Sunday, September 16, 2012

Counting Malawi's 'Firsts'

It is so simple, to begin with: Once a mother, always a mother.
In the past, it was so easy to understand what it meant to call the 'Mother of the Nation". It, automatically, meant the First Lady.
It all started with the first President, the Father and Founder of the Malawi Nation, Ngwazi Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda. Though he was, officially, Malawi 'Senior Bachelor', he used to address the First Hostess (that special lady we all, as Malawians, have come to admire) Cecilia Tamanda-Kadzamira as Mama (for mother).
That means, even as official hostess, Mama was mother to the nation. The precedent was set.
So, when Bakili Muluzi took over the State Presidency cap, his wife, the then First Lady Anne Muluzi, automatically became the 'Mother of the Nation'.
Those children less privileged to lose a mother at a tender age saw a mother in Anne.
It appeared so strange at first; Anne's position. She was the first Malawian woman to be called 'First Lady'- though, to Muluzi, she was not the only lady.
From 1994 onwards, Malawians, somehow, got used to the title of First Lady, the mother of the nation by virtue of taking care of the man who, by fluke or pre-ordination,  was born years back- only to become President of this great Republic.
Then, while Muluzi still served us in his office- while he still fulfilled the terms Malawians had set for him in his first five years (first term) in office, the unimaginable happened, and Muluzi parted (that way adults take, when they decide to separate as husband and wife) ways with Anne.
For a while, the nation was without a mother, the First Lady. Malawians were orphaned!
Then, just in a nick of time, there came Shanil Muluzi. She had been seeing Muluzi, and was already Muluzi's rib, before they tied the knot. When they informed Malawians of their commitment to each other as husband and wife at a colourful ceremony in Blantyre, it was a national statement meant to ensure the nation that the orphan-hood era was gone- buried with the winds.
Malawi had a mother again. The First Lady Shanil Muluzi.
In 2004, after Muluzi had run his race of two-five-year-terms, Dr. Bingu wa Mutharika came in to fill the shoes. Of course, he also came from the United Democratic Front, having dissolved his People's Party after performing miserably in the 1999 Presidential Elections.
But he was a different man, and had a realistic vision. Along with his differences in personality and vision (from Muluzi's hand-out-way of doing things),  Mutharika brought a new face to the 'National Motherhood' role. This face had a name: Ethel Zvauya Mutharika.
Ethel was our mother, carting mother, and dutifully (with few words) went about doing good to the nation. Orphans she looked after. The sad she comforted. She shared in the plight of the ordinary, rural woman, too- the woman long-used to delivering at Traditional Birth Attendants, a woman long-used to walking long distances in the eternal search for water.
For all her troubles, this local woman feeds the nation (as women make roughly 70 percent of the farming population in Malawi). Ethel took it upon herself to care for them, to initiate programmes that would lessen their pain.
That is how Ethel Mutharika's safe motherhood initiatives came to be part of this nation. Remember the Ethel Mutharika Cancer Ward?
She fully fulfilled the duties of the First Lady, the Mother of the Nation.
Then, death came and took her away. It happened while she still served as First Lady, the Mother of the Nation.
As a Mother of the Nation, she could not just be buried as a commoner (excuse me the pun). She had to be buried as the mother of us all. So, her body lay in state for over a week.
People- in Mzuzu in the Northern region; Lilongwe in the Central region, and; Blantyre in the Southern region (in Mzuzu it was at the Mzuzu State Lodge, in Lilongwe at the New State House, and Blantyre at Sanjika Palace)- lined up to see her face one last time.
It is so easy to understand why. While Anne Muluzi was Malawi's first First Lady, Ethel was the first First Lady to die while in her office (the office of the First Lady). These have been 18 years of 'firsts'.
I remember leaving my home in Chilomoni Township, and going to Sanjika Palace to have a last look at Ethel.
Let me also say, right away, that I took her death personally. I actually shed a tear for her. I was really hurt by her death.
When I arrived at Sanjika, I took a liking to one of the songs women sang. Of course, it had no personal message to Ethel, or those who visited Sanjika in those dark days of death. It addressed Jesus Christ; the song. It went:

Mwatani naye Ambuye/
Mwatani naye Ambuye?
Mwatani naye Ambuye Yesu/
Mwatani naye Ambuye.

It may sound 'innocent' here, but the way the women sang; it was so touching I still remember the song, and, when I sing it, like I am doing here, there are no powers under the earth that can stop my tears. That is how it was, and still is. With that song Mwatani Naye.
I do not know why.
But, whatever our wishes- to have Ethel for a while and her voice hear- Ethel was buried at Bingu's Ndata Farm.
Bingu was widowed.
The nation was a collective mass of orphan-hood again.
Just like that.
President Mutharika, after staying a couple of years without the one he was used, the one with whom they took life's little steps together, found love in a former Member of Parliament and Cabinet Minister, Callista Chapola.
At least, the nation said, our President has found love at last. It is tough. Running a nation.
In no time, rumours became reality when Mutharika and Callista tied the knot, and vowed to be together come rain or sunshine, in times of ill and good will.
Malawi had a mother again.
The mother was Callista Mutharika. Callista Mutharika the First Lady.
Callista never took long to make an impression. The Callista Safe Motherhood Foundation was born.
She went about, championing women's causes.
When Muslim women met, she was there.
Where Christian womeen met, she was always there- offering words of encouragement.
There is nothing she did that did not qualify her as First Lady.
Callista- endowed with 'some' American height, the infectious smile of an African woman, the courtesy of a mother, the heart of a pioneer missionary, and the vision of an eagle- did all she could to identify with the common man and woman.
And for that she deserves our praise.
For some two years, Callista was the -proud mother of the Malawi nation.
Until April 5, 2012.
Darkness, again, fell on the nation.
Not that this darkness fell on any sitting First Lady. No.
It fell on the nation with equal violence because, within five minutes between 11:30am and 11:35pm on April 5 (hear this, take this: it is April 5. Not 6, or 7, or 8. It is April 5), Malawi had no Head of State and Government.
Bingu, as Malawians fondly called Mutharika, was gone. The shameless, malicious, and dark hand of cardiac arrest took Malawi's only visionary leader since 1994 away from the nation he so loved and, wholeheartedly, wanted to serve.
That death is Malawi's other first. It was the first time Malawi lost a sitting president to death.
The last time death took someone connected to the Presidency is in 1997. In September of that year, Ngwazi Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda died at Garden City Clinic in South Africa.
Of course, he made his own first, Kamuzu. He became the first former president to die while out of office. 
Malawi was orphaned again.
In a way, Malawi is still orphaned because the one who took over the reigns of power- Joyce Ntila Banda- is a woman.
That is another Malawi-first. Joyce Banda is Malawi's first female president.
But that is not the only 'first' from Joyce Banda.
Her husband, retired Chief Justice (Swaziland and Malawi) Richard (oh, it is the first time I am realising that he is my name-sake! Serious.) Banda became- not the First Lady- but the First Gentleman.
Richard Banda is Malawi's first First Gentleman. A first!
But he is a Gentleman, not First Lady.
In Africa, it is women who keep families intact and provide all the support. That is why we are saying Malawi is an orphan again. Orphaned when Callista stopped being the First Lady.
That, too, is the reason it felt too good to meet Callista today.
Callista, ever-smiling, was in Chilobwe Townshipo today, and attended the inauguration of Chilobwe (Sts Peter and Paul) Sub-Parish to full Parish. Archbishop Tarcizio Ziyaye of Blantyre Archdiocese was there to inaugurate the Chilobwe church.
In fact, even Information Minister Moses Kunkuyu was there. But he was eclipsed by Callista.
People flocked to see Callista, while Kunkuyu watched with the corner of his eye.
Callista was in the company of children, and they all looked happy.
Guess the registration number of the state-of-the-art Range Rover she drove! BICA 1.
When I asked, I was told that I was asking the obvious.
It is an acronym for 'Bingu, Callista' 1.
That vehicle, I was told, was bought while Bingu lived. The BI is for Bingu, and the CA for Callista.
This 'couple', it seems, will forever be together!
That another 'first', too. Being together, when the other party is not there.
It must be a statement of love.
Limitless love.
Colourless love.
Everflowing love.
Considerate love.

With the smiling Callista still with us, Malawi will never be an orphan. 


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