When Catholic Priest turned politician Father Frank Bwalya called President Michael Sata a sweet potato on a little known community radio station in rural Zambia, he probably did not have the slightest idea that the phrase would become a global meme within a few hours and the story picked up by major international news outlets.
Fr. Bwalya, who heads opposition political party Alliance for Better Zambia, appeared on Radio Mano in Kasama, over 1,000 kilometers north of capital Lusaka, during which he said the president as crooked as a sweet potato which cannot be straightened, a common saying in the local language, Bemba. Police stormed the studios even before he could finish the interview and whisked him away. He was later arrested and charged with defaming the head of state.
The Huffington Post, Yahoo and many news outlets picked up the story not because of the arrest of the priest but rather the reason behind the arrest—comparing the head of state to a humble sweet potato.
The joke was not lost on one Twitter user who came up with an imaginary conversation between President Sata and his press aide George Chellah:
As Zambia's Potato-Gate rumbles on: Chellah to Pres Sata : Morning boss. Good news is you're mentioned in all the world's press…… ‘
— Richard Elsen (@Richard_Elsen) January 8, 2014
Another user bemoaned the reason for which Zambia was in the international news spotlight:
@Richard_Elsen @ErasmusMweene @LauraMiti sadly this is the one thing #Zambia gets in the international press for…umm!
— Monica Musonda (@monicamusonda) January 7, 2014
Regional President for entrepreneurship organization Kairos Society Erasmus Mweene posted where he first saw the story:
@munshyamunshya @monicamusonda @Richard_Elsen @LauraMiti I first read the ‘potato’ story on Voice of Russia today… It's depressing.
— Erasmus Mweene (@ErasmusMweene) January 7, 2014
Business consultant Trevor Simumba told of where he saw the story from:
@Richard_Elsen @LauraMiti I read even in San Francsico of all places! If he was not arrested nobody would have even heard of Frank Bwalya
— Trevor Simumba (@TrevorSim) January 7, 2014
News website Zambia Reports reported about the potato going viral around the world:
The story of the arrest of Father Frank Bwalya for calling President Michael Sata a potato has gone viral on a number of news websites including the Independent of UK, Yahoo, Metro UK, Yahoo, BBC and Al-Jazeera.
Several other websites in South Africa and the United States of America including the traditional Zambian websites have carried the article. The internet was also agog with various images of sweet [potatoes]
Fr. Bwalya is quoted as saying in an Al Jazeera story republished on Zambia Reports:
On that radio program, I strongly criticized the bad leadership of the president. I called him a crooked sweet potato that cannot be straightened. It is a commonly used phrase which is not insulting. It is to explain the attitude of a person who doesn’t want to be advised who doesn’t want to be counselled.
No stranger to police harassment, Bwalya spearheaded the “Red Card” campaign before the 2011 elections signifying the intention to kick out the then ruling Movement for Multiparty Democracy out of government in favour of President Sata’s Patriotic Front.
Shortly after the PF formed government, Bwalya, who has since taken sabbatical leave from his priestly duties, was appointed board chairman of the power utility company Zambia Electricity Supply Corporation, but resigned the position within one year of being appointed and went on to form political party Alliance for Better Zambia.