It was unexpectedly quiet at State House in Malawiâ€™s capital, Lilongwe, on Wednesday. All the car parksâ€”for visitors, VIPs and the presidential motorcadeâ€”were deserted, not even a single vehicle was in sight.
No wailing could be heard, just dirges and even those could only be heard on entering the banqueting hall, where the bereaved family huddled in their lonely world, drawing comfort from each otherâ€™s presence.
This is how the mood could be summarised at the State residence, where a vigil for the late president Bingu wa Mutharika, who died last Thursday following a cardiac arrest, formally started on Monday.
Mutharikaâ€™s body is expected to be flown in from South Africa on Saturday and burial is set for Monday, April 23, 2012.
As The Nation crew walked through the State premises, several questions came up; for example, where were all the Cabinet ministers, members of the then ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) national governing council (NGC), cheerleaders and all the hangers-on who declared their love for Mutharika during the good, not so old, days?
Opportunists at work
The answer could be found at radio stations where most DPP top brass are lining up to declare their sudden new love for newly-inaugurated President Joyce Banda and her once upon a time â€œbriefcase partyâ€.
Some had been to hastily-organised news conferences, disparaging the fallen president.
Others have been spotted loitering outside the grounds of the Vice-Presidentâ€™s official residence, where President Banda is housed at the moment, hoping to catch her eye, prostrate themselves at her feet, seek forgiveness and join what they assume maybe another gravy train.
Bingu deserted in death
During visits to the New State House on Tuesday and Wednesday, The Nation team observed that Mutharika has indeed been deserted in death.
Inside the vigil room were only close relatives, choir members from various churches within Lilongwe, State House employeesâ€”some of whom have taken it upon themselves to coordinate all affairs at the State House. There were also a handful of the once-menacing DPP youth cadets.
The only notable figure on Wednesday morning was former director of State Residences and now Malawiâ€™s Ambassador to China, Dr. Charles Namondwe, a cousin to the late president.
His arrival and entry into the banqueting hall, where the choirs assembled, at least brought some â€˜lifeâ€™ to the funeral house as some relatives surrounded him to express their sorrow.
The atmosphere was in sharp contrast with what happened in 2007 when the country lost the then first lady Ethel Mutharika.
During that funeral, DPP cadres, top government officials and ministers could be seen almost from day one of the vigil, going in and out of the New State House, with others openly crying.
The Nation on Wednesday also established that choirs at the New State House were not coordinated, one of the security staff said the groups just walked in randomly. He said they are called in to sing without any registration and security clearance.
Meanwhile, chairperson of the funeral committee Henry Mussa, was quoted on radio asking for choirs to register with the late presidentâ€™s adviser on religious affairs the Reverend Billy Gama on their composition and pick-up points.
The groups, which were taking rounds singing on Wednesday, included Chilinde Catholic Parish Choirs One and Two; the New State House Catholic and CCAP choirs and the Amayi a Bingu mâ€™Boma.
â€˜We canâ€™t force peopleâ€™
DPP spokesperson Hetherwick Ntaba said the party has no powers to force anyone to go to the funeral.
â€œA few of us have been there. I cannot really say who else has been there. This is not a party issue, though,â€ said Ntaba, who visited the funeral house alongside DPP secretary general Elias Wakuda Kamanga and Minister of Natural Resources, Energy and Environment Goodall Gondwe, who is also DPP first vice-president.
Kamanga played down the situation, arguing the slow trickling of people was due to the arrangement that the vigil should first be opened to religious activities such as choirs.
â€œSecondly, the [former] first lady is still in South Africa and, as a tradition, when the bereaved members are not on the ground, people normally just come and go, but not necessarily stay. The situation will pick up as we go,â€ he said.
â€˜Funeral is above politicsâ€™
Mussa confirmed there were few people going to the mourning home, but said this was probably because the vigil is only for choirs and churches.
“But this has nothing to do with party politics. The funeral is above politics,â€ he said.
He said the vigil has been set for two placesâ€”the State House in Lilongwe and at Mutharikaâ€™s home in Thyolo.
One of Mutharikaâ€™s relatives, Dr. Charles Matabwa, said as a family, they cannot comment on the situation since they are busy preparing for the funeral ceremony.
Said Matabwa: “At the moment, the arrangement is that the vigil will be held at the New State House where…the body will be taken to first. Then the arrangement will go according to plans before finally moving to Ndata.â€
He said as of Wednesday, the committee and some of the relatives were in Ndata talking to chiefs on the funeral arrangements.