Updated: Jan 15
The year 1997 had high profile events for Malawi. The world buried Princess Diana, an embattled royal who revealed the many scandals amidst the monarchs in Malawi’s colonial master, the United Kingdom. Well, the turn of events in her latter days, Princess D. provided Malawians much to read about. For the spiritual, the death of Mother Theresa was another humongous blow, and we have celebrated her life and sainthood together with the world, learning a leaf from her selfless life as we live through our own lives. But 25 November 1997 changed Malawians in many intimate ways. The Life President, Malawi’s prize from the gods, had deserted the earth.
Both grief and relief engrossed Malawians, as Bakili Muluzi undertook the unenviable task of instructing the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation to play only those songs that symbolized a nation in great mourning. It was the first time the country would hold a state funeral for which the country’s political history had never prepared a rehearsal. It was a task we doubt even Mr. Muluzi ever sentimentalized he would have to carry out in his lifetime. At the very core, the Ngwazi’s departure allayed the belief that the invincible leader faced a common man’s life’s inevitable end and definitive fear, death itself.
In the thirty years of Kamuzu’s rule, his silhouette chaperoned you everywhere, and to the restroom…and examined every movement. You felt his presence watching intently as you carefully sifted out newspaper pages that spelt any part of his name – the Life President, Ngwazi Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda, and by some means, you were often reminded he was the Father and Founder of the Malawi Nation – before taking to wiping yourself once the deed was done. If your most prized possession was your life, you did not want to apply on your sore skin the page bearing his picture. Not on the on-side, not on the flip side. He was everywhere, watching you. The thought of him made grown courageous men tremble and kept them disciplined to the very core.
The Ngwazi, as we fondly called him, exhibited the refined portrayal of supremacy. And for us, he simplified the meaning of orderly, humble and thankful subjects. His omnipotence made him the best chancellor of the highest academic institution of the land, the best farmer, and he was the only one proficient enough to protect us from the enemy outside our borders. And from the enemy within. He dictated our comprehension of what was good and bad for every single Malawian, and his face made it on our bank notes, our stamps and in our offices. His name was on every key piece of infrastructure, in a way to immortalize his accomplishments. For the most part, he made us believe the food we broke our backs to grow in our fields were gifts nature brought to us, in large measure, through the Ngwazi. All our women and daughters proudly belonged to him, and had to forever shower him with songs of praise only the deity would compare with. He drew the boundaries on what our ears could hear and not hear, accustoming us to words like blasphemy and sedition that were to shape our sense of morality and tame our mischiefs. A deviation from the norm had consequences, and they were not the type of ordeals one would have wished on any human, friend or foe. His rule was simply the master of all shrinks that held millions of people to a single religion in which the mystery of the Ngwazi was a galvanizing factor.
Yet, there were good times. The fortunate that have lived long to reminisce the hay days of the Ngwazi fret with a tinge of residual fear, but for the most of it they recall a country that was being built with a decent, solid foundation. Our education was unbeatable and revered by fellow Africans. Our agriculture was organized and thrived, and our full stomachs then laugh in the face of our famed Farm Input Subsidy Program. Our doctors, nurses and teachers worked because they were called to their professions. Our soldiers were first to teach us what corned beef looked like when you tore the can open, although now they seem to wonder like the rest of us. Although few of our houses were lit, our ESCOM was a company dedicated to supplying electricity steadily and incrementally to the population. The water boards pumped water to us, and you made a hand cup under the tap to receive water (in schools, classmates who lived far from a pipeline fascinated you as they covered the nozzle with mouths that had hardly known Colgate) with no fear of gulping down bacteria or a large dose of chlorine, because standards were followed. Our policemen, though partly dedicated to spying, maintained order and provided safety in our communes without expecting anything beyond their monthly salary in return. In short, it was a wonderful time to call ourselves Malawians.
But what could we do, when the Ngwazi single-handedly broke the chains of colonial power in Gweru prison in the then Southern Rhodesia, from which he came to liberate us, his people? Yes, we were forever to gratify the man we went to all lengths to support, losing our lives along the way when the colonialists had grown weary of our unrelenting quest for freedom. And yes, we were to be forever bonded to his selflessness that pitied us upon his 1958 landing at Chileka Airport, as we greeted him with our contented bare bottoms. His picturesque reminder of how literally naked! we were in 1958 is one we were to live to be told until 1993. When everything surely changed.
When 14 June 1993 handed Malawians the gift of multipartyism, a sense of cautious celebration lingered as the nation set foot onto a future, that for the first time, it was to go about weaned from the divine wisdom of its life president. It was without doubt the start of an uncertain journey on which Malawians had to look to democrats around the world who would help it make those baby steps, fall and arise, dusting itself as it let the people determine their own destiny. As we experienced the many freedoms on democracy’s menu, Malawians reconfigured ourselves in all ways but one crucial aspect. It was the reverence to (authoritarian) leadership that a long tradition of subjectivity and oppression pasted in permanent print on our minds. It was a legacy that was to shape Malawian politics decades beyond the day the Ngwazi turned to sleep for good.
It is doubtful that Kamuzu’s fantasy of the democracy that proceeded past his glory days would be one he was poised to continue influencing. The Kamuzu effect seems to also touch those born beyond his death, who wonder in disbelief why the country remains obstinately in regression mode. But one after the next, his successors have all portrayed the traits of a tyrant who would not stand criticism and would swear to brand any opposition and forward-thinking as treachery to the state. Musicians, university students, demonstrators and politicians have fallen in a struggle for true democracy that seems elusive twenty-two years since the country installed a democratically elected Malawian in the highest public office. Malawi’s women have continued to tout their imaginations by composing tunes of praise for the leadership of the day with one caveat, that many now get remunerated for selling their loyalty to a political leadership that is increasingly obsessed with demonstrating its popularity and winning the next vote. Some of this remuneration is coupled with AIDS as desperate women give their bodies to party cronies that are always on the move in the endless campaigns for which the taxpayer is chief guarantor.
New development projects, those that are sound and the many that leave much to one’s dismay, are prey to exaltation directed only to a wise and dynamic leadership, a godly hand that no other Malawian would fathom, and a fearless audacity that is only endowed in the presidency. The avalanche of adulation has found one medium of transmission to the subjects they are aimed at: the state broadcasting machinery that charges with exclusive loyalty to the government of the day. State-owned broadcasters have become the prize that comes with the victory package after elections, just like in the old Kamuzu days. The perks of ruling Malawi have made sane and respectable men and women parade stupidity in front of a stunned public as they keep crisscrossing from one ruling party to another. They claim the intolerable nature of their dumped parties as the cause of an important change of heart that holds the interest of Malawians first. Presently, Malawi resembles a single party state as it did during the 31-year MCP regime. Our democrats today seem to have one thing in common – to grab hold of state machinery at the disposal of abusers and manipulators. And to continue in the same abusive spirit.
While the perception of the public coffers as the ATM of political elites and influential public officers stays, reverent Malawians hardly raise their voice to keep naughty behavior in check. The quintessential Malawian is forever silenced as he or she piles hope on a broken machinery that can never be self-loathing when man-made disaster strikes. Even when 9% of the population that is connected to electricity suffers no power together with the unconnected 91%, the typical Malawian resorts to screaming loud on Facebook, and fails to gather enough quorum to claim their fundamental democratic freedoms on the street. These social media tantrums hardly move any mountains as businesses, factories and life in general gradually grind to halting silence. A child born today grasps the same respect for authority that Kamuzu found in 1958 and helped finesse for the next third of a century, a counter to democratic expression, for it is normatively the Malawian way.
The Ngwazi lies motionless, in a glamorous mausoleum, by the roadside on the way to City Centre. Yet he continues providing counsel to the powers in Capital Hill. It is as if the crocodile-feeding behemoth that many happily ousted in 1993’s referendum refuses to stay tucked in the ground. The narrative in the media and on the mouths of politicians and regular citizens alike offers continuous praise and adoration for the more bearable times the tyrant offered its peoples, in contrast to the present suffrage. For the opposition bench, Kamuzu’s successes shape the rhetoric for despising the ruling elites every time something goes wrong, which nature and social strife seem to offer Malawians in abundance. And it is the excuse that rulers use to promote their propaganda, promising to bring the glorious seventies and eighties back to those that have the faint memory of these times.
We agree that Kamuzu Banda had great successes and set us on a path which Malawi would have otherwise tumbled if it were not for the base he led to build. But we refuse to keep the growing influence of his rule as the benchmark for development in 21st century Malawi. Our adoration of his positive contributions is immense, but we despise the lesions he also inflicted, wrongful maneuvers which every politician has copied since 1994 to this day.
May Malawi embrace the future and help the Ngwazi really rest at the heroes’ acre, while we, ourselves, write the history that our children will read about him.