By Richard Chirombo
At one point, the situation was so precarious that all I thought was that finding the way back to my destination- Paulos Nthara Village in Mzimba South West constituency- would be a long battle.
I found myself in this situation on Wednesday, 10 October 2012, some three days after I left Blantyre for the land of the great Ngoni traditional leader, Inkosi ya Makosi M’mbelwa, in Mzimba.
When I first heard that I could be on my way to Mzimba a week before on a trip premised on the by-elections that were taking place in Mzimba Central and Mzimba South West constituencies on October 9 this year, I was thrilled. This is because, apart from visiting the central business district en route to either Mzuzu or Blantyre, I had never been to Mzimba district- in the true sense of the words.
This fascination was fanned by the many stories I heard about Mzimba, stories that mostly start and end with the mention of Hora mountain. There is, also, this cultural thing about the annual Umthetho event held at Hora.
I also heard and read about the many ways the Ngonis of Mzimba hold on to their culture, one of which being the dowry (lobola) culture. To the Ngonis, life is precious and cannot be given for free. Hence, lobola.
However, as one of my new-found friends, Jolamu Sakala, told me, lobola helps people value the gift of life, “but does not mean selling one’s daughter to the husband who pays some heads of cattle as an expression of his commitment and love for the wife-to-be”.
Sakala told me: “Look, it is not a question of what you pay, but what you show by paying: commitment. Apart from this, you are also showing gratitude to the parents of the woman for all the good work they have done. As you know, the Ngonis are a grateful people.
“The way I know it, lobola is not a hindrance to marriage. I know of tens of men who are married but have not finished paying what they were told to pay in cattle. Over time, they will. So, it is just a question of showing commitment, and living by the dictates of our culture,” Sakala, father of three from Mseya village, explained.It is these feel-good stories that pushed me on in the days preceding the trip, until that final moment on Sunday, October 7, came and we saw ourselves boarding a coach at the bus terminal adjacent to the Blantyre Post Office (in Blantyre Central Business District).
When the conductor stood up around 07:30 am, and asked us to “close our eyes and pray” (who started this thing about closing our eyes to pray, by the way? What is wrong with those who pray with their eyes wide open?), we knew the journey was here for the taking. What with the bunch of jokers who filled this bus to the brim!
Their handy jokes started right in Blantyre when, after the ‘safe-journey’ prayer, the conductor asked us to tighten our belts. One of the passengers shouted: “What are you talking about? Why are you telling us to tighten our belt, but you have mentioned nothing about food? People like me, frequent air travelers, feel hungry the moment we are told to tighten our seat belts because we know that food is coming. Do you want us to tighten the belts on ‘empty stomachs’? No!”
Half the bus choked with laughter. When we arrived at Lizulu in Ntcheu, one of the passengers phoned a man he said was his ‘rich friend’ in Mzimba, telling him that he was on his way to the Mzimba (apparently, he was also going to Mzimba), and signing off by asking whether the ‘rich man’s’ family had already had an ‘early’ lunch there.
The joking bunch pounced on the talk again, lambasting the passenger who called for having “useless” rich friends. “What kind of rich friend is this? Instead of him telling you that he is driving all the way from Mzimba to pick you up here at Lizulu (Ntcheu), all he is telling you is that they have not had lunch yet, and that they will keep some food for you! The rich friends I have tell me to drop off when I call them, and come to pick me up in their fuel guzzling vehicles. They don’t mind the distance; they are rich!”
While we thought we were through these jokes, one more was to come between Mponela Trading Centre and Jenda Road Block. As one goes towards Jenda, there is a small dam to the left. Fishermen crisscross their nets in the seemingly still waters while, on the right side of the road, the grass is so green it has become the abode of cattle and their shepherds.
When one of the passengers saw the dam, he shouted: “Tanzania is very ruthless. How can our neighbor grab the ‘whole lake’ and leave us with this dam as our portion. No, no, no. We want the whole of the lake, and not this small dam- a dam which cannot even accommodate one Illala!”
Not that we were taken by surprise. I remember that, when we arrived at Senzani Road Block, and a policeman trooped into the bus to look for whatever those guys are on the look-out for, one of the passengers told him in his face: “What are you looking for, Sir? Can’t you see that this is around 10 o’clock? Chamba tatumiza kale usiku, where were you? (we have already trafficked our chamba during the night!).”
When the police officer finished his job, he went outside (as usual) but could not help but point a finger at the one who had mouthed those words. The officer was laughing. And, so, were we.
Between these laughs and my anticipation to set foot on the skeletons (remote areas) of Mzimba, we finally made it to Mzimba Boma, from where were taken to Saulos Nthara Village, located some two kilometres from Edingeni- the abode of Vice-President Khumbo Kachali. It takes one hour- traveling fast; really fast- to get to Saulos Nthara village.
We spent the whole of Monday dancing the day away in the shadows of a giant mahogany tree. As we whiled the day away, people from the village- I later gathered that these were election monitors to be deployed by one of the contestants in the Mzimba South West by-elections- came and gathered under the same tree. Under this tree, they discussed issues ranging from how they would thwart the vote rigging plans of their competitors, code number for polling stations, number of people expected to vote, deployment plans, among others.
One of the officials was holding a piece of paper outlining code numbers, centre number, voters expected. Suddenly, a whirlwind which started lightly some 10 metres away grew in intensity, took the course of the mahogany tree, and blew the paper with the code numbers away. This ‘crazy’ act was followed by shouts: “They have stolen the important paper away! They are reading it by now! The whirlwind has stolen the paper!”
All the people left whatever they were doing and run into the bush to no avail. Some came back five minutes later. Some came back 20 minutes later. They came with one answer: We have not found that piece of paper!
The next day- which was Election Day, October 9- I found myself in Mseya Village. I actually announced my arrival in the village around mid-night. I arrived in a lorry and did not get to know the roads we took in mind because it was night. All I knew was that, before being dropped, we had been to Edingeni, Ekwendeni, Mzoma and, then, Mhlafuta. I was here to observe the conduct of the elections.
Although voting was marred by voter apathy, with almost half of the prospective voters staying away, it was encouraging to see old and physically-challenged visit polling centres and vote. They had this strong conviction to participate in the affairs of their country. I also observed how the votes were being counted at Mhlafuta Polling Centre, and was impressed with the level of transparency.
During the voting day, I had also had the opportunity to shake the hand of the chairperson of the Episcopal Conference of Malawi, Bishop Joseph Zuza twice. First, when he came to see the presiding officer, who I later learned is his biological sister, and in the afternoon. Vice-President Kachali had also passed by the centre, on his way from voting at Mzoma, and waved at the voters as he passed.
People’s Party official, Frank Mwenifumbo, also visited the centre around 10 o’clock in the morning, and picked a quarrel with Democratic Progressive Party monitors, whom he accused of having no accreditation. It had to take the intervention of the presiding officer and police officers deployed at the place to tell him that the DPP monitors were accredited by the Electoral Commission.
Vote-counting finished at exactly 10 pm. All the people dispersed, except Sakala- who told me that, since the generator set was switched off, he wanted to go home. I said I would stay at the centre and wait for our lorry. The driver had promised that we would be picked. However, facing the prospect of staying alone, and in utter darkness, with my luggage full of belongings, I decided to follow Sakala, who had hosted me the previous day.
Reluctantly, I followed him to his home- located some two kilometres away. Then, around mid-night, we heard the sound of the lorry, but by the time we reached the place it had dispatched me the previous day, we were 10 metres late. We tried to whistle the driver down, but he did not hear us. I was lost!
Unfortunately, all my two mobile phones had run out of battery power, and Sakala’s phone was switching itself off the moment we tried to call, or attempted to receive a call. This happened all night. In the morning, Sakala told me he had a friend who had a phone in the village, but his phone, too, had no power.
I, then, asked how long it would take me to travel from the village to Edingeni. He said four hours. His wife told me to remain in the village until the next day, but I told them I would walk. After all, four hours is not such a long time. Good of my host, he promised to escort me to the road that would take me to Edingeni. After showing me the way, he turned back, and I was all alone.
I had walked about five kilometres just knowing that I was going to Edingeni, but without knowing how to get there, when I decided to ask someone about the distance I was remaining with. The time was 9 o’clock in the morning, and he told me I would be at Edingeni by, at least, 5 pm. I was alarmed. Did Sakala mislead me? I questioned myself.
I decided to proceed with the journey, telling myself I had walked long distances before. I could see that people were looking at me with fascination- perhaps because of the luggage I was carrying and, perhaps, because I was walking on foot. The one thing I learned while here is that the people of Mzimba love bicycles- what with the long distances!
But almost all the bicycles have one fault” they have no brakes! Young men cycle without brakes. Old men cycle without brakes. In fact, one female granny nearly hit me with her bicycle because I was late to hear her shout: Give way, give way- no brakes!
As I moved on, ready to conquer the distance, I saw a Range Rover coming my direction. The vehicle was coming from Paulos Nthara Village to pick me up.
Sakala’s phone, I later learned as I headed for the Mahogany tree, had finally worked and Sakala was able to tell them the road I had taken. And it was only then that I realized how long the distances were. I took us about 50 minutes to drive our way to the destination village.