Thursday, June 14, 2007

Freedom, unity and our sorrow

Remember that how you (Malawians) conduct yourselves during and after the referendum (on 14 June 1993) is most important, since it will not only show our maturity as a nation, but also determine whether we move forward as a nation or degenerate into chaos. –Dr Kamuzu Banda, first president of Malawi

Today is 14th June, Malawi’s Freedom Day. On 14th June, 1992, Malawians lined up, after 31 years of a one party dictatorship, to vote in a referendum. Before them was the chance to vote for either the lighted lamp (a symbol for democracy and multiparty proponents) or the black cockerel (representing the Malawi Congress Party led by Dr Kamuzu Banda, which was fighting for a continued one party rule). In Malawi, and indeed the rest of the African continent, when a kerosene lamp is lighted, cocks go to. So the lamp was lighted and the cock went to sleep for the MCP was defeated in the multiparty elections that were to follow in 1993. Questions about our democracy have been asked. Are we really free than we were during the one party state? Has the freedom we sought paid dividends? I ask these and other questions in other posts (See Child’s Memory of Dr Banda, and also Prison Letters). In essence, the masses will reckon freedom remains a dream.

As I write, we are in a mourning period for our First Lady, Madame Ethel Mutharika, wife to Bingu wa Mutharika, our President. She succumbed to cancer, and a month’s mourning was declared.
During this period, the nation has known great unity. Bingu’s predecessor Bakili Muluzi cut off his trip to the UK to attend Madame Mutharika’s burial on 9th June. The two have been at loggerheads since Bingu ditched Muluzi’s United Democratic Front (the party that ushered him to power at the 2004 elections) to form his Democratic Progressive Party. John Tembo, the opposition leader and leader of the Malawi Congress Party made a eulogy that praised the First Lady, while at the same time calling for continued unity. For once, it seemed even the rapists who have been making headlines for raping babies were so grief-stricken, since there was nothing about them in the press during this time. They had recovered a little bit of their senses, and were not out raping their granddaughters. For once, you would think Madame Mutharika’s call for the protection of the girl-child was making sense on them.
I mourn the First Lady as a mother of the nation. I did not personally know her. Since Mutharika became President, I always had questions about his life. If George Bush can tell us the name of his pet dog, how come it was not clear all along how many children the First Couple had, until Madame Mutharika leaned on her arm?
I first saw Bingu on the eve of the UDF convention that was to endorse him as its presidential candidate. From what Muluzi said a few weeks before, Mutharika’s name had been proposed by 54 of the 54 UDF Executive Committee Members and Cabinet Ministers, against two other contenders (all along I had been hearing of him as a Secretary General for the COMESA, Governor for the Reserve Bank of Malawi and later Finance Minister). In the glamour of a big yellow tent on the grounds of the Sanjika Palace, UDF supporters were just ready to welcome Bingu, as a possible future President of the Republic. One of the things that struck me at the time was that he was alone, and I wondered to myself: does he have a wife?
That presidential campaign period was the time I withdrew from observing Malawi politics from so close a range. I resolved to look at politics from the eyes of the Malawian on the street, not the powers that were. The game is just too thick for a feeble mind like mine. But it was during this campaign period that I started hearing whispers about who our next First Lady would be. She comes from Zimbabwe, some would say. (The funeral has taught us, however, that she was a Malawian from Disi Village in Zomba-Malawi’s colonial capital. And that her father Darnet Disi had migrated to Zimbabwe.)
During the whole campaign period, Madame Mutharika never made a public appearance. The first time I saw her, in the press, was at Bingu’s inauguration. When I saw her, the questions in my mind changed: are there kids in the First Family? Consequently, we started hearing about the Ethel Mutharika Foundation, the coffee mornings at the Sanjika Palace to raise funds for orphans and widows and her messages on TVM calling for the protection of the girl child from abuse. She never had many words and, apparently, she was not too fond of cameras following her wherever she conducted her works of charity. It is for her eloquent silence that we mourn her. My heart goes to her four children, seven grandchildren and the rest of her family.
I was looking at a newspaper on the day she was buried. There were so many condolence messages from government bodies, the private sector, the civil society and the public at large. I looked at the government adverts, bearing the Republic of Malawi Coat of Arms. It wasn’t the leopard and lion that symbolically guard Mount Mulanje and Lake Malawi on that seal that caught my attention. I was fascinated by the eagle with a rising sun in the background at the very top of the emblem. When the conductor asked me to pay, I knew the K100 note bore that same eagle in front of a rising sun. A police vehicle whizzed past. On the door, I saw the police logo: that same eagle, wings flapped. For me, the eagle is a ferocious, watchful, bundle of contradictions:

On a gusty, wintry morn, an eagle soars

High it soars, touching the black clouds
Its prey spotted, it stoops

What eagle talons are these
That snatch mother hen
From her chicks

The strong winds
These tears cannot dry
Nor away slide the black cloud
Hovering above the henless brood

Where are the wings
That the chicks sheltered, once
From the wind in life’s winter

United, we still grope
No roost the pain to soothe

On a gusty, wintry morn, the eagle soared

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