Thursday, December 5, 2013

Death of a Leader


 

Death has a way of testing our patience. This was not the day we thought Nelson Mandela would die.

We thought he would die months ago when he was in a critical but stable condition. We thought he would die years ago when he withdrew from public life due to poor health and old age.  

Mandela served 27 years of imprisonment against his wish. But after his release and after being South Africa's first black president, he had to serve another prison term against his wish too.

Mandela has been a prisoner between life and death for years. We can imagine the pain Mandela had to endure every day of his life after the age of 85. We can imagine his heart knocking on the door of death, his life lingering at the gates of death, wishing death to take the pain away from him. But death could not listen although life had almost released Mandela.

Death is stubborn. Death takes us when it wants not when we want. But death’s delay to take Mandela has helped us to build castles in our hearts for his eternal home. He was not perfect. But he was the closest to a secular saint in our times. He shall live in the heart of humanity forever.  

Leadership scholars have written about lessons Mandela has offered the world except one which I do now.

Mandela never attached himself to any religion. He knew as a leader he had to stay above divisions of faiths. He stood for umunthu, something higher than religion. Humanity is above the faiths we hold on to passionately.

The man Mandela was wise enough to know what to do regarding religion. He never went to Vatican to ask for a grand cathedral and a Catholic university in Qunu. He never went to Saudi Arabia to ask for a grand mosque and an Islamic university in South Africa. Mandela knew that religion must be left to the clergy. He never excited anyone with an idea of an Islamic city with a mosque and a university. He never excited anyone with a semi Vatican in South Africa.

Any leader who wants to appeal to all must stay away from politics of religion. This does not mean such a leader does not have faith in God. No. They should go to church like any other man, without pomp as Bingu wa Mutharika did or go to mosque and back home without sirens as Bakili Muluzi did. But stay above politics of religion.   

Hopefully, our leaders in Africa and elsewhere will learn this lesson from Mandela, a man who for years knocked on the door of death and was kept in a prison between life and death.

Yet he remained calm, not making the world share his pain, never making his pain a theology. He was just a man, a simple man, one who says on his grave, we must write: Here lies a man who has done his duty on Earth.

Simple yet powerful. We all have a duty on Earth, we must find that duty and perform it for the sake of our children’s children.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Dust in Blantyre

Blantyre is becoming Malawi’s second dusty city after Lilongwe. The challenge is that no one is talking about dust in Blantyre, Malawi’s oldest city.

Yet dust is all over, visible and touchable, in the city. Even outside the city, as far as Chileka, Nguludi and Mapanga, dust is becoming a daily occurrence. Those who have lived long in Blantyre can testify.   

Blantyre, once a symbol of Malawi’s small but growing manufacturing industry, cherished mountains covered with green carpets of tree tops. Soche Hill was all green. So, too, Ndirande Mountain.  
Such was the Blantyre I found in 1991 after a year in Lilongwe. But now Ndirande Mountain is bare. Soche Hill has a few trees on the very top and houses below.

Houses are all over where once were written the words “Long live Kamuzu” on Soche Hill. The fall of first president Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda was also the fall of trees in Blantyre.

Over two decades ago, Blantyre residents used to mock Lilongwe for its dust. It was a relief for everyone to move from Lilongwe to Blantyre. Then, there was no dust in Blantyre. Now, a little over two decades later, I see Blantyre becoming dusty, slowly but for sure.

It could be climate change. But it could also be that we have cut trees. Or both and, of course, other reasons.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Mandela, Greatest Man Living Now

Mandela is mourned while he lives in his illness, and he will be celebrated in his death, says my friend Bright Molande. I have had thoughts about Nelson Mandela these past hours that I had to fish out this article from my archive and post it here. It first appeared in The Nation of December 6, 2006.

Statesmen cannot be wished into existence. The world is longing for one to unite Iraq. And, as Iraqis are finding out, that man is not a citizen of the war torn country but a South African.
South Africa will, in the coming years, host two global events: the 2010 World Cup and the funeral of Nelson Mandela.

Both events will attract thousands of people, thousands of journalists. Across the earth’s 24 time zones, millions will interrupt their waking or sleeping schedules to gather around television sets.
The World Cup is held once in four years and might come back to South Africa in the next five decades. The funeral of Mandela will be once and that is all. Tens of thousands will stand along roads to say farewell as he will be driven the streets on his last journey to the resting place.

Powerful men and women of the world will be at the funeral. They are people who cannot go to a stadium to watch football: presidents like Hamid Karzai, George Bush and Colonel Muammar Gaddafi; brilliant minds like journalists Richard Stengel, Time Magazine managing editor who once worked with Mandela on his book Long Walk to Freedom, and Fareed Zakaria, former professor of political science at Harvard University, now editor of Newsweek International, who reports for and oversees weekly production of eight editions of the magazine.
These people will be on reserved seats because of protocol. But Mandela would have reserved the choicest seats for ordinary people because it was for such that he took the road of a freedom fighter.

Thoughts of a funeral are awkward to some. But life is a journey and it comes to an end. The world is now busy walking the journey of Mandela which everyone wants to go on and on and on. Sadly, nature demands that Mandela’s life, like all human beings, be over some day. At 88 [he is now 91], he is looking forward to that day.
“It would be very egotistical of me to say how I would like to be remembered,” he said in March 1997. “I would leave that entirely to South Africans. I would just like a simple stone on which is written ‘Mandela’.”

Mandela talks about his death. He does not talk about his funeral—that is up to South Africans. In fact, he spends time thinking about the after-life as he hinted in one interview. When he dies, he says, and once in the next world, “I will look for and join an ANC branch”.
Not that he is obsessed with party politics but the man is committed to freedom and justice and sees the ANC as the practical tool to fight oppression, for that is what he has been doing for most part of his life and perhaps can’t imagine a just life; he thinks he would have some battle to fight, always.

The British Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, describes Mandela as “not just the greatest statesman but the greatest man now living”.
Brown was writing in a November 13 special edition celebrating 60 years of Time Atlantic, years the magazine has covered—or, put rightly, uncovered—heroes. Of the magazine’s 66 heroes, Mandela was the first and was given two pages. Space is scarce in print media and goes with the value of a story.

Of course, three others were given two pages: the Beatles, Mikhail Gorbachev and Princess Diana. But Mandela’s story was the first. The best comes first in almost all media. This, again, speaks volumes of the value placed on this great son of Africa.
Mandela had a reason to hate white South Africans. He had reason to call them strangers and violently chase them from South Africa.

But after 27 years of imprisonment at the hands of the apartheid government, Mandela chose truth and reconciliation, not revenge, but forgiveness. He had been separated from his wife, to whom he wrote lovely letters; he missed his children. He went through the pain of being unable to bury his mother and his first born son, Madiba Thembekile, deaths that made Mandela to look back at his younger self, to evaluate his life.
“Her [the mother’s] difficulties, her poverty, made me question once again whether I had taken the right path,” wrote Mandela in his book, Long Walk to Freedom. “For a long time, my mother had not understood my commitment to the struggle.”
In such times, some people put up a brave face as if they have survived shame and embarrassment, but it is the soul that is bruised; the heart, not the body.

This was the case with Mandela. Questions without answers can be more painful than physical torture. Mandela wondered, without any answer, why his family was put in such an awkward situation. For long he had advised people not to worry about things they could not control. “I was unable to take my own advice,” he says. “I had many sleepless nights.”
The separation from his family resulting from a court case using discriminatory laws was enough to warrant a revenge after his release on Sunday, February 11, 1990.

Yet there were more challenges after his release from prison. He realised he had gained his freedom but he was yet to fight for the freedom of his people. Once the Inkatha members secretly raided the Vaal township of Boipatong and killed 46 people. No arrests were made. It was as if some people had no state protection.
“Mandela, give us guns,” said placards carried by his supporters at one rally. “Victory through battle, not talk.”

He had been tested for too long to carry on the struggle peacefully. But he said “peace”.
“It was because of the greatness of Mandela—and, especially, his refusal to hate or become embittered—that a multiracial South Africa was born, not in further bloodshed and catastrophe, but in peace and democracy,” says Brown.

To understand the importance of Mandela, consider Iraq, that helpless, failed state where sectarian violence has more control than the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Hundreds are dying everyday. No one is safe, not even the Prime Minister.
Aparism Ghosh is Time senior correspondent who has been reporting from Baghdad since the fall of Saddam Hussein. Ghosh knows life in the city. He has the experience of flying into Baghdad, too.

“I know what lies ahead,” he says of flights from Amman in Jordan to Baghdad.
It is an hour’s uneventful flying, followed by the world’s scariest landing—“a steep, corkscrewing plunge into what used to be Saddam Hussein International Airport”.

It is scariest because the pilot has to avoid being shot down by Iraqi insurgents. The plane stays at 30,000 feet until it is directly over Baghdad airport, then take a spiralling dive, straightening up yards from the runway.
“If you are looking out the window, it can feel as if the plane is in a free fall from which it can’t possibly pull out,” says Ghosh. “I have learned from experience to ask for an aisle seat.”

That is not all. The journey from the airport into Baghdad is a 14-kilometre drive on what is called the Highway of Death.
The Shiites and Sunnis are engaged in sectarian violence. In fact, sectarian violence is a political term. Iraq is in a civil war. Out-going United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan called the violence “worse than a civil war” in a BBC interview on Monday.

Sunni leader Saleh al-Mutlak has repeatedly told the press that Iraq’s political landscape has no giants.

“Not only that,” he said earlier this year, “but the political system we have created makes it impossible for such a figure to emerge.”

Politicians in Iraq have discovered that the easiest way to win votes is to appeal to sectarian chauvinism; they have little incentive to take the higher, more difficult road of liberal democracy which cherishes reason, liberty and freedom.
In July this year, al-Mutlak said Iraq could be united and the killings could come to an end. The country, he said, needed “an Iraqi Mandela”.

This is the gigantic size of Mandela. Even those in Iraq know the sectarian violence—or civil war, to be precise—can be ended by a leader of Mandela’s calibre; not George W Bush or Tony Blair, the so-called champions of democracy; not the Pope; but Nelson Mandela from South Africa, a two-hour flight from Blantyre in Malawi.
Mandela was born on July 18, 1918, and spent early childhood the traditional, old way in Mvezo, a tiny village on the banks of the Mbashe River in Umtata.

“From an early age, I spent most of my free time in the veld playing and fighting with the other boys of the village,” he writes in his autobiography.
Childhood lessons have a tendency to remain in people for life. They are lessons guarded by society which, sadly, are not cherished by the modern society of Malawi. Now socialisation or transmission of values is, in some cases, more from the electronic media (television, radio and internet) and housemaids than the family.

Children ought to play with toys, especially those them make by themselves. Children ought to play with clay to derive lessons from the natural world: let them run in the rain until it’s over (this does not cause malaria, the disease is caused by plasmodium transmitted by the female anopheles mosquito); let them play with clay and realise their skills.
In such engagement with nature, Mandela found virtues that make him. The statesmanship in Mandela can be traced back to about five years of age when he shared food and blanket with others.

He had become a herd-boy, looking after sheep and calves in the fields where he learned hunting. One day, his turn came to ride a donkey and it bolted into a bush of thorns. He was embarrassed.
“I learned that to humiliate another person is to make him suffer an unnecessarily cruel fate. Even as a boy, I defeated my opponents without dishonouring them,” he says.

You can see more from a mountain and from the perspective of years, says a brilliant journalist Jon Meacham. Mandela has climbed mountains and lived a long life.
He joined politics while studying in Johannesburg by joining the African National Congress in 1942. He has climbed mountains of books and time. He has been a life transformed from violence to peace. Yet he believes that when all channels of peaceful protest fail, violence is a practical option. This is what he did by leading Umkhonto we Sizwe, a military arm of the ANC.

Mandela has walked from the violent extreme of the world, balancing up on the way, and reached the peaceful end of life. He has shown that the end is more important than the beginning. Former president Bakili Muluzi missed that lesson. Fredrick Chiluba of Zambia missed the crucial aspect as well.
The years Mandela was locked up in his cell during daylight hours, deprived him of music and sunshine. He was denied things from outside. The familiar things we take for granted are what we miss most. But the character in him remained intact. The discipline is still in him.

He wakes up by 4: 30 am even if he went to bed late. He makes his bed—he still believes this is his duty, even when he was president. He exercises for one hour from 5 am and takes breakfast at 6: 30 am as he reads the days’ newspapers.
This daily timetable is changing now. Age is catching up and everything is becoming slower.

Yet his voice, weak and faint, is more important than ever. He prefers “we” to “I”. Thus he attributes all the honour given him to South Africans, saying that a man seen by all is standing on his people’s shoulders.
Mandela is now reflecting on his life and enjoying his childhood best moments—typical of old age. His greatest pleasure is watching the sun set with the music of Handel or Tchaikovsky playing.

He should really love that for he is the sun of the world, light for hidden, dark corners of poverty, disease, oppression and dictatorship.
It is now the turn of the world to enjoy watching the setting of Mandela’s life which is at the end of the horizon. He will go a happy man after leading the first South African multiracial government for five years, leaving the presidency at his peak—a lesson many have failed to learn.

Mandela worked with his immediate predecessor Fredrick de Klerk who was invited into a government of national unity. Further, Mandela has worked with his immediate successor President Thabo Mbeki.
The three formed a team that went to Fifa headquarters in Zurich, Switzerland, to make South Africa’s case to host the 2010 World Cup.

South Africa is now gearing for the World Cup. The OR Tambo International Airport is being expanded and renovated. .
The fever is growing stronger every day. The economy benefits are visible. But the world does not know what will come first: the World Cup or the funeral of Mandela.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Mental Health First


 

All knowledge is carried by language. Therefore, the language we use to conceptualise mental illness portrays our understanding of the condition and its treatment.

In Malawi, mental illness is misala in Chinyanja. A person suffering from mental illness is wamisala (a mad one), openga (one who lost his mind) or odwala (sick or diseased to the extent of losing reason). All the three terms have a negative connotation and, therefore, attract maximum stigma.

To appreciate that the terms are loaded with stigma, consider malaria fever. A person suffering from malaria fever is assumed ill, akudwala in Chinyanja.

This is unlike wamisala (the mad one). If we were to speak as we do in mental illness, then the one with malaria fever would have been wamalungo, (the malaria fever one).

But such is not the case with malaria fever. In malaria fever, the person is ill. He is not the malaria fever itself while in mental illness, the patient is the mental illness itself, wamisala, openga, odwala.

We have a negative conception of mental illness and, therefore, no meaningful discussion of the nature of the condition. Further, mental illness has become a hidden problem because there is no awareness.

We do not know the types of mental illness, the causes and treatment availability. Sometimes it is like all mentally ill people fell ill because of smoking hemp and, therefore, no one should care about them, zofuna (self affliction).

But there is no health without mental health. Sadly, in all the four election campaigns I have followed (1994, 1999, 2004, 2009), no manifesto particularly mentioned mental health.   

Our presidential candidates talk about health in general. If anything in particular, it is maternal health, malaria, HIV and AIDs. Nothing on mental health, really.

The reason is with all of us. Our language demonstrates that mental health does not have a meaningful place in our everyday life. The way our language portrays the illness speaks for itself.

But we need to place mental health top on the national agenda because there is no health without mental health.

Friday, May 24, 2013

I Miss Profiles

 
It has been like this, always. When poet David Rubadiri goes to Kenya, Nation Media Group gives him special coverage in Daily Nation and Saturday Nation.

Rubadiri was in Kenya for medical treatment in March and April this year and, as always, he filled the pages of newspapers, very much unlike here in Malawi, where profiles are not a tradition in our newspapers.

Lack of profiles is apparent even when Malawi has people who have carved a place in living memory, even after they are gone. Rubadiri is one such person.

And as Michael Elliott, that excellent writer and former editor of Time International says, “if you are a writer on contemporary events and aspire to immortality, you had better have something special in your pen.”

Rubadiri’s pen has something special. And not just his pen. When he opens his mouth to speak, even in informal conversation, the poetry from his heart is loud and clear; visible to the eye, too. No wonder, every time he goes to Kenya, the media rushes after him. Rubadiri is a poet better known across Africa than in Malawi.

The reasons could be understandable. Rubadiri spent decades in East Africa, Uganda for his primary, secondary and college education and a teaching job at Makerere University; thereafter Kenya.

Of course after college he spent a couple of years teaching at Dedza and Soche Hill secondary schools in Malawi.

But at independence he was plucked into diplomatic mission from where he fell out of grace with Malawi's first president Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda. Rubadiri’s sin was his open support for the ministers who stood up against Kamuzu in September 1964.

Still this is not an excuse for the media in Malawi not to profile Rubadiri. The reason is that newspapers in Malawi rarely do profiles. I mean real profiles not just pseudo-profiles.

Once in 2005, when Rubadiri stopped over in Nairobi, Saturday Nation dedicated four pages to his story in the Society pullout of the weekend paper. This year, when Rubadiri was in hospital, the paper’s writer, Ciugu Mwagiru insisted for an interview.

Rubadiri is 83 and mourning his friend Chinua Achebe who died aged 82. Such deaths prick the heart. Why should those younger than us die early? Beyond this question, such deaths are a reminder that we are on our way too.

But Rubadiri has lived a full life. Once he seemed to have lost his country and his job but he got everything back. In 1964, his teaching career was cut in the bud but he got it back in 2000, and in a bigger way, when he was appointed Vice Chancellor of the University of Malawi. In 1965 his diplomatic career was cut in the bud too, but he got it back in 1995 when he was appointed ambassador to the US and the UN.

Now, as he lives his last days on earth, Rubadiri has become wiser than before. Journalist Jack Macbrams was in Mzuzu in the third week of May and he met Rubadiri twice.

“I asked him to leave some new poetry,” says Macbrams, to which Rubadiri responded, “This is my sickness. I will die because of my books.”

Even in his old age, the man has love for his books and his pen and he is hopeful of some poetry, in his words, “before I leave the world I have served all my life.”

Rubadiri remains an inspiration. No wonder Mwagiru did a wonderful two page profile of a man who has been profiled many times in Daily Nation and Saturday Nation. These are Mwagiru’s first three paragraphs:

Despite his advanced age, he stands proudly tall and straight-backed, his poise radiating dignity, with a sardonic smile.

When he opens his mouth to speak, a strong, slow baritone courses out, evoking power and mystery, perhaps befitting a man of his stature.

For David Rubadiri is one of Africa’s foremost poets, a Malawian double exile and a diplomat, all rolled into one to form an eclectic mix of wit, charisma and measured words.

This is true of Rubadiri, a teacher who has lived a full life and taught many even outside the classroom.

And Macbrams is a witness. Rubadiri is old and still recovering, says Macbrams. But, he says, Rubadiri remains a person you would want to listen to all day because he speaks poetry. True, one would want him speak all day because poetry is the depth of human wisdom.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Sound of Death

Death takes the good and not so good from among us. But it is the really good like Liz Banda that we mourn and miss a lot.
She was there when I walked into Nation Publications Limited (NPL) newsroom on Friday, 8 August, 2003.

Elizabeth Lisuntha Banda was also there when I worked as an intern for a month in March, 2000, and again in summer of 2002. And she was there, too, when I left NPL newsroom on 31 March 2009, for Malawi Television Limited (TVM) now MBC.

That day, 31 March 2009, was a Tuesday, the last day of my service to NPL. It was four days after I had visited Liz--for that is what we all called her—at her Chitawira house. On that Friday evening, 27 March 2009, I arrived at her house and her daughter, Yanjanani, who knew me well, welcomed me into the house.

I sat, not comfortably, because Liz was still in the kitchen. When she walked into the living room, she had a smile. I smiled too.

“I don’t want you to hear from people,” I said. “I am serving notice at NPL. I will be joining TVM next week.”

Liz then sat comfortably in her seat. “Mzati start your story again, please,” she said. I knew I was welcome. I, too, sat comfortably. We talked about life in general and life in particular to our experiences for one hour 10 minutes!

When I said bye, she walked me out of her smart house. It was the first time she did so, for in the past she could just stand at the door and wave.

But this was a special day. Outside her house we stood for a good 30 minutes, still talking. Neither Yanjanani nor the maid in the house disturbed us. Our friendship had been cemented on this evening.

Now that we did not work at the same place, we did not see each other every day. We met once in a while, talked on the phone and texted. I prefer texting to talking. Texting is sentimental, intimate too. But also accurate. Speech is unreal, sometimes. Perhaps often. More thought goes into texting than in speech.

Liz was such a good person that it is nearly impossible to meet anyone who can say she was bad. She was the only journalist at NPL, I think, who could use the short form of her name Liz. The rest of us had to use our full names. I guess it was because she first worked on the Young ‘n’ Free pages. And the name Liz made children associate with her and the pages.

Through the years she rose to edit even the most feared current news pages. These are pages one, two, there and four of your newspaper. I think it is also true that she is the only female journalist to have worked for so long in the newsroom at NPL.    

But over the five years we worked together, there are instances that come to mind. They reveal Liz’s patience, love and wisdom.

I was among the first junior staff to buy a car in the newsroom. Liz was to do so later. One evening, she came to me, leaned down. “Mzati, I will knock off late today,” she said. “I have never driven at night. I want you to drive ahead of me so I can follow you.”

That meant I had to wait for her to finish her work which I did. Around 8 PM, we started off from our offices on the Salmin Amour Road on to Mahatma Ghandhi Road, past the University of Malawi’s College of Medicine, into Kapeni Road.

She was living in Chitawira, near the Soche Nazarene Church, so at Kamba I took the Kenyatta Drive. But instead of going on to Mango Stage, to turn right to her house, I turned to the right just after I took Kenyatta Drive. We went round the road sin Naperi and then finally in Chitawira.

You may think she would be angry with my unnecessarily longer route. But she was not. Instead, she thanked me for being of good help. But that was the last times she asked for a night drive-companionship. I had taught her to drive at night the painful way. But the good thing with such painful lessons is that you learn once.

Such friendship grew when I left NPL. We would meet once in a while. But often we would text. Once she texted. “I haven’t read Things Fall Apart, imagine.” I gave her a copy the same day.

Yet I also made her cry in sorrow. Once, when she thought I had done a poor assessment of NPL, she called me while crying, asking me to be kind. I heard her and did as she pleaded. The rest is all good news.

“All boys grow up. Liz, I’m happy to report to you that I am now a man,” I once texted her. She understood me. “Amen to that!” She texted back.

Once she had lamented the evil deeds men do to women. I texted her that we are living in a really bad world. God must save us. She wrote back a long text, expressing her sorrow with our world. In the text, I saw a young woman waiting for the next world, a world without any pain and sorrow.

I know she loved life. But she also longed for the everlasting life yet to come. I know she was kind and gentle. But I also know that she was honest. I know she didn’t like poor writers in the newsroom. But I also know that she was kind enough not to shout at them as some editors do. I know she loved her daughter so much. I also know that Yanjanani will have a life, even like that of her mother—a lovely, gentle, kind lady. Beautiful, too.

Why does death take away such people? Well, it also takes bad. But we mourn those who were really great. Like Liz.

Death, I hear your sound. No, death, I hear your voice, calling one by one. But I can’t see you. Death, I hear your footsteps, walking by our homes, hospitals, roads, taking our loved ones. But I can’t see you. Death, I feel your sting in my heart as you take those we love. But when I try to catch you, I have air in my hands. Death, you have taken Liz away from us.

But death is a loser. Now Liz will live in our hearts and in our memory. Yet we will also learn to live without her.

I have hope. I study the Bible using the historical-grammatical method of interpretation. And I know death is just sleep. Liz is sleeping. Some day, when Jesus, the Son of God, comes, the righteous dead shall resurrect and fly to heaven. Liz believed in God.

Liz. She was there when I walked into the newsroom. She was there when I walked out. I believe she will be there, too, on the first resurrection. And if I do well, as she did, I shall meet her in the joy of our Lord.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Beauty of Grey Hair

We live in a generation whose lifespan is half that of our fathers—and mothers, of course.

The poem is powerful.

We dared to think... that (he'd) live to comb grey hair. But like his
father, he had every gift but length of years.

The Irish poet William Butler Yeats crafted this thought-provoking, all time relevant poem almost a century ago. Yet it remains powerful in our years, the 21st Century, confirming, again, that poetry lives across space and time.

We dared to think…that (he’d) live to comb grey hair. It is a lament for a friend, it seems, a model or a brilliant, important person who people wanted to live long, to share his knowledge for decades. Yet he died young.

The society in which Yeats lived held grey hair as some kind of honour, the ideal, and the norm—what everybody expects: that a person should live long and the visible symbol of old age being grey hair which is easy to comb; meaning that the abnormal is to die young before growing grey hair.

The man mourned in the poem, like his father, was talented and died young. Sad that people we want to live long, die young.

Long life is an honour not just to one person but to society because it benefits from wisdom that comes with age. Or put in Yeats’ language, the wisdom that comes with grey hair.
Isn’t the world full of people we wished to live long, to comb grey hair, so that we enjoy their talent for decades?

Consider Bright Nkhata, Allan Namoko, Daniel Kachamba, Robert Fumulani, Du Chisiza and, well, it is a long list, this one. But we can add Professor Kay Chiromo (that extraordinary artist), Nixon Khembo (that brilliant academic who died before completing his PhD), and Charles Severe (that broadcaster and drama guru).

Do you want us to add university professors who have died? We wish Professor John Chiphangwi was with us to see the growth of the University of Malawi's College of Medicine.

What about brilliant politicians who passed on, leaving behind unsolved puzzles? We wish they had lived long. We wish they had grown old to comb grey hair. We wish Du Chisiza had lived long to keep writing, directing and performing great plays.

We ask: If Du was living today, what play would he have written on homosexuality? If Bob Marley was living today, what songs would he have written about the war in Iraq? What would he have sung about the Tsunami that killed nearly half a million people in Asia? What would he have said about Africa?

We really wish they had lived long, grown old to comb grey hair. But life isn’t what we wish. Often, it is what we don’t wish to happen.

We wish all parents lived long to raise their children. But sometimes—perhaps often nowadays--it does not work that way. I have attended burials of young people in recent months, young men survived by wives and children. I have known about young men and women who have died, leaving children hopeless; children gazing at the sky, a symbol of nothingness, a blank future.

Now stories about life can never be impersonal for they are about all of us, about our parents, brothers and sisters and everybody else.

I feel blessed to have both my parents living. My father, Willias Nkolokosa, a great primary school teacher is 77 while my mother, Anne, is 74. They have lived to comb grey hair, to see their children grow up with the last born, yours truly, being 34.

My paternal grandparents died in old age. My grandfather, Desert Nkolokosa, was the first Malawian Seventh Day Adventist pastor, preaching in Makanjira, Mangochi, in 1939 after his missionary work in Zaire where my father and his elder brother, Stewart, were born.

My maternal grandmother died in January this year in real old age. The pastor who led the service challenged us all to live up to 90 years and we laughed in disbelief. We know we may not live that long because we are in days that long life is not fashionable.

You may have a similar story or a different one. Perhaps you lost parents long time ago and you don’t know how pleasant it is to have them grow old. It may be that you don’t know what it means to have a father or a mother because, as was the case with Harod Takomana, he was two years old when his father, 26, died in a road accident.

Such is the pain of life. It is not what we wish it to be, always. We dared to think... that (he'd) live to comb grey hair. But like his father, he had every gift but length of years.

Consider yourself lucky if your parents have grown old to comb grey hair. The honour you can give them is to comb their grey hair: buy them a comb. But they need one after a bath, so buy them soap and pails. Well, in the rural corners, they bath after lunch, so make sure they have food and blankets at night.

This is combing our old folks’ grey hair. It is easy, just as easy as combing the real grey hair. (I know how easy it is because dad used to ask me to comb his grey hair.) It is a source of blessings as well, one of which is long life for ourselves that we may live long to comb our grey heads.