Monday, November 21, 2011


When I was a little boy growing up at Kavuzi in Nkhata-Bay where my late mom was a primary school teacher, I do remember my mom and my elder sisters gathering around the radio listening to the BBC. What was strange on almost all these rare occasions was the volume on the radio, it used to be turned way down low and they had to talk in whispers. On one of the these rare occasions I remember them discussing about a bomb in Zimbabwe and the name Mphakati being mentioned. As a little boy this did not make sense to me and all I knew was that they were afraid of the Youth League hence the whispers and low volume.

One day she told my sisters that uncle Jomo Chiume (we used to call him Mzee) had been arrested by the Special Branch. He spent a couple of months in prison and when he got released he came straight home to see her. It happened that some people had reported to the police that uncle Kanyama Chiume had sent money from exile that was used to build a tombstone for grandpa Pritchard Ngombo Chiume. This information he got from the Inspector General of Police the day he was released, after being remanded without charge. The IG had also advised him to obey the laws of Malawi and the four cornerstones Kamuzu regime was based on. He duly thanked the IG and told him that a lot of rumours were spreading around but they were all false because the money for the tombstone had come from The Mbungis, relatives from Vongo, Rumphi.

In mid eighties, from nowhere came Chinduti Chirwa. By this time I was grown up a bit but still in primary school. It happened that he had decided to come back home from self imposed exile in Tanzania, where he had followed his uncle. He had lots of stories to tell about Tanzania and prison. What I remember is his complaints about lice and the lack of clean clothes. He said he had come to see grandpa Ngombo only to end up in Kamuzu's notorious prisons, he didn't know grandpa was dead. When he went home to Usisya he took our three band radio with him. Mom used to send him batteries and sugar every month end thereafter, until when democracy came. The radio used to shuttle between us and him all this time.

The only people who had managed to see or meet uncle Kanyama in exile were my late cousin Joyce Sisya and a certain US peace corp, who passed through Tanzania on his way home to the USA. Joyce had gone to Tanzania to see her father and met Kanyama briefly. During their brief encounter Joyce saluted him as Mzee to which he replied "you people sing bad songs about me everyday, how come you call me Mzee?". On her way back Joyce too ended up being remanded at Mzuzu prison for six months. The authorities accused her of going out of the country without permission to meet a dissident. She explained to them she had gone to see her father. Having found no hard evident against her and with pressure from my mom, they later released her.

By the time we got to the late eighties I now knew who this rebel was and how he was related to us. Mom told me about his life, his first wife and the children he had with her, Kwacha and Mgeni; the politics and how he ended up in exile. My mom married very young and uncle had objected to the marriage. Kanyama's farms were taken over by the Malawi Young Pioneers. In 1973 when Kamuzu went to Usisya he forced grandpa Ngonmbo to disown his son Kanyama which angered the people of Usisya and they showed their anger by burning grandpa's house with all his property in it.

This is what I used to know about him before the advent of democracy. It intrigues me that my mom used to like the chiwoda songs the mbumba used to sing very much. She never missed a sinlge live broadcast and I remember when she had bought a radio cassette player, she used to tell me to record chiwoda from Nkahata-Bay. She listened to Kamuzu's speeches with keen interest. I wonder if she did that just to show allegiance to the Ngwazi.

After the referendum and the coming in of multi-party politics, mom went to Tanzania to convince uncle Kanyama that it was time to come home. Kanyama was so excited to see her and took her to meet his friends and former Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere. She brought back a lot of photos and two audio tapes with taped greetings from relatives in Tanzania.

By this time (before and after her Tanzanian visit) newspapers were awash with stories of Kanyama coming on this particular day or the other. We used to laugh at the journalists who wrote these stories because we knew they were false. We had another uncle by the name of Oliver who used to stay at Chileka where he had married. This uncle of mine was a town monger and he used to sell the journos false stories after realizing he could make a few bucks by pretending that he was in contact with Kanyama. On the actual day that he had to come and indeed he did, the whole family was at Kamuzu International Airport, one big Chiume family close or distant.

I never got to meet him until the day I was back from secondary school on holiday. I had gone into mom's bedroom and saw a short gun. I inquired from my nephew Khumbo whose gun it was and he told me it belonged to uncle Kanyama. He had asked mom to keep it for him. The next day mom sent us to see him at the Fisheries department at Nkhata-Bay boma where he was trying to fix his speed boat named Jessie. I couldn't believe my eyes, the man looked so simple and very humble. There was nothing Kanyama in him nor any rebel characteristics. My nephew introduced us and we helped him fix his boat. We worked from morning until around 2pm non stop. We were tired and hungry. Realizing our predicament he at last allowed us to get back home. He gave us one shirt each. We left him still working on his boat without even having a snack break. Our second encounter was when he came to campaign for the CSR as an MP candidate for Nkhata-Bay north. I went to Chikwina with him and he showed me his former farm which had been turned into an MYP base. He never liked people gathering around him, he attracted a lot of attention as such he would tell me to walk a couple of yards behind him so people wouldn't recognize him. "I am not a museum" he would say. After finishing my secondary school education I moved to Blantyre in 1994.

It then happened that he was chosen as chairman of Malawi Book Service by former president Bakili Muluzi. As a result he also had to move from Lilongwe to Blantyre and was given a house at Namiwawa. He came to visit us at Ndirande newlines and rebuked my sister for planting flowers instead of maize or vegetables on her flowerbeds. He asked me to come with him to his house to assist in sorting his various books and papers. When we got there I was surprised to see maize growing all around the house even on the flower beds. That day we had cooked maize for lunch and some rice. We each had to wash his own plates because that is how he did it in America when he went to visit his children, "there are no maids" he said. And so I had to sort books and books, newspapers and newspapers, hey am talking about the Nyasaland Times here. The Bakili government had offered him the Namiwawa house as a gift and compensation but he turned the offer down.

When cousin Nathan came to visit him, we drove to Nkhata-Bay and took a boat to Usisya. It was so scary on the small boat, overloaded with people and goods. Nathan was really scared but we managed to get to Usisya safely. The return trip was in two phases because we couldn't get a direct boat to Nkhata-bay. We got a boat to Mangwina and slept on the beach. Early morning we got on the boat to Nkhata-Bay. This trip was even more scary than the first because there was a little wind blowing on the lake and the boat was over laden with usipa. We could feel the water splashing on our butts because the freeboard was so small. Thank God we still landed at Nkhata-Bay safely though.

I had a taste of VIP treatment when he got invited to the first John Chilembwe celebrations in Chiradzulu. I was the body guard and cousin Thuku was the wife.

In 1995 around march he came home to Ndirande. He was going to Nkhata-Bay and had come to say farewell. He found me dorning an MCP T-shirt and remarked he would also like to have one to use as a pyjama. He asked me to join him if I wanted to, and I wholly accepted because I wanted to see my mom. I took just a few clothes with me not knowing the trip would be long. From Blantyre we stopped at Nkhota-Kota for a soda and some gas, he used to call soft drinks "soda" and petrol "gas" always. Somewhere between Nkhota-Kota boma and Dwangwa we stopped to check on cousin Rene. He never passed by a place where there was a relative without stopping to say hello. The next stop was at Chintheche Inn where we had roasted chambo for lunch. When we got to Nkhata-Bay he told my mom he was going to Tanzania but would pass through Usisya. He said we would go to Usisya together then he would leave me in Mzuzu. As we drew near Usisya we stopped to give a lady a lift and the lady didnt know how to get into the car, just didn't know where the door was and how to open it. Uncle Kanyama remarked "Kamuzu has brain-washed your brains and you are living in a cocoon of ignorance". At Usisya he slept in a tent. On our return trip uncle Jomo joined us and we were told we would part ways with uncle Kanyama in Mzuzu. When we got to aunt Isabel's house in Mzuzu the plans changed, we would now drive all the way to Karonga and part ways there. This was okay with me. Unlce Jomo and me had nothing to do and this was a nice adventure to see the country up north. Actually he meant to leave us at Karonga and pick us up on his return from Tanzania. However when we got to Karonga and after spending the night, he told us we could proceed with him to Tanzania if we wanted to. I couldn't resist.

Uncle Jomo and me had no passports but the trip looked enticing so we took the bait and off we went towards the boarder. We changed some money somewhere along the way. Further along the way, closer to the border crossing, we stopped again and he changed into a suit. Uncle Jomo and me were dropped off and were left in the care of bicycle riders who gave us lifts to the Songwe river which we crossed on canoes then back on the bikes again on the Tanzanian side. The bicycle boys dropped us at a small town or village where we waited and waited, no uncle Kanyama in sight. I got worried, mind you, we could not utter a single word in Swahili. We went to what looked like a tea room and asked for water by gesturing. Fortunately the lady understood our predicament and spoke to us in broken Tumbuka. That's how we quenched our thirsty, the very same thirst which would in the days to come, get us into trouble in hot humid Dares salaam.

Uncle Jomo and me in Dares salaam.

Along the way we stopped to see relatives at Mbeya and Iringa. The wild game at Mikumi National Park was a marvel to watch. I got to see giraffes and elephants for the first time. Somewhere within the park a culvert was being renovated and we took a diversion only to come within 20 yards of a female elephant with its young. This close encounter was hair raising. Behind our vehicle was a guy on a motor bike. Our driver wanted to hoot but uncle K was quick to stop him because that would have irritated the beast. Who said you cant get close to an elephant the "Discovery Channel" way? With my own eyes I saw a white lady squatting very close to an elephant taking pictures while her partner was on high alert close by on a motor bike. This lady tourist was very still and enjoying her rare moment. The mud thatched houses with glass growing on the roofs and seeing the Masai were some of the great moments. Did you know if you visit your Masai friend, he will offer you his wife for the night? It happened once to uncle K.

We arrived in Dares-salaam at midnight and to my surprise people were up and about as if it were mid day. Chapati country was great. Enjoyed watching TV and listening to the various private FM radio stations, my favourite was Radio One. One night Nathan took me to a disco with his buddies, it was great, we didn't have these things in Malawi. I saw poor and mentally disturbed Indians on the streets of Dares-salaam and this surprised me. Power blackouts and thrash in the streets were the only negatives. I got hit by a cyclist once because I couldn't decode the funny horns that were on the bikes, back home in Malawi we only had bells. There was biyashala everywhere and unfortunately the relative who took me to town bought some fake perfume, by the time we realized it, the street vendor was gone. I used to walk around where we were staying just to explore and enjoy the place. One hot humid day I was on such a walk with uncle Jomo when we saw a water jug and a cup by the roadside with a sign saying "maji yakunywa ya balidi". We went to the spot straight away and had our cupfuls of water. What a relief it was to quench our thirsts the "Sprite way". The relief was short-lived though because we were asked to pay for the water. Hey, where on earth do people sell water? Kamuzu would arrest you if you sold water on the streets. We had no money not even shilingi moja in our pockets and couldn't communicate in Swahili. Luckily the guy let us go but was very furious. I guess he had realized we were foreigners. Abale kuyenda nkuvina. We spent a month in Dares-salaam.

While I was at college he said he wanted to sell his car because it was cheap to travel by coach. I thought he was joking but true to his word he sold his car. He later moved to Nkhata-Bay and stayed in a resthouse then later rented mom's new house. He bought some land at Nkhata-Bay boma where he built a small lodge with chalets named after his children. I visited him while on holiday at his "Banana Groove" and found him picking stones from the water and laying them on the beach. He never seemed to tire. Seeing the way he worked and looked, his guests wouldn't believe it was him. It would take a chat with him to get them convinced he was indeed the rebel himself in fresh. When it got to lunch time he told one of his workers to paddle a canoe and catch some fish which we roasted and took with some soda (soft drinks)for lunch.

The last time I saw him alive, I was on holiday while at Marine college. I went to see him at his resort and he introduced me to the captain and chief engineer of MV Songea who were his guests at the time. He confided in me that he would be going to America soon to see his children.

He was such a great uncle and I will always cherish the moments we were together. He taught me self reliance, hard work and humility. He always emphasized education, the only treasure that can't be snatched away from children. He lost interest in politics when he failed to make it into parliament in 1994. Late Aleke Banda used to tell mom to urge him to get into government as a minister but he never accepted the offers from president Bakili. All he would say was "ndali zasonu zawana, isi tachekula" meaning today's politics is for the young. He used to like Bob Marley because he regarded him as a politician. He hated the MCP to the very core.



  1. Cousin what a wonderful well narrated story. Thanks for sharing.This brought back a lot of memories. Rest in Peace Dad! Will always love you! Daughter Jessie Mgeni.

  2. Very interesting story and very well written.

    I knew Kanyama Chiume in Dar. I also knew Chinduti Knox Chirwa. Both spoke excellent Swahili as if they were born and brought up in Tanzania. And both were great admirers of Mwalimu Julius Nyerere.

    Chiume was just like any other Tanzanian, having spent his early years and many years afterwards in Tanzania. You couldn't tell the difference between him and those of us who were born and brought up in Tanzania. He was one of us. No wonder he had thorough command of Kiswahili. So did Chinduti Knox Chirwa, of course, and Reginald Mhango. I worked with them. Like Chiume, they also attended school in Tanzania although not for as many years as Chiume did.

    Kanyama Chiume will always be remembered not only as a Malawian leader but as an African leader of continental stature and as a true Pan-Africanist. May his soul rest in eternal peace.

    Also, Reggie, RIP.