Thursday, September 22, 2011

Road Marking #10: Ndola

On Sunday 18 September, the community of Ndola commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of the plane crash that killed Dag Hammarskjöld and his UN team of 15 others in bushland some ten miles from the town.

Also present at the commemoration were the Vice-President of Zambia, the Foreign Minister of Sweden, the Swedish Ambassador in Zambia, and a distinguished array of military, civil, and community leaders. My seat was between the Generals and the District Commissioners. At least one of the local witnesses of the crash also attended, an old man who had been 25 when a friend had dragged him to the site. I spoke to him at some length, and will write more about that another time.

My favourite participant was Richard Hanguwa, site manager who was also MC for the day. Richard and I had met the day before, when he showed me around the site and let me in on the preparations. The commemoration had long been on people's minds, but in the end was something of a last-minute thing. It was to be a Zambian affair - they had taken owenership, as they say - with the Swedes and the UN in support roles.

While I was there, the tents arrived, the advance parties arrived, the police and security forces plotted out their plan for the next day, and then the hundreds of chairs arrived. At least 1000 locals would attend. Richard and I watched from the sheltered seats on top of the ant hill where Dag Hammarskjöld's body was found. The first President of Zambia used to sit here to think. Then we were joined by the UN Press Officer in Zambia, and the three of us gossiped and thought about the plan for the next day and for the future of not only the Dag Hammarskjöld memorial, but the small community of villages and farms that has come to be attached to it. After all the dignitaries had left, the 1000 locals would hold their own, informal commemoration. They would wander the site for an hour after the VIPs had gone.

The Dag Hammarskjöld Institute for Peace Studies, currently located at Copperbelt University in Kitwe, will soon be relocated to the site, and not far from here are the new campus of Northrise University and the brand new Ndola football stadium. Two schools are located next to the site. On the commemoration day, children from these schools stole the show, especially the youngest troop who, dressed in Swedish colours, sang:

For the love you showed for humanity, Daggy Hammarskjöld we love you
For the hope you gave to humanity, Daggy Hammarskjöld we love you
We want to thank you (thank you)
We want to thank you (thank you)
Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you...

They made me cry, and I found it a little hard to listen to politicians after they had finished. But the Swedish Foreign Minister was good. You felt that for the Zambians, this was in some part their crash. Yes, they did own it, in a way, and the Swedish partnership in the commemoration would always have its base in Uppsala. I must admit I too felt his presence more there than I did in Ndola.

The crash came three years before Zambian independence from Britain, and it helped Zambians frame independence in terms of Hammarskjöld's quest for peace in Africa, and in neighbouring Congo in particular. But the Foreign Minister reminded us that at the time of his death Hammarskjöld had been fighting two battles, one for peace in Congo and the other for the survival of the United Nations, at the time facing enormous pressure because of the Cold War.

I thought he could have added that there was, for Hammarskjöld, always a third battle, one witnessed by Markings. But I don't suppose this was the time to mention Hammarskjöld's silent inner conflicts. And maybe that was why the children's choir affected me so much: there was a pitch to their voices that recognised and matched that third battle, and acknowledged the contemplative side of a man who accused himself of doubts that he could never show the world.

I hope in his final moments in the bushland outside Ndola he allowed himself some peace from those doubts.

A choir from the Dag Hammarskjöld Community School
HRH Chief Mumena, Chair of the National Heritage Conservation Cmn

After the commemoration, locals inspect the memorial

Others inspect me

Steps that mark the spot where Hammarskjöld's body was found