Peter Jones Chakuluma, that shy and friendly deputy mine supervisor at Mchenga, offered to take us on a tour of the surrounding villages, arguing that he did not have permission to take us down the mine itself. Jean-Philippe protested. I also protested, essentially because Jean-Philippe, my donor, my IMF, had protested.
We crossed the road and took a footpath that led us to a village perched on a hill. Except for the kokolikohere and kokoliko there of roosters, the chirping of birds here and chirping of birds there and the groaning of laden trucks scaling the Chiweta escarpment road, the village was graveyard quiet.
From there we could see the outline of Lake Malawi at Mlowe and Tanzanian mountains that bordered Malawi’s lake of stars, fish and oil.
“Wow! We need to revise the Bible!”Jean-Philippe said.
“Heaven is not up yonder; it is right here,” Jean-Philippe went on.
“In heaven everybody will live happily, hyenas will chat with goats…”, Chakuluma chipped in.
“And Osama bin Laden will hug, shake hands and kiss Barack Obama,” Jean-Philippe joked.
“In heaven nothing is impossible,” Chakuluma responded, not without reading Jean-Philippe’s sarcasm.
“Peter, leave heavenly issues to the Church and concentrate on mining!” Jean-Philippe advised.
Chakuluma smiled. Before he could utter anything further, a boy emerged from nowhere, came near us and greeted us in Chitumbuka. Chakuluma answered him in Chichewa and asked where his parents had gone.
“Bamama wamuteka maji ku musinje,” the boy, Kafwe, answered, telling us that his mother had gone to fetch water from a nearby river.
“Nanga bambo?” Chakuluma asked the boy where his father was.
“Badada baluta kuyakapenja somba kunyanja” Kafwe responded.
We thought it wise not to tour a village in the absence of adults, particularly Kafwe’s father who had gone to the lake to look for fish. So we walked back to the mine car park. On the way I asked Chakuluma why he troubled the boy with addressing him in Chichewa.
“Learning Chitumbuka is very hard. I can understand it, but I can’t speak it.”
“You can’t learn to speak the language of the community you have worked in for ten years?” I asked.
“People we work with here speak English or Chichewa. The majority of the local people also understand Chichewa. So, for me, learning Chitumbuka is not necessary. Maybe politicians should learn it because they need votes. I don’t,” Chakaluma said matter-of-factly.
We thanked Chakuluma for his preparedness to entertain us. Holding Chakuluma’s hand, Jean-Philippe said unto him:
“Peter Jones. You need to learn the culture, particularly the language of the community whose minerals you extract. Give back something in the form of schools, real sturdy schools; not shacks, potable water points, health centres and jobs. Don’t wait until the community starts demanding. All over the world, mining companies that ignore their social responsibility to the local communities have lived to regret it.”
“Thank you for your kind advice. I will convey it to my superiors. Malawi needs multicultural education so we value one another.”
We waved at Chakuluma and drove down the Chiweta Road on our way to Livingstonia. As we descended the escarpment, Jean-Philippe kept turning from side to side to admire the unadulterated vistas. He was only disturbed when I swerved the Toyota Harriet to avoid an oncoming truck.
“I didn’t realise you are such a clever driver,” Jean-Philippe remarked after the close-shave.
“Not clever, but intelligent driver!”
“I have never seen an intelligent driver.”
“Meaning that I am dumb? Mind your words.”
“Intelligence should be spared for those who designed the vehicle.”
“But the car didn’t control itself!”
“Yours is applied intelligence,” Jean-Philippe said.
“Go to hell!”
“How far is it from heaven?”