Exiled Zambian rapper stirs the president's pot

Zambian musician Fumba Chama, also known as Pilato, fled to Johannesburg after receiving death threats regarding an anti-corruption song that has been interpreted as being ‘insulting’ to President Edgar Lungu and his ministers (Oupa Nkosi)

Zambian musician Fumba Chama, also known as Pilato, fled to Johannesburg after receiving death threats regarding an anti-corruption song that has been interpreted as being ‘insulting’ to President Edgar Lungu and his ministers (Oupa Nkosi)

Ratocracy (noun): Government by the rats, for the rats.

Like all good poets, Fumba Chama, aka Pilato, likes his metaphors. The Zambian rapper knows that imagery is more powerful than mere words — and, he is discovering, far more dangerous.

It’s one particular metaphor that got Pilato into trouble. In December, the 33-year-old dropped his latest track, Koswe Mumpoto, which in Bemba means “rat in the pot”. He raps: “A rat has entered our house/ It is busy stealing, thinking we will not question it.” The song is smart, with veiled references to current and former Zambian leaders, and deliberately provocative, alluding to the country’s complicated tribal politics.

In an interview with the Mail & Guardian, he explains: “Instead of a democracy, we have a ratocracy. The rats are stealing our food. They are stealing our underwear! If you have a rat type of leader, instead of serving you, they serve themselves.”

Pilato has always been socially conscious — his stage name is an acronym for People in Lyrical Arena Taking Over — but Koswe Mumpoto was an especially direct attack on Zambian President Edgar Lungu, whose administration has been plagued by accusations of corruption and mismanagement.

Supporters of the rat in question were not amused. On the day the song was released, Pilato began receiving threatening phone calls, voice notes and messages from Lungu’s supporters.

He left Ndola, his hometown, thinking he would find safety in Lusaka. He was wrong. The threats of violence intensified when the youth wing of Lungu’s Patriotic Front, the ruling party, weighed in.

“The recent song released by Pilato is insulting, provocative, degrading and outside the province of one’s entitlement to freedom of expression. We vehemently disagree with the offensive lyrics as they are designed to insult and demean. While we do not expect Pilato to like President Edgar Lungu or any other leader, no one should promote vile-charged social commentary intended to drag the rest of society to low-time sewer politics,” said Moses Chilando, a senior youth league official.

Chilando gave Pilato 48 hours to “withdraw” the song. But even if hehad wanted to, the rapper would not have known how to comply. “Do I delete it from people’s phones? Do I go to an ATM and withdraw a song?” he jokes.

Instead, Pilato fled again: first to a rural farm and then, a few weeks later, to Johannesburg. He has been here several weeks now, and the strain of exile is beginning to tell.

“I haven’t been home since I released the song on December 11. I haven’t seen my wife; I haven’t seen my kids. I don’t know how safe they are back there.”

He finds calling his family especially difficult. “My kids ask: ‘When are you coming back?’”

Right now, he cannot answer them. But the sacrifice is necessary, he insists. “I wasn’t raised by a politician. I was raised by a community. The best way to give back is to speak for them. I don’t need to be an MP to do that while I can do it through my music. It’s a privilege.

“I want to live in a country where people are proud to say: ‘I am from Zambia.’ I want to belong to a country that’s full of people with hope. Until then, I don’t think I deserve safety. Give me death or give me freedom. I’m not going to stop doing the music I do. It’s working.”

Pilato’s situation was complicated even further when, in early February, Zambian authorities issued an arrest warrant against him, in connection with a protest he participated in earlier this year. Pilato believes the timing of the warrant is suspicious.

“It’s a trap,” he says, designed to lure him back home. “I said I can’t come until my security is assured. But even if they do assure my security, that would not hold any water. They’ve lied before. They’ve broken promises to the electorate.”

Pilato has received support from human rights groups such as Amnesty International, which has condemned his treatment. “The brazen determination by some in Zambia to silence dissenting views can only spell doom for the culture of robust engagement that the country has been known for,” said Muleya Mwananyanda, Amnesty’s deputy director for Southern Africa. “The right to freedom of expression must be allowed to thrive.”

Laura Miti, a prominent Zambian civil society activist, said: “His situation I think exemplifies the extent to which the democratic and human rights environment has degenerated under the Patriotic Front.

The combination of insecurity and tyranny that the Lungu administration represents means we are at probably the most undemocratic period in the history of the country. Zambia is not known for citizens fearing for their lives to the extent that they must leave the country. That Pilato has had to is something that should alarm all observers.”

The Zambian embassy in South Africa did not respond to requests for comment.

Despite having to flee his home, and amid the grim uncertainty over his future, Pilato remains cheerful and optimistic.

“Positive change is inevitable. I just don’t know when. Zambia needs a very serious mindset shift. The people of Zambia have created an environment that encourages bad leadership. The change won’t happen until my people get to the level where they say: ‘I’m not passive; I’m an active player in my country’s future.’

“We need a mindset that says: ‘We like you Mr President, but this is wrong.’ In Zambia we have politicians with appetites to become God. But the president of Zambia is not a god. God is God. And anyone who tries to be God is the devil.”


Koswe Mumpoto (The Rat in the Pot) by Pilato

Intro

They gave us cabbage, we said no

They gave us soya pieces, we could only eat it for a short time

Then came King Cobra, but he was killed even before he could stretch and show himself

We begged for a bush mouse from our tribal cousins. Our tribal cousins instead gave us a rat and things are bad

A rat has entered our house

It is busy stealing, thinking we will not question it

It’s never in one place

The rat does not do any work but stealing

My people don’t you know by now?

Rats even steal things they can’t use

They even steal underwear

But they don’t wear them

A rat has entered the King Cobra’s hole

And its main job there is to steal

Ask the farmers, they are crying and it’s like the rat has stolen from them as well

This rat will bite you and comfort you

Marketeers have received loans

Chorus

My cousins this is not a bush mouse

This is not a bush mouse

This is a rat in the pot

We need to be very careful with the rats

We have to be strong or we will all die

They have left the tarring of roads and have now entered our hospitals

They want to eat everywhere

In their search for too much cheese

The rats have now gone to the Chinese.

Mr Phiri are you sure this a bush mouse?

Out of excitement it has bitten the leopard

No this is not a bush mouse, you have deceived us

Our tribal cousins have deceived us

Chorus

It humbled itself like a baby bush mouse

So we let it into our house

Right now it has become a mole

It’s even stealing sweet potatoes on fire

We are all scared

Students at Copperbelt University are crying that the rat has
stolen the money for their tuition

My people please wake up, this is a rat not a bush mouse

It’s only here to steal and destroy

Our tribal cousins have deceived us

This is a rat not a bush mouse

Outro

The way a rat was created, it

was created to destroy, it’s a thief

Its front teeth are its weapon,

they are very dangerous

The rat is capable of eating where

you sleep, where you sit, what

you eat and and it will even bite

you, the owner of the house, if

you fall too deep in your sleep

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