I was at a Malawian party at the Commonwealth club in Pall Mall, South West London last weekend. Malawians are the mellowest people and throughout my life I have been around them. For several decades they have become part of our Tanzanian communities. I even co-founded a band called Sayari with a Dar es Salaam based Malawian musician thirty years ago. Unlike other Africans who tend to have an accent when they speak Swahili, Malawians blended easily.
History has messed us, culturally. Before the division of the continent in 1884 we were close knit tribes. Separation of Maasais in Kenya or Tanganyika; Lwoos in Kenya or Uganda; Makonde in Mozambique or south Tanzania was imposed. What separated people in Mbeya and Nyasaland (which came to be called Malawi) were the lake and a divisionary mandate during the scramble for Africa.
Mind you these territorial splits are world wide. They have been causing uncomfortable tensions between South and North Koreans or amongst East and West Germans until the Berlin wall was smashed in 1990. I wish more walls would be broken down. The world would be a better place. It is this particular division of communities and nations that has caused so much conflict and estrangement in our lives. At the height of animosity there was even a possibility of war between us and Malawi because of Lake Nyasa.
As I child I would hear the derogatory remark:
“Wee Mnyasa nini?” (Stop behaving like a Mnyasa, meaning a Malawian refugee).
Globally, it is widely spread. Against the Irish, Jews, Pakistanis (Pakis), Arabs in France or Nigerians and Jamaicans in London. Prejudice the word, discrimination the result.
“Mnyasa” was such a distinct form of abuse in Tanzania forty years ago that it would be levelled against opposition leaders of the government like the late Oscar Kambona, the biggest and direct critic to CCM and President Nyerere.
It’s true that Malawians were fleeing the iron rule of the late strongman Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda; the man with a bald head.
Young Citizen readers born after 1980 might not know Kamuzu Banda. Like most leaders who led Africa after the surge of independence from 1957 to 1965 having freed themselves from colonial rule, Dr. Banda was well educated. We had Dr. Nyerere, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, Dr. Jomo Kenyatta, even Sir Seretse Khama; doctors of philosophies, master of their own destinies. But how many of these “doctors” really delivered the fruits of independence?
Dr. Kamuzu Banda managed Malawi from 1964 until 1994. He was hailed as a hero by some of his people and a tyrant by others. In 1971 he declared himself President for Life. Is that unusual in Africa? How many leaders have stepped down willingly through free and fair elections?
Anyway, I am at this Malawian party in London; I see a guy in a suit who reminds me of the late Dr. Kamuzu Banda.
After stumbling through my scanty Kinyanja vocabulary the bald headed gentleman also shows off his equally limited Kiswahili knowledge.
Ice broken, laughter bubbling, it is time for me to drop the bomb. I cannot help it and my big mouth let slip the rubbish sentence.
“You remind me of Dr...”
I see the man in a suit recoiling as if I have said I fancy his wife.
What the hell is he thinking?
“I know what you are you going to say,” he whispers.
His face drops, the smile fades away, he turns sombre as if we are in the middle of a serious cabinet conference in Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi.
“You know what? You are the third man to have said that. It is starting to worry me.”
I pretend to be naive.
“Is it a bad thing?”
He shakes his head. “A bad thing? That was not a good man at all.”
I watch the jovial fellow in a suit shrinking like trousers that have just been washed and still soaking wet; he is suddenly looking sad, forlorn and unhappy. I am not sure why he has reminded me of Crazy Baldhead a reggae tune written (ironically at the height of Dr. Kamuzu Banda’s rule in 1974) by Bob Marley, the legendary Jamaican musician.
-London, Tuesday, 1st February, 2011.
Published in Citizen Tanzania: