David Rubadiri was no ordinary man. Whether in diplomacy, academics and, essentially, in literature, he was a giant. One cannot mention Malawian literature without the name Rubadiri glaring at you. In those circles, he was known for as a poet, novelist and playwright.
Rubadiri death on September 15 2018 was like burning of a library. People from all walks of life attended his funeral in Mzuzu. That included Lazarus Chakwera, the incumbent Malawi President.
Speaking on behalf of the bereaved family was a writer Willie Zingani, whose mother Rhoda was David’s cousin. As fate would have it, Chakwera and Zingani being at that solemn event ignited a fire. That was evident when the former escorted the latter to a waiting car.
The Rubadiri life-force, from which Zingani supped since the tender age of 10, was set on fire.
“It only took us five minutes. I told him of my intention to do his biography. He was then on the campaign trail for the 2019 elections. He agreed and he was responding to every one of my messages on the book, even at midnight,” says Zingani.
On October 5 2020, when Chakwera celebrated 100 days in government, Zingani had a surprise: He presented to the President the biography titled Chakwera, The Journey to the Presidency.
Apart from that chance meeting at the interring of a great man, Chakwera acknowledged when the book was unveiled at Kamuzu Palace in Lilongwe, he met Zingani, before they really first met.
“I am grateful he has done this abridged biography. I knew him long time ago, through his literary works,” said Chakwera.
One would not really know which of Zingani’s works swept him off his feet. But it could be any of his Chichewa works: Njala Bwana, Nkhondo Siyimanga Mudzi and other three books he wrote, which included Madzi Akataika.
It could well be that Chakwera watched Madzi Akataika, which was adopted to become the first stage play for Kwathu Drama Group, which Zingani co-directed with Kwathu founder Charles Severe.
In fact, Eric Mabedi Kwathu director, who is also president of the National Theatre Association of Malawi (Ntam), affirms it was Zingani who coined the name Kwathu.
“He writes for Malawians. His subjects are relevant. In those days, in the early 80’s I was so young and I was surprised that whenever his books were adopted for drama, they came just as comprehensive,” said Mabedi.
But then, Chakwera could have read Zingani’s two novels From the Phone Booth or The Preacher and The Joker. For that matter, he could have read Zingani’s writings as a journalist.
Nonetheless, Zingani recalls that the first time he met Chakwera was at the Assemblies of God, where he was invited by a friend. “I am an Anglican but I was invited by a friend. He greeted me after that service in 2013, like he did with everyone else. Next we met at Rubadiri’s funeral. What inspired me about the President and which still inspires me is his patience to listen and respond. My main interest to write his biography was simply that he took me by surprise to resign from the Church to join mainstream politics.
“I was confident that he would one day become the President of the Republic of Malawi. However, even if my expectations came out wrongly, I was still going to embark on his biography. I liked his confidence and trust in Almighty God,” says Zingani.
Further, Chakwera’s background from real Malawian village life, son of peasants, poor and yet encouraged him to work hard at school is, for Zingani, intriguing. “The stories of grazing cattle and goats with his friends and cousins to hunting mice; many leaders in our country hide these exciting experiences.
“Even those who came from humble background want to impress us that their parents were well to do. I find that strange because this denies our children the adventures carried on from old generations,” says Zingani.
He says the book will be available in Malawi from South Africa soon. The first lot, he adds, which was strictly for 100 Days Celebration of Tonse Government was published by Alfred Msadala’s publishing company–ACIN.
“Thereafter, I have already university presses in Europe and US who have shown interest to take over and give it international readership,” he says.
Zingani, whose father Maxwell was a teacher but resigned and became a Diocesan Literature Secretary for the Anglican Church when he was 11, is renowned for the simplicity in language usage. Whether in his Chichewa stories or inspiration by his mother’s storytelling prowess, it is a thing he owes it to the master, Rubadiri as well.
“Simplicity is one thing I learned from him. His first novel The Bride Price was written in simple English that even a senior primary school learner could read without having to refer to dictionaries. Some literary analysts say I must have taken after him, especially in my approach to poetry.
I was a grown-up when he returned from exile and yet he taught me that writing was serious business that required a lot of reading and time discipline,” Zingani says.
Currently, he is also looking forward to biographies for John Tembo, Mama C. Tamanda Kadzamira, Kamuzu Banda, Archbishop James Chiona, Joyce Banda and Saulos Chilima. On the cards is another fictitious work: His Excellency Papa.
Having worked for the Malawi News during the one party state, Zingani was imprisoned at Chichiri Prison, since someone within the powers that were thought he was behind the article that appeared in the African Confidential on the abduction of Orton and Vera Chirwa. He cannot be drawn to comment on the prison sojourn, as he ‘forgave the jailors’.
He later became editor for the Weekly News, published by the Ministry of Information, before he was picked to assist in researching The Price of Democracy, a book then President Bakili Muluzi co-authored. Consequently, he became deputy to Muluzi’s Press Secretary Alaudin Osman, and when Osman retired, Zingani became Muluzi’s Press Secretary until the end of his tenure in 2014.
Currently, he is a consultant for the Medical Aid Society of Malawi (Masm), having also worked for the Nation Publications Limited (NPL), The Guardian and Limbe Leaf Tobacco Company. He is also board vice chairperson for the SOS Children’s Villages.
But one cannot go without a word from him, in that in spite of the noose on writers loosened with the coming of democracy, there are still a few books from Malawian writers.
“So many road-blocks. Publishing in Malawi has dwindled over the years. Publishing houses have closed and those still operating are in serious financial problems. They don’t want to invest in something that they are not sure of the outcome. You can’t blame them because they are not charitable organisations.