Social Commentary

The Unknown Prisoners of Kamuzu Banda

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Political prisoners in the era of Ngwazi Hastings Kamuzu Banda were popular. As a life president, anyone that posed a threat to his dictatorship was an enemy of the nation. Thus, many people were detained in prisons such as Mikuyu and Zomba without a chance of a trial. They were thrown in there to rot with no care in the world. While as a country, we celebrate those that fought the unjust system of Banda, such as Orton and Vera Chirwa, the Chipemberes, Chisizas, and more. I have found that there are more who were impacted by the system but their stories have never been told. Such is a story of my uncle which, with his help, I have decided to share today.

Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda
Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda

Let us go back in time, the year is 1991………

It was the 19th of March, the hype of Martyr’s Day was just dying out and work back to normal. A young Scott sat at his desk writing internal invoices for the previous day’s requisitions. He had arrived early because as normal as the day seemed, he had received grave news from his wife’s village. His wife had lost her grandmother that morning. His aim for the day was to finish as much work as possible before he asked for leave to attend the burial.

Within moments, the Police College was abuzz, all offices operational and the chatter around the campus. As he was concentrating on his work, he heard the sounds of footsteps approach his office. Immediately he realised, some of his work was meant to be put on hold. Just as he was closing his book, the door swung open and a smiling Masankho emerged.

it hadn’t been long since the two had seen each other, however, both were excited to share some of the stories happening. Masankho was not stationed at the Police College in Zomba, he was a Sergeant working in the mail office at the National Police Headquarters in Area 30, Lilongwe. Each time they saw each other, they exchanged news of what was happening in their respective camps. If Masankho was in Zomba longer, they would share the news over packets of Chibuku at a tavern around the city. Such was their friendship.

Immediately Scott saw him, he too broke a smile. Pleasantries were exchanged, before Masankho shut the door behind him. In his hands, two envelopes which Scott assumed were requisitions. Scott worked in the Quarter Master’s Store, were armory and more were kept. However, as Masankho handed him the first envelope, his tone went down, almost near deaf. This caught Scott off-guard as he had never known his friend to be a quiet talker. What came out of his mouth shocked him more.

“I recently got ahold of this letter from Kanyama Chiume. It has not been published, in fact has been banned, but I thought it might interest you to read it” said Masankho.

Immediately, Scott became skeptical. He knew that reading a banned letter of Kanyama Chiume was almost the same as committing treason. Chiume was an enemy of the state, and he, as a policeman, was very aware of the consequences. Matter of fact, the idea of anyone knowing that he had the letter in his hands would get him in trouble. But the excitement to read what insults Chiume had for Kamuzu Banda was too much to pass the opportunity. So, he accepted it.


Chiume was a key leader in the 1964 Malawi Cabinet Crisis. He was labeled the leader of the crisis and an enemy of Banda after displeasing Banda with a speech in Cairo during a conference for the Organisation of African Unity. He was subsequently driven out of the (now renamed) Malawi Congress Party and exiled to Tanzania from 1964 to 1994.

While in exile, Chiume became active with Tanzania’s “The Nationalist,” “Daily News and Sunday News,” and “Uhuru” newspapers. He also became and author and publisher of numerous books. He returned to Malawi in 1994 after internal and international pressure on Dr. Banda. After his return Chiume briefly served as Chairman of Malawi National Library Service and the Malawi Book Service. He retired from active politics and eventually moved to New York to live with family before his death on November 21, 2007.


He took the letter and put it in his drawer, a read to be done the minute he was free. With swiftness, he arranged everything from the requisition form and sent Masankho on his way. As Masankho was leaving, he shouted to Scott that they would discuss the letter the next time he was in town. They would only meet again in prison.

It was not long since Masankho left that another pair of boots were heard approaching, then a knock. Before he could instruct the person to enter, the door swung open. Another smile appeared, his friend Chikondi had appeared. Chikondi worked at the Police College too, in the Radio Communication department. He would visit during his break to chat and catch up.

Scott quickly told him about the funeral he was meant to attend and that he was busy. However, Chikondi insisted that he stick around until his break was done, which Scott allowed. To entertain his guest, he quickly told him what he had been told by Masankho. Upon hearing the story, Chikondi insisted that he have a swift look at the letter. And he did.

Before he could explain what was in the letter, the intercom light came on and Chikondi was called back to his station. For the second time that day, Scott promised Chikondi to discuss it when he got back. They would see each other in a cell.

After his friend had left, Scott also left the office and made his way to the Officer in Charge’s own, an office that was a block away. When he got there, he stood in attention and explained the grave news he had gotten. His leave was approved and he left.

the snakes around

While Scott, his wife and kids were in Ntcheu for the burial, something interesting was happening back in Zomba. Chikondi had become a mouthpiece at the tavern, sharing with his colleagues about the letter he had read in Scott’s office.

Everyone heard the narration keenly, making sure not to skip a part. However, he did not know about the snakes that were around him. Posing as friends as they bought him more packets of Chibuku so that he could run his mouth more. As Chikondi left the tavern around midnight, he was unsuspecting of the discussions he had left behind. Ones that would completely change his life and those of his friends.

On the morning of the 20th, Chikondi was dressed in his uniform ready for work. As he entered the gates of the Police College, he was unaware of the stares that his peers were giving him. The air around was the same, however, after some time, he did notice that chatter would stop whenever he got there. Almost immediately, the group would disband claiming to have so much work to do.

As he got to his station, he found two officers he knew very well. They were from the CID department. Unlike their usual banter, they seemed to be serious. A pair of handcuffs were laid out on the desk, something he noticed as he took a seat behind the desk. They only asked two questions, “Where is the Kanyama Chiume letter?” “Who gave it to you?”

He was very truthful and stated where he had read them. However, after his answers, he still found himself cuffed and escorted to the cell. The last time he would be a free man for some time.

In Ntcheu, Scott was unaware of the chaos that was happening back in Zomba. The burial had been successful. Being that he and his wife were from the same village, he took it as an opportunity to visit his relatives. As he was about to cross the road, he hard a car horn and noticed the police car that had parked a few meters away. He started jogging to them and noticed that they were colleagues of his that had been transferred to the headquarters.

He greeted them with a smile, but noted the concerned faces they showed him. They inquired about the letter and alerted him that a warrant of arrest had been issued for him. However, they were not to arrest him until he was back in Zomba. This was their warning to him.

As they left, the sun was just about gone and so he turned back. His appetite gone, on his mind, what he would arrive to as he got home, That night, he failed to stomach his dinner. Time seemed to fly by, before minutes, the sun was back up and it was time for them to leave. His wife and children unaware of what was going on, just pure excitement that they were going back home.

They got on the Express bus at lunch. Every police stop they encountered, he would assume that they would arrest them. Even if it was just to check party cards. Some of the officers he met and knew greeted him with a tone of resentment. Within moments, he saw the gates of the Zomba bus depot and knew he was about to meet his fate.

He sent his wife home while he went to his favorite tavern. As he got inside, most of his colleagues started leaving upon seeing him. Not wanting to be involved with the man who was now being seen as an enemy of the state.

It was ironic, he was a son of a just retired Senior Assistant Commissioner of Police. He was born in a police family, raised to be one and was considered a Best Recruit in his early days in the Police. Now, a man regarded as an enemy of the state with a seditious letter, with an arrest hanging on his head. This is what was on his mind as he downed his packets of Chibuku that night.

A few moments later, from the corner of his eye, he saw a man he knew was from the CID department approach him. He was sure that this was it for him. Not wanting to be arrested while he packed was half full, he quickly drank it all and mentally readied himself. When he was right in front of him, he noted the look of concern. He did not jump around, asking him the full story and if indeed he had the letter in his possession.

Scott quickly explained that he had the letter in his possession but had not had a chance to read the contents of the letter. After he was done explaining, his friend was quiet for some time, lost in thought. Then, he gave his instruction

“Put the blame on Chikondi. Get in the office and destroy the paper. However, blame it on Chikondi, let him get the fall for it all.”

He left immediately after, this was cue for Scott to call it a night too.

the morning after

Eastern Region Police Headquarters in Zomba

The next morning, he was up by 4 am. Actually, he had not been able to sleep the whole night. He woke up, showered cold water, put on his uniform and was off to work. He was by the gates of the police uniform at exactly 5 am. The messenger was not there yet, which meant the gates had not been opened. He stood by the gates, impatiently waiting.

Lost in thought, he had not seen the messenger arrive, what broke his chain of thought was the sound of keys and the loud,

“Mwadzuka bwanji sir”

After greeting him, he left for his office. Less than a minute, he was swinging open his drawer, took out the letter and set it ablaze. He did not think to read it first, fearing that someone could find him before he destroyed it. With relief, he saw it perish until all there was was ashes.

From his window, he saw the Officer in Charge get in his office. Then his intercom light was on, on it, the deep voice he knew very well

“Scott, please come to my office”

The time was 6 am.

slight lie

Like a snail, he slowly made his way to the OC’s office. When he approached the door, he knocked just as slow, praying inside that no answer echoed from inside. But it did, the same voice he knew very well. He pushed the door open, by the desk was the man who had his fate in his hands. He was looking down at a paper but still instructed that Scott seat down by the chair in front of him.

This was the first sign. In the police force, an Officer in Charge is superior, thus all his subordinates cannot talk to him while seated. The rule was to stand in attention while he addressed you. Being told to sit down was a sign enough that Scott was not being regarded as part of the police, but rather, a civilian.

Reluctantly, he made his way to the chair and sat down with a tense posture. The OC only looked up after the seat had been taken. He was kind enough to ask how the funeral proceedings had gone and if Eric and the family had traveled back well. All of those were answered with a swift “Yes,” trying to make sure that the point of the meeting was made fast.

The OC’s face changed after the pleasantries. Business was to be dealt and done with.

“Where is the Kanyama Chiume letter?” he asked.

“I have no idea”

“Don’t make the story harder than it already is, just hand in the letter and let’s be done with it

‘Ha!’ Scott thought, handing in the letter would automatically mean he was guilty.

“I really have no idea”

“If that is the case, I have no choice but to hand you over to the Commissioner”

Immediately, the messenger was sent to call the driver. At the back of the pick-up were two CID officers who would be his escorts to the Commissioner’s Office. These were people he had shared a drink with, but on this day, they looked at him as though he was a stranger. It was funny how the system could turn on one of their own.

In all of this, he wondered where Chikondi was. But now, his mind was what would happen at the Commissioner’s office.

The building itself was one wished to work at. It was in the middle of Zomba city, close to the District Commissioner’s office. It was closer to the mighty Chancellor College and the many shops. He had always marvelled at the offices here. But, he was still content with his job at the Police College.

As they got in the office, the CID officers were exchanged with officers from the Special Branch. They escorted him to the see the bwana. As he got in the office, they remained outside, waiting for orders.

He stood there in attention, but again, he was asked to take a seat. This time, it did not catch him off-guard, he silently took it and waited for the man to talk. Just like the OC, the commissioner started with inquiring about the funeral proceedings and his travel. All this with a smile, once he got his answers, his face changed to stone immediately.

“I know you know why you are here Scott, where is the letter”

“I do not know anything about the letter”

“You know, your friend Chikondi said he read it from your office. In that case, you must still have it”

“But I honestly have no idea about it”

“You are trying to be difficult eh? I do not want to lose my job before my retirement age, just tell me where the goddamn letter is and we both go back to our jobs”

“I know nothing about the letter sir”

“In that case then, we have to thoroughly search before I am satisfied”

He called the officers stationed outside of his office and instructed them that they conduct a thorough search. There was no warrant or anything, but he knew not to deny the search.

In total silence, they drove back to the Police College and back in his office he was. They started searching everywhere, keenly checking everything. Papers were properly read one after the other, the desk was moved. As the searched, he was looking at the ashes in the dust bin, the evidence they were looking for. When they found nothing, they asked for a search at his house. Which he obliged.

Again, they searched every and anything. Leaving nothing unturned. The once made beds were now just a mess. Cushions were checked. At the end, it looked like a tornado had passed by and wrecked the whole place. It was at this moment that his wife and children knew that things were not alright at his work.

When it was obvious that there was nothing in the house, they asked him to take off his uniform and dress in civilian clothing. He slowly made his way to his room and changed into a t-shirt and jeans. When he got out, one of the officers let out a laugh and funnily told him to take a jumper just in case.

That was when he knew that he was not coming back anytime soon.

iron doors and detention order

Zomba High Security Prison

They went back to the Police College, this time, he was asked to sit on the floor. All the respect he had as an officer had been stripped from him. He silently sat there. For the last time, he was asked to produce the letter, and again he denied seeing the letter. With a vicious look, the officer went towards one of the cells, cells he himself had once looked criminals in as they awaited trial. A door was unlocked, hooked to the officer’s arm was a man that Scott knew so well. Only this time, he looked like a skeleton version of himself.

It was Chikondi. He was thrown to the floor, the poor man could not even put his head up. He was in a bad state. The officer was kind enough to inform Scott that his friend had gone three days without food or water. However, this was not the funny “if you must know,” it was a warning that this was what would befall him if he did not produce the letter.

Again, Scott denied.

They cuffed both Scott and Chikondi together and escorted them to the car that was waiting outside. Chikondi seemed to be more reliant on his friend to keep steady. Scott noted that another day of his friend without food or water and he would be buried six feet under. They arrived back at the Commissioner’s office. There, they waited for their fate.

Hours passed and no word was said. The floor was uncomfortable, but they could not complain. Then they heard the Commissioner making a call to the Commissioner of Prison stationed at Zomba Prison. On the call was an instruction,

“Ready a high security cell, we are delivering two dangerous criminals” Their fates had been sealed.

Zomba Prison was a high detention prison during the Kamuzu era. It housed notable people like Orton and Vera Chirwa, both political prisoners. Now, Scott and Chikondi were going to join the same prison. The call alone had picked interest of the Commissioner of Prison. He had been about to call it a day but waited until the new prisoners had arrived. To his surprise, it was a man he knew too well, more so because of his father.

Right before his eyes stood Scott cuffed together with a frail man that looked closer to meeting God. He knew that he had to do something, so he instructed his warden to quickly prepare porridge for both men. Chikondi had to be fed, while Scott denied the food. This brought disappointment to the commissioner, but he knew that the man was in shock to eat.

He asked them what had happened and was shocked to hear the story. But he still had to perform his duties. He looked at the signed detention order that the officers had brought along. Walking in front, he escorted them to what would be their home until when God decided it was enough.

The prison cell was truly high secured. With thick wood and three iron locks, they looked perfect for criminals. But they were not, just two men who happened to be in possession of a letter, while the other knew of the contents of it. The cells had been constructed for three airplane hijackers. These were high security cells, a history not well documented. Either way, they were to be their new homes.

Each had now been clad in full prison uniform, the cells already contained blankets. It was impossible to talk to anyone outside due to the thickness of the wooden doors, unless if one screamed on top of their voice. The only solace they found was a tiny hole, between the two cells which for months could act like a communication channel for the men.

Life goes full circle sometimes. Two policemen, both good at their work, now behind bars. Funny somehow.

A few days letter, they heard the third cell open and close. Using the small hole, they inquired who the new fellow was. it was Masankho. Chikondi had mentioned that Scott had gotten the letter from him, thus, they extracted him from National Police Headquarters to Zomba Prison.

All three, locked up.

a worried father

One day as they were moving about in the yard, they heard a man with a deep voice approaching. He was not clad in the same prisoner uniform as the rest of them, he was wearing a robe. Somehow looked like a Zion priest. They immediately stood up as he was close to them. They learned that the man was once a cook for Masauko Chipembere, he had lost count of the years he had been locked up. He had never had a trial, neither had he seen a judge in his life. All he was in for was being involved with one of Kamuzu Banda’s enemies.

However, he was never there to chat about their stories, just a mere marketing factor for the vegetable garden he had within the prison premises. He promised to sell them to the three at a cheap price. Even went on to tell them that the wardens all knew about him.

It was a relief to meet someone new, but the story brought a grave feeling in their guts. They all wondered if they too would be locked up till their hair turned grey.

One weekend, Scott was informed that he had a visitor, it was his father. The man was sick worried about his son and had come to understand the full story. And the full story is what he got. He left promising to do something.

A week later, he was back, his face laced with more worry than the last time he was there. He had met with the then current Inspector General of Police, Lunguzi, but he had told him that the case was being controlled by powers above him. There was nothing he could do for his old friend. All he told his son after was

“Grace yourself for whatever happens. Always remember to pray”

These words would make Scott not eat for two days, unsure of what his future would be.

no evidence, no case

Days turned into months, the three lost track of time. But not the special branch officers who were allocated the case. They had travelled so much investigating the three culprits but all they heard was good stories about their upbringing, married life and even work. There was no taint in their lives they could use.

One thing arose however, the day Scott had been arrested, there was no proper handover done at the Quarter Master’s Stores. Thus, some police officers had taken advantage of the situation and stolen from the stores. The special branch decided to reverse charges from a detention order to a criminal charge. However, the Commissioner feared to sign because if the case was to be taken to court, the state would easily lose and feared it could result in his own arrest.

For months, the papers lay on his desk while the three men grew accustomed to the prisoner life. Winter came and went, now it was summer and no hope was given.

On the eve of the 21st of November, Scott saw his cell doors open. The warden instructed him that the commissioner of prison wanted to see him. He walked to his office wondering what it was he needed. By the desk sat a smiling man, he quickly told him that he was being released. This was a surprise. After all was discussed, he was told that the following day would be his release day.

Getting back to the cell, he told his friends about the news. They too did not believe, they announced their worry that this would be trick. They had heard rumors before about people being released from prison then kidnaped just as they left the gates to be fed to the crocodiles of Shire River. They feared that this would be the case too.

freedom

Friday 22nd, he was released. He left the gates with a bad feeling in his throat. But he had the first taste of freedom. The sun was shining bright that day, brighter than he had ever seen it shine.

Prior to his release, he had bid farewell to his friends. Their silent tones were signs enough that they too feared that he would be killed on the day. They wished him the best. It was then that the thick wooden doors he had looked at the past months and had gotten used to were clung open.

As he walked the corridors, fear still gripped him. But all the officers bid him farewell. He got to the front desk and was handed his belongings which were in a brown envelope. He found everything that he had left behind. Including the K800 cash that was stashed in the back of his jeans.

At the final gate of the prison, he looked back to the buildings that had held him captive. For the first time he felt the pain of being detained without trial. He felt the pain of being away from his family for so long. However, he could not help it but laugh that even as he was being released, he had no idea about the contents of the letter that had gotten him to this place.

Leaving the prison, he decided to visit his favorite tavern one last time. As he entered the premises, all his former colleagues started leaving. Opting to only greet him but not wanting to be seen by him. He had been detained due to sedition anyway, they didn’t want to affiliate with him. With the order, they could also not believe that he was free legally, most assumed that he had broken out of prison.

He bought two packets of Chibuku and drunk them to his heart’s content. Then, he made his way to the depot to ride a bus to Blantyre where his father stayed. All through the trip, he hardly believed he was free. Until he stepped into his father’s house and was embraced by the man that had influenced him to join the police forces.

Masankho and Chikondi were released a month later. The next time they met each other, they agreed not to talk about it all. They were dropped from the police forces and had found jobs in private companies.

Till this day, my uncle is unaware of the content of the letter. All he was left with was the trauma that the experience left him. His story is not known at all, when I chose to write this, I was made aware that even many in our family had no idea of the full story.

Malawian history is not well documented. Not much is known about the dictator that once held the country in captive. We do not have enough stories of people that also fought his leadership. Stories like this make one understand the pain and hardship that Kamuzu Banda made our people go through. While we celebrate him as our first president, we need not to forget that he was also the cause of pain and murder of many families in Malawi.

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