Mufulira (A Remembrance of Tennyson)

Image of Mufulira mine disaster Over the holidays, I found myself rummaging through the top drawer of a filing cabinet which contains a wealth of used computer parts, bits and bobs. In the process of sorting through what I affectionately refer to as "the tickle trunk" in my quest for a serial cable, I stumbled upon an old IDE desktop hard drive. As I brushed a thin coating of dust from the aged electronic artifact, I recognized the 345MB Maxtor drive as the one which was housed in a computer-based bulletin board (BBS) I had ran from my home office nearly a quarter century ago. I removed the data-fossil from its electronic grave, placing it in a multi-drive docking station to determine if its data contents could be retrieved. After plugging in cables and connectors with a skill that would rival a seasoned technician, I hit the power switch and the hard drive whirred to life eager to reveal its content. Moments later, I found myself browsing through its directories, rediscovering the hidden gems within.

One of the directories on the hard disk contained the data from old electronic message bases: an ancient predecessor to modern email data files. They were, of course, easily accessed with a standard text editor and their contents were fully revealed. One of the archived message bases contained a series of writings by local Ottawa authors. Writings which, in my view, are of suitable quality for publication. One that struck me as poignant spoke of an acquaintance's escapades in Africa in the 1970s. I suspect I was drawn to the story because of my own journeys across Africa a decade later. I contacted the author about the article and he was kind enough to grant his permission to submit the writing for publishcation here. Without further adieu, I present: Mufulira (A Remembrance of Tennyson), by Richard Visage:

* * * * *

It occupied only a few inches of newsprint. I would have thought that, since it spoke to the deaths of 78 men, it would have been featured more prominently. But this was the Vancouver Sun, and who in Vancouver really cared about 78 black men dying in a mine somewhere in Africa that no one had ever heard of? It mattered to me, for rather convoluted reasons. There's a great temptation to explain this with one of those 'if I hadn't had a long breakfast, and decided to drive, I would have been on the train that crashed' sort of stories. I guess I'll just have to tell you the whole thing.

I had been working in Northern B.C. just outside of Fort St. James. I was running a skidder, which is a strange bush tractor that articulates in its centre. Skidders are truly amazing devices; there really is very little terrain that can frustrate a skidder with a capable and determined operator. I drove the skidder, and my buddies cut down the small pines that grew in the area and 'chokered' them onto the skidder. The three of us were paid by the number of trees we brought in, and we were the best crew, and by a long shot. We had been at it all springtime, and as the days grew hotter we grew richer. It was a particularly dry year, and forest fire season came suddenly. Out of work, we went our separate ways.

I went down to Vancouver to see some friends. I could have looked for a job or tried to take a course or just bum around, but I wasn't feeling industrious, and it rained steadily for ten days. A lot of people I knew had gone or were going to Europe, and I was flush, so I thought I'd go too. It was the fashion of the time to go to Europe to 'find yourself', but I just wanted to hang out and party. I saw some friends, and promised to meet some people there, and caught a flight to Amsterdam.

Amsterdam was supposed to be the first stop of a tour of many places, but I found within hours of being there that I was drawn, perhaps by the smell of a huge cloud of dope smoke, to a place called the Damrak. The Damrak was a large square somewhere in the middle of Amsterdam where, God knows how long ago, Dutchmen started building the dikes that hold the sea out. Dutchmen ultimately became so good at building dikes that the ocean is so far displaced that you cannot even see it from the Damrak. However, in the summer breezes in the early seventies, this monument to an albeit temporary triumph over nature became inhabited with long-hairs from a hundred nations. Music filled the air, as did the smoke. It was a SERIOUS party, destined to make the short list of bacchanalian festivities of all time. Having found my idea of heaven, I jelled right in to the carnival environment that was the Damrak. Just up the street was a cafe, the Paradiso, with hashish prominently displayed on the menu. The company was good, the music was loud and the women intriguing. There was absolutely nothing missing.

I stayed in Amsterdam for a month and a half getting more and more incoherent before I decided I should head on. Not that I wouldn't have been happy to just stay put, but I had agreed to meet an old friend in Paris, and the date of the rendezvous approached. Nancy. She was about as similar to me, a totally wacked out long-hair with pupils the size of quarters, as LSD is to Convoisier. She was as straight as a ruler, a petite perky blonde who wore sensible shoes and fussed diligently with eye makeup. As a young girl, she had been a horse fetishist. Her bedroom had been liberally festooned with pictures of horses, horse dolls, horse models and virtually everything else horsey imaginable except horseshit. I always thought there was some sort of bizarre crotch-thumping sexual perversion going on with all the horse stuff, but Nancy's naive and innocent character was truly contrary to any dimension of sexuality.

I truly did enjoy her company, we always did have great conversations about the state of the universe, or what have you, but really I fostered some dark hope that one day, Nancy would shed inhibitions and rub her sweaty nether bits against mine. It never happened. We did have a terrific rendezvous in Paris, and had a few days together touring that most amazing city. But there was the letter. She had received it in Vancouver, with instructions to pass it to me if she could find me. It was from a good friend, Harry, and it was postmarked from Lusaka, in Zambia.

Harry had somehow blundered his way into central Africa, and had discovered what he considered to be a great deal working in the copper mines. According to the letter, the work was great, there were no taxes, and you were paid under the table in American dollars. Harry figured that a year's work would put him in the pink and he would come home loaded. I knew Harry well, and figured that if he actually managed to stash away some money, it would never last between Africa and British Columbia. I did, however, think he would come home loaded, if in a different sense. The letter closed with an invite to come and join him. We had worked together in the lead-zinc mines of the Northwest Territories, and he figured they could use a good hand. I thought this was the goddamndest thing I'd ever heard. About the last thing I wanted to do was to spend the last of my money on a one way ticket to some hell-hole in Africa. That was before Nancy looked at me with her striking green eyes, batted her eyelashes, and told me it was the most adventurous thing she had ever heard of. She also asked me to write her. So, I bought the ticket. I never did write Nancy, and I didn't even see her again for several years. When I did see her, she was with her "friend", a student chiropractor, and a severe asshole. God only knows what kind of tickets he ended up buying.

The trip to Orly airport was a nightmare, a hot day with a terrible traffic jam, and thousands of sweaty Parisian cab drivers screaming obscenities out the windows at each other. I just barely was on time for my flight: an Air France direct to Nairobi. From Nairobi I would fly on to Lusaka via East African Airways. The flight was eventful, which is to say, it was horrible. We reached cruising altitude and were over the Alps when the pilot began, in about fifty languages, to bring attention to the fact that Mont Blanc was to the right of the airplane. English was the last of the fifty languages, indicating the usual French endearment for all English peoples. However, as the pilot finished talking, there was a thunking noise, then a scream of metal. Flames leapt from the right inboard engine on the four-engined Boeing. The plane listed to the right and began to lose altitude as screams echoed through the fuselage. The pilot was a pro. He quickly stabilized the plane, and the flames stopped. Needless to say, we made an unscheduled stop, which turned out to be in Athens.

Most people go to Athens to see the Acropolis. I, on the other hand, was treated to an open bar by Air France, and I had my first, and hopefully last, experience with a nasty Greek concoction called Ouzo. An oily bartender literally threw the stuff, lukewarm and in half pint beer mugs, across the bar to me and a party of surly Germans who evidently regarded me as an interesting curiosity. As there was some time to wait before another plane could be found to replace the wounded Air France bird, many, many half pint mugs came into my hand. I suppose the only reason I didn't just spit the nasty stuff back up was that I had been putting an edge on myself for nearly two months with wine and hashish in Amsterdam, so guzzling a poisonous quantity of some sticky liquorice goop of terrible potency seemed like a pleasant diversion. How was I to know that, in the birthplace of democracy, any hint of tolerance was long lost?

It was innocent enough. I just walked outside to get some air. No, I didn't have a visa. No, no one tried to stop me or tell me I needed a visa to go outside and breathe. For my ignorance, I was hauled into a nasty little room painted the same government green as they use in the drunk tanks and cells in British Columbia. Somewhere, somebody must mix that stuff and sell it worldwide. With what seemed like a gallon of Ouzo under my belt, I was beyond explaining anything, especially in Greek. Ultimately, my diplomatic woes were solved when I produced a couple packs of English cigarettes and surrendered them to my tormentors. (Advice to the traveller: don't leave home without them.) I was released to the airport, and more Ouzo, until an aircraft was finally produced. A vintage propellored model, it had the air of an old Bogart movie. Thankfully, the antiquated monster still had enough jam to get off the ground.

Our next stop was Entebbe, in Uganda. The landing was a jolt to the then somewhat nervous passengers, as the airstrip is quite literally cut out of a Tarzan-movie jungle, and the plane descended to tree-top level before there was any evidence to the passengers that there was, in fact, an airstrip. To add to the joi de vivre, this was during the enlightened regime of Idi Amin, so the frazzled inmates of the aircraft were greeted by hundreds of barefoot and incredibly heavily armed men, who presumably were soldiers of some description. I do believe that everyone that got off the plane managed to get back on after it was refuelled, but it was a nervous time, with all these genocidal freaks clicking their safeties on and off, while the sweating Europeans made their various peace with their creators. The Israelis did the world a big favour when they flattened the place years later.

Finally, a day and a half behind schedule, we landed in Nairobi. The surroundings were decidedly British Colonial, which was strangely comforting. I had not slept in far too long, so I grabbed my duffle bag, and lay down on a wooden bench to try to grab a few winks. I passed out. Nairobi airport is not the most highly recommendable spot to try to catch up on your rest. For starters, it is very close to the equator, and it is damn hot... in the winter. The rest of the time, it is intolerably effing hot. No sooner than I had sweatily dropped off to sleep, someone said "bwana" to me for the first time in my life. I didn't think that was a word that was spoken anywhere but in old movies but there, in front of me, was a group of small boys offering to polish bwana's shoes. As bwana was wearing old sneakers, it didn't seem like a great idea. I shooed them away and again tried to sleep. They returned, with one after another of possibilities, offered up in a quaint Pidgin English. Did bwana want a sandwich? Did bwana want a magazine? Did bwana want a drink? Finally, I decided that I had better buy something to make them go away. I fished in my pockets to produce a motley collection of francs and guilders, only to be told that in Kenya, one trades only with Kenyan pounds and shillings. Fine, thought I, and made my way to a change window operated by Barclays Bank. The very blackest black man I had ever seen sat in the booth, so, gesticulating and speaking my quickly learned pidgin, I indicated that I needed some local currency. He responded in perfect Oxford English. I felt like a total idiot, but at least I was able to buy a drink. God, I've always wanted to be able to speak as well as he did.

My flight eventually arrived, a sparkling forty year old C-47, or DC-3 if it was originally a civilian version. Surprisingly, theflight to Lusaka was about the smoothest flight I've ever had, the old plane was as stable and well-mannered as a Rolls-Royce. The only thing that took away from it was the live chickens, in crates, that squawked the whole way. I arrived, somewhat worse for wear, late but safe, in Lusaka.

Harry had been tracking my movements as I progressed ever more southerly into Africa. He had to wait an extra couple of days, and had spent the time giving a local brew, Lion Lager, a thorough test. Very thorough. He was well into a three day drunk and barely coherent. I suppose that given my shoulder length hair, slightly bizarre clothes, my glow from Amsterdam, and a few days of severely intense craziness at the hands of unknown airlines and banana republics, I looked a little wild, as it seemed to me that everyone looked at me and pointed. The two of us made quite a pair, and we headed directly to the bar to complete the Lager test. It was a couple of days of catching up, boozing and carrying on before we decided to head along to Ndola. Harry was about five days AWOL, but this didn't bother him in the least. We arrived at Ndola, and Harry drove me out to the large open-pit copper mine. The company's other mine, an underground operation, was in Mufulira.

My introduction to the mine was somewhat shocking. The roads leading from the bottom of the pit to the top were narrow switchbacks, barely wide enough for the ore trucks, and large rocks littered the roads. The ore trucks themselves were 25 tonner (25 tonne capacity) Euclids, vintage 1950's equipment that looked to be somewhat past their last legs. As I gaped, an empty Euclid missed a turn at the top of the pit, did a sickening mid-air pirouette, and landed, wheels up, a hundred feet below on the floor of the pit. It made a deafening din, and a huge plume of dust rose from the impact. Surprisingly, a black man crawled from the shattered cab, and ran, back and forth along the switchbacks, to the top of the pit and then into the bush. He never reappeared. My job was to manage the Euclid crews. It was not easy. I drove the beasts myself, and they were direct-connect diesels, not nice forgiving diesel electrics. Their transmissions had long ago given up any pretence of being serviceable, and it required 100% concentration to make sure you didn't tip the bastards under load, or fire one off the edge of the unsafe roadways. And it was so unbelievably hot all the time that sweat stung your eyes and clouded your vision. At least I convinced the mine officials to level the roadways, and no one was killed while I managed the crews.

I had been there a couple of months when a company man approached me about taking a job in the Mufulira mine. I had no illusions about staying around and working, I just wanted to re-bankroll myself and head back to Amsterdam, and with two months of the Euclid crew under my belt, I was beginning to feel rich. But I got a couple days off with pay to go up to Mufulira, and the mine would have somebody show me around. It seemed like a worthwhile diversion. I drove up myself, in a left hand drive Vauxhall that had seen better days. The highways, if you can call them that, are of the most dangerous in the world. The roads are narrow and native Zambians drive trucks, not cars, and load the things with as much freight as anyone else would put on four trucks. Then, they take passengers. These horribly overloaded monsters career down the road with the sensibilities of Mario Andretti on acid, so you have to keep out of their way. Needless to say, the fatalities in accidents are atrocious. The constabulary, whose mission it is to regulate this carnage, are equipped with bicycles, and jump out from behind trees to surprise speeders, who simply do not stop. There are very few speeding tickets given in Zambia.

I survived the trip to Mufulira and, at the mine, I was greeted by my guide, Tennyson Mbala. Tennyson was a Bemba: small, very dark, and extremely pleasant. The Bemba may be the most flexible, easy to get along with people in Africa. What is known of their history tends to indicate that they were the least warlike tribe in a very warlike environment. The Zulu, to the far south, would occasionally raid north, and generally kick the shit out of the Matebele. The Matebele took it out on the Bantu, who worked their frustrations out on the Bemba, who didn't seem to mind too much so long as they got out of the way in time. Even the Bemba language was an exercise in conciliation. As the latest military concern was the English, their language was liberally salted with English. A benign phrase like "take the chicken into the kitchen" had become "facca lo chicken lappa kitchen."

Tennyson was surprisingly well read, and had an amazing memory. Despite not having had much schooling to speak of, he could name every river in British Columbia. I couldn't do that, and I don't think more than a handful of people in B.C. could have done that. Perhaps it wasn't a skill to live off, but I was impressed. Part of the reason for the Bemba's easy nature may have been the local marijuana, which grew wild just about everywhere. An aggressive weed, the stuff grew naturally in huge fields in the wild, and would take over a cleared area at the drop of a hat. If you wanted some to smoke, you did not have to buy it; you simply paid to have it cured. About 25 ngwee, 27 cents to us, purchased a brown grocery bag full of cured 'dacca' weed. According to the Bemba, they smoked it to "keep warm." This in a country where the temperature seldom dips below 30 Celsius.

Tennyson took me down the lift into the Mufulira mine. It was a hell-hole beyond belief. The mine was deep, and it was hot down there. Hundreds of black men, wearing only shorts, their black skin glistening with sweat, literally worked the rock faces by hand, with pick and shovel. Getting to the ore face was an exercise in spelunking, as there were no safety standards requiring cleared passageways or shotcrete on the rock walls to prevent debris from falling on the workers. Ladders were jury-rigged on the spot, rickety things made with a central two by four with pegs nailed to them. Gas constantly seeped from some underground fissure, and the workers were only cleared when they began to pass out. The gas had disabled Tennyson, and he had suffered significant lung damage as a result. Still somewhat useful, he was on light duty at reduced pay. The worst thing of all was the blasting. They didn't bother to take the workers off the level where the blasting took place, just got them away from the explosion. Being underground that close to a blast was one of the most frightening things I've ever experienced; after you hear the blast, you feel like some angry giant is squeezing your entire body. Just as you think you are going to rupture, the pressure releases.

It had not taken me long to decide that I would respectfully refuse the offer to work in Mufulira, and head back to Ndola. I mentioned in passing to Tennyson that I would do so, work for a month more or so, and head back to Europe. I mentioned that I was disappointed at not being able to go to South Africa and see the Cape of Good Hope before I left. It was, at that time, not possible to go to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) or South Africa and return through a black-ruled country. But Tennyson lit up. Beating the system was his forte. He invited me to his house for supper, and to propose a way to go to South Africa and back. The meal was not to my taste, but the company was good. The Bemba eat a lot of cornmeal, which they call mealy meal, a dried meat which is very good, and drink a sour beer called Chibuku, which is thankfully nutritious. Chibuku is sold everywhere in milk cartons and you have to drink a lot of the stuff to get over the taste. Tennyson's family had never had a white man in their house, a circular mud brick dwelling with a thatch roof. A blanket hung from a wire to serve as a divider to make two rooms in the house. I was treated like royalty.

Tennyson proposed that we rent motorbikes. He knew the way, along the Zambezi and then down and across the border into Rhodesia. Friends of his could then give me a ride south. It was simple and done all the time. There were border patrols, but only infrequently. I would pay what I considered a pittance, and Tennyson would arrange everything. We would leave in a couple of days. I declined the job offer and called Harry to let him know that I'd be away for a bit. Tennyson took a few days off, and disappeared to get motorbikes. He reappeared a day later, equipped with two Honda fifties. The bikes were real 'ring-tingers', that is, as you throttled up they made a ringing sound, and as you let up on the gas, they went "ting-ting-ting." I had never driven such a small bike, but they were perfect for the small trail through the bush. Tennyson and I rode like banshees along the trail, which was a surprisingly easy ride - level and predictable. The terrain was not difficult, nor jungle-like. The largest wild creature I saw was the size of a chipmunk. So much for the Wild Kingdom image. Making terrific time, it was not long before we approached the Rhodesian border.

Perhaps it is a prejudicial view, but I have always thought that an African Black would be very close to his instincts, that an African would sense danger before I would. We stopped at the crest of a small hill, and Tennyson turned to me and smiled. "Rhodesia," he said, pointing south. For no reason, the hair on the back of my neck stood on end. I was struck by an impulse, and I lunged at Tennyson and pushed him over. In mid-lunge, there was a popping sound, much like a popcorn maker at the Odeon. Then, I could see them. They wore short blue pants and were a good 250 yards away. Had we not stopped they wouldn't have got a shot at us. Perhaps we were already in Rhodesia, perhaps not. There's no border marker, so I suppose it really doesn't matter. Tennyson turned to me, there was a red line across his forehead and he was bleeding from the wound. I think that if I hadn't pushed him, they'd have shot his head off. Certainly Tennyson thought so, for I have never been thanked so profusely for anything as much as Tennyson thanked me for pushing him. We got back on the bikes and headed north into Zambia as fast as we could.

I never did get to the Cape of Good Hope, and I only spent another month in Ndola, then both Harry and I left. We wound our way back to Canada, ultimately via Rio, and were both virtually penniless when we got back. Every year, at Christmas, I received a card and a small letter from Tennyson Mbala at my parent's address. The year the Mufulira mine caved in was the first year I did not hear from him, and I've never heard from him since.

Submitted by Richard Visage, 10 January 2014