Don't Let It Go Unchallenged (with Stanley Nelson & Marco Williams) | Crooked Media
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In This Episode

DeRay, Sam, Kaya, and De’Ara cover the underreported news of the week, including San Domingo, Oklahoma mayors, Seasame Street, and unmarked Indigenous graves. DeRay interviews directors Stanley Nelson and Marco Williams of the new documentary “Tulsa Burning: The 1921 Race Massacre”.



DERAY MCKESSON: Hey, this is DeRay. And welcome to Pod Save The People. On this episode, it’s me, Sam, Kaya, and De’Ara talking about the underreported news of the past week. And then I sit down with Director Stanley Nelson and Marco Williams of the History Channel’s new documentary, Tulsa Burning, The 1921 Race Massacre. My advice for this week is to not let things go unchallenged that are in your space. I was in a conversation the other day. And somebody said something that was sexist.

They did. And it was just like, I do not want to have a battle right now, I really don’t. I’m not interested in it. I also cannot let you just say things like this and go unchallenged, like that’s not cool. In that moment, it was the middle of the night, we were going somewhere. And it’s one of those things that like part of what it means to show up and love people is to not let them get away with things that we know are wrong. That’s my advice for this week. Let’s go.

DE’ARA BALENGER: Welcome to another episode of Pod Save The People. Y’all, my news today is from New York Magazine. It covers a really beautiful insightful piece on the mayors of Oklahoma’s Black towns. And so as we celebrate the centennial events around the 100 years since the 1921 Massacre, I really wanted to bring to light kind of the history and the richness of history when it comes to Black folks, both past and present actually, in Oklahoma.

So what a lot of folks don’t know is that there were actually 50 plus settlements founded in Indian territory after the Civil War that attracted Black folks from across the South. And it really offer, obviously, a chance to build communities that were safe from violence and terror. Well, you know, that was the idealism behind these settlements. And so what ended up happening is that there were founded Black towns across Oklahoma.

So we hear a lot about Greenwood– actually, not enough about Greenwood but as we’re starting to hear more about what happened in Greenwood, particularly those events that happened on Memorial Day weekend. We’re starting to also understand the history across Oklahoma of so many Black towns that are still existing today.

What’s happening is that a lot of folks who grew up in towns, whether it was Tallahassee or Boley in Oklahoma, grew up there, left, and then decided to come back to really preserve these towns, preserve the history, preserve the culture. But what’s happening is that a lot of towns are suffering from governmental neglect, economic isolation.

And in Tallahassee, which is the oldest surviving Black town in Oklahoma, they were actually at risk of losing water services because of overdue bill. So these towns don’t have a strong tax base. And a lot of them are relying on grants and grassroots funding to help cover basic infrastructure needs.

So it’s just– really, this piece is an interesting take on one, giving us an awareness around the history of these Black towns and the need for creating safe space and the need for creating conditions for economic prosperity. And understanding now that that need is as great today as it was 100 years ago.

But just the challenges to that and now the challenges that are coming to these Black mayors in these towns across Oklahoma. So check the article out. It’s stunning, brilliant photos of these incredible mayors. But just also dig in a little bit more to understand this really fascinating, insightful history that comes out of Oklahoma in particular. Yeah, check it out, y’all.

DERAY MCKESSON: My news is about the role that Black psychiatrist played in social change and societal change after the killing of Dr. King. So after King is killed, they form the Black Psychiatrists of America. And they were grappling with institutional change, how we think about institutional racism, and importantly, the role of American psychiatry in perpetuating some of these harms of racism.

So they go in May 8, 1969. They break into the trustees of the American Psychiatric Association. While those folks are eating breakfast, they have a list of demands, including more Black people on the committees and task forces and leadership and a whole host of other things. The thing that really stuck out was that one of the guys who help start it, Chester Pierce, the founding president of the Black Psychiatrists of America, he was really worried about TV.

He was convinced that TV was actually communicating and encoding these ideas of racism in homes. And you know, at the time, in 1969, almost 95% of American homes had TV sets. And as you can imagine, the programming, there wasn’t a ton of programming. So people saw mostly the same thing. He says in 1970, many of you, know that for years, I’ve been convinced that our ultimate enemies and deliverers are the education system in the mass media.

We must, without theoretical squeamishness over correctness of our expertise, offer what fractions of truth we can to make education and mass media serve, rather than oppress the Black people of this country. So he’s convinced that TV matters. He also studied child education in addition to being a psychiatrist. He was starting to work on a children’s show. He had a three-year-old daughter of his own.

And he was going to be a senior advisor on a show that was– and working with two other creators. This show was conceived as a way to bring remedial education into the homes of children of color and disadvantaged kids. Like that was the premise of the show. The show, as you know it and I know it, is called Sesame Street. And this show was a game changer, the most successful children’s show ever.

It was– Sesame Street is a street in an inner city neighborhood. As you know, it’s multiracial, multiethnic characters. And they worked on this sort of hidden curriculum. Also interestingly, this guy, Chester Pierce, coined the now famous term that you know, microaggression. But he was instrumental in helping to shape what we know as Sesame Street. And that was great.

It just like– it was so interesting for me to read about the way that Black people started to organize after like racial terror, the killing of Dr. King, and understanding that we have to fight this fight on a host of levels. So there are people who are like, you know, DeRay, the street’s not my place. And like, it might be somewhere else. For the psychiatrist, the street wasn’t their place.

But they organized it in their field, and they used that expertise to change other fields. Like that is the best that we can ask, that people use their gifts to change the space that they’re closest to. And that’s my news. Don’t go anywhere. More Pod Save The People is coming. Pod Save The People was brought to you by Hairstory.

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DERAY MCKESSON: So many headlines in recent years have been shocking. But it shouldn’t be surprising given the history of our nation. We’ve been down these roads before.

KAYA HENDERSON: The podcast, Seizing Freedom, illuminates the untold stories of African-Americans securing their own liberation at the end of the Civil War and how they made that freedom real by organizing for equality and justice during Reconstruction despite every attempt at violent suppression.

DERAY MCKESSON: Seizing Freedom presents these stories through the lens of lived experience, drawing from letters, diary entries, autobiographies, and more, to showcase voices from American history that are being ignored time and time again.

KAYA HENDERSON: Compelling firsthand accounts are given new life through powerful voice acting. And interviews with historians and activists draw parallels between the past and many of the social and political movements taking place today.

DERAY MCKESSON: These extraordinary stories are being given a voice and made relevant in this time appeared in America that has demonstrated more civil discord than at any time since the Civil War.

KAYA HENDERSON: You can listen to the complete first season of Seizing Freedom now at or in your favorite podcast app.


My news this week comes out of the Washington Post, an article entitled, “Free Black men and women founded in Eastern Shore village to avoid attention. Now their descendants want to share their stories.” And this is another one of those pieces of history that I didn’t know about but that I was really excited to learn about.

It’s about a small town in Wicomico County, Maryland called San Domingo. And for 200 plus years, it’s been an enclave of a few hundred African-American residents, which is a little– it’s interesting because the Eastern Shore of Maryland was a place that had many, many plantations. And this town, this place was established as a settlement of free Black men and women in the early 1800s.

In fact, it’s believed to be the first and the oldest such community in the state. This was a place where people farmed the land. People owned hundreds of acres of land. They set up local businesses. They built a church and a school. They raised their families. And they created a close-knit thrifty and self-sufficient community that coexisted peacefully with the white towns around them well into the mid 1900s.

Many people believe that this town was founded by a man named James Brown and a handful of other people who came to the area by boat after a bloody slave rebellion in Santo Domingo, Haiti around 1800. And hence the name of the town is San Domingo. And what’s interesting is the name was, according to the article, a tacit warning to intrusive white people.

So these are Black folks who are fleeing a bloody slave rebellion, a slave uprising. They go to Maryland to create their own community and hang a sign out on the front saying to white people, we are rebellious. And San Domingo, which I love, it was a community that kept a very low profile. Many of the residents worked in surrounding white communities.

But their lives centered on supporting one another. They talk in the article about the values that undergirded this community. An independent spirit, they didn’t waste anything. They talked about the fact that somebody was available to provide every important skill needed in the town. And this idea of their lives centering around one another and supporting one another is really a revolutionary act in the time that this was– that this town was incorporated.

In fact, there’s a piece about how their living situation was so idyllic that they had little experience with the realities of Jim Crow, which were happening all around them. At school, one of the descendants says or one of the folks who grew up there said, at school, everybody there was totally committed to us succeeding. We were blessed to go there. It was an all Black school.

They provided their own teachers. And once segregation ended, the school was desegregated, and so it closed down. Young adults began leaving for greater opportunities, and everything began to change. There’s a book about this community by Mary Klein called, These Roots Were Free. And you should pick it up.

And in fact, while they were flying under the radar and staying far away from people to live their own life on their own terms, there are now efforts underway by a local foundation, the John Quinton Foundation, to preserve San Domingo and to tell its stories. One of John Quinton’s descendants says, it had virtues that should not be lost. We want to make sure people remember what created this community that we love.

This story resonated with me in so many different ways. And I shared it with a group of friends. And one of my friends wrote an email back to me. And I just want to share it because it exactly captures a lot of what this made me think. She says, I have so many thoughts about this piece. Number one, these pieces of history have to be told, so we can see that there are and have always been models for us to thrive.

And thriving was centered around our collective responsibility to each other. I love that. What I found in my time of leading and leadership is that the only way you do big hard things is when you do them together. And we’ve lost– as African-American people, we’ve lost the spirit of collectivism. And so this idea that in the early 1800s, we established our own towns. We did everything for ourselves.

That speaks volumes to me. The second thing my girlfriend said is, do we just need to buy some land and live in a cud? And that is a great question at this particular moment in the United States of America. The third thing she said– and she was speaking explicitly about the school piece– is nothing can be a community conspiring for your success.

I love this story. And this is what we don’t do with our young people. There is not a conspiracy for success for our young people. We’re so busy pointing out what they can’t do and what resources we don’t have and what things we need, instead of really tapping into their brilliance and cheering for them.

And so this article, the existence of this town, the efforts to preserve its legacy, really just warm my heart and reminded me that Black people have been doing amazing things on our own terms since we got here. And that is something that another piece of history that we’re not always taught.

SAM SINYANGWE: Hey, it’s Sam. And for my news this week, I want to talk about Canada, where the remains of 215 indigenous children were found on the grounds of the Kamloops Indian Residential School. Now the term Indian Residential School may not be familiar to you.

It was part of a nationwide program in Canada, that was a white supremacist project designed to erase the culture, the language, the religion, and indeed, the people of indigenous communities across the nation of Canada.

Children were removed from their families, from their communities, and required to attend Indian Residential Schools all across Canada where they were beaten, abused, disallowed from ever speaking their indigenous languages or practicing indigenous religions and where they were forced to undergo extreme trauma, in the interests of imposing a white dominant culture upon them.

And indigenous leaders are calling for a national reckoning across Canada to account for the damage that was done from this program. And there are many, many more children likely who have died and are in unmarked graves that have yet to be discovered, have yet to be reported on but that families and communities in indigenous communities have known for quite some time and have sought answers for.

But it turns out that this isn’t limited to Canada because this program that Canada had was actually modeled after the United States. It turns out that in the United States, the government built 357 quote, American Indian Boarding Schools all across the country. And at one point by 1926, as many as 83% of all Native American children were removed from their families and communities and required to attend these boarding schools.

Where just like in Canada, they were subject to abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse. They were denied access to their families, to their language, to their religion, all part of a program to erase their culture and replace it with a white dominant culture. And we still don’t know the full human toll of that program, of that policy. The government funded and built these schools.

They were often operated by Christian missionaries, churches. And in many cases, there are records of children being sold to families from these schools, sold to a random family. There were records of children mysteriously dying, children being put in leg irons, being tortured, being abused. And many of us were never taught this in school.

So as we think back on the history, some of the darkest chapters of our nation’s history, as we talk about the 100 year centennial of the Tulsa Race Massacre, I’m reminded of how many more things we still have yet to learn that our country did and how many more things we need to expose, we need to acknowledge, we need to lift up, we need to hear from the communities that experience them.

How many more things– we need public policy interventions to invest resources and supports and remedies and reparations to account for. Its way past, too. Now let’s get to work.

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On the centennial of the Tulsa Race Massacre, I sat down with the award-winning director, Stanley Nelson and Marco Williams of the History Channel’s new documentary, Tulsa Burning, The 1921 Race Massacre. The film premiered on Sunday night and connects the events of 100 years ago to how they relate to modern situations as recent as the killing of George Floyd.

Here’s a discussion of how they managed to pull this all together, working from historical records that were mostly unpublished and voices silenced. Here we go. So Stanley and Marco, thanks so much for joining us today on Pod Save The People.

STANLEY NELSON: Pleasure to be here.

DERAY MCKESSON: Well, I’m excited to talk about Tulsa Burning. There’s been so much conversation recently in the public conversation around Tulsa. More people understand it. Social media has brought it back as a story that people should know. What led you to do this documentary? Like why was it– was it because of the anniversary? Or were you planning this way before the anniversary? How did you get to the story of Tulsa?

STANLEY NELSON: Yeah. Well, I’ll start it. I came on first. I was contacted by a production company called BLACKFIN. And they kind of– it already developed the project a little bit. And Russell Westbrook was already attached. You know, Russell Westbrook, not Hall of Fame yet but All-Star basketball player who spent a lot of his career in Oklahoma.

And he really wanted to make the film. And they contacted me about making the film. And I had a little bit of a history with Greenwood because we did a film a few years ago called Boss, which was a history of African-American entrepreneurship. And there was a seven-minute section in Boss. And I knew that wasn’t enough and that there was so much more to be said about Tulsa and Greenwood.

And so I jumped at the chance to make the film. And always, we were making the film to coincide with the 100th year commemoration of the Massacre. And so that was about a year ago. And I brought on Marco. We worked together on a film, Tell Them We Are Rising, about the history of historically Black colleges and universities. And so that’s how we teamed up on this one.

MARCO WILLIAMS: You’re right that the centennial of the Massacre has drawn a lot of attention. And I think that it’s really good that it’s drawn a lot of attention. And it also says a lot that a lot of attention hasn’t been spotlighted on Tulsa previously. I learned about Tulsa in 2005-2006. I was making a documentary called Banished that looks at communities in which white people expelled their Black neighbors. And those communities remained all white to this day.

And people would always talk about Tulsa as an example of white people expelling or destroying a Black community. It didn’t fit into the narrative that I was doing for Banished. But it had always been in my consciousness. So when Stanley reached out to me, I was– I almost want to say eager because I think it’s such a significant part of our history. That to have the opportunity to be part of trying to bring this further to light was an opportunity I couldn’t turn down.

DERAY MCKESSON: There we go. So one of the things that was really powerful to me about what you all put together is that there are these stories that– I’ve been in Tulsa as an organizer, as people have been thinking about how to deal with the police there. And you know, it’s impossible to go to some parts of Tulsa around the organizing community and not talk about the race riots.

But there are so many stories that you surface that I didn’t know about. Like I think about Smitherman. I didn’t know– I had never heard of him. He wasn’t like a figure that anybody had ever told me about. Can you talk about how– was it hard to find some of these primary documents because you also have a lot of primary documents? Were they just like sitting in people’s basements and all you had to do was ask and like people actually just collected stuff but like nobody to ask for it? What was that process like?

MARCO WILLIAMS: Yes, Smitherman is significant, yeah, like you said. You know, he was this quintessential race man, understood where voice and power for an African-American in the African-American community like it was in the Black press. Certainly, Stanley can amplify that because of his film, Soldiers Without Swords. Yeah. It’s very hard to find primary documents.

And as you see, we really utilized three. That’s about it. I mean, it’s ironic that the person who owned the newspaper didn’t have a lot of photographs taken of himself. He was out there documenting our community. So that was a real effort to locate even those few images of him that we use multiple times because of the limitation of what was available.

STANLEY NELSON: We knew, going in, that there were still pictures of the building of Greenwood. And we knew that there were movies actually of the building of Greenwood and that there were some pictures of destruction and also movies taken after the Massacre. We didn’t know how much, you know. And in making the film, we found out that there was a huge amount–

Huge amount is relative. But for an African-American community in 1920, 1921, 1990, that was a huge amount of material that we could really, not only tell the story but show you the building and the pride and show you the devastation of the Massacre. And that’s one of the things that makes the story of Greenwood and Tulsa very different.

DERAY MCKESSON: Well, the other thing that I learned that I didn’t know was that night that it seemed like the Black people had sort of repelled the white people by the train tracks. And really the white people were just organizing to come back and be even more heinous. And what I think this does really well, too, is remind us of like the evil underbelly of white supremacy or like this is an evil.

Like the turpentine involves or turpentine, I don’t know how you say it. I didn’t know they were drawn turpentine balls on people. That’s like so wild. What surprised you in this process? I have to imagine that you learned something as you were putting this together, more than you knew before.

MARCO WILLIAMS: That story, right, the first night of the onslaught is often really just told as though white people just devastated the community. And it’s understandable because when you see the aftermath, it’s clearly that they did. And so this was one of the things that you noted.

The African-Americans lining the railroad tracks and repelling the white people, defending Greenwood was something that was gigantic in some measure because it showed our determination, our capacity. But as you noted, it also highlighted that it incensed the white people to then– it was almost like bodiless at that point. They couldn’t be satisfied with the fact that they had killed some, that they wanted to lynch Dick Rowland.

But they now were going to just destroy the community. And so all of the resentment that they had been building up because of the successful creation of Greenwood Black Wall Street. So that’s one of the things that was really satisfying as a storyteller. It’s not the thing that would stand out to me that I learned in making the film.

But it’s one of the really satisfying story elements and because it represents, again, our determination to try to defend our community or the African-Americans of Greenwood. I was not there in 1921, so.

STANLEY NELSON: Yeah. I mean, I think that one of the things that made me think about it is that the African-American community had the audacity to organize to defend themselves. And maybe– and I don’t know this. I’m just really thinking about this now. Well, maybe that was one of the hugest, biggest sins that that African-Americans could commit in the eyes of white people, right, to organize to defend, right.

You could sit on your porch with a gun and defend your own property in many cases. And you know, it’s a little known fact sometimes that African-Americans did that over and over again in the South. But to organize to defend yourself, to organize to defend this young man that they were going to lynch was like the cardinal sin. And that, I think, set the white folks into a frenzy.

And that’s what it was. It was like a killing frenzy. And it was also really interesting to learn that they were organized. You know, it wasn’t just one person or a mob, crazy mob. It was organized surrounding of the African-American community. And at a signal, going in with guns blazing and destroying it and then killing people and then burning the thing to the ground. And you see that. And it’s really visceral because you see it in the pictures.

DERAY MCKESSON: And one of the other things that you did for me that I didn’t appreciate was I’d imagine that the local news wouldn’t be able to write about it. I was like, white people controlling the press. You helped me realize like it was literally a blackout. It was like I don’t write about it, don’t talk about it, don’t. Even like the blocking of the Black nurses. I’m like, y’all not even let people come in and help the people.

I’m thinking about how you think about the role that the media played in perpetuating the violence over time by not letting either people come in to Greenwood and help people or coming to Tulsa and help people recover. Were you able to see the long tail of that? Like what it meant– that both the stories were hidden for so long. But that white people organized to block any support from outside people. Yeah. How did you understand that in putting this story together?

STANLEY NELSON: It’s an important fact that there was kind of a blackout on news that the white papers did not cover this event. But also to know that white paper in the South did not cover lynchings, the thousands of lynchings that went on for over 100 years. The white papers didn’t cover it. Emmett Till’s murder and what happened to him was only covered because his mother insisted.

She had to insist that his body come back to Chicago. And then out of Chicago, Jet magazine published the pictures and talked about the murder. So that Tulsa– and we have to remember this– it is awful and probably the worst of the violence, single violence committed against African-American. But it was just one of many. And that happened over and over and over again.

And it never was reported by white papers in the South. And thank god for the Black press because it was the black press that reported it.

MARCO WILLIAMS: A.J. Smitherman who owned the Black newspaper in the community was accused of inciting the riot and fled. So the Black press was no longer there. So the instrument that would have amplified it within Greenwood, within Tulsa was no longer available, right. So there’s that. Suppression comes from terrorism.

If you’ve had your entire community devastated, as an African-American, you’re going to be, dare I say, circumspect about how you talk about it, right. That’s re-traumatizing yourself. You’re not certain whether they’ll come back across the tracks the next night or months later, right. That’s what terrorism does. That’s why lynching has occurred. Lynching is a form of terror.

We’re going to do this, and that’s going to silence the rest of you. So the fact that it was able to be suppressed for decades is part of the story, right. It’s very much part of the fact that not until the late ’80s, early ’90s did it really come out. And it came up because of survivors who were interviewed. But I just want to say one thing, and it’s referenced in the film.

Mary E. Parish who lived and survived the Massacre started writing a book, The Events of the Tulsa Disaster, firsthand account. She never published it. And I’m speculating here, but not publishing it, it was just hard to get published, right, because we know of the level of suppressing this information of this reality.

So I think that that’s very much the case that there was not the voice of the people. And there was the concern or the internalizing of could you be terrorized again.

STANLEY NELSON: One of the main things that this kind of terrorism does is it tries to say to African-Americans that we can do whatever we want to you. That’s what existed during the time of enslavement, right? We can do whatever we want. And that’s what happened in the years after. OK. Now, you’re no longer enslaved. But we can still do whatever we want to you.

And that’s what exists today, right, with the police actions. And nobody or very few people ever being prosecuted. We can still do whatever we want to you. That’s, I think, in some ways, the real kind of psychological lesson that’s behind these incidents from enslavement through Tulsa until today.

DERAY MCKESSON: And what about the unmarked graves, the mass graves? Is there an effort to find all of them? Do we know where more of them are today than we did before? What does that– the scale of the impact, do you think that we understand that well?

STANLEY NELSON: You know, we knew going into the film process that we wanted the film to live on, at least two levels. You know, the story of 1921 and proceeding at the building of Tulsa, the destroying of Greenwood is one story. But also 100 years later, 2020 to 2021 would be the search for remains.

We believe that a couple of people may have been murdered and may be in unmarked graves or thrown into the rivers or whatever. But we knew from the very beginning that we wanted to tell two stories. One, the story of 1921 and two, the story of what’s happening today.

MARCO WILLIAMS: The actual number is left to speculation because you can see the total destruction of the community. The actual number of people who were killed and murdered is not known. Between 100 and 300 is the number generally offered. And where those remains live, where those remains exist, where those remains remain, is unknown. Stanley notes that there are people who say that they saw bodies thrown into the Arkansas River.

But the search in this part of the cemetery and there’s another part of the cemetery and there’s yet another cemetery. That’s based on– ironically, that there were funeral records. Bodies were put into unmarked caskets or coffins and just buried. But there was a person at the funeral home who kept a record, basically. So there’s always been a sense of where they might be.

And back to your reflection on suppression, this was suppressed for years, the fact that there was a sense of where there might be mass graves. And it was suppressed. And it was prevented from happening over and over and over the excavation. So it’s still ongoing. They’re going to resume, I think, in the coming months to continue to search for other mass graves and will begin the arduous process of trying to make identification first and foremost.

But they’re going to look for burns, bullet wounds, the evidence of the actual murdering of people. And then with that, they will try to make a determination of gender. And then hopefully, through DNA, to make specific identification.

DERAY MCKESSON: Now I wanted to ask. I know it’s– I know that we’re going to Zoom COVID land. But were you able to screen this for any survivors?

MARCO WILLIAMS: No. In fact, there was an aspiration to do a screening in Tulsa with the survivors. But as you noted, COVID makes it very, very complicated since the survivors were all over 100. It’s not like you really want to bring them into a large– and to that point, we had just had discussions to interview one of the survivors, but it was in November of 2020 where vaccines didn’t exist.

And so again, acting responsibly, we did not push that. Because as important or as great as that would have been, it was not more important than the well-being of mother Randall who was the person we had considered.

DERAY MCKESSON: Well, we consider you friends of the Pod. Can’t wait to have you back.

STANLEY NELSON: Thank you, dear.

MARCO WILLIAMS: Thank you. This was great.


DERAY MCKESSON: Well, that’s it. Thanks so much for tuning in to Pod Save The People this week. Tell your friends to check it out. Make sure that you raid it wherever you get your podcasts, whether it’s Apple podcasts or somewhere else. And we’ll see you next week. Pod Save The People is a production of Crooked Media. It’s produced by Brock Wilbur and mixed by Bill Lanzs. Our executive producer is Jessica Cordova Kramer and myself. Special thanks to our weekly contributors, Kaya Henderson, De’Ara Balenger, and Sam Sinyangwe.