Capturing Kenneth Kuanda: in the (post)colonial archive

The death of the former Zambian President Kenneth Kuanda, one of the last of the generation of leaders of African independence movements, reminded me that I’m actually in possession of some real-live archive footage of Kuanda from the very high point of postcolonial promise. Almost a decade ago now, I spent a summer going through the strange remains that one’s parents leave behind when they pass away. I wrote about aspects of this then, reflecting on how I learnt things about the time they spent in Cyprus, Rhodesia and Zambia in the late 1950s and early 1960s, before I was born, when my father was in the RAF, the Royal Rhodesian Air Force, and the Zambian Air Force. All this material was a kind of archive of their relationship, of my pre-history, and the imbrication of both with late settler colonialism.

This material included a set of old home movies, cine film reels, that I had converted to DVD at the time. It was weird and wonderful and a little sad watching them back in 2012, seeing one’s parents as you’d never experienced them – grainy pictures of days out, of ‘overseas’ places, of newly born sisters (baby versions of older sisters). Clips of trains, and of planes, of course.

And, in amongst these scenes of ordinariness, are two or three scenes of colonial and postcolonial geopolitics. Scenes captured by my father from the sidelines.

There’s footage of a scene in which a dignitary is arriving, getting off a plane, a woman it turns out, who inspects a line of RAF men, and then drives off in a limousine, before flying away again. There’s a Royal Standard in the shot, a half of the flag is white – oh look, it’s the Queen Mother! She liked Rhodesia, in the good old days. This footage in particular, because of the quality of the film, the hand held shots, and the sunshine, has a weird resonance with the Zapruder film – it just doesn’t have that particular denouement.

The real joy of first watching these films though came from two other clips, which I remember watching in amazement when I first saw them. There is about 3 minutes or so of a meeting, with lots of drumming, traditional dress, men in military uniform – no idea where this is (‘in the bush’ I guess my father would have said), but you had to fly there, which is why my father is there (every so often, as he pans the camera, he catches the plane or another Air Force officer in the shot). And yes, it turns out, the guest of honour at this event whatever it was, is Kuanda – the footage is a bit underexposed in parts, but it’s definitely him (the white handkerchief is the give away). This must be from 1964, or 1965, maybe early 1966 perhaps. As with all of this footage, the familial bits as well, it leaves me with so many questions, but no way of finding out the answers.

The other bit of footage is even better – shorter, less than half a minute, preceded by scenes of soldiers parading at an airport, then, abruptly, two African men walk across the screen side by side, up to a podium. It’s Kuanda, and a slightly shorter man, in a green Mao-suit, with a receding hairline – that’s Julius Nyerere! The footage then cuts to a shot of a BOAC VC10 approaching to land and then… it cuts to another scene of domesticity and play.

Who are those two about to greet? Not the Queen Mum, not by then. Who knows. I don’t. My father never actually mentioned that he spent a couple of years flying Kenneth Kuanda around a newly independent Zambia, taking part as a close observer in these rituals of postcolonial nation-building, as a precondition of returning to the UK in 1966.

Media archaeology

I’ve spent quite a lot of time in the last month or so wading through a bunch of my parents’ ‘stuff”, following the death of my mother. There are different levels of ‘stuff’ involved here, of course, from a garage full of gardening tools to toothpaste. Different sorts of significance attach themselves to different types of ‘stuff’.

I’ve come to think of this process as akin to a form of personal, family archeology, as different objects provoke new questions, or new understandings of previously remembered events.

Once you have moved beyond the level of ‘stuff’ that is disposable (and this might vary, depending on how you feel), one way or another, the contents of one’s parents home seem to fall into two broad categories: material objects (including books), and ‘media’ stuff. Media stuff includes photos, but also in my case a large number of slides and negatives, and 2-3000 feet of 8mm cine film. Very little of this media stuff has been seen by me, or my sisters, I think, for three decades or so, at least. It has been living in lofts and cupboards, as is the way with these sorts of materials. I’m bringing it back to life, so to speak, having transferred 500 odd slides onto the PC, and have just had the cine film digitized (by a very nice man in Swindon who specialises in this – see SaveThoseMemories). 

Media stuff has a distinct emotional charge – it evokes different memories, but also evokes memories in different ways. I’ve now seen versions of my parents I had never seen before, as well as movies of me as a baby which are the only visual record of me actually ever having been a baby. And I have never quite realised before how much movement and how much sound there is lying within a still, mute image. 

Material objects, of course, can be very mundane – pin cushions, vinegar pots, tea caddies, African drums. They are, too, and unlike media stuff, fundamentally indivisible – and therefore potentially more contentious as objects of mourning. You can make copies of the cine film, and of the photos. There is only one vinegar pot, and I’ve got it. 

This is all just a preliminary ramble, really, because I have an inclination to write a little bit more about some of the things that the media stuff is disclosing. It turns out, by the way, that ‘media archaeology’ is a proper grown-up academic field: see here and here.