‘America Via River Congo’

Felix Mponda writes…

In 1975, when Malawi capital city Lilongwe – built with apartheid South Africa’s cash– was officially moving from ZA to LL, I was a Form 3 student at Mangochi secondary school who was one of the top prize winners of an essay writing competition ‘Capital City’ organised by CCDC.

After receiving our prizes in Lilongwe at a glittering function at Capital Hotel (Chris Tofa Kapanga and Anjimile Mtila were some of the top prize winners), I returned to school only to see a young man with an American accent staying with our US educated biology teacher – Lester Chitsulo – at the teacher’s houses near the school.

Many of my schoolmates really thought the dashing young man was American. No trace of “chiMalawi” in him. I got more inquisitive about him. We became buddies and in chatting with him, I discovered he was trained as a journalist in the US.

I was afraid for him because by this time I had an idea that journalism was the most dangerous profession in Malawi, what with politicians publicly condemning journalists as “lying journalists” or “atolankhani abodza,” as the articulate interpreter late John Msonthi would put it.

These were the years the last foreign journalist in Malawi–Phillip Short– was deported. For starters, Short is the author of ‘Banda’ – a powerful biography of HKB, which of course was immediately banned in Malawi by the no nonsense Censorship Board. One would be lucky to find this biography today, but check it out.

But for this young man, I often wondered how he could leave the land with great opportunities on earth — USA- only to be derided here back home, as a “lying journalist.” Besides, I had no idea where this young man would get a job as a journalist, what with one daily and one weekly published by the President’s owned publishing and printing company -BP&P- and one Government radio station–MBC.

The young man was unmoved about the dangers of journalism in Malawi. He simply inspired me. We lost touch after he left Mangochi, only to link up 4 years later. My ambition to become a journalist was lit in me.

After completing my Form 4 in 1977, I worked briefly as a receptionist at the then Grand beach hotel, now Sunbird hotel, while studying by correspondence for a journalism course with DD Phiri’s Aggrey Memorial school (AMS).

The certificate from AMS was enough to launch me on a career path as a journalist with MANA. I joined MANA in 1979, alongside three others including late Chatonda Mhone after tough interviews in Lilongwe conducted by a team from Info Dept in Blantyre led by senior Info Officer and journalist Francis Harawa.

Now, guess who I found at MANA: That Ohio University educated journalist I met in Mangochi …and his name is Nelson Magombo, aka ‘Baba’. The polite ‘Baba’ got this monicker because he greeted every male at MANA with the words ‘ ‘Baba’. It’s stuck on him.

Apart from Francis Mkandawire, the CIO, ‘ Baba’ was probably one of the few newsmen with a journalism degree at MANA. Late Sunday Kuwali, MANA Editor, had a degree in English from Chancellor College. ‘Baba’ did his best, changing MANA dull copy to professional levels, though operating under an oppressive regime which openly hated journalists.

He was also introduced feature writing, an outlet to do stories far away from the one-party politics of: “Blantyre district party chairman has callled upon Youth Leaguers to be the eyes and ears of the Ngwazi and should arrest or report to Police anyone with a ‘strange face’.” ( Oh, yes. We wrote this stuff”).

Fortunately, nobody with a “strange face” was arrested nor seen. But we knew what people with “strange faces” meant: Dissidents ( owukira boma) – the Kanyama’s, Orton Chirwa’s and all those in exile. I left ‘Baba’ and lots of professionals for Blantyre Newspapers Limited, to continue my journalism career.

I won’t talk about ‘Baba’s’ exploits in Senegal at PANA, where he was seconded from MANA, but I am quite sure we shall read a chapter about this in ‘AMERICA ACROSS RIVER CONGO’ by Nelson ‘Baba’ Magombo, which is coming soon.

I can’t wait to buy a copy, at whatever cost, of this book which promises to be a thriller. Who else among us is writing a book?

I am out…. Sikomo Kwedyinji!

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