Friday, March 13, 2009

Memories of Malawi

I loved boarding school. Okay, the first term was rather bewildering having come straight from home-school in the bush into boarding school. I was a bit like a dazzled nocturnal bushbaby with big eyes staring at the lights of an oncoming truck. But my long-suffering older sister was there for me and I probably leaned on her much heavier than I should have. Like dragging her out of prep* on my first night and sobbing unstoppably for hours (although I suppose it got her out of prep). And coming into her dorm late at night, after lights out to cry on her pillow. But she never said anything bad and was a true angel to me. And after that first term I settled in, made best friends and had a great time. It was a very mixed school in Malawi, girls, boys and almost every nationality and religion you can think of. And as is the way with children, everyone knuckled down and made friends and enemies with people not because of their religion or creed but because of who said what to whom and who was teachers pet and who was cool and who was not. And while I became friends with Malawians, Mauritians, Greeks, Sikhs, Muslims and agnostics (not that we classed them this way) the Malawi beyond our school gates was not so liberal.

Anyway, this is the promised post about the Banda regime in Malawi not about my boring boarding school experiences. Although for me they kindov go hand in hand since that was my only real experience and understanding of it. I don't remember all the nitty gritty and I'm certainly not going to make this a balanced historical essay. No siree. So. A very basic and very incomplete history of that period as I know it:

Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda, after studying to be a doctor, and practicing medicine for 40 odd years in America, the UK and Ghana came back to Malawi to become its first president in 1964. In 1970 he declared himself Life President. His Excellency the Life President Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda. The 33 years he was in power Malawi was not so much a one-party state as a one-man state. He ruled for three decades until, in the early 1990’s a series of student demonstrations and riots among other factors, resulted in him losing his grip on power. In 1993/4 elections were held and he was ousted.

You don't really understand the deep political ins and outs of a country when you're a kid - at least I didn't. I suppose you just accept what you can and can't do in the wider world and carry on as normal. Or maybe I was just never that political. I mean of course we thought a lot of the rules were ridiculous although we were always VERY careful of what we said. The obvious on the surface stuff was there but I don’t think I understood the deep complexities of the people going missing, the freak ‘road accidents’ that killed opponents, the control of the press, the spies, the nepotism.

What I understood was the basics rules of living in Malawi at that time:

You could NOT, on pain of being arrested, PI'd, thrown into jail and possibly killed
1) Throw coins on the ground
2) Tear money
3) Have long hair (as a man. It got cut off at the border crossings if it was below the collar)
4) Wear shorts as a woman. Skirts below the knee only.
5) Be in possession of any magazines with any vaguely bad pictures in. As in showing any flesh. Well any magazine actually. I saw a Newsweek once in a shop on the lake - the first magazine I'd ever seen in Malawi. It had a picture on the cover of an athlete (I forget who) wearing cycling shorts. And the censorship people had taken a black marker and blocked out her legs. On every single magazine. Some books, too were banned and people put on trial for possession of books including Orwell's Animal farm.
6) Say anything bad about the president obviously

1) Sing the national anthem before each and every school play
2) Have the censorship board in to censor our school plays
3) Wear long skirts, the women, have short hair, the men
4) All our coursework was written on paper that had the Malawi Crest on the bottom and said "This is the property of the Malawi government"
5) Take your hat off when entering a public building (and all public buildings had to have a picture of Banda on the wall)
6) Our school was on the way to the airport, so every time he drove past in his massive convoy we all had to go and stand in the hot sun on the side of the road clapping and cheering, waiting for his convoy to pass. It usually took 3 or 4 hours but meant we missed some lessons. And we’d catch a flash glimpse of him in his smart car waving his whisk at the crowds. The bit I loved best was the police blue-flashing-lights motorcycles. The first 2 times it was fun. The next 20 just plain boring

There was no TV and obviously only state owned newspapers and radio.

You often heard stories, whispers really, of people going missing. I befriended a girl at school who was sharp and bright and wonderful. She became more and more withdrawn and eventually left school, I never knew what became of her but she confided just before she left, whispered to me on the sports field that her father had been arrested and thrown in jail for speaking out against the president.

Sometimes we’d drive past groups of the Malawi Young Pioneers – the paramilitary wing of the government – training and they looked really scary. And there really were so many spies. You had to be so careful.

In retrospect I suppose Malawi in those days was always very….hushed I suppose is the right word. Very look-over-your-shoulder-don’t-say-what-you-mean. We used to cross over the border from higgledy piggeldy haphazard Zambia and as soon as we drove into Malawi a sort of cushioned calm came over the car. The roads were perfect, you’d stop at the Kandodo Supermarket and buy delicious Malawi made biscuits that smelt of puppy’s breath (that’s a good thing!) and Malawi made sodas. There was certainly industry. After the massive shortages we had in Zambia it was like opening a window into a hot stuffy room and letting in the cool breeze. But on that breeze you could smell a certain fear; a fake nervous smile that hides apprehension. I was always fascinated that a country so poor and so very densely populated could be so quiet and ordered. It seemed that even the massive refugee camps that we’d pass on the road – rambling, crammed, bursting at the seams with Mozambiquan refugees, set into that barren denuded landscape - were somehow ordered and down trodden. But I suppose that’s a refugee camp for you and they had a whole bunch of other problems.

I remember the riots in 1992, the year I left school. There was a certain cold thrill about it. Literally a ripple you could feel under the surface – a small earthquake that was rapidly gaining strength. There was fear in the air certainly (and yes, if I remember correctly some people were killed) but there was also something unstoppable about it, the earthquake gaining power. And an incredulous, “oh my goodness this is really happening, we can really do this. We have options, we have choices” kind of vibe. A brow beaten, bullied child finally realizing that he can stand up to his father. Walk out. Walk away. Start a new life.

Oh there’s so much. My brain is a little fuzzy today but starting to percolate some stories from school. So maybe this will have to be a part one of a series… If you can bear it!

*prep - an hour, two? of enforced homework time in the evenings


Dumdad said...

More please! Especially of your schooldays and what it felt like to be a child in that exotic country. Africa is like another planet to me. Fascinating.

Word veri: Rummicat

That sounds like an African animal!

karen said...

Wow, Miranda. How amazing and detailed! I've always been fascinated with that Banda era in Malawi!! Please do carry on with another episode of the series, it's completely fascinating! thanks...

And, there's an award for you on my blog today!

Miranda said...

DD - well okay, I shall put finger to keyboard!

Karen - an award, wow thanks! Okay trying to remember more stories now....

Loveanewidea said...

This is so interesting to read...can't wait for the next installment!

Angela said...

Sounds so much like the former DDR to me, the Stasi, the obedience, the tying up of minds, the trying not to step out of line for fear of being arrested. And then the grumbling which grew louder...and louder, and finally becoming a storm.
I wish all suppressed people would BELIEVE that such storms are possible (Zim, for one)!
But I also notice here in the former DDR where we now live, that it takes at least a generation to get these habits out of people`s minds!

family affairs said...

Thank you - very interesting indeed. Forwarding on to my father who was there during that time Lx

Mia Watts said...

You keep me grounded.

tam said...

Great post, Mo. Interesting, when I was back there last year, noticing how some aspects of the 'regime' were quite effective - I'm thinking of certain public health systems etc. There was certainly a basic benevolence towards the people, but sheesh, scary when you think of the underlying menace.

Btw - "sobbing" does not come close to what you did those evenings when they pulled me out of prep to comfort you. Howling is more like it. Prolonged high volume howling.

Janelle said...

great post mo. love your sister's comment about your wailing! heh heh. can just picture it...sisters are best, eh? xxx j

Val said...

i remember going thru there with your folks once aeons ago.We were all suitably attired. there was a typewriter in the car which was heavily scrutinised at the border. after we were thru your dad said "i wonder what they were lookig for there - dirty words?"
Your take on this period is fabulous and so beautifully written. cant wait for the series to roll on ;-)

Miranda said...

Loveanewidea - welcome and thanks for the visit. More coming up

Geli - Tammy's comment is also true that there was a sort of benevolence toward the people, a fatherly "I'm doing what's best for you, you don't know what's best for you I do" but still....

FA - wonder if he remembers it the same or if I have a different view. Would be interesting to know...

Mia - wow THANKS!

Tam - ya, you're right there was a certain benevolence and he certainly managed to keep the place together with all its terrible hardships. And I HOWLED with laughter at the howling. Oh dear. The Foghorn strikes again

janelle - oh yes sisters are best best best

Miranda said...

And Val! Haha, thats FUNNY!!

Rob Inukshuk said...

Very interesting. Must remember to ask Mother about her time there and visits there in the 50s and 60s. She and Father were Married in Blantyre in '58. Must ask why they were there as their home was in Kitwe!

Interesting times and I look forward to further recollections of the times as you remember them and of your school days too. Might be a good idea to get it down as one day jnr. will want to know!

Angela said...

About the benevolence, yes, I know that`s the idea. To keep you quiet and sort of cosy and not complaining too much. But it is a sinister way of "keeping" people. In the DDR it was like this, and some people still wish themselves back - no responsibility, things were sort of well-ordered, choices were made for you, how agreeable! But well, if you wanted to leave the country, you were shot. And if you uttered some disbelief at why the functioneers were getting all the best, or why you were not allowed to study what you wanted, then you were reported by one of the thousand ears and eyes in your neighbourhood, and off to jail with you, and your children were given to "decent" families... Nono, don`t tell me about totalitarian regimes! Not when you love freedom of mind!

Mud in the City said...

Definitely more please Miranda! fascinating to hear a child's point of veiw and see what hit home to you. Children might not be privy to political machinations but they are more sensative to the vibes in the air.

Lori ann said...

I don't understand the deep political ins and outs as an adult.Your take on this time in history is completely fascinating, i've said it before, make a book. please? You have a wonderful, unique voice.
love, lori

Miranda said...

Rob - Blantyre, Kitwe - all such familiar places to me! Yes, get some stories!

Geli - Yes, you're quite right of course.

Mud - yes I think thats true. I shall dig up some more memories soon.

Lori - Me neither! And as for the book. Maybe....maybe!

Mark Benson said...

Malawi is a fun place to live at and a cheap flight to Lilongwe can land you at a place where you can surely discover Africa and the adventures here in for you.