Thursday, December 3, 2009

How much do we know about the personal histories of our leaders?

A discussion with a good colleague based in London a few weeks back has gotten me thinking about how little we really know about our leaders.
Hastings Kamuzu Banda (Prime Minister and President, 1961-1994)

Malawi's first President, the late Hastings Kamuzu Banda, might have ruled for nearly three decades, but yet the country knows very little about his personal history. Indeed, his own relations indicated in a Malawi News article in January of 1998 that the first "Ngwazi " did not want, "for reasons only known to himself, his history to be written while he was alive". Well, twelve years after his passing, we still know very little about the man: when exactly was he born? Was it 1906 as the public was made to believe during his reign or was it during the Mwase-Chibisa war of 1896 as has been suggested by some of his relatives? or was it 1898, as Phillip Short suggests in his biography of the man? What was his name at birth? was it Ackim Kamnkhwala Banda as his relations have pointed out and why did he change his name to Hastings Kamuzu Banda? Did he have brothers and were there more sisters? When exactly did he travel to Zimbabwe, South Africa and later to the United States for his university studies? who sponsored him on these trips and why? what else did he do in those countries other than study?
Was Kamuzu ever married? did he have children? If not, why, especially for a man that put Malawi women - his "Mbumba" at the top of his priorities? And what exactly was the role of the "Official Hostess" in Kamuzu's life? Why did Kamuzu always had to speak in English and require a translator (much like many of our numerous pastors today)?

Bakili Muluzi, President, 1994-2004
Exit Kamuzu, enter Bakili Muluzi. Perhaps the only one of the three Presidents that we know the most about. The only one of the three Malawi leaders not to have spent a good part of his life outside the country, so much is known about Muluzi's personal story, from Kapoloma village in Machinga on his journey to the Malawi presidency. His marriages, his political abilities (and weaknesses), his business acumen and failures are all a matter of public knowledge.

Bingu wa Mutharika, President, 2004-to date
Now, Bingu wa Mutharika. Although less enigmatic than Kamuzu, Mutharika's personal history is also very sketchy. Born Brightson Webster Ryson Thom, very little (that is convincing at least), is known as to why had to change his original names and adopt the Bingu Mutharika moniker.
Does changing ones name from Thomu to Mutharika truly disguise one's identity from the agents of the one-party era as has been suggested? What exactly had he done that required such drastic changes in his life as to not only escape from Malawi, but also to change his entire name? (especially when one considers the most famous victims of Banda's dictatorship like Henry Masauko Chipembere, Kanyama Chiume, Orton Chirwa, etc, did not have to change their names in exile)? Even if we are to he had to change names to escape the one party brutality, did his family (read brother) also have to change names? And does Bingu have any other siblings other than his eponymous brother, Peter?
Where exactly did Thomu/Mutharika do his university studies? Did he physically attend the Universities of Delhi in India and the now defunct Pacific Western University to get his MA and PhD respectively? And did he have a Bachelor's Degree before obtaining the MA at the University of Delhi? If yes, where was this obtained?

We read in the run up to last May's elections, there were so many people showing up looking for jobs by claiming to be related to Mutharika. That is perhaps the price to be paid when very little is known about the background of the man holding the highest office in the land.

The bottom line is that we need to learn more about our leaders. In the absence of credible official information, we are left to rumor and speculation. We need people who are willing to take up these subjects and write up the histories of our leaders while they are still alive, or, in the case of the late Banda, to learn more about the man from those that were close to the late president and are still alive to share what they know of the man. Anyone out there willing to take on this project?


Jimmy Kainja said...

I feel this a very important issue that MUST be at the centre of political debating in Malawi. Unfortunately, the politically controlled media in Malawi cannot be allowed to embark on such tasks. Thanks for bringing this up.

bloggingmalawi said...

Wawa a Paramount; count me in for the project. There's a similar thread on Nyasanet right now, with Makhumbo Mwasinga wondering what Mama Tamanda Kadzamira knows about Kamuzu that she hasn't shared with the nation. One wishes Mama authored her own autobiography.
If not, have a Malawian biographer/journalist spend a few years with her, and write a biography of her. I haven't heard if either scenario is in the offing.

I strongly believe in, and am ready and willing to contribute ideas and plans to starting a national biography project to produce book-length studies on important aspects of our history. The likes of Dr. D.D. Phiri have done a lot, and the nation has benefitted. But we still have huge knowledge gaps in the story of our country, and your post demonstrates that. As Paul Zeleza says, we also have huge gaps in what our scholars have produced, and what our teachers and students teach and learn.

We have enough universities and institutions of higher learning to
develop and sustain a project like this one. The Malawi Institute of
Journalism, with its expertise in training journalists, would be an
ideal place to pursue such an idea, alongside the other universities
and colleges. I'm serious about pursuing this idea further, the starting of a national biography project. Where do we start?

Jimmy Kainja said...

There is a saying Africa that when an old person dies it is equivalent to burning a whole library of books. In other words, when an old person dies; knowledge die as well because nothing is recorded. This is exactly the case in Malawi.

I remember reading Mzati Nkolokosa's comments (could be on his blog, I am not sure now), he mentioned that once people like Aleke Banda, Cecilia Kadzamira and John Tembo are died, there will be no one well placed to tell kamuzu's "real" or inside story.

Indeed one would think Cecilia Kadzamira has abundant of valuable information on Banda, information worth countless number of books.

I am sure people like D.D. Phiri would relish such projects but HOW do you persuade these people to talk? Aleke Banda has people around him (through his ownership of the Nation newspaper) that can do a brilliant autobiography of his, yet nothing happens?

Too much secrecy is denying the country valuable information, which unfortunately is vital to the nation's history. One can only hope things will improve one day.

Boni Dulani said...

Jimmy and Parmaount Sharra,
well, shouldn't we stop talking about DD Phiri etc and start thinking what we ourselves can do? It's not such a huge project - and doesn't require much resources (at least to get appointments and the interviews?)

harold said...

Interesting comments. I recall when "Dr." Bakili Muluzi was about to be innaugurated as president in his first term of office, he was asked by a journalist to tell the nation about himself. The journalist further specified some of the things Muluzi may want to talk about - "When were you born? Where did you go to school? Are you married? How many wives and how many children? What positions have you held? etc.

"Dr." Muluzi was clearly annoyed and he said "All you need to know is that I am a hapily married man with children. Next question please..."

I disagree somehow that of the three leaders, we know most about Muluzi. I think we know most about Kamuzu. I can write an essay about Kamuzu Banda's history - I learnt it in primary school. I can hardly write two paragraphs about "Dr." bakili Muluzi and all I will write about will be heresy.

Needless to say, I support the idea that there is an opportunity here to record our history. And the costs may not be out of this world.