Malawi Independence Day
Elated cries filled the hot, humid air. The dark convertible occupied by Dr. Hastings Banda, called Kamuzu, Savior, edged its way through the mass of black bodies held back by green-shirted Young Pioneers. Dressed in his dapper western-style suit, Dr. Banda stood in the open car and flicked his lion’s tail fly whisk. The response was quick. A wave of shouts and ululations rolled through the tightly packed throng.
Located in southeastern Africa, Nyasaland had been a British protectorate for eighty years. In a few days, it would become the free and independent nation of Malawi with Dr. Banda the Prime Minister. He had come to Blantyre to dedicate the Malawi Congress Party Headquarters, the aquamarine cement block building where we had gathered. The high-energy throng was my introduction to the people of Malawi.
In the summer of 1964, I traveled to Nyasaland with Operation Crossroads Africa, a program founded in 1957 by Rev. James H. Robinson, Minster of the Church of the Master in Harlem, and a prominent African-American civil rights activist. Dr. Robinson created the program to expose white and African-American college students to an experience that would calm the racial friction that was igniting in the U.S. By living and working together and coping with a situation foreign to all participants, the goal was that we would get to know each other as individuals, and take a new sense of ourselves and our teammates back into our lives as emerging adults.
Fourteen of us were assigned to build a dormitory at the new training center for the League of Malawi Youth, and for most, it was our first time outside of the United States. That summer was my first experience being in a racial minority. I was alert for any residual resentment against the British colonials but found none. The African Americans were eagerly searching for their roots, but their lighter skin and American clothing and accents marked them as foreigners as well. Everyone seemed to know we were Americans, and we were well received.
We had arrived early for the dedication of the building to watch the dancers practice. The women wore plain cotton dresses under colorful kangas, the wide all-purpose rectangles of cloth many of which secured children to their backs. The babies jiggled happily and fell asleep to their mother’s bouncing. One woman kept the rhythm going by blowing a plastic whistle. The others sang, twirled and clapped to her beat. Their feet pounded clouds of dust from the hard dirt surface.
The women paused to catch their breath, but as soon as Dr. Banda arrived their frenzied cheers sparked the rest of the crowd. At last, the ululations died down and the portly Dr. Banda stepped from the car. He made his way toward the tall chair prepared for him on the veranda of the building. The Prime Minister-to-be passed so close to me that I could see beads of sweat at his hairline.
When he was seated, the dancers flew into their performance. Banda smiled in appreciation. When they finished, he again flicked the fly whisk, a symbol of his new office, and rose to address the crowd. He spoke in English, and paused occasionally for the translator to summarize his patriotic rhetoric and promises for a bright future in Chinyanja (Chichewa).
Dr. Banda was educated by Scottish missionaries in Nyasaland until they sent the promising student to the United States to study medicine. He built a practice in Scotland before returning to his homeland in 1958 to join the emerging movement for independence.
I crept behind the audience for a better photo angle and one of the men near me noticed me and my camera. We had heard that some of the people did not like their photos taken, and I thought I might be in trouble. However, he whispered to the men in front of him and they stepped aside, urging me forward. All the Africans, we learned, were eager to assure the European (white) guests that they were welcome.
Landlocked Malawi had never attracted colonialists in great numbers because of its mediocre soil and lack of mineral resources. The Scottish missionaries arrived in the country after David Livingston’s journey in the early 1800’s and established a handful of schools, but the country as a whole lacked the infrastructure developed in other colonies: schools, roads and transportation, and a vigorous agricultural base. It was a nation of illiterate, subsistence farmers, many unaware of anything beyond their villages.
Dr. Hastings “Kamuzu” Banda had inherited an enormous task. He had a high regard for western ideas, yet did not want his country to lose its African identity. The people could not see “independence,” an abstract a concept, but they could see Dr. Banda when he traveled the countryside. The missionaries promised salvation after death, but Banda called them to work for a better life in this world and they responded to his call.
The week-long independence celebrations seemed staged more for foreign visitors than for the new citizens who lived far from Blantyre. The lucky few were the hundreds of performers who were bused in from the distant regions and who would carry the experience back home.
After the dedication ceremony, we were driven about an hour from Blantyre to the training camp for the Young Pioneers where we would be working the rest of the summer. The “youth,” some of whom were sprouting gray hairs, were from all parts of the country and were being trained to be government contacts for their villages. African instructors schooled them in the history of the country and how the government worked, while two Israeli trainers led them in physical activities, running and marching in formation. We could track their coming and going by their rhythmic voices singing to the beat of their boots. Their day began at 5:30 am, when they sang their way to the mess hall and ended at 10 pm. Because we heard their songs every day, we could soon sing them ourselves, in a fashion. Most were in Chinyanja, which none of us spoke but we could mimic the sounds. One day we heard them singing something to the tune of ”Oh, Suzanna”. After hearing it several times, we realized with difficulty that they were singing in English “I’m going to see “Kamuzu” with my banjo on my knee” We must have sounded equally distorted to them when we tried to sing in their language but we all sang with gusto, which made up for many blemishes.
Our first few days in camp, we couldn’t work because the trucks were all in use for the independence activities and so there was no transportation for the supplies we needed to get started. In lieu of work, we attended soccer matches, parties honoring the independence, meetings and rallies using the combi, a small bus that was available to us on occasion.
One evening we had dinner with some of the new cabinet members in a dark banquet room in a Blantyre hotel. We were seated in a hollow square of tables, three cabinet members at one end and my group filling the rest of the square. We were served baked chicken which looked tasty, so I dug in. I was pleased I had practiced in the proper use of knife and fork to attack a half chicken at my college’s formal dinners, though I resented being forced to attend since it was the only way to get any dinner on those nights.
At the table across from the ministers, I worked on my chicken carcass for a while, daintily taking bites as I separated the flesh from the bones. I was enjoying the meal and intent on my dissection, but eventually looked up to discover I was the only one using my knife and fork. Everyone, including the ministers, was picking them up and gnawing as I would have preferred. I put down my utensils and joined them with a smug “So, there” to those college dinners.
After dinner, each of the ministers present spoke about his aspirations for Malawi. Each one seemed pleasant and capable and a good choice to lead. B-more, our irrepressible member from Baltimore, bonded immediately with Yatuta Chiseza, Minister of Home Affairs and after dinner B-More cornered him for an intense political discussion. For the rest of the summer, B-more referred to him as “my man” and talked non-stop about the good things Chiseza would do. We also met Henry Chipembere, who later visited our site in his role as Minister of Education. That night, all the ministers were excited about the impending independence and optimistic about the future of Malawi.
On the afternoon of July 5, we dressed in our best and climbed into the back of the lorry, the flat-bed truck used to haul gravel, cement and everything else. As our truck-load of young Americans rumbled toward Blantyre along the unpaved main road we sang the songs we had learned in Chinyanja. Heads supporting kanga-tied loads followed our progress. People walking along the side of the road waved at us and laughed and we waved back. Some of their laughter seemed a bit more raucous than just a friendly greeting and I wondered just what we were actually saying.
The new stadium had been built for the independence celebrations and the bright lights blinded us as we walked across a plowed field in temporary use as a parking area. Once in our seats in the bleacher section, we people-watched as the stadium filled.
Finally, tinny recorded music crackled over the loudspeaker and hundreds of children carrying colorful banners streamed from the sides to fill the field in lines and rows. In time to the music, they marched in formations and waved their flags in unison. In our training before leaving the U.S., we had seen in a grainy black-and-white film of the Kenyan independence celebrations of two years previous that had included the same mass exercises. As I watched the children, I did wonder if the British had a choreographer who staged these events that so many of the colonies were celebrating at the time.
The students cleared the field, and we waited. In the gap, the PA system blared announcements. “Mrs. A. Please go home. Your children are crying.”
We had anticipated a cool evening and had carried blankets with us since none of us had brought warm jackets from home. A few of us had cut a slit like a serape and when we put them on, our neighbors in the sky seats pointed and made comments. I couldn’t tell if they envied our extra layer, since none of them had jackets either, or if they were noting our odd group huddled among them. What could they be making of us?
After the students left the field, thirteen dance groups spaced themselves around the track. They were the winners of local competitions for the honor of representing their home regions at this event. The previous day we had watched them practice the dances indigenous to their areas. The Scottish missionaries had condemned this type of traditional dancing as evil, but it continued away from their eyes. As soon as he could, Dr. Banda encouraged his countrymen to resume the dances as a part of their national culture.
Each set of dancers did their routine for a section of bleachers and on cue they all marched around to the next section and began again. I was distracted during one of the transitions and when I returned my attention to the track in front of us, a heap of corn husks and strips of cloth had appeared flanked by several drummers. The drummers played softly and the corn husks began to shake and slowly come to life. The dancer quivered to standing and the drums picked up the pace. He jumped and shuddered in a frenzy of rattling husks and flying cloth. His frightful mask assured that the uninitiated would keep their distance, which was not a problem for us locked high in the bleachers. He flailed about for some minutes like a dog shaking off water. When the drummers reached a frantic pace, the dancer shivered and twitched as if in a fit. Suddenly, the drums stopped. He froze. Then, he flipped forward in a no-hands somersault, hit the ground and fell back in a heap. The crowd in our section went wild. A small boy ran out from the sidelines to straighten the costume so the husk-covered man would remain concealed so that no one would discover the his identity and die a terrible death. Then he rose, strode down the track with the drummers like a mere mortal and repeated his performance in front of the next set of bleachers.
After every group had circled the field and everyone had enjoyed them all, they filed off the field.
We waited again in relative quiet. People chatted and fidgeted but stayed put. Finally, the band struck up a rousing military march. The spotlights flooded the entrance to the stadium. Dr. Banda had arrived. An enthusiastic roar welcomed him as his familiar limo paraded him around the stadium. I tried to ululate like the women around me but my tongue just would not wag freely enough.
Dr. Banda climbed into the grandstand directly across from us and behind a flagpole that flew the British flag. The tinny voice then instructed the people in the stadium to greet The Duke of Windsor, the queen’s representative, with equal enthusiasm since Great Britain was giving them their independence. The spotlights returned to illuminate the entry and the people cheered obediently as the Duke’s vehicle emerged from under the stands. He made the orbit and settled down Dr. Banda. Next, the army emerged and marched in ragged double lines onto the track. I thought to myself that a crack regiment was probably not essential in this very small and new country though perhaps the children who had performed might help their precision if they became soldiers. It was a prescient thought.
At midnight the moment for the transition arrived. The lights dimmed except for a pair of spotlights on the British flag. Drums rolled and the band played “God Save the Queen.” As the last chord faded, all the lights went off. Silence descended on the expectant crowd. After a long minute or two, the spotlights illuminated the new Malawi flag on the pole for all to see. At the same moment, the band struck up the Malawi national anthem. The first notes of the anthem were almost drowned by the roar of the crowd. Everyone stood, waved flags or whatever they had to wave, and each made the loudest noise they were capable of making: applause, whistle yells. We had been prepared in camp to sing, and I fumbled for the words tucked in my pocket but I quickly realized it was not going to happen and joined in the wild cheering. After the anthem finished and the cheering finally died down, there was a short lull while people caught their breath and then, whoosh, fireworks burst high above us. The loud pops and bright flashes were greeted by more cheering, followed by the smell of cordite that drifted across the stadium. A few fires were started in the surrounding fields by the falling sparks but were quickly extinguished.
Malawi had joined the roster of independent countries.
It took quite a while for the excitement to wear off enough for people to begin to exit the stadium. We squeezed our way toward our lorry and clambered in to collapse on the floor, exhausted with the excitement.
I felt deeply moved to have witnessed a peaceful transition to nationhood when our own independence was so violent. While our fireworks remind us of the battles that we fought for our freedom, theirs were more political and less bloody. We are still working out the details of how to make democracy work after over two hundred years and I hoped they would be able to work a bit faster to create a system that worked for them.
The rest of the summer, we dug ditches and poured the foundation for the new dormitory, laid bricks for walls, made friends with the Malawian instructors and the two Israelis. We traveled on weekends in our little VW combi, and slept, ate and lived in close quarters with friends we had not met before joining the program.
When we returned home, we learned that President Johnson had signed the Civil Rights Act. Students from my college had joined others in registering black voters in Mississippi, and three students doing the same work, two black and one white, had been found buried in an earthen dam.
I returned to school in the fall. The five of us from my college who had participated in the program in different counties were obliged to share our experiences with civic groups to help raise money for the next summer’s participants, so we had many opportunities to relive our summers through the talks and slide shows.
News of Malawi was sparse after I left, but recently I came across references to events subsequent to my visit. Paul Theroux, a well known travel writer, was a Peace Corps volunteer at the time I was in Malawi and he was writing even then about the activities of the new government. Within two years of independence, six of the nine original cabinet members had been forced to leave the country or were dead, accused of being traitors by Dr. Banda. The six included all of the men we met at dinner, H.B.M. Chipembere, Minister of Education, Kanyama Chiume, Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Yatuta Chiseza, Minister of Home Affairs, They all had seemed so eager to move their new nation forward. In 1971, Dr. Banda declared himself President for Life. He ruled autocratically using The Young Pioneers, who became the paramilitary wing of the Malawi Congress Party, to enforce his will.
Banda encouraged European investments and there was some economic growth in the ‘70s. Landlocked Malawi had to use ports in Mozambique, but access was denied after Malawi became a refuge for the Mozambique rebels, causing the economy to falter.
In his book, Dark Star Safari, Theroux recounts traveling through Malawi in the early 1990’s to discover it had reverted to extreme poverty. Early on, Dr. Banda had forced the East Indians to leave the country. They had been the shopkeepers, tending their tiny shops with supplies of basic items in every village. They composed the middle class, but were resented because they earned their money off the local people and sent money to their families in India. Their African employees were eager to take over on their departure, but once the current stock was sold, the they had no idea how to manage a store. AIDS has ravaged the population, leaving thousands of orphans. In Theroux’s opinion, international aid groups seem more interested in establishing a permanent presence than in training the Malawians to help themselves. I hope his cynical view is not the whole picture.
In 1992, Malawi suffered the worst drought of the century, and internal and international pressure forced a referendum in which the aging Dr. Banda was voted out of office. A multi-party state was established and Dr. Bakili Muluzi served the two terms allowed. He campaigned to have the constitution changed so he could run for a third term, but abandoned that idea after protests by the people. It seems Malawi has matured politically though it is still one of the poorest nations in the world. I am hopeful that political stability will help their economic situation.
While I have traveled extensively since that summer of 1964, nothing has had the impact of my first visit to a developing country. I never have seen another independence celebration. Couple that with living with a racially and economically diverse group of young people, that summer’s influence was profoundly life changing. After my graduation, I served in Tanzania as a Peace Corps Volunteer. As a secondary school teacher I contributed a small part to the development of the nation.