Last week, Malawi mourned one of its celebrated writers Professor Steve Chimombo. I rubbed shoulders with Chimombo in the 1990s when I worked for Blantyre Print and the professor would come to get his Wasi magazine printed. Talking to him, you could notice that he was a true linguist from the rich English and Chichewa expressions he was using.
I have no clue how he met his English wife, Moira, but I know that she, too, is a distinguished linguist. When I was a student at Chancellor College, I remember once visiting the senior common room, which at that time was on the ground floor of the library, and noticing a white lady quickly walk in and go straight to the tuck-shop.
“Kodi zitumbuwa zilipo?” (Do you have banana fritters?) she asked, in a perfect Chichewa accent. My jaw dropped in total astonishment. I had heard white people speak Chichewa before, but they spoke it with a ‘missionary’ accent. Moira Chimombo was a totally different phenomenon to me.
Since then I have had the conviction that not only did Professor Steve Chimombo spend time teaching students the intricacies of language, but he also successfully accomplished this feat on his wife.
Many lecturers have little impact outside the academia. Steve was not one of them. I am told Moira is as fluent in Yao as she is in Chichewa. Some Zomba Catholic students of the early 1980s, including the editor of this column, would also have touching stories about how Steve and Moira raised their children the Malawian way.
There is no doubt in anybody’s mind that Steve Chimombo has left a legacy as one of the greatest writers this country has ever produced. According to an article in the Weekend Nation of Saturday, December 12 2015, Stanley Onjezani puts Steve Chimombo in the same league with John W. Gwengwe, D. D. Phiri, Jack Mapanje and Francis Chipasula, wondering if apart from these, there is anybody else who has contributed as much to Malawian literature.
I know of one giant of a writer who can be regarded as the father of Malawian literature, and quite fittingly so. He is little-known Samuel Josiah Nthara.
Nthara wrote several books, including my favourite one, which is a biography of another forgotten, yet extraordinary, character called Msyamboza, a man who, ahead of his time, introduced irrigation in his village in Dowa and grew a variety of crops, including wheat and castor oil nuts. He used to sell most of his wheat within Nyasaland and would export some to Mozambique. With what was left, he would make bread for himself. This way he weaned himself from nsima.
From the castor oil nuts, Msyamboza used to encourage his people to make oil with which to anoint themselves after taking a bath. Some of the oil was used to make soap. By 1900, Chibanzi, Msyamboza’s village, was the only village in all of Central Africa where people had the habit of taking a bath daily, and would wear clothes made from cotton, not animal skins. Msyamboza encouraged each villager to have a pit latrine and to use it. I have discussed the rest of Msyamboza’s great exploits in my earlier articles and have presented a talk on him to the Society of Malawi, thanks to Nthara’s book.
Nthara, who had become a great writer in the 1920s was asked by the Superintendent of Nkhoma Mission, Rev J J Stegman, to research into the life of Msyamboza and write a book on his accomplishments. The book was published in 1945 in Chinyanja. This was 19 years after Msyamboza’s death. When the former Scottish missionary to Nyasaland, Rev Cullen Young, read Msyamboza’s story he was so intrigued with it that he decided to translate the book into English for a wider readership. The title of the English translation was Headman’s Enterprise: Unexpected Page in Central African History. It was published in London in 1949.
Prior to the publication of Msyamboza’s biography, Nthara had published other titles, including a novel titled Nthondo, which won him an international literary award called the Margaret Wong award in 1933, becoming the first Malawian (or the first Nyasa) to be internationally recognised for his brilliance in literature.
As we remember our hero, Steve Chimombo, today, let us also remember those that have gone before him and have achieved so much for Malawi in literary circles. May the souls of Samuel Nthara, John Gwengwe, Legson Kayira and Steve Chimombo continue to rest in eternal peace. n No safe water for Rumphi’s