I was 14 when I first met Jumani. It was at his home on the small island kingdom of Bahrain, where he was living at the time, along with his purported mother, Mirriam Kaunda, her husband Matt Johansson, and his sister. In my recollection, the family seemed like a happy one then, and so there was nothing that struck me as particularly unusual about the family as we sat at their dining room table for dinner.
A year later, news from back home in Malawi reached us about the death of Hastings Kamuzu Banda, Founder of Malawi and its first and longest serving President. He was buried with pomp and circumstance, but ultimately, we thought nothing unique or unusual could ever come to light about him posthumously. But then some unknown government officials informed Jumani, who knew he had roots in Malawi but had never lived in Malawi, that his real father was the late Kamuzu Banda, and that from the time of his birth, the Johanssons had been coopted to play a pivotal role in keeping this secret and keeping the boy away from Malawi. Jumani felt the information he’d received and the sources thereof were credible enough to not only be believed, but to be investigated as well. And so began his quest and campaign to prove by a DNA paternity test his sonship to Kamuzu, who was supposed to have officially died celibate and childless. He came to Malawi to prove his true identity, and immediately his claim captured the attention and imagination of a nation. The public fascination with Jumani was the logical outworking of several factors.
There was the claim itself and what it would say about Kamuzu Banda if proven true; there was the public intrigue with Kamuzu Banda that goes back decades, for though he was a public official, he kept his private life and personal history a secretive enigma shrouded in mystery, hearsay, and propaganda with religious devotion; then there were the implications of the paternity claim, given that if proven to be Kamuzu’s biological son, Jumani would have a legal premise for demanding a stake in Kamuzu Banda’s vast estate; then there was what many felt was an uncanny resemblance between Jumani and Kamuzu; then there was the fact that Miriam Kaunda, his supposed mother, who was once Miss Malawi, reportedly claimed in 2012 to have once dated President Kamuzu Banda, but refused to undergo a maternity test to prove that she was Jumani’s mother; and then there was the resistance of Kamuzu’s existing relations to grant Jumani access to Kamuzu’s DNA for an official paternity test. Taken together, these elements were taken by most members of the general public as at least showing that Jumani’s claim was disruptive and circumstantial enough to require a clear answer once and for all.
In this context, any efforts to frustrate his quest for a simple paternity test were seen as an attempt to hide the truth, which has sadly always seemed to be the posture of many who knew Kamuzu Banda personally, committed to take their firsthand knowledge of him to their grave. During this period of wide publicity of his claim, I had my second encounter with Jumani, and we spoke of our first meeting as adolescents under the hot and humid skies of the Persian Gulf years before. But it was clear to me that the battle to prove his identity had changed him, made him more restless, if you will. When I asked how his mother was, he was quick to point out that that is not his mother, and so sensing his discomfort, I took the conversation in the direction of other matters and kept our exchange short.
And then months later came something of a breakthrough for him. It was widely reported that Kamuzu Banda’s DNA samples had been secretly smuggled out of the College of Medicine and taken to some unknown facility in South Africa where a test was done. The reports, which were far from official and not much more credible than a rumour, claimed that the backstreet paternity test had come out positive, which seemed to animate Jumani even more towards securing an official test under court supervision. The Kamuzu family would not have it. While he waited for the courts to grant him relief, Jumani proceeded to change his name and citizenship. He succeeded in changing his name, but before he could make headway on his change of citizenship, he made an error in judgment. He had an altercation with a bodyguard of the then Head of State, and in the course of it, Jumani frivolously said something about the president being stupid and that the president could be killed. He was arrested, but after a hearing, was granted bail, and deported. To add to his misfortune, Miriam Kaunda, the woman who raised him and insisted to be his mother, died in 2017, having never conceded to any paternity and maternity claims that Jumani had been making.
Recently, having successfully secured a Malawian passport, Jumani returned to Malawi, presumably to pick up his fight for an official paternity test where he had left off. He was beginning to settle in again in the country that never quite knew what to do with him or what to make of him. And thankfully for Jumani, he found the country preoccupied with a looming and consequential election, so settling in quietly and picking up his fight without hindrance seemed a very doable prospect. But it was not to be. Last night, he suffered a sudden illness and was rushed to Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital in Blantyre, where he died this morning, less than three months after his return, leaving his quest for a paternity test up in limbo. In a nation whose authorities are largely subservient to the dictates of the private interests of rich families, the authroities have always had a low appetite for getting to the bottom of cases of public interest that threaten those private interests. And so it is unlikely that there will be a proper autopsy, much less a proper paternity test, the public interest in both notwithstanding. And so Jumani follows Kamuzu Banda and Miriam Johansson to the grave, perhaps finding in death the rest and resolution that escaped him and that his country denied him in life.
May He Rest In Peace.