When Judith Ngwira met Peter Chirwa in November 1992, she was so much in love that six months after meeting him, the two began living together as husband and wife without even having their marriage blessed in church.
But what began as a fairy tale panned out to be a horror story of abuse and cruelty.
The near-tragic end of the marriage was such that magistrate Ernest Chimwembe, who presided over the divorce case in February 2013, wondered why the matter was made civil when it should have been a criminal case.
Even lawyer Louis Chakhwantha, who represented Judith in the case, said in his career, he has never seen a case that could parallel the ordeal she went through at the hands of the man she once called the love of her life.
She told the court that she was abandoned when tuberculosis (TB) struck her down; the husband brought women into their matrimonial home while she was there, depleted her bank account as the disease ravaged her and she even got locked up in a family car for three days. She has been through it all.
It all began when TB knocked Judith off her stride, rendering her blind and paralysed in the legs.
Her employers, Tobacco Control Commission (TCC), where she was a senior executive, had no choice but to ask her to retire on medical grounds.
Suddenly, the bubbly Judith became a burden to her man.
“I started noticing a change in the behaviour of my husband. He began changing in 1999, but he changed to unbearable levels after I became unemployed and wasn’t getting any money. Maybe to him, I was not competent enough to be his wife because I was sightless and paralysed,” she said.
Judith was re-telling her story from Area 6 in Lilongwe where a friend is keeping her. She took a good two minutes to come out of her room. She had to use the wall as leverage and then painfully threw herself on the black sofa in the house.
Judith is frail, but her eyes showed little emotion and her lost sight makes her misfire her eye contact. She looks up to the ceiling when she means to face the reporter.
“…Or maybe he changed because he had swindled all my money that I got as terminal benefits and I think he wanted to hide the fact that he was married to his new girlfriend,” she said.
How the abuse started
Judith narrated how Chirwa started coming home late and sometimes slept out. This worried his wife who wondered what she would do if one of the couple’s three children fell ill in his absence.
“To me, it was hard to accept with my illness and the children. If I tried to call his phone, it was either off or went unanswered. But he was the person I needed most and that hurt me. I usually cried about it, but strangely even when he found me crying he never cared, he just took a bath and changed his clothes and went away.
“I tried to bring in mediators. I started with the clergy at our church, but he denied the accusations. Then I tried his cousins, but he was defiant and called me a liar with a big mouth. All I wanted to hear was why he was being cruel to me and I was concerned about his life since I didn’t know where he spent his nights,” she said.
The court heard how the man at one time fired the maids and sent Judith’s mother away, leaving nobody to tend to her all day until after 4pm when the children returned from school.
On one particular day, she crawled into the family car at around 1am and demanded to be taken to her home village in Karonga.
She said Chirwa ignored her and told her to get out of the car. When she refused and insisted that he takes her to her relatives, he locked the vehicle with her still inside where she was to stay caged.
“He just passed by me every day. My legs had swollen and by then, he had stopped talking to me. He only made a move to get me out of the car by tricking me that he was ready to talk, but when I got out of the car, he just said I was rubbish, stupid and got into the car and drove away,” she said.
She managed to get a taxi and went to her relatives in another township in Mzuzu where she stayed for a month. During that period, she said Chirwa only visited her after her relatives went to get her clothes at his house.
Judith returned to her matrimonial home, but nothing changed, forcing her in 2010 to go to her home village at Mlare in Karonga using money she had saved from alms people gave her. She said her husband never called or cared to visit.
Dragged to court
She said he changed his phone number and the next time the two met was in a courtroom in Lilongwe three years later.
While she was staying in the village, the husband told the tenant in the couple’s house in Lilongwe to start paying rent into his account. She told the court that the money in her account, to the tune of about K1.5 million (about $4 245), was ransacked by the husband.
At this stage of her testimony, the court had to be adjourned for a while and someone rushed to the bank to get details from the account which had a negative balance and had been archived. The bank statement revealed back-to-back withdrawals of K20 000 (about $57) and K40 000 (about $114).
While Judith was in the village, she heard that her oldest, 18-year-old daughter had been chased from home for going out at night. The daughter was to loaf in the streets for a month before some well-wishers repatriated her to the village to join her mother.
Meanwhile, the court heard that Chirwa had roped in another woman into the home.
A Mrs. Chilemba from Lilongwe, whom she had met at a church, asked her to join her in Lilongwe to take a break from the village life she was caught in.
At one of the church services in Lilongwe, her story was taken up by a church member to the desk of the Women Legal Resource Centre (Wolrec) which pursued the matter in court.
This was after she had tried to raise the issue with the Malawi Human Rights Commission and Legal Aid.
Lawyer Chakhwantha, managing partner for Armstrong Lawyers and Company of Blantyre, who handled the case, said on Wednesday the case is one of the most shocking he has seen so far.
“When the husband fell ill in 2005, she cared for him as guardian at various hospitals until he was back on his feet.
“The woman never abandoned the husband, but when she fell ill, he abandoned her at a hospital in Mzuzu. She spent her time in hospital with her old mother because Judith was born in a family of three and I am told she is the only surviving child. You can imagine an old woman tending to a woman who could not see, walk or go to the toilet by herself,” he said.
Chakhwantha said the court heard how the husband started sleeping out and at one point brought two women into the matrimonial home who began quarrelling and it had to take Judith to pacify the situation.
By the time Judith got her retirement benefits of about K1.2 million (about $3 428) from TCC, she was already blind and she entrusted the money to her husband to deposit it into her account.
Chirwa deposited the money, but the court was told through a bank statement that the husband then took the ATM cards and withdrew the money continuously until the account was empty.
Chakwantha said in court the husband could neither deny nor confirm the accusations levelled against him and it had to take the court to calm the situation in the courtroom because people attending the case hurled insults at Chirwa.
“The judgment came on February 22 2013, divorce was granted after the man failed to dispute the evidence given by Judith,” he said.
Judith said the court ordered her ex-husband to compensate her with K300 000 (about $857) and return her gratuity in 30 days. She was also given ownership of a house the two built in Lilongwe.
Judith was also awarded full custody of the three children, but the husband is to continue giving them support. The children are currently staying with Chirwa.
The car will be sold and Judith will get 40 percent of the proceeds. She will get all kitchenware and the property the two bought together will be shared equally.
After promising to grant Nation on Sunday an interview on Saturday, Chirwa did not pick up his phone when we called him again.
After the ruling, Chirwa told the court that he would change, send away the woman he was living with and that he still loved his wife.
But it was too late. Judith just had three words for him: “Remember the children.”
And that is how Judith Chirwa became Judith Ngwira again.