Where is My Friend?

Jimmy Carter, Nobel Prize Recipient

by Mwizenge S. Tembo, Ph. D.

President Jimmy Carter is the most deserving individual of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize because of the humanitarian work that he has performed tirelessly for over two decades. But I have always been deeply grateful for what he did for my African boyhood friend Charlie twenty-five years ago. I had known my friend from when we were freshmen at Chizongwe High School in 1967 up to our junior year at the University of Zambia. He was gifted with incredible wit. He was funny in class without being mean, cruel, or reckless. He easily disarmed bullies with his sharp wit. Everyone who has been to school and is lucky remembers a sweet but vibrant childhood friend and classmate like Charlie. He created great and lasting memories for the entire Chizongwe High School class of 1971.

One time in eleventh grade he announced loudly in his characteristic lazy playful tone of voice that Mr. Brown’s dog (Mr. Brown was our British English teacher) had clocked more miles riding in his master’s automobile that I had ever done in my whole life. The whole class broke into laughter rolling in the isles. I joined in the laughter too. I was only seventeen and it was true that virtually all African kids, including Charlie himself, were lucky to ride a couple of hundred miles in an automobile in an average year. Nobody owned automobiles. But Mr. Brown drove into town virtually everyday, a ten-mile round trip, with his German Shepard always sticking its head and long tongue out of the open back seat window of his station wagon. From an African cultural perspective, we thought that riding with your dog everywhere in your car was one of many peculiar European cultural habits.

Once in college, Charlie and I spent many evenings in our dorm rooms sharing our dreams about the future while listening to Jimmy Hendrix and Santana on the small inexpensive portable record player I owned. We wanted to hitchhike through the Southern African countries of Botswana, swing through Zimbabwe up to Mozambique. What about flying to and taking a hitch hiking trip across Australia to see those Kangaroos? We talked about girls and wanting to be writers. Charlie wanted to be an actor in Hollywood and write movie scripts. We wanted to live in America. Charlie admired actor Steve McQueen. We shared some sentimental tidbits about our families. We never talked any politics because Charlie thought the whole subject was boring.

Charlie had such a keen sense of observation and a tremendous insight into human nature such that he would turn the most mundane human social actions into something to smile about, interesting, and funny. That’s why he was such a great guy to hangout with. He was unassuming social genius if ever there was such a thing.

One sunny Saturday afternoon in the college summer vacation of 1975, I was with Charlie downtown Capital City of Lusaka in a local popular joint known as the Dog Box. I remember laughing with him so hard my ribs hurt and tears couldn’t stop rolling down my cheeks. I kept wiping them off. Later that evening we ate dinner and hitched a ride to the Woodpecker Inn. We went home to my uncle’s house and crashed for the night. The following morning, my aunt prepared some delicious eggs, bacon, toast, and hot tea for breakfast. After lunch, I escorted him to the bus station as he was traveling to visit his older brother in another city. That was the last time I was to see Charlie ever.

The story that I was told five years later by a mutual friend was shocking, incredible, as it was heart wrenching. Although Charlie was a Zambian citizen by birth, his parents had decided to go back to their original neighboring country of birth. That country was ruled by a ruthless dictator who had scuttled his cabinet just after his country gained political independence from Britain in 1965. He decreed the country a one party state, and killed off any opposition leaders who did not escape into exile. One of the exiled cabinet members later taught for a short while at a University in California in the late 1960s. The story was that Charlie had crossed the international border on a bike though a bush path without a passport to try to go and visit his parents. That sounded like the adventurous but still naïve Charlie. The village agents of the paranoid secret security police known as young pioneers of the neighboring country, immediately arrested poor Charlie as a possible saboteur from Zambia and was immediately whisked hundreds of miles to the notorious Nzaleka (I will not do it again) prison where political prisoners and dissidents were locked up without charges. From the time of his arrest in 1976 for most of eighteen months, Charlie endured horrendous and sickening torture. What saved him was when the newly elected American President Carter assumed power and put Human Rights on the front burner. He announced that no country was going to receive American aid unless all political prisoners were released and Human Rights were upheld. My dear friend was released from detention in 1977 with hordes of other political detainees in that African neighboring country. But Charlie was never the same according to the friends who had seen him.

He was given a job and was under government restrictions and surveillance. He married and had a family. Reports came out in the mid 1980s that Charlie had died. I could never visit, write, or telephone him or confirm his death. Over the years, I have had painful but bittersweet recurring dreams that I had reunited with him. It is always so euphoric to see, talk and be with him again in the dream. Charlie’s life was saved and he enjoyed a little of it thanks to President Carter. He sure deserves the Nobel Peace Prize because he saved my dear friend’s life. The only regret I have is that Charlie never made it to America. I have no doubt he would have had some witty and funny things to say about the goings on among Americans as we go about in our everyday mundane things of carrying on with our lives. I have no doubt that had he made to America, he could have been another Seinfeld with a smaller “s”. My dream is to one day meet his wife and kids. I am convinced that he was a wonderful and may be even funny dad and husband in his last short years. The ruthless dictator of that neighboring country finally died in the early 1990s. Since then I have repeatedly written to the national papers of that African country and contacted acquaintances asking if anyone knows Charlie’s whereabouts. But these efforts have been fruitless. Does anyone know what happened to my friend Charles Kateketa?