He died 15 years ago, but he is still the most famous person who ever lived at Mzokoto in Rumphi.
His stone house is probably the only noteworthy landmark in the vicinity of Phwezi secondary schools and women vocational training centre.
As immortalised in Thumbiko Shumba’s book Destiny, the deserted home is still so touristy that travellers on the northern quarter of the country marvel and point at, saying: “There lived SS Ng’oma, the old man who prepared his own grave and bought a casket in anticipation for his death.”
The creation of the man who prepared his tomb while alive was built in 1970, three decades before government constructed a glistening mausoleum for founding president Hastings Kamuzu Banda in Lilongwe.
It is a rustic, two-storey affair made of mouldy timber, rusty metal sheeting and other scraps. The eye-catcher of Mzokoto is coated in scratched paints of many colours which speak of little care since the owner breathed his last 15 years ago. It looks deserted and falling apart.
During a visit in 2000, we found ourselves precariously ascending shaky wooden stairs leading to the top floor where Samson Ng’oma spent most of his time when he was not attending to his shop and maize mill. Upstairs sat a preachy grey-haired man singing hymns and reading the Bible in the apartment which served as his chapel, bedroom and compartment for the coffin.
“Welcome,” he ushered us in, explaining: “We are all visitors on earth. Unfortunately, when we are alive, we forget that we are dying.”
He backed his assertions with scripture, but the oddities in his setting said it all.
The octogenarian could not mute his peculiar preoccupation with death which made him a crowd puller just when his relatives and neighbours believed he was a garrulous wizard or plain deluded.
In the stuffy room, he termed the bedside coffin as a chariot that was waiting to carry his remains to the cement-plastered tomb in the backyard.
As we paced towards the grave downstairs, Ng’oma drew our attention to the inescapable nature of death.
“I will not live forever. When I die, I don’t want my funeral to make anybody poorer. That’s why I made sure everything is ready,” he said, exploding into a frail dirge.
He died aged 90 in 2002. But the wish that typified his final years came to naught as he was not buried in his intended grave, but a family cemetery.
His granddaughter Elasi Nyirenda tells us: “As a family, we thought it culturally befitting to bury him near his wife. But we made sure that the grave resembled the one he made while alive. ”
The solo preacher may have gone for good, but his monumental legacy lives on.
Every week, travellers stop by the roadside ‘mausoleum’ to get deeper insights into SS Ng’oma’s unorthodox surrender to death.
His family has set aside the house as a museum dedicated to his legacy.
“A week barely passes without receiving visitors curious about his story,” says Nyirenda.
But the arrivals are somehow lower than when Ng’oma was alive, she explains.
“Then, visitors of all manner were dropping in to take pictures and ask questions. Others prayed with him in the church upstairs,” the granddaughter recalls, saying the old man was a preacher and mediator.
But he is mostly remembered for pioneering the art of confronting deadening realities and misconceptions of death.
Psychologist Ndumanene Silungwe, who works at St John of God Hospitaller Services in Mzuzu, spoke of the one-time grave oddity as a unique struggle to shatter the mould.
“The beauty of it all is that he prepared the grave for himself to give us food for thought,” he says.
From the start, his neighbours found it bizarre for anybody to do such a thing, says Nyirenda. But the locals’ reservations waned after noticing the positive response from passersby. The family was bought in too.
“We still believe that the dead should be buried at our family cemetery,” she says. “But our gogo, SS Ng’oma, taught us that we need to be prepared for our death both spiritually and emotionally.” n