The death of a giant fish, fondly called ‘Mafishi, which lived for over 3 decades, in a pond, at one of Zambia‘s biggest higher institutions of learning, the Copperbelt University (CBU), has been the talk of the week around the world and has taken social media by storm.
The fish was famous for its beauty, huge size of between 70 and 100 centimetres, as well as what it symbolised to the students, most of whom considered it a stress reliever or/and a source of good luck for their exams.
But its death in itself would probably have gone unnoticed had it not been for the dramatic manner in which it was mourned.
Examination students who are the only ones currently attending classes, because of COVID 19-induced school closure, gathered to pay their last respect to Mafishi, lit candles and marched around the campus while singing solemn songs, as well as making speeches about what the fish meant to them.
For example, some students used to feel going to the pond where Mafishi was, made them feel relaxed in times of exam or relationship stress, as they watched it swim elegantly. Others shared superstitious accounts, saying that seeing Mafishi resurface towards exam time meant the student would clear the exams, but that the opposite would be the case if the fish remained under water.
The extent to which the students mourned Mafishi attracted the attention of Zambia’s President, Edgar Lungu, who empathised with them, saying ‘Mafishi had been part of the CBU community for a long time and would be missed. He added that he was glad that the fish had received a befitting send off, and used a Mahatma Gandhi quote that says “the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”
Other notable members of the Zambian society, including the leader of the biggest opposition party, Hakainde Hichilema, some government officials and entertainers, equally sent messages of condolences.
Some Residents Finds The Mourning Inappropriate
However, such reactions have not sat well with some residents who feel this is tantamount to idle-worshiping, which should not be encouraged in a Christian nation like Zambia.
Other members of the Zambian public say, there are more important issues that need such energies to be driven towards them, such as the free-falling local currency (the Kwacha) and economy, among others.
For Lwendo Momba, a Lusaka resident, living in an area where quarrying activities have been disrupting livelihoods, causing health issues such as Tuberculosis and drying of natural springs and ordinary fish ponds, there is nothing impressive about the attention given to the death of this fish. He observes that over 1000 residents in his community have been complaining constantly, but their cries have not received any attention, yet a fish dies and leaders are sympathetic.
“It is not fair that we have been complaining about the quarry mining activities for years and years, our health is at risk, we are at the verge of losing our houses due to weakened foundations, we are having no clean water, boreholes are getting dry, people are sinking dry boreholes because the water gradient have gone so low due to the quarry mining activities open pits. We have lost thousands of fish as fish farmers due to these same drying streams and boreholes caused by the blasts and quarrying. What a great urgent response to “Mafishi the great”, we are in trouble!” Momba laments.
Other residents feel it is surprising that the leadership sympathise with the university students over a fish, when no emotion was expressed when a university student, Vespers Shimuzhila, died from suffocation after being tear gassed by police, following a students’ protest over unpaid meal allowances, some two years ago.
“If the life of a fish can be of great importance than that of Vespers, then we are under a curse. Politicians are trying to gain political mileage from the death of a fish. It is a farce,” says Davies Kapungwe, a resident of Mufulira, on the Copperbelt province.
Joseph Chishimba, a recent graduate of the University of Zambia (UNZA), which is the biggest in the country, however observes that this is all about students’ attention seeking, saying ‘there is this strange need to be the most talked about university’.
“We want to seem the most daring and intelligent. There is a constant battle of which institution is better and the most influential. In the case of Mafishi, it is such an achievement for CBU because it is the most talked about issue now. In the recent past, UNZA has been in the headlines for issues such as going to the South African embassy because of the xenophobic attacks, riots and the like,” Chishimba reckons.
“You would be amazed at the war between the two universities. Even on the BBC Africa page, there were comments which only went to remind people that regardless of Mafishi dying, UNZA still remains the first in ranking” he adds.
Chishimba further notes that Mafishi may not have been that special, but just something students derived some fun from.
“I doubt if Mafishi was that special or if it was the only fish in the pond looking like that. I think they just wanted to have some fun, because sometimes the pressure in school can be unbearable, you might need something to cheer you up,” Chishimba observes.
He too, finds it funny that notable members of society have been sympathizing with the students, saying a lot of students have been having pressing issues and requesting the government to help them but they’ve been quiet. He concludes that politicians often have a way of hijacking the mood.
For University lecturer, Peter Chipungu Silwimba, politicians joining in the mourning may be a strategy to attract the support of students.
“To the politicians, they might think beyond the jokes. They know the potential effect of how supporting the behaviour might draw their support like a magnet. This is true especially when you consider the influence students can have if they aligned with them. It’s their business and we expect such. They can do anything be it dancing, mourning, eating and all that as long as they know the end result is acceptance,” he notes.
He points out that the ‘Mafishi’ commemoration incidence does not represent the uniform perception of everyone, although it will eventually send such a connotation to the outside world’.
“The behaviour of each of those people involved is motivated by various factors. Of course the age, the size and the characteristic behaviour of the fish is still something worth noting. I was at the university years ago and I could hear various comments about the fish much of which could be attributed to mere jokes. For example, the fish had a tendency to come and check on any disturbance caused on the pond and when a person stands by the pond for some time longer than necessary, the fish could come closer in the same way a trained dolphin fish behaves.”
“But we know that all animals, like humans carry an adaptive ability and are conditioned to some behaviour that tend to adapt to the environment. The fish was just in perfect condition that made it behave the way it used to be. The age of the fish enabled it to make a close bond with humans around as well as the fellow species themselves. So it’s normal and nothing extraordinary was obtaining about Mafishi,” Silwimba explains.
Silwimba further observes that references to Mafishi might simply be jokes, stress relief entertainment, superstition, or merely mythical sentiments to students, while to social media, it might be motivated by excitements and lack of current feeds worth entertaining. As such, Mafishi might be the only joke at the moment.
“Social media sometimes is flooded by people who have very much time for it and they want to speculate on posting anything with a view to interest a few or more. Already another picture of a bird was posted and [captioned] Mabird has also died.
Surely to some, especially those few students who carry a superstitious type of life drive, it might be actual worship especially if they misconstrued their pass marks to the Mafishi behaviour, which to my liking might be merely pure coincidence.”
Silwimba sums it up by saying, while every one is entitled to whatever their sentiments urges them to do towards the Mafishi, it is a responsibility of each individual to evaluate the matter based on what matters to them most.
“For Christians they are guided by bible principles which explain the conditions of the dead and how they should mourn (Ecclesiastes 9:5-10; 1 Thessalonians 4:13). Their conscience will guide them what to do. For the general citizens, they should know that Zambia is not a closed world , is it subjected to the scrutiny of the outside world, and there are so many people out they’re who first would love to know the culture of the country before they visit, either for business or for adventure. Such publicity will send the implied culture to the outside world. Hence, let each one decide what they feel is appropriate for whatever reason, but be prepared to handle the consequences that come from that decision,” Silwimba advises.