Forty years after the death of the man who inspired him to be the legendary musician he is today, South Africa’s music maestro Ray Phiri’s joy at his first ever experience of the country of his adoptive father was unmistakable.
From Dedza, a Malawi immigrant Justnow Kanyama Phiri trekked to South Africa in search of greener pastures.
Working at the mines, Justnow met a single mother with a son of about three years. He married the woman and adopted the baby boy, born March 23 1947.
Growing up in a mining compound, this little boy—named Raymond—grows watching his adoptive father’s puppet shows.
The sessions brought him closer to music and have made him the celebrated and award-winning legend he is.
The last Ray saw his adoptive father was in 1973, before he left South Africa for Malawi only to die the following year.
And although gone for good, Ray has fond memories of his father and has always wished to visit Malawi; his second home. When an opportunity availed itself, he jumped at it and even waived his hiring fees just to come to Malawi and perform at a fundraising show.
Other than the show, Ray visited Kamuzu Central Hospital where iCare is constructing an intensive care unit as well as Salima, where Coopi is running disaster risk preparedness and management programme.
But a few days in the Warm Heart of Africa was all the artist needed to have a lasting impression.
“Although I spent a weekend in Malawi, the experience was both challenging and inspiring enough to make a lasting impression on me and give flesh to my desire to help improve prospects for as many Malawians as I can.
“iCare and Coopi are at the heart of so much good work in Malawi. They work with many corporate and other such donors to fund, support and start up projects that are essentially saving and enhancing the lives of many Malawians,” Ray unpacks his Malawian experience.
After the gala event, Ray, led by iCare founder Fiona Odala, visited Kamuzu Central Hospital where he appreciated iCare’s vision and work in the provision of intensive care unit resources and facilities for Malawi.
“I was struck by how quiet the hospital was that day, and by how clean and orderly it was, compared to some of our chaotic public hospitals in South Africa. A poster stood out of a good looking trio of two nurses and a doctor smiling, with a bold caption asking if clients had been tested for malaria. People waited patiently as they waited for relatives to be discharged.
“As we entered the ICU, I was not prepared for what I saw. There were four neat beds, each with a patient in varying states of consciousness. Three men and a baby. Yes, a baby. A baby boy, of about three years old with tubes and cables attached to his body. He was breathing fitfully, his mouth gummy with sticky saliva. The sister in charge told us he was from a village about 400 kilometres away, suffering from malaria and anaemia. He was in good hands and was doing better than the previous week where he had a 50/50 chance of survival,” recollects the artist.
Ray was awestruck with the wards catchment area of five million inhabitants, according to the figures given by the staff. That is almost six times the entire population of Lilongwe or the whole of Johannesburg relying on one hospital or four beds in the event of an emergency.
“That a Malawian has to trek many kilometres to Kamuzu Central and take their chances on whether a bed or staff is available was a heartbreaking thought for me. Clearly today was one of those days where there would be no room.
“I hear new ICU and high dependency wings were under development, partly funded by the Norwegian government and other donors. While a small sector of Malawi is well-to-do and can access Western standards of care, few hospitals can meet even the needs of the well-to-do in an emergency,” he reasoned.
His journey continued eastwards towards Salima. In Ray’s voice, as he and the host team approached 1pm, the sun was high and the sky, a clear shade of blue. The beauty of Malawi lay all around as they edged their way through scenic views. Speckled cattle grazing on the plains as a group of cowboys rounded stray livestock back into the fold.
Bold, fat baobabs standing imposingly with their twisted limbs pressed against the copper brown terrain. Street traders with mangoes so yellow and plump and they had to stop to buy 15 for under $1 (about K500). He was in for a surprise.
He explained: “At our first roadblock I was in for quite a surprise. For one, the roadblock neatly arranged and was proudly branded and sponsored by a Malawian construction and investment company, the first I had seen of its kind in my travels in Africa.
“Then, a smiling, smartly dressed policeman greeted us politely and asked where we were going. He told us to watch our speed, as, in the current 30°C heat, our tyres could burst. He wished us a pleasant day, and let us go. No attitude. No looking for an excuse to penalise us. No hint of a page missing from a licence, or any other on the sly slang for a bribe. Just genuine Malawian courtesy.”
They arrived in Salima where Antonio Armentano of Coopi, an Italian based volunteer organisation with a wide international reach in over 20 countries, is running a project. After a hearty lunch of chambo, rape greens and chips, Ray visited an example of a community united in their self-development.
“We were shown a grain management project, which supports the local community in the event of a flood or other disaster. The community has a thriving cottage industry in the creation of environmentally friendly clay stoves, all baked in low-tech, low cost conditions.
“There is also a tree nursery which bear nutritious bark, fruit, all of which form a range of organic healthy products sold to the public—wild honey, moringa powder, packed with vitamin A and C and antioxidants, baobab jam; a malaria and gastro-intestinal cure and dried chillies are some of the treats on offer.”
Driving back to Lilongwe, the legend could not stop feeling grateful for the love he received from Malawians.
“My father Justnow Phiri bonded my soul to this land when he shared his talent for music and the Malawian joie de vivre with me all those years ago. Visiting Malawi has wrapped me up in its warm heart. I was welcomed like a returning son. So many smiling faces, such generosity of spirit.
“I am aware that I was not in the country long and played a brief set in a stripped down configuration for a select group of clients. It was my fourth engagement in less than a week, so I was quite exhausted and ill. Nevertheless, the encouragement I received from the people was generous and invigorating. Zikomo Malawi. I thank you with a heart that is full,” he stated.