1983 And All That…..

I’m grateful to Edem Djokotoe for his memories of the Ridgeway (now Southern Sun Ridgeway Hotel) in Lusaka, of which I was General Manager from March 1979 to May 1992. I have edited parts of the piece – if you’d like to read the whole story go to Soul To Soul on Facebook. The photo? Taken around that time ‘at home’ in Tiverton, Devon with my late mum and second born Jan-Martyn – washing up and not singing!!

“I first saw the man who’d be President in a hotel bar in 1983. The hotel: Ridgeway. The bar: the Copper Horse. He sat alone at a table in a corner, nursing a solitary Mosi in a noisy, smoky bar bustling with animated punters. He stuck out like a sore thumb. Like a man in a place against his will. To be honest, I didn’t notice his discomfiture until Oscar, the fellow who’d invited me to The Copper Horse for a few pints, asked me if I knew who the man was.

I shrugged because I really didn’t. “Should I know him?”
“You should. I’m sure you must have heard of him or read about him. His name is Frederick Chiluba. He’s a trade unionist and a big thorn in Kenneth Kaunda’s side as well as his harshest critic.” I looked at Lonely Man again with a mixture of surprise and disappointment because in all fairness, he seemed too pint sized a David to take on KK’s intimidating Goliath.

“So if he’s such a hotshot, how come he’s sitting by himself?” I asked.

Oscar looked at me like I’d said something really stupid. When he spoke, his tone was hushed: “Edem, that’s because nobody wants to be seen talking to him, even though they know him. You see, Copper Horse is a popular hangout for government spies watching to see who is talking to who. When you are here, you better watch what you say because someone could be listening…”

My friend, Oscar, an Economics student at UNZA, was one for conspiracy theories. He believed that half the students at university were government spies who vanished once their cover was blown, only to surface at another tertiary institution in another town. I knew the regime had a generous sprinkling of agents everywhere, but I found many of Oscar’s theories absurd and far-fetched. However, something about the lonely man drinking a beer in a crowded hotel bar convinced me that this was one yarn that contained a nugget of truth.

But the Ridgeway was more than the hotbed of intrigue and eavesdropping government agents he made it out to be. It was by far the most accessible and most happening hotels in the city. Anything that was anything in Lusaka happened there.

For instance, when boxing was alive and well in Zambia and Lusaka hosted many international bouts, courtesy of the Nigerian promoter Gibson Nwosu, Ridgeway was the closest thing to the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. Of course, the fights didn’t take place there, but practically all the boxers who came through stayed there. The weigh-ins, the stare downs and all the pre-fight hype took place there—in the Natwange Room.

These are only some of the memories that the old Ridgeway Hotel evokes whenever I drive past or walk into its newer reincarnation. Lusaka diminished in many ways when the old Ridgeway died.

The old Ridgeway owed much of its reputation as the most happening hotel in town to its General Manager: Richard Chanter. Well, that’s what his job description must have been on paper, but I remember on many a New Year’s Eve, he’d be performing with the house band, The Cool Nights, in the Musuku Restaurant. Before the night was over, you could bet he’d be singing Culture Club’s “Karma Chameleon and his favourite, the theme from The Greatest American Hero, “Believe It Or Not”.

Many a musical career was launched on the Musuku Restaurant stage and on a vehicle Chanter created called Folk Night. Not exactly Show Time At the Apollo, but it played a big role in helping hopefuls hone their skills performing with a live band in front of a live, discerning audience. It was where Maureen Lilanda, now a doyenne of the local scene, then a high school student at St. Mary’s cut her teeth and learned how to evolve into a cabaret artiste. Back in the day, her older brother, Douglas, one of my closest friends, would mobilize his friends to go sit in front of the stage to cheer her on. Name them, they all graced that stage, backed by the Cool Nights. Percy Phiri…Dozy Musakanya…Lazarus Tembo…Ackim Simukonda…Muriel Mwamba…Simwinji Zeko…

On New Year’s Eve 1983, Richard Chanter unveiled a band that was virtually unknown in Zambia—the Lubumbashi Stars. The guys took the stage just before midnight and brought the house down with its brand of soukous and tightly choreographed dancing. By the time the night was over, they had succeeded in upstaging the versatile house band in a big way.

The Lubumbashi Stars became an instant hit and were a major attraction to the Ridgeway until the band relocated to Botswana where the grass was greener a few years later. They were not the only herd of humans to head south in search of rich grass. By 1990, more university lecturers, college tutors and high school teachers were leaving Zambia to seek their fortunes in Botswana than ever before. Apparently, word had filtered across the Zambezi River that even high school teachers in Botswana could afford to buy Toyota Cressidas from their salaries and booze every day of the week without getting broke.”