Thursday, August 21, 2014

Book Review: D.D. Phiri Quests for National 'Immortality' Through 'History of Malawi: Volume 2'

There is always a past. A newly-discovered lake like Lake Malawi may, for instance, be younger in
minutes in the eyes of the discoverer like Dr. David Livingstone but (be) old in years in the eyes of the local inhabitants.

This makes history unavoidable, and the eventual absence of national records on a nation state's path towards progression or retrogression an attempt at committing national suicide. It must be that prolific
historian and writer, Desmond Dudwa Phiri, appreciated this realism by the strength of his age, experience, academic prowess and familiarity to the Malawian subject.

D.D. Phiri, as he has come to be known, must have realised, too, that forth-coming generations would be acting within their mandate to seek answers on why this suicide ever took place.

D.D. Phiri 'partially' excused himself from such blame by publishing 'History of Malawi: Volume 1' in 2004. 'Partially' because the first volume limited the scope of Malawi's history to 1915- a time when the
pint-sized Amwandionerapati? criss-crossed the land.  Of course, volume 1 continued the tradition of other historians by making no mention of why the Amwandionerapati were that short despite head of Malawi's Chipembedzo Chamakolo, Fred Kwacha, saying time and again that height provided cover to the country's early inhabitants, and that they could spy on lions, tigers, leopards, rhinoceros, elephants, buffaloes, among other game, under the 'cover' of their height and forests.

Even though other issues- such as how the African continent was treated as a piece of clothes up grabs, and how Nyasaland found herself under the giant armpit of the British emperor, the toils of United States of America-trained Providence Industrial Mission pastor, John Chilembwe, and founding President, Kamuzu Banda's trek to South Africa, United States of America, United Kingdom, and Ghana, in that order  are mentioned; it is a journey half-covered.

Now, D.D. Phiri has made 'whole' his escape from blame by publishing History of Malawi: Volume 2.

 "As soon as Volume 1 was published in the year 2004, book-sellers were telling me that their customers were eagerly asking for the next Volume and wanted to know when it was going to be made available...,"
D.D. Phiri says in the preface.

In so doing, he has also satisfied the desire of Malawians because history is unavoidable.

 "...We do not need to be thoroughly versed in astronomy, geology or geometry if the careers we have chosen have nothing to do with such subjects.

"But we must be knowledgeable about personal and public health, as well as the history of our country. We cannot keep ourselves in good health unless we know what it takes to be healthy; similarly, we cannot love our country sufficiently if we are ignorant of its history."

David Hume, in the essay, 'On the study of history', also observed in 1740:

"I must think it unpardonable ignorance in persons of whatever sex or condition not to be acquainted with the history of their own country, together with the histories of ancient Greece and Rome."

 An individual acquainted with history may, in some respect, be said to have lived from the beginning of the world, and to have been making continual additions to his stock of knowledge in every century.

In the new Volume, Published in 2010 by College Publishing Company, we see Malawi, from 1915 to date, pass in review before us.

There is, in this 396 paged-volume, the presence of that historical aspect, virtue, too. And orderly tucked in its 26 chapters are people and events in their proper colours. If D.D. Phiri has personal inclinations; then, they are not so visible to alter the overall state of facts and evidence.

Issues are presented in order of their occurrence, instead of chasing after the shadow of non-corresponding themes. He does the same with personalities involved; he does not introduce them for the sake of it,
but ties them to events they played a part in.

The first four chapters start on a social, economic and natural resources' note, with the first chapter chronicling the courage of local men who fought battles that were not theirs, and their contribution to British victory in East Africa during World 1. The focus on land issues, education history, and rail transportation sets the tone for the brunt tone that characterizes Volume 2.

But, that aside, the politics of nationalism and independence make chapters four to 26 political- with some unexpected economic and social issues making sporadic appearances in chapter 16 and 22-elements that satisfy Hume's 'three kinds of advantages found in History', namely: amusement, understanding, and virtue.

Amusement because It is entertaining to the mind to be transported into the remotest ages of the world, and to observe human society, taking the first steps of civilization.

It enhances understanding in that it is more meaningful to see government policies, and the civility of conversation, and everything which is ornamental to human life, advancing towards its perfection;
as well as to remark the rise, progress, declination, and final extinction of the most-flourishing empires.

 As for virtue, it corresponds with truth. Truth, regarded as the basis of history, is apparent where anecdotes are employed. The book confirms that, indeed, virtue and truth help readers and writers avoid interest from perverting their judgement.

The book is a must-read for history teachers, students and the general population because everybody's needs are catered for in its approach. Combined with word economy, logic and a modicum of evidence, the
knowledge gates are truly opened.

D.D. Phiri, a University of London economics, history and sociology graduate, has 22 fiction and non-fiction books to his credit.

However, the 'History of Malawi, Volume 2' is not a paragon of innocence.

To start with, there are some confusing typo errors and, secondly, there are not many books on the subject.

Thirdly, Malawi is still a 'young' nation. As Sir Francis Bacon said, "a young nation is fitter to invent than to judge". Some of the assertions cannot be backed up.

To this, D.D. Phiri says: "the writing of this book could have taken me even longer if it were not for the fact that most of the events narrated herein happened when I was already old enough to take interest and sometimes participate in them."

Participation and narration can, sometimes, be fortresses that limit view of the outside world and distort perspective.

Otherwise, D.D. Phiri's latest publication is written for everyday use, reprete with a permanence which the passage of 96 years has very little modified. It presents the Malawi we have always had, being human; and to know it is to recognize ourselves.

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