The Malawian body politic: New Nyasa Times columnist

My name is Silence Chihuri, I am a Zimbabwean lawyer with great interest in politics and I am based in Scotland and I do hereby introduce my new column on Nyasa Times “The Malawian Body Politic”.

However, before anyone starts accusing me of pocking my nose into Malawian affairs well, I am actually not interfering in foreign territory and here is why? Malawi is my second home and I am also quite genuinely Malawian as I dully explain below.

When my late grandmother (my mother’s mother) fell so gravely ill in the 1940’s and nearly died, some relatives and friends suggested that she went to Malawi (then Nyasaland) to seek treatment from a certain renowned healer. Her husband my late grandfather who was a long distance truck driver heeded the advice and took my grandmother to Malawi leaving her then young children (my two aunts Connie and Grace, my mother Phildah and my uncle Wilbert behind under the care of my late great-grandmother her mother. Grandmother took one of her children my late aunt Ella with her to Malawi. I am not sure where exactly in Malawi she went to but when she got there, she was indeed healed successfully and after just a short while her sparkle returned again! My grandmother was very beautiful by the way and her beauty almost got ruined by ill health.


After her ordeal my grandmother vowed never to return to Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) again. She remarried and started a new life in Malawi settling in Blantyre with her new husband my late step-grandfather Lawrence Makata. Old Makata was later to be among a new crop of Malawian nationalist politicians who started the Malawi Congress Party that succeeded the Malawi African Congress. Makata worked for the party under the Blantyre Branch that was one of the most vibrant structures of the party throughout to independence in 1964. The Makatas had five children Witness Lance, Aubrey, Thoko, Evans and Mapiriro whom I was told passed away when she was still young. My aunt Ella from Zimbabwe grew up with the rest of her Malawian half-siblings and she would later get married to one Mr Juma and they had five children. Old Makata would later die tragically in a hither-to-be demystified suspicious car accident leaving my grandmother to raise the young children on her own.


Mbuya Makata did get some support from the MCP government and the late Ngwazi, the musogoleri wamiyaya Kamuzu Banda would personally ensure that the family was looked after and got help especially with the education of the children. My mother used to tell us that even in Zimbabwe they could see that their mother had help on hand because whenever grandmother Makata visited especially later in the 1970’s, she would be picked up by a Malawian embassy minibus from the then Salisbury Airport she would be dropped at our home in one of the sprawling black suburbs where we rented a small house. Likewise, when she left she would again be picked up and dropped at the airport. My uncle Wilbert got a scholarship to study in America and he later moved to Malawi where he worked as for Banda’s Press Holdings later becoming General Manager for Press Furniture until 1982 when he moved back to Zimbabwe to join the new government as permanent secretary in the then ministry of Trade and Commerce. The rest can be rightfully said to history.


Of my Malawian uncles the late Witness to whom I was very close, was the one who was politically active and I was told he got politicised from a very early age. Uncle Wit as we affectionately called him, somewhat disliked the MCP party for all it stood for and he vowed never to join it. He resented the party because he believed his father’s death was one of those many so-called accidents, the unsolved “mysterious deaths” that rocked the party in the 1960’s and 1970’s and he never forgave the MCP up to his death in 1996. His wait for a political party ended in 1992 with the formation of the United Democratic Front under the leadership of Bakili Muluzi. Uncle Wit’s political career was sharp and short and by the time of his death in July 1996 he was definitely a rising star of the UDF party who could have surely gone very far had he not died to early.


Uncle Wit resoundingly won the Blantyre Central parliamentary seat in the 1994 general elections and his favourite party of the constituency was obviously Ndirande one of the most impoverished and densely populated parts of Blantyre city. He loved his constituents and this feeling was mutual because everywhere he went during his many a drive about (for my uncle was so massively built that he could never last a minute in a real walk-about) children and adults alike would swamp around his car shouting “mufumu waNdirande wabwera”! I later learned that mufumu was a respectful address akin to be called chief. MP Makata had great ideas about the development work that he wanted to carry out in his constituency in particular and for Blantyre city generally.


He always said he did not like see the state in which his people particularly those in Ndirande lived. He would talk of how much he wished he could just get on a bulldozer and personally razed down all the shacks in the sprawling township and then replace them with brand new proper houses for his people. He did not like the state of the open toilet system either that let sewage flow at will, like normal water in a river! I also thought that was an amazing situation!


One of the major priorities that the late MP for Blantyre Central had in mind, and in this quest he intended to use his experience from running his small construction company, was to embark on a major housing development program. Soon after he was elected to parliament he had vistited Zimbabwe where he met with the then minister of National Housing and Construction, the late Enos Chikowore MP to discuss about low cost housing initiatives. MP Makata had great plans to uplift the people of the city in which he had grown up surrounded by the swell of Malawian national politics. Ndirande is just like the Mbare of Harare, the Katutura of Windhoek or the Soweto of Johannesburg in terms of population and density and being the hub national politics.


The township has always been a bed rock of Malawian politics because political activity in the impoverished suburb goes back to the 1950’s. Every time I visited Malawi in the 1990’s I used to enjoy just going around with my cousins and seeing the township and its amazing people.


Hardship and poverty was what always greeted you with raw sewage oozing out of open spaces but the undying spirit of the Ndirande resident can never be beaten down. The courageous and hardworking people would go about their business in dignified resilience. One couldn’t help but just watch in amazement.
I last saw my uncle Witness alive in May 1996 when we had visited Malawi and by then he had become so consumed with UDF politics and was among then President Muluzi’s most hardworking and reliable lieutenants. During that time of our visit MP Makata was hardly home because there was some campaign for a by-election or something of the sort that was taking place in Muzuzu and he only came home around 3am of the fourth night before we left for Zimbabwe when his wife my late aunt Catherine told him the visitors were likely to go back without him seeing them. We were woken by the loud blurting horn of the brand new UDF land rover defender that he was driving and it was emblazoned with the party logo (the clutched palms) and colours on its doors.

The Eagle eyed gate-man called Charles who was affectionately addressed as aCharosi by my aunt and the entire household was efficiently on hand to open the gate even at that “Nicodemus” time of the night. Uncle Wit went straight to bed but he was up at 8 o’clock and he joined us for breakfast at the dining table where he came and landed leisurely on one of the chairs jokingly saying at us “urendo uripo”! We greeted him and then we all got down to eating the amazing breakfast our aunt had prepared while talking about as much as we could in between food and drink intakes! There was very little time to cover a lot of chit-chat but all tried and after breakfast we left as he headed for his office. I told my uncle that he was working too much and he had to slow down and he simply winked his eye at me and said “young man, my country needs me,”!
On the morning of July 17 1996 when we got a telephone call from Malawi with the news that uncle Wit had suffered a heart attack at his Blantyre home, had been taken hospital but was pronounced dead on arrival. We were all devastated obviously and I was particularly hit hard with the news. I had always wanted to go to Malawi and living with my uncle. He had repeatedly invited me to join him and work with him. He thought I had a future in politics and wanted to show me the way! Now he was gone. We all cried but had start preparing to go. My mother and her two sisters and uncle Wilbert got on a flight and were the advance party. We had to sort out our visas and paperwork for the car because we were going to drive to Malawi like we had done on a number of occasions. We could not make it for the funeral arriving a day after our uncle had been told. Our uncle Wilbert narrated to us how much our departed uncle had been mourned with the entire UDF top hierarchy from Muluzi being present. Witness Makata was a much loved man in his party, and among his people especially his constituents around Blantyre Central, particularly the Ndirande residents and they had all thronged his funeral. It was a book that had been brought to its concluding chapter! Our grandmother Mbuya Makata was inconsolable and uncle Wit’s death impacted on her health immensely.
Again the rest is history, but my late uncle’s life and his family history opened me to a lot of things in the Malawian way of life and the Malawian body politic. I learned a lot from him. I started to understand Malawian politics a great deal. I also understood the Malawian people better. I became more and more Malawian! I was indeed looking forward to moving to Malawi but my uncle’s premature death just stopped that plan in its tracks. But my interest in the country, its people, its socio-economics, its politics and the dynamics of it all has never dwindled. I am also married to a wonderful gorgeous, loving Malawian wife! So yes I am very Malawian in every aspect!

In my real delve into Malawian politics in my next piece, I will be making a very frank proposition, one that some Malawians may find odd if not inconceivable or maybe unpalatable, but I will be making a very good case of it. This is the idea of an MCP-UDF alliance in the next elections in 2014. Like I said there are people who consider the two parties as the strangest of bed fellows, but I think the common denominator in Malawianism. I like to be realistic, optimistic and positive. I don’t like emotional outbursts. I like proper debate, based on fact and principles of different opinion. I don’t like people who muzzle debate and propagate a monopolistic approach to views and opinion. That is the basis on which my engagement in any conversational discourse is founded.

So yes Malawians, lets us start on this journey, a journey of constructive engagement, honest and helpful debate. Catch you on the rebound.


*Silence Chihuri writes in his own personal capacity and can be reached on [email protected]


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