Work defined my life in Central Africa. Six or seven days a week in 1964, I was at my desk by mid-morning as news editor in charge of a new black nationalist daily, the Zambia Times.
Days, I’d direct the reporters and photographers. Nights, I’d edit their work, collaborate with layout and copy editors, write the Page 1 “leader” (editorial) and leave after our press rolled. It could be later if men and women who swept our office and printing plant and served strong black tea from a cart all day sought help with their English.
Meanwhile, my life was complicated by common suspicions that I was a CIA agent.
Consider the circumstances. I was a 25-year-old white guy from Minnesota editing a new pro-government paper in a black majority country heading for independence.
Americans and Soviets were battling for influence in black Africa. We published in the Copperbelt mining center of Kitwe; copper is indispensable for making munitions.
Those mineral deposits stretched north into the newly independent Congo where the copper-exporting province of Katanga broke away with white mercenary help.
CIA was the Third World’s bogeyman. CIA was perceived as puppet master of the murder of Patrice Lumumba, Congo’s first elected and leftwing prime minister. Similarly, CIA was assumed to be in league with Belgians and other anti-Communists supporting Katanga leader Moise Tshombe.
CIA also was suspected in the unexplained 1961 plane crash in nearby Ndola that killed UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold. He’d been on peace-making mission in Katanga.
Even my drive to the Katanga capital of Elisabethville for good Belgian beer and continental cooking provoked suspicions, as did housesitting the U.S. Information Agency residence in Kitwe.
And, if anyone knew, my previous employers included an Italian daily in which the CIA invested heavily and UPI, which was reputed to have close ties to the intelligence community.
This infamy could be hilarious and scary. Had anyone wanted me to disappear, chump change would have sufficed. However, I suspected that our resident Soviet agent needed me to protect his cushy assignment and expense account.
My darker reputation didn’t stop American missionaries from seeking a sympathetic Zambia Times story to validate their ministries. Few got what they wanted.
One group said they hoped to teach Africans to make mud bricks for houses. We passed on that one. Another was recruiting black Zambians for segregated U.S. schools and colleges. They left when I said that would be my angle of any story.
Plymouth Brethren didn’t seek attention. I sought them after hearing how they raised black converts to leadership at every level of their missions. Lunch with the Brethren was typically American, our hosts explained: grilled cheese sandwiches, cream of tomato soup and chopped raw cabbage covered with fresh “monkey nut (peanut) butter.” Driving away, my British partner wondered aloud, “Do you really eat that at home?”
Another success story was the Mindolo Ecumenical Center in Kitwe and its programs to help rural women adapt to urban township life when their husbands left subsistence farming to work on the mines.
Indigenous black African churches were endlessly fascinating as they adapted alien theologies and rituals.
One that went badly awry involved Alice Lenshina, founder and prophet of the Lumpa church. Followers rejected Zambian nationalism and retreated into their rural stockade.
When a young police officer insisted they demolish the stockade, Lenshina’s followers killed him. Police returned in force. Many Lumpa members were killed in a pitched battle. Their stockade was destroyed and Alice Lenshina imprisoned.
A happier outcome involved another indigenous church, the itinerant Korsten Basketmakers. They were tinkers who came through repairing tools, kitchen pots, etc.
Some had active smallpox. Authorities told Basketmakers they would not be allowed to leave and spread the disease. They had to choose between vaccination or the likelihood of execution.
A white local churchman with credibility among black Africans persuaded Basketmakers to accept vaccination despite their embrace of Christian Science rejection of modern medicine.
My journalistic missteps brought more laughs than pain. I became famous briefly for my headline, “Schweitzer, 89, still on the job.” In Commonwealth English, I learned, “on the job” refers to men on top during hetero intercourse.
The same copy/subeditors who turned a willfully blind eye to my Schweitzer headline would return page proofs with some word or phrase circled with “Americanism” scrawled in red. I learned to ask for Commonwealth-acceptable equivalents.
What I thought was a great photo op blew up in my face. It showed our local police superintendent searching tall elephant grass for Katanga bandits. His submachine gun had a white band on the muzzle. That meant it was disarmed for parade use only. He obviously hadn’t noticed.
After the paper came out, I couldn’t drive a mile without an African constable stopping me for some imagined infraction. Finally, one told me to “see the sup…”
Pounding his desk, he accused me of deliberately embarrassing him. He eventually accepted my explanation: We didn’t know the white band’s meaning. I could drive unchallenged again.
Then there were culinary adventures.
When I arrived in 1963, I was housed in Kitwe’s modern hotel. Working my way through the dining room menu, I skipped “Monkey Gland Steak.”
One night I watched the maitre de working with a chafing dish: melted butter, chopped garlic and chopped onion, Lea & Perrin Worcestershire sauce and catsup. Then he slipped in a cutlet.
It resembled nothing on the menu. “I call it, ‘Le Monkey Gland Steak,’” he said with his Belgian accent. “I think you call it barbeque.”
In Kitwe, I did a lot of house sitting. Six-week overseas leaves were common for white expat miners. I paid the servant(s) and had free places to live.
One cook, who’d been with a Scots mining engineer for decades, prepared only porridge, bacon, sausage, eggs, grilled tomato and toast every morning. We compromised: same menu but less of everything.
The cook in another house found a turkey for my American thanksgiving and used my hoarded kosher salami in the stuffing. Ruined the stuffing and cost me my salami.
House-sitting sometimes included pet care.
One home had an English mastiff, Queenie, her bull mastiff pup, an aging spaniel and a cat. Every day, the cat teased some dog into the yard and a canine ambush.
The first night I came home in that miner’s British Ford, Queenie thought her owner had returned and their game was on again: She’d leap into his arms. He was big enough to catch her.
I was surprised and went sprawling.
Queenie and her pup also provided one of my favorite moments. I paid extra for a whole “Imperial Grade” beef tenderloin for a dinner party. Although seared and rare, it could not be cut.
The butcher was not inclined to refund my money. My cook brought both dogs into the butcher shop and I tossed the entire tenderloin to them. They couldn’t tear it apart.
Customers laughed. Refund granted.
In addition to cricket, I tried motor rallying, those timed cross-country tests of driver, navigator and car. During one event, I paused in a remote village when a man waved me to a halt and asked “When will the bwanas stop playing cars?”
Some news tips always are better than others. I heard that a farmer used an old Rolls Royce “shooting brake” (station wagon) as a chicken coop in the Great North Road hamlet of Kapiri Mposhi. I drove down and got my photos.
In 1965, our paper was sold to be merged with our competition. I left and became a tourist.
South Africans turned me back at Beitbridge border post on the Limpopo River without explanation and stamped my passport with what I was told meant Prohibited Immigrant. My guess was that editing an anti-apartheid black nationalist daily in Zambia had something to do with it.
Instead, I spent weeks in Rhodesia. That was before the bloody racial civil war that led to majority rule and independence from Britain. Much of my time was spent buzzing around the bush in a tiny Fiat 500.
My Zambian “golden handshake” meant I wasn’t short of cash, but eventually, I flew home to Minnesota to finish my journalism degree.
In addition to working for Minneapolis and Cincinnati dailies, I became U.S. correspondent for NEWS/CHECK, a liberal biweekly published during the Apartheid era in Johannesburg. My reporting largely concerned American race relations and Cold War policies in Africa.
In 2011, I returned to South Africa. My wife was delivering a sculpture to a client in Cape Town and I wanted to see how South Africans coped with the aftermath of Apartheid.
This time, I had no problems at immigration. Customs whooshed us through without opening the sculpture packing. We spent a month there. Atop of Table Mountain overlooking Cape Town, our naturalist guide was a retired journalist. He knew at least two former Zambia Times journalists: a reporter and a photographer.
I dislike the word “closure.” If I’ve had anything like what others mean by closure, it was in Johannesburg at one of our host’s large multiracial conferences.
My wife and I were the only Americans there. A participant in one of the small groups asked what brought us. I briefly described being barred from South Africa in 1965 and my assumption that it had everything to do with the anti-apartheid Zambia Times.
My interrogator then said something that made the hair on my arms stand up. “Then you were part of ‘The Struggle.’”
It doesn’t get better than that.
CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: [email protected]