Robinson Chisanga Puta Shi Bwalya Chekwe was born on 17 July 1920 in Chief Nkula's village in Chinsali District, Northern Province of Zambia. He was born into a patrician family headed by Nkaka Puta Katongamina. He belonged to the Ng'andu clan, the Bemba ruling clan. His mother Chilunga was the beautiful daughter of a Bemba patrician, Chikutwe. There is a monument of Chikutwe in Kasama District, to this day. His grandfather was Katongamina Kandiba Chibwa and his great grandfather was Chibwa Chanfula.
Chibwa Chanfula was the son of Nkunkulusha Mang'ombe and Kunda Bwanga. Both were descendants of King Mwata Yamvo, the 16th century founder of the Luba-Lunda Kingdom. An earlier ancestor was Mbemba Nshinga (aka Nzinga) who ruled the Kongo from 1509 to 1543.
Robinson Puta attended school at Lubwa Mission where he was considered a strong student, especially in mathematics. He was appointed prefect. He made many friends at Lubwa including Simon Mwansa Kapwepwe, Kenneth Kaunda, Malama Sokoni, Speedwell Kapasa Makasa and many others. After Lubwa, young Robinson went to Senga Hill where he did his training in Agriculture.
Like many young enterprising Northern Rhodesians from the Northern part of the country, Robinson Puta sought his fortune in the early 1940s on the Copperbelt. There was no shortage of work for disciplined and hard working young men in the country's richest province in those days.
Shortly after arriving on the Copperbelt he met and married Grace Kanondo Mpolokoso, a fellow patrician Bemba. Grace's mother, Lucy Kanondo had the distinction of being Northern Rhodesia's first indigenous nurse. She attained the rank of Nurse in Charge at Lusaka Hospital and often attended upon the Governor of the territory. Grace's father Ismail was a member of the Mpolokoso clan that had ruled Mpolokoso District for many years prior to the advent of colonialism in the late nineteenth century.
Robinson Puta worked initially as a teacher at Mindolo Primary School near Kitwe.
He joined Nchanga Consolidated Copper Mines at Nkana as an interpreter and later worked as a touch typist in the same company.
Robinson Puta was then promoted and did office work and was housed in D1 27 section in Wusakile.
In 1949 Robinson Puta joined the likes of Goodwin Mbikusita Lewanika, Matthew Nkoloma, Alfred Chambeshi, Harry Chungi and Mr. Mugala in forming the African Mine Workers Union (AMWU). The group had been inspired by the formation of the European Mine Workers Union.
Although the AMWU made demands on Robinson Puta, he still had time for other duties such as teaching Bemba language to European immigrants who were encouraged to learn the language for the purpose of communicating with the local people.
One day, Robinson Puta rode his bicycle to see a Mr. McAllen for his Bemba lessons. On arrival he took off his jacket and left it hanging on his bicycle. A white boy came along, saw the bicycle and the jacket and decided to throw the jacket on the ground. This upset Robinson immensely. He castigated the boy for his bad behaviour. The boy's father saw this and asked Robinson to apologise. In those days it was unusual for a black person to disapprove in any way of the behaviour of a white person, however egregious the white person's behaviour.
Mr. Robinson Puta refused to apologise and demanded instead that the boy apologise to him. When this did not happen, Mr. Puta decided to resign his position in protest. Robinson Puta and his family then went to Ndola to stay with Grace's mother, Lucy Kanondo. Lucy had just retired as Nurse in Charge at Lusaka Hospital. Robinson immediately got a job as a clerk with George Garage. He was in Ndola for only one month however, having decided to get back into the mining industry. This time he found himself in Chingola at Nchanga Mine.
He was housed by the mining company in a special section known as "the Grade". This section also housed so called Tribal Representatives who purported to oversee the various ethnic groups on the Copperbelt. The scheme of Tribal Representatives had been devised by Cecil Spearpoint; a Compound Manager respected more for his sporting prowess than his intellect. Spearpoint set up tribal representatives in order to bypass the authority of the African mine police and clerks. Each ethnic group with over twenty-five people selected its own representative. According to D.D.Irwin, General Manager, Roan Antelope Consolidated Mines (RACM), these officials were directed to "adjust minor difficulties among the Natives and help the Compound Managers to keep in touch with any grievances". The tribal representatives received many privileges including the adornment of black gowns when they were on duty.
Robinson Puta was of course opposed to the tribal representation system which he saw as threatening African labour and political unity. He was instrumental in persuading the mining companies to agree to a secret ballot to determine the future of the tribal representatives. The system was overwhelmingly rejected in the ensuing vote.
At that time mine surface workers were paid a salary of twelve nsixi - twelve shillings and six pence per 30 working days and underground workers were paid twenty two nsixi -twenty-two shillings and sixpence. Both these wages represented a reduction in pay.
Naturally, the miners demanded a wage increase of 6 pence per month.
The Governor of Northern Rhodesia, Sir Arthur Benson, visited the Copperbelt and held a meeting with the African Mine Workers Union which was spearheading the campaign for better wages.
During the meeting Robinson Puta attempted to pressure the mining companies into accepting the wage settlement by declaring that if the proposal was not accepted he would paralyse the mines. Robinson Puta's speech made a great impression both on the miners and the Governor.
When the workers heard about Robinson Puta's speech, they composed a stanza in his honour:
Mwebeko Puta, ifwe twamulumbanya
Fwe bana bacibisa.
Batila apali umunwe epali ibala
Puuta; kaafwa, Puuta;alalubula.
Roughly translated, the stanza declared that the children of the Bisa ethnic group praised Robinson Puta for his demand and declared him a saviour.
The mining company failed to respond to the wage demand and this led to a two week strike. There was the challenge of feeding the miners while the strike was on. In order to solve this problem, Robinson turned to a European friend Jimmy Fleming(see Photo 11 and following), owner of Kabombeka Store. Jimmy Fleming readily agreed and provided food to the strikers during the period.
After the strike was over, Robinson Puta left the country to attend a conference in Ethiopia. He returned to Northern Rhodesia after the conference via Nairobi, Kenya. Robinson did not spend any time in Kenya as he was merely in transit at the airport.
Upon his return however, the General Manager at Nchanga Mine, Mr. Grace, took it upon himself to report to the Governor that Mr. Puta had gone to Kenya to learn about the Mau Mau insurgency so that he could come home and paralyse the mines.
It was also at this time that Mr. Puta talked to officials in the African Mine Workers Union about the benefits of having a cheque bank account. He was believed to be the first African in Northern Rhodesia to operate such an account. He now wanted this status to be conferred on his union. The audience was most impressed and they nick named him "Chekwe", a local variation of the word "cheque" and Robinson Puta became known as Shi Bwalya Chekwe.
In a meeting of the African Mine Workers Union Mr Puta repeated his claim:
"Kuti nachita paralyse imikoti yonse" "I can paralyse all the mines". A Mr. Nkunika reported Robinson's claim to the Criminal Investigations Division (CID) and Robinson was arrested and charged with sedition. In the ensuing trial Mr. Nkunika was identified as a Government informer. Despite the best efforts of his lawyer, Mr. Longman, Robinson was found guilty at first instance and sentenced to three months in prison. He appealed and this time engaged a Kenyan lawyer.
The appeal was held in the southern town of Livingstone, watched by his wife Grace who was staying with a relative called Grace Kawandami. The appeal was successful. The Governor however was still fearful that Robinson might carry out his threat of paralysing the mines. The Governor therefore used his executive powers to override the court decision and imprison Robinson Chisanga Puta Chekwe. Robinson's colleagues Jameson Chapoloko and Dixon Konkola were also imprisoned with him.
Grace relocated from Nchanga Mine to Chiwempala and was joined by her husband after a stint of one and a half months as a political prisoner.
The stint in prison had apparently done nothing to curb Robinson's enthusiasm for political and social justice.
In those days most heavy household items could only be purchased at designated "European" stores. Africans were generally not permitted to shop at these stores but when they did, they were served through a hatch at the back of the shop.
As it happened Robinson Puta required a bed. He set off to buy one at the Nchanga Co-operative Store. A white sales lady told him to go to the hatch, outside the shop to make his order.
Robinson Chisanga Puta Chekwe obliged. He then told the lady that he wanted to buy the bed he had seen inside the shop. After being told the price, he took his money out of his pocket and gave it to the lady. Upon receiving the money, the sales assistant asked him to go and enter the shop so that he could collect the bed. Robinson declined the offer to go inside the shop and insisted that the bed be given to him through the hatch where the money had passed! Robinson's action demonstrated the absurdity of serving Africans through the hatch and it did not take long before the practice was abolished.
A person of Robinson's independence and principle could not last forever in the employ of mining companies as they were organised in those days. In the early 1950s he set his sites on going into business on his own. He decided that the best way to raise capital for his business was to trade in fish. There was a very large market for fish on the Copperbelt. Robinson therefore started making trips to Nchelenge in Luapula province where fish was in abundance, much more than it is today. He would buy fish from local fishermen and take it to Chingola and Bancroft (now Chililabombwe) to sell.
After raising 58 Pounds, Robinson and his wife left Chingola to set up a shop in Bancroft. The couple built the shop themselves with the help of a few relatives. This shop was not large and today would be referred to as Akantemba .
On a typical day, Mr. Puta would get up early in the morning to go to town to buy his merchandise for sale in his shop. The first items he bought for the shop as I witnessed were six cans of Fray Bentos corned beef, 12 loaves of bread and a pan of buns. He would put these items in a carton box and carry them on his shoulder, as he had no transport not even a bicycle of his own at that time.
He would make his second trip about midday to go to town to buy some more Fray Bentos, bread and buns to ensure he had sufficient items to sell in the evening when business was active as people returned home from work.
The location of the shop was ideal as it bordered the mine and municipal sections of Bancroft. Most of the clientele were miners going to or returning from work.
The business was a great success and by 1960, Robinson Puta and his wife had set up the first privately owned supermarket in Bancroft. They had now incorporated a company called Puta Trading Limited, later named Chekwe Trading Limited.
During that time Robinson served as Chairman (Mayor) of the Bancroft Management Board.
His business acumen was recognised to the extent of being appointed a member of Rhodesia Railways Board in 1962. Rhodesia Railways was the international railway network that serviced Northern Rhodesia, Southern Rhodesia and was connected to the systems of South Africa, Bechuanaland (Botswana) and Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique). For these responsibilities, Robinson Puta travelled frequently to Buluwayo in Southern Rhodesia where Rhodesia Railways had its headquarters.
Further recognition came when Robinson Puta was elected President of the Northern Rhodesia Traders Association.
Puta Trading Limited expanded greatly in the last years of colonial rule. The company now had a store at Konkola and an impressive property housing a cocktail lounge in the Chingola Second Class Trading area. The latter was most suitable as head office of the company. So, Robinson relocated his family to Chingola once again.
The Puta Chekwe family purchased a ten acre property in Musenga, some ten miles from Chingola off Kitwe Road. Lot 22 Musenga was purchased in early 1964 for the sum of 2,500 Pounds from a Colonel Dowling.
Robinson was still mayor of Bancroft and needed to travel frequently between the two towns for this purpose and also for the purpose of supervising his supermarket which was now managed by his brother John Puta.
I used to travel from Chingola to Solwezi on a monthly basis for stock taking of Mwaiseni Stores. I would plan to travel from Chingola on a Friday and Mr. Robinson Puta would arrange for his son Nkaka Chisanga to travel with me during school holidays.
The most memorable public function performed by Robinson as mayor of Bancroft was perhaps the speech he delivered at midnight on October 23/24 1964 when the country became independent. He concluded his speech at the McKay Stadium with the words, "Goodbye to Northern Rhodesia and welcome to Zambia."
The post colonial era saw more recognition for Robinson. He was awarded the Companion Order for Freedom by President Kenneth Kaunda in 1966 and henceforth added the title 'OCF' after his name. The following year he was given the task of disengaging the Zambian assets from the Rhodesia Railways system and creating a new Railways Board for Zambia. He became Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of the newly formed Zambia Railways Board.
He also served as Chairman of the Zambia Housing Board and the Credit Organisation of Zambia.
Although Zambia recorded impressive economic growth during the first five years of independence, the end of that era saw a decline in the ruling party's commitment to political pluralism. By the beginning of the 1970s certain sections of the ruling United National Independence Party (UNIP) were becoming restless. It came as no surprise that in 1971 the former Vice President, Simon Mwansa Kapwepwe formed a viable opposition party, the United Progressive Party (UPP) to challenge Kenneth Kaunda's United National Independence Party (UNIP).
President Kaunda responded to the challenge in September 1971 by imprisoning without trial the main leaders of the United Progressive Party (UPP). Robinson Puta was imprisoned for his role as UPP president for the Copperbelt Province. He was jailed at Mpima State Prison in Kabwe.
Upon his release nine months later, Robinson and his colleagues found that UNIP had laid the ground for the conversion of Zambia into a one party state. In an attempt to fight the introduction of one party rule, Robinson and his old trade union friend Musonda Chambeshi formed the United People's Party. Chambeshi served as president of the new UPP while Robinson was elected Vice President. Robinson was once again imprisoned without trial. This time he was sent to Namuseche Prison in Chipata, about one thousand kilometres from his home town of Chingola.
It was while in prison that Robinson Puta's health deteriorated, especially after suffering a stroke. When he was eventually released in 1973, Robinson was but a shell of his old self. He still however clung to his beliefs and declined to rejoin UNIP, as many of his colleagues had done. The family business was almost in ruin, having been the subject of UNIP boycotts.
Robinson Chisanga Puta Chekwe died on July 18, 1980 aged 60 years and one day.
The then President of Zambia Dr. Kenneth Kaunda, sent his representative to the funeral with a personal message. The 2000 strong crowd attending the funeral however refused to listen to Kaunda's emissary. Most of them blamed Kaunda for Robinson Puta's premature demise. The burial of Robinson Chisanga Puta Chekwe thus proceeded as a non political event with eulogies delivered by his boyhood friend Malama Sokoni and his cousin Mutale Ng'andu Chitapankwa Paramount Chief of the Bemba people.
Mr. Puta was survived by his wife Grace and eleven children namely Bwalya Pat (M), Mwenya Dorothy (F), Bwalya Sylvia (F), Nkaka Chisanga (M), Kambole Richard (M), Chilunga Chikutwe (F), Chisanga (F), Chisha Natasha (F), Kangwa (F), Mubanga Grace (F) and Noel Chisanga (M).
May his soul remain forever resting in eternal peace.
Henry George Mumbi Shikopa
Henry George Mumbi Shikopa was born to George and Mercy Shikopa at Mbereshi Mission in Northern Zambia. George Shikopa was the nephew of Adam Kanondo, Lucy’s father.
Henry Shikopa was educated at Chingola Main School and Munali Secondary School. The latter was for many years the flagship of Zambian secondary education and was run along the lines of an English public school. Mr. Shikopa also briefly attended Leeds University to study business.
After school, Henry Shikopa joined the North western Trading Company and quickly became manager of Mwaiseni Stores in Chingola. In the 1960s he was active in civic life and served as a Councillor with the Chingola Municipal Council. At that time he also started his own company, HS Ltd and moved to Lusaka where he bought an estate at Chamba Valley. For most of the 1970s and 80s Henry Shikopa was Chief Executive Officer of Chibote Ltd, the largest Zambian owned private company in the country. He subsequently became Vice Chairman of ITM International, a trading and banking group with offices in Lusaka, New York and London. He retired from business in the early 1990s.
Henry George Mumbi Shikopa died suddenly in Lusaka, Zambia on August 24, 2012. May His Soul Rest in Peace.
Map showing Robinson's birth place in Nkula (shown in red), Chinsali District, Northern Province of Zambia.