IT WAS June 1992. I remember the time so vividly. I was a standard seven pupil at one of the public primary schools in Blantyre. Anyone who was in standard three or seven during the Kamuzu days had the most interesting experience of the Dr. Banda propaganda machinery. As little children, we did displays in praise of the Ngwazi during the MCP annual festivals at the Kamuzu Stadium.
Such rallies characterised the opening of the Youth Week, Kamuzu Day and Independence Day celebrations.
We were at such rehearsals for the 28th Independence Day celebrations that June. But it was different from the previous years in that at that time, pressure was rising against' Dr. Banda's 'dictatorship'. Kamlepo Kalua, Shyley Kondowe and others were speaking highly against the evils of Dr. Banda's rule on the South African Channel Africa. Malawians were aroused by such messages against oppression. One day, general strikes erupted in all the major cities.
City Assembly staff, on strike, blocked the Kamuzu Highway, at the round about. Workers at Manica and David Whitehead stoned the vehicles that managed to dodge the city assembly blockade into Makata and Ali Hassan Mwinyi Roads. Up town, ruffians took advantage of the situation. We heard of shops that had been looted - including Beggars, an exclusive and expensive clothing shop that had links to Mama C. Tamanda Kadzamira. Women were also raped. A story was told of one woman whose dress was torn apart by the raving 'strikers', while others plucked braids out of her head, causing rivulets of blood wash her face.
If the workers were not demanding better pays, they were welcoming the unannounced multiparty system of politics that Kalua and his friends were advocating. Here was a system that would afford them such freedom to express themselves and pull down the government at their whim. If not physically, that pulling down would be in talk and more talk.
A dear welcome indeed.
While all this was happening, we were in the confinement of the Kamuzu Stadium. Some of us, however, felt they were missing the fun that was going on outside the stadium. Some others were curious to see who was firing gunshots. They ran to the top terraces to peep out. They were not to blame, since most of us heard gunshots for the first time on that day.
"Don't go up there. Your friends in Mozambique run away from gunfire when they hear it, and you are running towards your death," one of our teachers, a wife to a Malawi Young Pioneer told us when we stood to go and watch the firing.
At that time, we only heard of gun shots from stories from Mozambique, where a war was raging, a war that was older than a greater part of the population.
That day, the journey back home was the most unforgettable journeys I have ever been on. Stagecoach (now Shire Buslines) refused to release the buses that always transported us back to our school from the stadium. Or were their drivers also on strike?
I am not sure, but all I remember is two Malawi Congress Party (MCP) buses were used to transport us back to school. Armed police and MYP operatives escorted us in two Land Rovers, one in front and the other behind our two buses.
We travelled quietly through Kamuzu Highway, rounded the bout and down the Dalton Road to Kanjedza. We could not sing the praises for the Ngwazi, or the other simple songs that begged the driver to use no road but the Kamuzu Highway. Such songs were at times daring, like the one we used to transliterate the famous Moyo song where we mocked our MYP trainer, one Magwaya, to give us each four buns, instead of the one bread bun and a milk scone:
mutipatsire mabanzi folo (We beg you Mr Magwaya to gve us four bread buns)
To date I still wonder why we were never arrested for it, for the original song that Magwaya taught us went:
Mutipatsire a Ngwazi moyo
(Lord, we beg you to grant the Ngwazi long life)
Mutipatsire a Ngwazi moyo
(Lord, we beg you to grant the Ngwazi long life)
But on this day we were all quite, so were the streets. When we arrived at our school, we could not jump out to the green eyes of the rest of the pupils as we chanted Chombo chatera (the shuttle has landed). We could not do that since we were so afraid, the gunshots could still be heard from Limbe. Besides, classes had been called off because of the strikes. Or, were teachers striking as well?
At the school, we were met by more MYP operatives who advised us to use the most direct routes back home. We were advised further to avoid the Limbe Central Business District. This meant, for others who had to use the CBD to get to Chiwembe, Bangwe, Chigumula and other such places, that they had to use the longest routes back home.
That is how we welcomed multiparty politics. We took it all still in the armpits of the MYP, who still held to the belief that Zonse zimene nza Kamuzu Banda, ay everything belonged to the Ngwazi, even our dear selves. We felt safe under the MYP who assured us everything would be alright and that we would be back on the terraces to display the achievements of Dr. Banda, and chronicle his life story from the Kachere tree in Kasungu to higher education in America to independence.
After the eight o'clock news that night, Dr. Banda addressed the nation. The address was rebroadcast the next morning, and translated into Chichewa for all to hear. I still remember that address.
"Bwanas and Donnas," he started: "I have heard that workers in Blantyre, Lilongwe, Mzuzu and Zomba are going on strike. This must stop. Let there be any grievances, they have to be resolved amicably."
The next morning peace and calm returned, and we were back on the terraces. The old man's words had brought sense back into the minds of our parents and uncles. I feel proud that at that point we had remained faithful to the 'dictator'. I was proud to be one of those behind the leader. At such a moment, it was necessary to retain the patriotism, national pride and political conscious that Dr. Banda had taught us through the MYP. I still recall in those days how united we were in our leaders' cause.
It was the days when Dr. Banda made those outings to inspect crops, or went off to welcome state guests. We all lined up the streets, clapping hands and singing praise songs for the Ngwazi. In our childhood awe, we saw Dr. Banda as a whiteman at times, and an albino at others and a typical coffee-colored Malawian at other points. But still, all our schools were united and proud of our leader: one Ngwazi, one president.
It felt like a religion, how so many religions worship one God. Only Dr. Banda was real, and we all saw him to prove his existence.
We did not falter in the faith, even with the strikes, and the winds for change. We still wanted to please the Ngwazi. It felt so good to be at the eye of Dr. Banda in the portrait we made of him! He taught us, and quiet rightly so, that multiparty is war. War is not merely the presence of gunfire. It has more to do with the absence of peace, even if it is only the peace of mind.
Now that we are deep in a multiparty system of government and have seen two presidents in the democratic era, I would not know: who was right between those who were striking to gain new glories for the country, or those that held on to the old dream, the sinking boat? Were the proponents for democracy fighting against the one party era for the general good, or were they just another set of even more dangerous dictators who had the going tough and rough under Dr. Banda? Was the system bad for the people?
Time is a vagrant in so much of a hurry. We skip the year 1992 that saw the MYP disarmament and destruction of all the structures that groomed our political thought (for all political players today were groomed by the MYP, either as its operatives or as victims of its cobweb that taught them to survive by all means). That disbandment was also a destruction of a part of our agricultural base.
We also go past 1993, when the referendum that saw the crumbling of the one party era was held. We also jump the 1994 general elections that saw Dr. Banda out of power after 31 years of iron fist rule.
November 27, 1997. We opened our radio sets that morning to Christian hymns. Then, at six o'clock, the announcement: Dr. Banda had died of pneumonia at the Garden City Clinic in South Africa.
Paranoia followed. Some people put on loud music and chanted to 'celebrate the Ngwazi's death'. Others were literally mourning, to the point of falling unconscious.
But others did not just know how to react.
President Bakili Muluzi, in his 2001 autobiography Mau Anga: The Voice of a Democrat, recounts how his ministers Brown Mpinganjira and George Mtafu refused to stand and observe a minute's silence in honour of Dr. Banda at a cabinet meeting called to discuss the death and the funeral arrangements. Mpinganjira and Mtafu spent a good time in prison during Dr. Banda's reign.
On the day Kamuzu was buried, December 3, 1997, unity rocked Malawi. At his funeral there was neither UDF nor MCP nor Aford. All politicians, Malawians, became children of one father, after several years groping the dark and dreary dungeon democracy had set them in. Foreign envoys and dignitaries joined us in our day of great loss.
I was at an uncle’s home when the Ngwazi's body was being lowered at the City Centre where a mausoleum has now been constructed, CCAP Women's Guild sang Mawa Tidzafesa, Kamuzu's favourite hymn. I was all alone, listening to that burial. And, without realizing it, the tears were streaming down my face. Many a tear were shed, by even those who were capturing the burial by radio.
Had all political and religious leaders and others of the donor community been united as they were at Kamuzu's funeral, Malawi could have been singing a sweeter song of multiparty democracy. As it is, democracy remains a bitter tune. In this day and age, democracy has been seen to entail political bickering and mudslinging; it is a system that has taught us to forsake national economic development to please political masters. The people do not seem to matter.
With close to ten years gone since the burial, and all traces of Kamuzu fading, one can understand he is far from being forgotten. Parliament recently resolved to bring back the Kamuzu Day.
Surely, how can one forget the principles he instilled in us of unity, loyalty, obedience and discipline that were basically his own life guidelines? Who can forget that man, who scarcely spoke Chichewa but schooled his translator John Msonthi that agogo is not Chichewa but Zulu? In Chichewa, it is ambuye. Who can forget that Kamuzu who held his Members of parliament, telling them they did not know this or that, even their own chiwongo?
Everyone chose to forgive the Ngwazi, even Vera Chirwa, whose husband died a little before multiparty in Dr. Banda's prison. Some affirm Orton Chirwa is a martyr for democracy. "I forgive but cannot forget the evils of the one party era," Chirwa said.
The atrocities committed during his reign, Kamuzu had once admitted, were done behind his back. In his reign, there were just too many eyes and ears even in the safety of your bedroom's four wars, under the embrace of your wife, Kamuzu's mbumba.
But even so, these eyes and ears became victims of the hearing and seeing organs of the state, the special branch.
A graphic example is set in Sam Mpasu's Political Prisoner 3/75 of Dr. Kamuzu Banda. He tells of Focus Gwede, the head of the special branch who ended up in Mikuyu and Muwalo Nqumayo, the Home Affairs Minister who was first to test the cells he had built for Banda dissidents at Mikuyu. He was executed for having said that if at all people did not want Banda, cabinet ministers like him had the power to overthrow him. Muwalo had gained too much power, or so he believed.
And the Irish Reverend Padraig o'Mailley made one discovery in his Living Dangerously (there is no better book I have read on the fight against the Dr. Banda regime than this one) on how some letters containing the damning words of any warrant of arrest for Dr. Banda's opponents were uncovered at some police stations. Although the space for the name of the one to be arrested was left blank, Dr. Banda’s famous signature was at the bottom of the page.
It is also told that all cabinet ministers and MPs were told to sign several blank sheets as soon as they were appointed. Such papers could be used later to frame them against Dr. Banda.
As I look back at the old days of Kamuzu Day (the MCP answer to Christmas?), the Martyr's Day (Easter?), Independence Day, Youth Week and Mothers' Day, I rethink my thinking. The Ngwazi must have been one of the most harmless man that ever lived. Being human, he had his own fears and weaknesses. According to his only authorised biographer, Dr. Donal Brody in his great epic Conversations with Kamuzu: Lift and Times of Dr. Banda, Kamuzu was born a weakling, with the help of a small root, kamuzu. His grandmother Mphonongo was a great herbalist who helped his mother give birth to Kamuzu. That event, as Kamuzu put it, instilled in him the love to heal, a thing that made him later to become a medical doctor.
Scarcely can such a man become ruthless and brutal. Some capitalised on his weakness to unleash a reign of terror. Some of them may still be alive, and active in politics.