On the Society page of the Weekend Nation of February 1 2014, there was a feature article titled Telling Our Stories and sub-headed Few biographies on Malawians public figures.
I found the article engrossing because of what those interviewed said. Almost everyone said what I would euphemistically say was almost precise. What is not questionable is that in advanced countries such as those of Europe and North America, biographies and autobiographies are popular with writers and readers alike.
When we read biographies of great men and women, we learn that they had been inspired to do great things after reading what other great people had done. Sir Isaac Newton said he had been able to see more than others because he was standing on the shoulders of the giants. He meant he had read what other scientists had done.
Booker T. Washington of Tuskegee, Alabama in the USA said he preferred reading about real lives of people in biographies to reading fictitious people in novels. Lives of men like Abraham Lincoln inspired him as founder of the Tuskegee Institute. Many Africans who started institutes of their own were inspired by Booker Washington’s Up From Slavery, an Autobiography.
Some commentators gave the impression that they were not familiar of the biographies and autobiographies that Malawians have already written but which have gone out of print.
One of the earliest autobiographies I can remember is that of the late Harry Kambwiri Matecheta who wrote his story and that of the Blantyre Mission in a booklet titled Chiyambi cha Blantyre Mission: the Beginning of the Blantyre Mission. Also telling the same story much later was a distinguished civil servant Lewis Makata Bandawe, a Lomwe who wrote a much bigger autobiography Memoirs of a Malawian.
At Nkhoma Mission, one of the most prolific writers, Samuel Mshamboza Yosiya Nthala wrote the biographies of Rev Namon Katengeza and Mshamboza. In the 1970’s, DD Phiri wrote five biographies which Longman published under the common title of Malawians to Remember. The personalities were Chief Gomani II, James F. Sangala, Dunduzu K. Chisiza, Charles C. Chinula and John Chilembwe. Later, he added the name of Clements Kadalie. In 2009, he completed the biography of Aleke K Banda (AKB) which AKB personally approved, but is yet to see the light of day.
At the advent of the multiparty era, Sam Mpasu published a brilliant autobiography. About the same time, the Malawi nation saw for the first time the autobiographies of Kanyama Chiume and Masauko Chipembere.
There are many outstanding Malawians who deserve a biography. It is a puzzle to some of us that those who are singing “Tizafa naye tiri pambuyo pa Kamuzu” (We shall die with him, we are behind Kamuzu) have so far done nothing about writing his biography. Of course, not everyone can write a biography, but those who have the resources can hire someone to do so.
Others deserving a biography are Chief Mwase (Samuel) and Chief M’mbelwa II—these were heroes in the fight against the Federation; prolific writers such as Samuel V Nthala, EW Chafulumira, JW Gwengwe; women leaders like Mrs Margaret Mlanga, Rose Chibambo, Mama C Tamanda Kadzamira, needless to add President Joyce Banda.
It is not quite correct to say that those who do not write their biographies do not have time. There are 24 hours in a day for everybody. They just have different priorities. Winston Churchill, Clements Kadalie, Kwame Nkrumah, Nnandi Azikiwe, Julius Nyerere, Kenneth Kaunda, these and many others wrote about their lives amid right schedules. To write first and foremost, you must have an itch to write.
It is more expensive and time-consuming to write a biography than to write a novel. If your imagination is good, all you need is a writing pad, a ball pen and a quiet place you can write a bestseller novel. With a biography, you must spend money and time on doing extensive research; you may have to hire a research assistant. By the time you finish the writing, you probably have spent more than the book will earn for you.
During the 1940’s, missionaries encouraged learning about great Africans as part of history. During history lessons, we heard about John Tengo Jabavu of South Africa, Moshoeshoe, founder of the Lesotho nation, Seretse Khama of Botswana, Apolo Kagwa of Uganda and above all, Dr James Kwegyir Aggrey, known as Aggrey of Africa. These stories used to inspire us, especially those of Aggrey and BT Washington.
Why and when the teaching of biographies in schools stopped, I do not know, but it was a mistake to discontinue the practice. Students should be exposed to role models or else they grope in the dark.