Our delegation loves our president, the president of the federal republic of Malawi. We do so individually, too. We have never hidden this fact and we are not planning to do so at any time soon. Professor Dr Joyce Befu, MG 66 and MEGA-1, loves President Professor Arthur Peter Mutharika and she has never minced words about her feelings towards our federal president. And who are we not to follow in her impeccable shoes?
We commit funds, energies and sleepless nights and rest-less days to follow our President and cheer him wherever and whenever he has a public engagement or political campaign rally or both since “the difference is the same” as one professor of education said decades ago.
Early this week we joined our President in Mpamba, Nkhata Bay where he launched the newly refurbished Mzuzu-Nkhata Bay, no Nkhata Bay–Mzuzu Road. As we speak there are three roads in Malawi that meet international standards. The first is the Limbe-Muloza Road that goes through Thyolo and Mulanje; the second is the Lilongwe-Mchinji Road and the third is this Nkhata Bay-Mzuzu Road.
So, you can understand why the people of Nkhata Bay were so euphoric about the good quality road. That it will improve businesses is unquestionable. That it has already increased the number of minor and fatal accidents is also unchallengeable but often ignored.
Because of the din of voices at the rally we did not catch Chief Timbiri’s words but some people tell us that he told the president that the chiefs in Tongaland and Ungoni had agreed to ask the president to name the road after himself because, they apparently realised that chiefs have no power to name any public infrastructure in Malawi.
Jean-Philippe wondered why such a major road should be named after anybody. The practice worldwide, he said, is that such roads are identified by letters and numbers: N1, N2, M1, M2, S6 and so on. It is only urban roads that are named after people, animals or spirits.
I schooled Jean-Philippe about chiefs and politics in the federal republic of Malawi. I told him such requests are not strange. In the remote past, all major infrastructures were named after Kamuzu Banda and nobody questioned this. Even Malawi would have been named Kamuzu. Nobody would have challenged this. Today we would be Kamuzuans carrying Republic of Kamuzu passports and identity cards.
Most of this naming and renaming was and is done by partisan politicians through chiefs. Except for a few, most chiefs are too timid to refuse to be used. Social anthropologists, social psychologists and historians can better explain why Malawian chiefs do this. However, we can still scratch on the surface of the matter.
The history of Malawi is full of stories about how chiefs considered adamant were deposed, humiliated and even killed.
In 1964, in the wake of the Cabinet crisis, some chiefs were summoned to Zomba, then capital of Malawi. They included Chief Timbiri, the father to the current TA Timbiri. Chief Timbiri ‘disappeared’ and died in Zomba. His body was brought back by his family and he is buried near Mpamba where the Nkhata Bay- Mzuzu road inauguration ceremony was taking place this past week. No death certificate. No explanation on the cause of Chief’s death has come forward from all governments. So, you can understand Chief Timbiri’s dilemma when forced to utter those political words.
In the early 1970s, chiefs were asked if they thought it was good for Manoah Chirwa and other ‘rebels’ to be pardoned and asked to return from exile. Those who supported the motion were, understandably, mostly from Nkhata Bay, Manowa Chirwa’s home district.
Horror! Some chiefs were whipped and slapped right there at convention hall at Mary Mount Secondary School. Others were later deposed. Chiefs learned a big lesson from that incident. Today they act stupid to please the politicians. They go to public media and declare allegiance for the government of the day. They act stupid to save themselves from humiliation, possible killing and ‘disappearance’. But they know the truth that their people will not accept the new names and even their endorsements.
Ever wondered why, despite their endorsement of dictators and backward policies, chiefs remain one of the most trusted institutions in Malawi? The people know that the chiefs are just actors on the political stage.
Chief Kyungu asked President Bingu wa Mutharika to name the now disintegrating Karonga-Chitipa road after himself. But except for politicians nobody in Chitipa and Karonga today ever calls that road Bingu Highway. Bingu decided to rename the Midima Road to Mulanje Robert Mugabe Road or Highway. The plaque was removed soon after he finished unveiling it. A new one was quickly affixed, but travel along the Limbe-Nkando-Mulanje road today; you will not hear anybody talk about Mugabe but Midima Road. Bingu renamed Chikwawa to Chikhwawa but people, even the MBC, still call that district Chikwawa.
Chancellor College what was officially the Kamuzu Great Hall is just the Great Hall just like the Kamuzu Great Lakeshore Road is just the Lakeshore Road or M-5 road. So, in the minds of the people the Nkhata Bay –Mzuzu road will remain just that, new name or no new name.