The question was simple. Who is the wife of David Bekham? I asked my Chancellor College fourth year students. Victoria, they answered in unison.
The next question was equally simple. Who is the wife of Kinnah Phiri? I asked. There was some thinking, a slight laughter, and then sadness. Nobody knew the name of Kinnah Phiri’s wife. I told this story to Kinnah Phiri when we met for an interview recently.
"Bekham is a celebrity," he said. "I am not." Kinnah was, in essence, saying that nobody has made him a celebrity. Celebrities are made, they do not make themselves. They are made by the media. The challenge in Malawi is that we in the media have not gone far to make and sustain celebrities.
We do not cherish our great men and women, boys and girls. One reason is lack of skills to write and produce powerful profiles that build our skilled individuals. The other reason is envy.
Why should I make him great? We ask. Envy is an infection that has infiltrated all sectors of our country and we are fighting poverty, illiteracy and disease, leaving out envy which is a great enemy of development. But I want to know about Kinnah.
There are more things to learn from here than from the West. I really don’t admire Britain and US. I admire our rich ways of life.
But one thing we can learn from the US and Britain is how they make their own celebrities. The last time England won the World Cup was in 1964. Since then, the BBC lists England among the favourites to win the cup every time it is being played. Even two years ago, the BBC was busy saying England could win the cup.
Or think about this: Is David Bekham the world’s greatest player? No. Why, then, was he more popular than any other player in the world?
The reason is the media in Britain builds sons and daughters of the land. There are so many Malawians who have lived meaningful lives, whose stories can help us answer difficult, puzzling questions about life. Think of George Patridge, Rose Mkandawire, Matthews Chikaonda, DD Phiri—the man who introduced me to the art of writing in 1993/94, Rose Chibambo, Cecilia Kadzamira, T/A Chitera, Young Chimodzi, Jack Chamangwana, Lawrence Waya, and Ethel Kamwendo Banda—not apostles who give themselves the title Dr without reading for a PhD; these liars must have their stories buried because they are dangerous to Malawians.
Think of Ngwazi Kamuzu Banda. How many of us know him well? Who is there to tell us about him? Cecilia Kadzamira, John Tembo, Aleke Banda, Gwanda Chakuamba. But are these people telling us anything about the Ngwazi? No yet.
Perhaps the media in Malawi is not to blame. Lack of profiles in our newspapers and programmes is a reflection of lack of a biography writing culture. We can count biographies in Malawi. Professor Brown Chimphamba has one, Bishop James Tengatenga, Vera Chirwa, the late Kanyama Chiume and a few others have also written about themselves.
Aleke Banda, a man with over 50 years of public service, does not have a biography yet. But reading his brief piece in Weekend Nation recently puzzled thousands. The man has a story. It is a story that must be told, and beautifully, so.
But are we going to read about this story? Ask Aleke, not me. Then there is Edge Kanyongolo whose real first name is Fidelis. The story is that he was a very brilliant student and his professors used to say, ‘He has an edge over other students’ to the extent that Edge became his name.
To be honest, I don’t know whether or not this is true. He needs to tell us. But what I do know is that he was detained at Mikuyu while a college student. This, too, is a story that must be told.
Then there are professors who started as primary school teachers, going to evening secondary school classes and passed MSCE, went to teacher training college, finally Chancellor College. And there is a successful woman who was a cleaner at a health centre until she married a graduate who encouraged her to sit for MSCE, went to TTC, Domasi College and finally Chancellor College.
Or do you want me to tell you about my college mate who was a houseboy and was sent to evening classes by his master? He passed JC and MSCE and ended up in the University of Malawi. All these are wonderful stories that must be told in profiles and biographies.
Sadly, we are not telling each other our stories and we lose our history because a country’s history is in the stories of its people. Instead, our stories are told by outsiders. They come and write about the Ngwazi from their perspective.
Who is going to tell our story? We must tell our own story and redeem it from the hands of hijackers.
By the way, the past two years I have been saving for a Christmas holiday in Egypt (the Suez Canal), Greece and Spain. But I will not go for a good reason: the victory of Barack Obama. If you know the history of the US, you should know why Obama, the conqueror, maybe the face of a new America.
My plain view is that I will not spend my money on holiday. Instead, I will fund Inkosi ya Makosi M’mbelwa to witness the swearing-in of Obama on January 20. M’mbelwa will have one task: to crown Obama the Ngwazi of America—or is it the Ngwazi of the world?
I thought M’belwa enjoys giving out this title?