The original and the copy

During Ngwazi I’s reign in Malawi…er, excuse me, let me rephrase that. During the very long reign of the original Ngwazi, rumour—whispered very carefully in case it accidentally wafted into a wrong but eager ear—had it that when Kapichila Banda was about to read his speech at an international meeting, he enthusiastically raised his arms and bellowed: “Kwa-a-cha! Kwa-a-cha! Kamuzu! Kamuzu!”

However, there was no response from the audience. But then there couldn’t have been considering the venue of the meeting. Manila, Philippines.

Force of habit? Perhaps, but then again he may have been totally ignorant of the fact that the original Ngwazi’s sphere of influence didn’t extend beyond Malawi’s borders. Not very surprising, sorry to say, given that the IQs of some of his ministers were, to be polite, so-so. Otherwise, we would be hard pressed to explain why Katola Phiri, then minister of Agriculture, used to stamp “Approved” and with flourish append his signature onto thick documents almost as soon as they got into his in-tray.

The documents would be marked, in big bold letters: “FYI’.

Now do you remember the parliamentary sessions in those days? Ministers and members of parliament would try to outdo each other in praising Ngwazi I. They would spend months in parliament competing in concocting the best praise, the best vote of thanks.

Fast forward to his clone’s tenure. We see similar competition in cowering before Ngwazi II. Instead of parliament being a forum for conducting meaningful debate, it’s once again a platform for the members with frothing mouths to outshine each other as they praise the president to the high heavens. In their eyes, the man is practically infallible. His achievements are being blown into mythical proportions.

That is not to say I see Twitter being inundated with “Chala m’mwamba” tweets from our tech savvy ministers any time soon. However, who would bet against the “Raise your finger” phrase (some suspicions of obscenity there, don’t you think?) slipping into ministerial speeches delivered during openings of the mostly pointless international workshops held at our lakeside resorts? After all, it’s a phrase that’s been etched onto their brains because it keeps being repeated and repeated like a broken record.

And while the current crop of ministers may have above average intelligence, they’re really not much different from Ngwazi I’s cabinets. All our present ministers are struck by an irresistible urge to praise anything to do with the reincarnated Ngwazi. But their tongues are forever numbed into silence whenever criticism is called for.

Incidentally, I love averages. You know that at a recent golf open, the average age of the players was higher than normal because Tom Watson was playing. I also know that whenever some of you hurry into Kaya Lounge to take advantage of Happy Hour, the ages of the clientele shoot up exponentially.

That’s the law of averages for you. But I’m by no means intimating that one or two of the new ministers have IQs that are weighing down the ministerial average.

In any case, that isn’t the point. The fact of the matter is that almost everything that were the hallmarks of Kamuzu’s era are being photocopied, retouched and fed to Malawians. Thus, while I don’t expect to live to the day when political and traditional leaders again kneel, roll and grovel before the new Ngwazi, we may soon be listening to male ministers and MPs spending their time in parliament belting out, in deep baritones, a photocopied and remixed version of “Inu Ndinu Ayani?” It might go something like this:

Female ministers and MPs : Inu ndinu ayani, ayani nanga?
Male ministers and MPs : Ife ndife amai-i!
Female ministers and MPs : Mwangoona?
Male ministers and MPs : Tangoona nyumba ya Ngwazi Yamangidwa Ku Ndata a!

You don’t believe me? Just take a listen to the so-called parliamentary debates. Switch back to the Independence Day celebrations. Do you remember that traditional dancers from all the districts were singing about one man and one man only? Have you already forgotten that most of the relics were recycled and remixed?

With the way things are going, it wouldn’t surprise me were we to dust off and photocopy the most hated relic of the original Ngwazi’s rule, vis-à-vis the life presidency. Already there are rumours doing the rounds that a task force has been formed to work on the modalities of extending Malawian presidential terms to seven years.

But please, do be careful. Sure, you can continue hoping from one Happy Hour joint on a Monday to a different one on a Tuesday, and yet another on a Wednesday, and so on till you see the week out without ever buying a beer at its normal price. However, keep clear of any political rumours. At the very least be careful into which ear you repeat them.

I understand not all the women you see at drinking joints go there to merchandise their bodies. Granted some women go to these joints to enjoy their drinks. But a few frequent drinking joints with the sole purpose of catching any anti-photocopy whispers doing the rounds.

As for me, I don’t want to be caught with my pants down, or rather with non-blue blood. Who doesn’t want to be a royal? Consequently, I’ve started practicing singing “Zonse Zimene” whenever I shower. The only problem is that since I practice only in the shower, it may be a while before I can confidently sing to an audience comprising a bevy of inebriated female undercover agents intent on whisking me away to go and “explain” rumours I may have been heard passing on.

Showering is nowhere on my priority list at the moment. In fact, I mostly keep the same distance from the shower as one former president I know used to when avoiding libraries.

From the look on your face, I can see you’ve never heard the story. Let me tell you.

The original Ngwazi had a morning routine whenever he was at his Sanjika Palace. He would wake up, do his ablutions then go into the library to take in some intellectual nourishment until mid-morning when he would go for his breakfast.

It was a totally different story when our immediate past president assumed office. Throughout his tenure he gave the palace library a very wide berth. Instead each morning, once he had roused himself from his presidential slumber and done his bathroom rituals, he would dash into the TV lounge, dive for the remote and settle into his favourite couch. He just had to have his morning shot of sports before breakfast.

But you and me know that Skysports is not Jack Mapanje let alone Plato.

By the way, do you think the lightweight mental equipment of our immediate past president adversely affects the average IQ of our presidents past and present? I’m curious. But let’s leave that for another day. Instead, let’s go back to what I was talking about: my showers, or rather the lack thereof.

The fact is it’s so bloody cold I can’t sweat even if I wanted to. So why bother to shower daily! After all, with Escom’s power supply as erratic as it is, one can’t guarantee finding warm water in the shower. The mere thought of a cold shower gives me shivers. It’s like I’m being water- boarded, you know.

The woman of Africa

A man staggers to a bedroom window, or rather the square hole in the wall that pipes in fresh air and filters in some light, and howls, “Woman, open up!”

His wife, wrinkles prematurely sculpted onto her face and the mop on her head greyed not by age but too much labour and deprivation, had her ear outside, as Malawians would say. She promptly rises from her mat and hurries to open the door.

The man staggers in, the stench of beer and rarely brushed teeth in his wake, and heads for the stool by the wall. He sits, his back leaning against the mud plastered wall and waits for the wife to prepare fresh food for his dinner.

Considering that it is way past midnight, she shouldn’t be doing any cooking. But her husband wants his dinner freshly prepared. Like the majority of African men, he’s a firm believer in the wisdom that beating a wife is what glues a marriage together, that beating is the ingredient required to make ‘till death do us part’ a reality. Over the years she’s been the unwilling recipient of various physical chidings and has the scars on her person to remind her. Thus, she has learnt that no matter how late (or should that be how early?) her husband staggers in, he has to have his dinner freshly prepared.

As she cooks, she has to feign interest in his drunken monologue, punctuated by hiccups, occasional smelly belches and her muttered acknowledgements. Otherwise, he will tattoo new memories onto the living canvas that’s her body. Mind you, she has to maintain this feigned interest because he jabbers on even as he eats.

The woman takes away the dishes before following her husband into the bedroom. But wait, her day isn’t done yet. She has to suffer one more chore, arguably the most important one in her life as a typical African woman. You didn’t think she would sleep without giving the husband his marital desert, did you? Please understand that there can be no headaches in her bedroom life. Absolutely none at all.

Thankfully for her, there’s no foreplay so it isn’t long before she has rocked, jiggled and gyrated the husband into satiated sleep, a big smile on his face. A river of drool cascading its way down his left cheek and the symphony of snores soon bear testimony to the depth of his sleep even as his hand subconsciously continues to play with the beads around her waist.

An African woman’s feelings don’t come into the equation. She doesn’t even think about them. She’s been schooled to pleasure her husband. And to procreate. A bigger brood silences derisive loud whispers about barrenness from her in-laws.

Just a couple of hours or so later, long before the sun thinks of getting out of bed and glaring at her part of the world, she’s already taken her passport-size bath (involving washing the face and a gargle or two) and is up and about. Last night’s dishes have to be done; the kids have to be woken up, bathed, given breakfast and packed off to school, and their beddings taken out to dry, . All this before she goes to the family patch of land for a bit of farming. Her hangovered husband will follow later.

Much later after he has taken his own passport-size bath and breakfasted.

As midday approaches she accompanies her husband back to the village. On the way she has to stop at the well to draw water for her husband’s bath. While the husband takes his bath, she dashes back to the well to draw more water. She makes two more trips before going to fetch firewood. Afterward she has to go and gather some wild vegetables that are the main ingredient in the sauces that accompany the family’s starch heavy meals.

She prepares lunch in time for the children’s return from school. After lunch, the husband disappears with the boys and the children go out to play. This gives her the opportunity to also also take her bath. Of course, she has eaten. Many an African woman is of necessity a mulyawima, literally one who eats while standing. She has had to learn to eat on the go as she butterflies from one task to the other, day in day out.

Mid-afternoon, after a short respite, the woman goes to join her colleagues to practice song and dance. A big political honcho is coming to the community to launch the tree planting month. The women will put up a show for the guests, distinguished or otherwise. The women love these practice sessions. They provide a welcome diversion from the dreary routine of their lives. They also offer a perfect opportunity to catch up on the village gossip.

“Nyamusangechi’s husband is marrying a second wife.”

“Nooo! Why?”

“Need you ask? She can’t bear any more children.”

“Only three children, imagine. How sad.”

“I understand it’s her choice. You know these educated women.”

“Maybe she wants to start prostituting herself.”

Regrettably, the practice session comes to an end. Some of the women have to attend a meeting for their income-generating group. The women took a loan from a micro- lender and the monthly payment is due. Speaking of which, the woman is deeply worried that her family will lose the few possessions it has. You see even though she has never received any formal education, she’s the treasurer of her group and therefore the custodian of its cash. Unfortunately, one fine day her husband discovered the hidden coffer and had helped himself to a pay day he had never had before.

Many were the drunks who sang his praises that day.

She prepares the evening meal for herself and the children. Once the tired kids retire to their mats, dirt and all, she goes to join her colleagues in the village compound to pound and winnow the kernels of corn that will be milled into flour after a few days of soaking.

Two women, each with a pestle, alternately pound into one mortar with the precision of a juggler. The processed kernels are emptied onto a big mat, the mortars refilled and the pounding resumes. Afterward, the twelve women sit around a big mat and winnow the chaff from the broken kernels. Like the pounding, the winnowing is very musical.

In one evening, corn for four families is processed. This not only lightens the burden on the women but also provides a forum for gossip mostly about their men. The moonlit night resonates to the sounds of gossip woven into beautiful laments sung to the rhythm of the pounding and winnowing. The pounding and winnowing done, the woman walks back to her house. She lies down and drifts into some light sleep. She has to keep vigil until she hears the drunken voice of her husband call out through the opening in the wall.

Oh, the numbingly routine life of an African woman. It would be worse were it not for church or mosque services, weddings, funerals, dances and political events that server to break the monotony of her life.

Yet this is the life she’ll bequeath to her girl children unless politicians stop working for their own aggrandisement and instead channel their collective energies towards plucking these children from the suffocating embrace of ignorance and poverty. I hope African politicians make commitments for 2010 to do something before these girls are serenaded into a never-ending tango with this two-headed beast.

As were their mothers.

I'm afraid. Very afraid

Sit around me. Move close. Real close. I’ll have to whisper because I don’t want what I’m going to say wafting into the wrong ears, ears that are ever pricked these days.

No, no, what I want to tell you has got nothing to do with whether I’ve decided to chop off my long sleeve to better protect myself against contracting HIV. You think if it was just a matter of a sleeve, to keep it long or cut it short, I would’ve bothered whose ears heard me? No way! What I’ve to say has nothing to do with sleeves. In fact, it’s got nothing to do with me at all.

And there lies the danger.

One can never be too careful in the present climate. Our government, despite its stifling majority in parliament, has become so paranoid it often swats its own humongous shadow. One day you hear a member of the ruling party speaking out against some government policies, the next you hear that he’s been arrested for treason. You wake up to headlines of ruling party MPs criticising the government, you sleep on headlines of their suspension. When you get news that an NGO has condemned the government on a position it has taken, you know that in its wake will come news that its leaders have been carted away on charges even the local newspapers can’t agree on.

Through various subtle and not subtle means, threats – overt or otherwise, rewards or lack thereof, the government is slowly but surely strangling our freedom of expression. Any guesses anyone on why the police have been sent out into the NGO community to sniff out those with non-traditional sexual inclinations?

I hope you now understand why I would rather whisper. But even that may be dangerous. Let’s talk about something else instead. Yes, let’s talk about the wedding. Yes, that wedding. But even that is now banana skin territory because some misguided trade unionists have complained that the wedding date clashes with Labour Day and would thus detract from their planned activities.

Some people! Can’t they just feel proud of the fact that our president will marry a woman so elegantly beautiful Southern Bride would happily feature her on its cover? I know a number of men of a certain age who are envious of the president and would happily switch places with him.

However, despite its newsworthiness, the wedding isn’t what I wanted to talk about. What would I say about it that you don’t already know? I’m scared to say what I really planned to say because tomorrow you may hear that I’ve been arrested for being gay. After all, I’ve said a thing or two about letting gays be. Were that to happen, the irony would be that I would be locked up in one of Malawi’s gay havens for … wait for it …my own protection! I shiver as an image flickers across my mental screen. The orifice that hitherto I’ve used exclusively for expelling solid waste is being caressed by a panting burly prisoner who then takes his swelled…his … No! Sweating, I click off the image.

What was I saying, by the way? That image of me on all fours with my pants down still has me rather flustered.

Ok, I remember ... I was explaining the reason I’m feeling nervous about voicing out what I wanted to tell you. You see, if I tell you some unwelcome ears may hear it and I may end up being arrested for my wont to once in a while mount my significant other from behind. Or for sometimes contorting my body into impossibly unnatural positions during during the act. Or for using my lips and tongue on parts of her anatomy other than her mouth and succulent breasts. Or they may haul me in because whenever I’ve been under conjugal sanctions for one reason or another, maybe for contravening my Friday boys' night out visa conditions and ending up home too early—well, dawn of the following morning is too early, isn’t it?—I’ve had no other option but to engage in DIY. A bit of self-help relief, if you get my drift.

Yes, for being foolhardy enough to blurt out my opinions, the government can throw the book at me for making love in ways other than the missionary position. And there would be no protests from the general Malawian public because they believe such foolery between the sheets isn’t condoned in the Bible, the Koran or our tradition. By the way, when did those holy books become an integral part of our tradition? Didn’t we use to invoke the spirits of our ancestors?

Anyway that’s a story for another day. For now I’m just sorry I can’t tell you that the ruling party is doing all it can to turn all of us into grovelling sycophants. You won’t hear me say that the government wants us to be singing the president’s praises even when he misspeaks or missteps or both. You won’t hear a twit out of me about the government’s desire for all of us to be its members so that Malawi returns to being a one party state by default.

Most people claim the president has a stubborn streak. They say once he makes up his mind there’s no shifting him. But not me. I believe the president shouldn’t be knee-jerking to every morsel of drivel coming from the ignorant public. I believe he’s within his rights to have a select group of people to listen to. A posse of carefully vetted bootlickers.

I wish I was at liberty to reveal that as expected these people have their own thin hides to protect. As a result they tell the president only what he wants to hear. Oops! I almost let out that these people support the president even when it means cooking up some spicy corroborative statistics for him, or bending the truth here, panel-beating it there or completely stretching and distorting it into various impossible contortions.

I hope you’ve heard, because I’m not going to say a word, about the Mzuzu Corner comment that had people who have trodden the halls of Chancellor College shaking their heads in mirthful disbelief. Could he by any chance have been talking about SS Corner at Mzimba Boma?

I’ve so many things to take off my chest but can’t out of fear. For instance I would’ve told you that these poodles, excuse me Tony Blair you’ve may have some distant cousins here, wag their tails whenever the president bashes people from the region 99% of whose votes were cast for him. The region that has only two tarmac roads considerable parts of which snake through unpopulated areas. The region that doesn’t have a Sunbird resort on its shores. The region that doesn’t have a campus of the University of Malawi, Malawi College of Accountancy, or College of Health Sciences. The region that’s so lacking in industrial development a large part of its population has to trek to other regions or other countries to find jobs.

But for fear of being slapped with sedition, I won't tell you that most DPP officials frothed at their mouths trying to out praise each other when the president refused to attend Mzuzu University’s graduation ceremony and his education minister chose to attend the graduation ceremony of a private school instead. I would've told you that they applauded when he announced that the criteria for doling out youth loans wouldn’t be the merit of business plans but DPP membership. I won't reveal that their faces lit up when he ordered the government not to be advertising in a pesky local paper. Neither will I risk disclosing that they praise his vision for seeing what we ordinary folks couldn’t see in a million years: the necessity to urgently change our flag.

No, I won't divulge that they're quite happy that the anti-corruption drive is jaundiced against low-level civil servants. Even under duress I won't let on that they rejoice at the nepotistic trend public appointments have taken. I won't tell you that they see no evil when government resources are used for party functions. I'm afraid, very afraid that to even attempt to tell you that they nodded their heads in approval when nursing school fees were raised perhaps because a presidential jet had to be bought and money had to be set aside to massage obligations spawned by our ambitions to lord it over the AU. I won't be persuaded into divulge that they frown upon anyone with the gall to lament that the quota system of university selection punishes some deserving students. Yes, if fear hadn't frozen my throat, I would've told you that they scowl at people who dare to scoff at the stupidity of paying even higher sitting allowances to MPs for doing exactly the job they’re paid for, vis-à-vis sit in parliament.

My friends, I’ve so many things to say but I’m too terrified to voice them out because the police may pick me up on some tramped up charges guaranteed to keep me quiet for a very long time.

Is that a knock I heard? I’m not expecting anybody, certainly not at 2.00 a.m. Well, they may have come for me now but tomorrow they may come for you too.