Tuesday, February 4, 2014

From first-born to ‘Most Senior’: How I Learned The Truth About Me

Up until two years ago, I had no idea that I was not the first-born in our family. And, when I finally learnt the truth, it came as a massive surprise because my parents always referred me to as the ‘first-born’.

The shock has disappeared now, but I can’t help but ask why? Is the truth, no matter how painful it may be, the special, private property of parents, relatives, or whoever may be in the know about something someone does not know? I can’t help but ask.

And, taking cognizance of the fact that the parents in question- the people I would have asked- now rest in peace somewhere in Dedza, I have been trying to second-guess the possible reasons. Would disclosing the truth be analogous to undressing wounds and, by extension, resurrecting old pains?

Borrowed deaths

Before I go further, may be it is important to relive the moments I was made to believe that I was the “first-born”, and also delve into some of the things I ‘suffered’ because of being the first-born.

I vividly remember that whenever my mother or father met people for the first time, they would always introduce me as “This is our first-born” child. Family friends would also refer me to as “The first-born’ of the Chirombos.

And, it was in my ‘capacity’ as the first-born that I was ‘forced to die’ deaths that were not mine. What do I mean by ‘deaths that were not mine’?

Well, here is a good example. As a Christian, I grew up liking the Holy Bible. And, in the course of reading and studying the Bible at church, I was introduced to the issue of the Israelis, and got fascinated with the exodus stories.

Among other things, I failed- and still fail- to understand why Pharaoh, the Egyptians’ leader, was so hard-hearted that he refused to bulge to Prophet Moses’s demands to release the children of Israel from bondage and let them leave for the promised land of Canaan.

While I read the story of the plagues with self-detachment, one plague hit me as a personal tragedy: the death of all first-born children in Egypt. These deaths hit me as personal tragedies because they made me ask questions such as: So, being the first-born in my family, would I have died if I were an Egyptian child then? Why kill innocent children for the sake of an old man (Pharaoh) who could answer for his sins and stubbornness?

In the end, I came to the conclusion that I would have died had I been an Egyptian first-born child at that time, and that is how I was made to die deaths that were not mine. In the first place, it’s Egyptian first-born children that died, and not Malawian first-born children. Secondly, it’s first-born children that died and, as I have recently realised and come to accept, I would not have been one of them because I am nowhere near first-born!

Subtle clues

However, I do not blame my parents for letting me live in the ‘dark’ about this first-born thing. I think they tried to give me clues in their own ways.

For instance, I remember my father often telling me things like, “Hey, Richard, if you were female, you would have been helping me with household chores. Hey, Richard, if you were female, you would have done this, you would have done that.”

Whenever she was working on something that needed female hands, she would be at it again. If you were…!

One day, I think it was around 1987 when we were staying in Chitawira Township, one of the neighbours told me that ,”How is your sister”, before saying, “Sorry, I was thinking about something else.”

And, poor me, I could not read between the lines.

In fact, Richard is not the name my parents gave me at birth. My mother told me, when I was about nine years old, that my name at birth was Chikumbutso (Memory).

And, even with this hint, I never had the presence of mind to ask her: “Why Chikumbutso? Who did you have in mind? Who or what did I remind you about?”

Poor me! I should have read between the lines. There might have been someone, or some people, before me, and I reminded my parents of them.

As fate would have it, the name Chikumbutso died when a priest Christened me Richard at St Pious Catholic Church in the 1980s. And so died one more hint about whether I, really, was the first-born child, as my parents used to put it.


However, as often happens in life, I accidentally stumbled upon the truth two years ago.

I had travelled to Mzimba to be a monitor for one of our relations who was contesting in one of the two Mzimba constituencies in 2012.

We were standing outside one of the shops at Mzimba Boma when, while chatting with one of our relations, he suddenly said:

“Did you know that you are not the first-born in your family?”

I was astounded.

“What,” I asked.

“You are not the first-born, as you have been made to believe. You are just the most senior,” he continued.

I was taken by surprise. I was not only surprised, but I struggled to contain my emotions. But the truth is that I found myself pushing back tears.

Then, gathering some courage, I asked: “So, there were others before me?”

“Yes,” was the quick reply.

I let that answer sink in, while I prepared to ask what I thought was the most important question. I, then, asked the question: “You say there were others before me. What happened to them?”

His answer: “They died. They all died immediately after delivery.”

Finally, I wanted to know how many had died.

“Ah, about…” he said, while counting his fingers and attempting to remember.

“Aah…” he continued counting his fingers. I was not looking at his fingers; I wanted to get the figure from him.

Then, just when he was about to mention a figure, my cousin came and interrupted: “You have been standing for a while here. Why not go there, at that verandah, and sit down,” she said.

Immediately, we all headed for the verandah.

However, when we finally settled down, I could not muster enough courage and energy to ask him to give me the response.

I was, and still are, afraid of knowing the truth. It is enough to know that there were others I will never know!

Of course, it is easy for me to grab my handset, call him, and ask him to provide the figure. But the truth scares me. The truth will hurt me.

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