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
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
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
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
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