My curiosity about the post-colonial rule in Malawi has increased my appetite for biographies. I was partly raised in a home where Dr. Kamuzu Banda was seen as the savior of Malawi. My late father would tell me tales of his return in 1958 and how he won against British rule and led the country to independence. Smouldering Charcoal by Tiyambe Zeleza was the first book that portrayed the first president of Malawi as the ruthless person he was. Now, all grown, I have realized the cruelty that most Malawians experienced during the Banda era. One of them being my own uncle, arrested in 1991 because of a letter written by Kanyama Chiume. You can read the story here.
Political Prisoner 3/75 of Dr. H. Kamuzu Banda of Malawi
The book narrates the life of Sam Mpasu as a political prisoner during the years of 1975 – 1977. Like many other political prisoners during the Kamuzu Banda era, he was detained without a trial in court. Just an order signed by the president and whisked away to rot at Mikuyu Prison. This gripping story solidifies how scary the MCP/ Banda era were. It brings a harsh realization that even though the Malawi was independent from colonial rule, Malawians were still not free to exercise their civil rights.
The book starts off explaining the lack of understanding of our history as Malawians. He points out the lack of materials in the bookshops across the country. It is obvious that many of the leaders that helped overthrow colonialism, or even fought Kamuzu’s rule have not left much to be read. He also points out on the lack of writings about the men that have led the country, posing the question that if Malawians understood the leaders they elect into power, would they choose better. Often, I wonder the same, as I had blatantly stated on Does Malawi Have a Poor-Documented History?
” Now that Dr. Banda’s Life Presidency of Malawi has been terminated by mightier forces than my pen, the story can be told safely”Political Prisoner 3/75 Second Edition
The statement above is amusing to me, considering Mpasu was arrested due to a novel he had written titled Nobody’s Friend. The book was written while he was out of the country on diplomatic duties. In the book, he talked about a dictator who was later assassinated. One the Censorship Board got wound of the book, they were angry, assuming that it made reference to Kamuzu Banda.
Mpasu, a well educated man who was one of the first to grace Chancellor College, later on becoming the president of the Student’s Union unopposed. After graduating, he was immediately picked up by the civil service and posted to Germany for diplomatic duties. He was later posted to Ethiopia, were he met his wife.
He was posted back to Malawi to work under the Viphya Pulpwood Project with its offices in Development House in Blantyre. It was in this same building that his fate changed for the worst, when men from the Special Branch picked him up for Zomba Prison.
The book takes us through the life of prisoners during the Banda era, conditions which are yet to change till date. At the same time, it gives us brief stories of some of his cellmates at Zomba and Mikuyu Prison. The stories range from men detained due to false accusations to those of men who were once loyal to Kamuzu Banda and had fallen off with the Life President.
“Gwede, last year you were sitting on that chair. Next year, you do not know if you will still be sitting in that chair”Page 49. Mpasu to Focus Gwede
Probably one of the best lessons from this book was that of karma. Many people like Focus Gwede, Albert Muwalo and Sweetman Kumwenda could attest to that. Maybe to share a brief of their ordeals.
- Sweetman Kumwenda: A man who had spent his career life at the Special Branch. In prison, he told people of the murders he had done for and on behalf of Kamuzu Banda. It is him who gave Kamuzu the plan to build Mikuyu Prison, only to become the first occupant of the said prison.
- Focus Gwede: He was the Head of the Special Branch. The man responsible for locking up many political prisoners. In 1976, he was arrested together with Muwalo. He was tried at the traditional court, consisting of chiefs, and sentenced to life. He occupied Mikuyu prison and became subjected to the same pain and suffering that he had bestowed on others.
- Albert Muwalo: Kamuzu’s favorite man. He had yielded so much power, many believed that his word was enough to make Kamuzu decide. He was a minister before his arrest. He too was arrested in 1976, tried at the traditional court and sentenced to death. He too became a resident of Mikuyu Prison and was hanged in August 1978.
Another issue in the book that would make one unsettled was Mpasu’s wife’s experience after he was arrested. After she gave birth at Queen Elizabeth hospital, their son developed jaundice. She became relentless and was asking for a doctor who could attend to her child. Unfortunately, they falsely announced her as mentally unstable and was sent to Zomba Mental Hospital, leaving her child behind. The nurses shunned away from the child and hardly gave him care due to the fact that he was a son of a detainee. Later on, she was pronounced to be fine and sent back to Blantyre to reunite with her son.
Like that was not enough, she was raped at the Social Welfare Office in Blantyre by a welfare officer. She became pregnant by him. After writing to the minister, she was given tickets back to her country, not wanting to dismiss the officer because he was affiliated with Gwanda Chakuamba, who was the then regional minister of the south. Twice the system failed her.
Lessons about Kamuzu Banda
From the book, one is made aware of the man that was Kamuzu Banda and his regime. One of the things I have noted was how fearful he was. He was a man clinging to power, imprisoning people for petty issues. He was a man that had so much fear, and mostly took it out on those he thought were becoming more popular than he was.
At the same time, you learn that he was one of the biggest users there was. Using people to gain more power, and once he acquired them, imprisoning them or murdering them.
His regime was filled with so many yes-men, men who wanted to appease him to gain favors. Often lying about others just to see them locked up. At the same time, it was a system that shielded rapists and murderers. Turning a blind eye and a deaf ear due to those they were connected to.
It is this system that has been maintained even after his rule. We still shield rapists, thieves and murderers in our government. It is a system built to benefit a few at the expense of millions of Malawians.
However, this also builds hunger to read about Kamuzu from those that were the closest to him like Cecelia Kadzamira and John Tembo. So we fully understand the kind of man that led the country for 30 years.
I recommend that people read this. At least it gives us an insight of the life of a man who was once rumored to have been found at a graveyard. We shall never know if that was true though. However, it is a great piece of history. Unfortunately, in February 2018, Sam Mpasu was found dead in his home.
It is disheartening to know that prison conditions that were subjected in 1975, are the same problems we have today. From conjestion, hygience and inhumane treatment of inmates.
One can only wonder when things will ever change in Malawi.