beauty in the sunlight, as they whisper the majesty of the fallen baobab where your back arches and the thunder of Mosi-oa-Tunya smokes down your legs, between your toes. This narration is Mazabuka sugarcane sweet in your ears. Of course, you savour it. You swallow, silent and without chewing.  I don’t begrudge you. You’re but a sprout at the time, eager, porous.


There was a time before it, but in your mangled recollections, it starts like this—when you’re a sapling, your first captors finally leave. From the debris of their departure, you rise, inspecting yourself—over there, their hefty law books that christen you criminal; there, convoluted prayer books that bury your gods, a leader who looks and sounds like you for once.

You exhale. Not so bad, you think, after seventy-six of their soles on my neck. You take this gauzy freedom and flip your forefinger at the sky. Never again. Never again—imbued into the anthem. You will teach the generations to come—all one, strong, and free.

Into the rubble, you discard the name they gave you. In its place, you weave god’s name into your identity. At first babble, it is Nzambi Enzi, then Zambezi, and finally, Zambia.

From your elder siblings, Angola, Mozambique, and the Zaire, you learn what is possible if you name every ugly thing. With your fraternal twin, Malawi, you cement yourself as the peaceful middle children long before Zimbabwe and Botswana come. You wear this label, Peace, to the assemblies and the theatres of diplomacy. You pirouette for the puppeteers, the ones you can’t see unless you squint. When the strings move, your Kwacha starts to crawl, thinking it a game in a playpen. But when the puppeteer’s fingers dance again, Pound is on her mark. By the time you hear the gunshot, see the racetrack, she is miles ahead. What could they be feeding her over there? You wonder. Surely, nothing as good as yellow maize nsima with chicken and beans stew. Can’t be the stale bread slices that crumble on the plate when you try to moisten it with some of that yellow Buttercup margarine. Certainly, not mid-December mangoes swelling and falling from your trees? You try to catch up, but your buses have started to rust, your numbers have bulged, and the jalopies sway on sluggish wheels.

Because the language they left you fights your tongue, choking out your own, your words lag. When the sentences finally take shape, there are grumbles in your mouth, not the clear cadence of your elder siblings, whose fight taught them how to be angry, how to shout.

Still, you remember your moniker. Peace reminds you that your captors left you a father. Sure, your memory is murky on whether you selected him the way children do before climbing into their mothers’ wombs or if he was always there like an owl looming on a branch. Either way, he is your father, and you’re his child. To love and to hold. The hold is tender to start, a caress over the pulse of your fontanelle. Into your ears, he whispers promises about coagulating your 72 languages into an intricate patchwork. You nod, holding concern on your tongue like water—quiet.

You ignore the hunger brewing in your stomach and nod with the curfew keepers, call them Bwana like the captors. You laugh when your father calls you ungrateful for not belching on an empty stomach. Peace—even while his hand slithers down your neck, stifling first voice, then breath until that water on your tongue sputters out, which is how you finally learn the power of your scream.

Decadent, isn’t it—the scratch that a risen voice leaves in the back of your throat?

Do it again. Shout about the winding lines in the shops. Shout about the deaths of those whose grumbles lasted a little too long. Question his public scolding and every time he calls you foolish. You are 26 now, almost 27; you are a woman ready for the next phase.

Waiting in the wings is a lover, a little short but with a mouth like butter so smooth it could slide easily over those fragmented slices.


The first time he asks, you squeal, Yes!  You don’t concern yourself with what he is asking. He asked, and that was enough. This will be true freedom, you know it! Nothing like the kind your faux father gave you or the one your captors wouldn’t give.

On your honeymoon, he brings you apples. They’re powdery and linger on your tongue, almost like liver if cooked just so. He calls them capitalism and liberalisation and promises you those are what keep Pound so light and fast on her feet.

Yes, you say, dizzy under the blanket of his affection.

He buys you a fleet of planes and paints them the colour of your trees, the copper in your gut, and the red marker of life running through the people who call you home.

He opens up the open-air markets, and you watch them flood with more people than you can count. Between the stalls, Kwacha is traded until she grows slick with Vaseline and promise. You’ve lost sight of Pound on the track, but who needs her when you have so many shops now that the keepers shout out for attention, asking people to come in and take their pick of the wares that have braved the Indian Ocean and TaZaRa, only to die a quiet death, in dusty boxes on their neatly lined shelves? In this gaping open economy, you don’t worry yourself about the people swarming in—the ones picking at your industries like guavas in mid-March are about to run out. You know that marriage is Shipikisha like this, small bumps here and there. Your lover knows what he is doing.

Right now, you focus on the little fires, trying to faze them with spit, even though only a flood will do.

Fire one, the national team plunges into the Atlantic, drowning a throng of athletic dreams. Fellow citizens, your lover tells you, let us pray.

You bow your head. You close your eyes.

O God of Abraham. God of Jacob and God of Isaac, he says.

And you don’t ask why the God of Abraham, Jacob, and Isaac and not yours. You say Amen. You pray it all the way into your Constitution, declaring​​ the Republic a Christian nation.

Fire two, the fleet of planes shut down.

Well, those wedding gifts couldn’t last forever, could they? The colours will rust in the rain. The workers will succumb to depression and sever themselves from this world. But, you try prayer again and wait.

Fire three, Meridian Biao is closing.

But you shut your ears to the Post, those rabble-rousers. Your lover wouldn’t lead you astray as long as you don’t look too long at the young fathers still standing in the banking hall, waiting for their final paychecks. As long as you don’t count the ones that take a noose to their heads, to desert the sound of their children’s stomachs.  As long as you ignore mothers in markets selling their gardens for pennies, this is no crisis. This is a liberalised economy. A bitter pill, but a pill that will cure, your lover says.

Fire four, the people are dropping like flies despite the billboards and WHO-endorsed SIDA warnings.

Still, you hold that water on your tongue. You refuse to let your weeping become a frenzy. AIDS is a thing of whispers you keep between the walls of family, something uttered into the darkness when the doors are locked. When your people carry out her rituals to send away the dead, you tell them to rename this illness into something that doesn’t taste quite like shame. Sudden will do, yes. Short illness is perfect.

See? Spit over fire—fixed.

You pretend not to see your lover grow taller thanks to $500,000 shoes. When he tells you not to listen to the imperialists, you obey, even though the urge to scream is climbing into your mouth.

Okay, fine, you want to start shouting.

He sees your itch and throws his hands in the air, agreeing to leave you at 37 if that’s what you really want.

In his place, he offers a brother and you agree, thinking, He will be different.


Between the unseating of your lover and his replacement taking you, there is a stutter in your peaceful deposition.

You’ve tasted unrest and found it more palatable than silence.

You’ve crossed the Great East Road, travelled through the windbreak of trees and survived the culling of annual exams. You’ve penned long, complicated dissertations dedicated to the fathers you’re too afraid to look in the eye, exhausted mothers and siblings with whom you swap inside jokes. When the government delayed your food allowances, you carried your hanger to the street, where you barricaded the tar with rocks and sticks. You refused to be dissuaded from your dissent until the police shot tear gas canisters, temporarily rendering you blind.

By the time you marched across the lawn at graduation, egged on by your grandmother’s ear-splitting ululations, you’ve almost forgotten how to chant We are afraid, like the games of your not-so-long-ago childhood. You’re armed with bachelor’s degrees now and called intelligent for it. You’ve read about Martin and Malcolm, long dead except in name. You’re a nation on the cusp of something beautiful, like your silhouette viewed from the skies, like your name in its first shape. Fast approaching forty now; they say that’s when life begins.

So, when the Electoral Commission of Zambia announces a name other than the one you had ticked X on in the ballot box, you stir. Rigging, you whisper. Corruption. Tribalism. You take your mistrust into the streets, demanding the numbers be recounted. Only this time, you forget the target of your anger and set each other’s cars ablaze. The sight of dancing orange and red reminds you of an old, whispered terror. Remember the Congo? Remember Angola? Who can forget? So, though it tears through your throat, you swallow the anger again, like too hot kandolo.

You face your lover’s brother anew. If you squint, he’s not so bad.

His gentility almost reminds you of the old, quiet days before Lusaka was overflowing with vendors, call boys, and foundlings, the debris of AIDS, who make mattresses of the gutters at night.  To these changes brought on by time, you kiss your teeth—the sound of your forgetting.

At least then, there was order, you say. None of this multi-party noise. None of this tribal division. The first father was pretty decent, even. Somebody should call him, clothe him in the garb of a martyr and beseech him for wisdom.

Conveniently, you forget how the women craved the option of leaving when the hardness of marriage turned their husbands into a constellation of fists.

You tsk at this new generation of daughters saying Enough, I can’t take it anymore, with their suckling children, suitcases and cars. Call them a cursed generation that doesn’t know the value of endurance, the way you learnt it, the way it is shaded into the frown lines of your face.

Not all brothers are twins, you say. This one won’t be like the last, not with the slow way his words emerge, as if he wants you to cradle each one in the nook of your arm. You’re blind to him wearing the same iridescent blue as his brother. This one is a new deal.  For assurance, you mark how he stammers when faced with something deplorable, like theft of national resources. You praise him for arresting your ex-lover and hauling him to be prosecuted in London for all those damned shoes. You gag your simmering questions about Kwacha’s lethargy, the way all the names in the big air-conned government offices are interconnected, the dwindling electricity supply and the zeroes piling up next to the price of mealie meal.

Life, it turns out, does not begin at forty; it just continues in the same monotony of the decades before. If anything, you’re slowly regressing into that sapling with a little less hope and a little less fight.

For your forty-second birthday, you get another election with the same blemishes as before.



This wave of riots feels like a fireworks display on New Year’s Eve—something to be watched for a moment and then forgotten once the light dies out.


The storykeepers forgot to tell you that the gift of age is wrapped in death.

You don’t see it coming when your lover’s brother, expert at wearing your Peace label and brandishing it at international conferences, flies to one like always but returns in a box so gorgeous you almost envy the dirt that will swallow it.  The golden moulding winks at the sunlight while thousands pour in to see him one last time.

At his grave, you abandon the childish names you called him in the newspapers. You chuckle at his angry retorts. When the preacher intones his dust to dust, you turn it into ashes to hero and build monuments in his honour. Anyone who will come after will fail in the shadow of this comparison.

You leave the gravesite cradling everyone, telling everyone that you will not let the errors of decades past show up again.

You clutch these assurances like prayers to your chest, rolling your eyes at your lover’s brother’s sit-in, with his stale jokes and lavish international trips with his young wife.

Does he think you’re stupid?


You know better and can’t wait to replace him.

This time, you march into the election with your eyes wide open.

Your next choice is different, what with his habit of standing in line for petrol with the lowest of you, with his laughter in the face of English and all its pretensions—this is your guy. That splintered edge in his voice is part of the charm. You don’t believe he would ever actually bring that fist he waves around down on you and on the rights so carefully listed in your Constitution. He would never try to amend the wording or turn it into music for his political dance like numbers one and two did.

When the commission says 1,150,045, you burst with joy. You fill the streets and carry the jubilation into the inauguration. When he holds the book and swears to uphold the Constitution, goose pimples carpet your skin. It’s finally happening!

But the thing the storykeepers forgot to tell you at the beginning is that death is a repeat offender. So there you are, twice widowed at 50, dressed in black and standing at the mouth of a grave again.

You’re tired of the funeral rituals, of the announcement by wailing, of the fire to keep warm at night. Of the heavy-footed walk toward an open casket. Of tear-stained goodbyes. Of delicate songs of lamentations by the choirs. Of the gaping wound in the earth. Of prayer and hope cooked in the same pot. You are tired.

With the one left in his place, you’re kinder than you were to the one before. And it will cost you, this value you place on meekness, this other cheek you offer as you return to the Our Father’s, hoping that this one, with his biblically named wife, will last.

The way the storykeepers tell it, he went to the Constitution to only change the provision about a vice taking the place of the first in the case of death. After those two deaths, you want to be prepared next time. But he tastes your sweetness, sap creased into the branches of the mukula and refuses to swallow. Just a little more, he says, pen in hand, revising.


A familiar name is printed on this year’s ballot paper. This six-time contender for your reins starts to look enticing. You pause—think. You will be 57 in a few months; you should know how to elect a leader by now. You look closely at the way you’re degenerating. You consider the cost of being alive against how much Kwacha is considered minimum at every month’s end. You scroll through his forty-four-page manifesto. More jobs sound so good you could drool. Lower fuel prices. Free education for everyone, not just the children whose parents can afford to stuff thick slices of polony between their bread, not just the children who can memorise and regurgitate in grades 7, 9, and 12, everyone. There will be medicine in the hospitals, and the wealth which since your birth has been saturated in a tiny pool of citizens will be scattered across the white beaches in Samfya, sickly sweet markets in Kabwata, and the bicycle-crammed Chipata. You’ve heard that before, right? Packaged in a different voice. You’re not crazy; you’ve heard that before.

57 isn’t old, but you wear the bruises of all the jostling of the years past and now twin your elder siblings, save for the rifles and keen cameramen who win awards for capturing the moment a child learns the true meaning of anguish.

But, God, you’re tired.

So, though you see through him, this new but old man, though you anticipate his reneging, you smother that doubt.

You close your eyes. And watching the stars dart across your eyelids, you dare to dream. There, says a voice in your head, X, marking the spot, This time will be different, right?


When this year becomes a story in the mouths of school children, what will the storykeepers say about the man who stands before you now, calling himself at once hero, at once martyr: Will they remember Konkola, the men and copper, twisted together under the rubble? Will they capture the looming threat of unemployment, noosed above the worker’s heads? What about the promise of fertiliser that never came, starving the crops along with the absence of rain? Will they consider who stands guard at the electoral commission and how they swap laughter with this one? Will they remember the dances he performs on the lap of those old captors?

Or, as the lights dim between unpredictable spurts, will you do as always—let the memories congeal like the ones before, building monuments out of debris, forgetting? E

Mubanga Kalimamukwento is a Zambian attorney and author. She is the founding editor of Ubwali Literary Magazine and a Miles Morland Scholar. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Overland, adda, Waxwing, Contemporary Verse 2, and on Netflix.