And Then Silence Returned
By Temwani Mgunda (Malawi)
*Temwani Mgunda is a trained journalist and secondary school teacher of English and History from Malawi, Africa. He previously worked as Literary Arts Editor for Malawi News, the country’s oldest weekly newspaper.
In the Slums
It is Wednesday around 5:30am. The skies are clear and this one promises to be quite a sweltering day. A wave of gaiety sweeps across the slum-townships of Blantyre, Malawi’s commercial city located in the southern region on the slopes of the rambling Shire Highlands. A similar wave is also reportedly raging across the slums of Lilongwe, the country’s capital city that sits on the lush plains of the central region and Zomba, the old municipal city perched at the foot of a towering plateau in the eastern region as well as Mzuzu, the nubile city that nestles between a colossal man-made forest and an evergreen hill in the northern part of the country.
Blantyre – the historic city named after the hometown of that legendary white missionary and explorer called David Livingstone who set foot on our then ‘primitive’ land some centuries ago – has been set afire. There is untold anticipation that the new day will, indisputably, make the city fortify its space in history. It is today or never. The citizenry – largely the disenchanted souls from the Blantyre’s shanty locations – is pregnant with hope. At last, there is all likelihood that today it is ‘come freedom, come!’ At last, salvation will be here. At last, the deprived sons and daughters of the soil will chant Hosanna! At last, their day-to-day grim struggle for survival will be dispatched to the past. And they will start living – not merely surviving.
You see, they – the pitiful slum dwellers – have languished in silence for eternity. They, the pathetic slum dwellers, have come a long way on this path of agony – silently, submissively. They, the disconsolate slum dwellers, have suffered the tenacious pangs of poverty for too long, making their anger now burst forth from despair and depression. The fires of discontent are glowing all over. It is here, in the slums, where life is a ceaseless hustle. It is here, in the slums, where five or six families share a single dingy bathroom and a putrid pit latrine. It is here, in the slums, where hopeless drunks endlessly soak their brains in the dreadful locally distilled gin with no prospects ofunshackling themselves from the throes of misery. It is here, in the slums, where little fatherless boys swiftly graduate into rascals. And it is here, in the slums, where the girl-child gives birth to a fellow child before she even hits secondary school level. Such is the tattered portrait of life in the slums of this petite African country. Quite an explosive state of affairs, this one!
They, the sorry slum dwellers, are the certified scum of the earth – the wretched of the souls. In fact, they are called all sorts of disgraceful names. They, the piteous slum dwellers, have endured their leader – the State President – calling them headless chickens or notorious rats each time they have endeavoured to ask him about their claim to basic human rights. They, the disheartened slum dwellers, have been told countless times, by the State President, to go to hell and kiss the sinful Lucifer. Actually, even the State President’s wife, the First Lady, recently branded them perfect fools for taking the leadership to task on what it was doing to crack the maize and unemployment crises relentlessly rocking the country.
“You, ungrateful fools! You, desolate cockroaches! Is my husband your father such that each time you are in trouble he has to come down and babysit you?” Thus ranted the First Lady at a public rally the other day – much to the chagrin of the State President’s political party faithful. Why did the Mother of the Nation choose to publicly stoop to such ridiculous and sordid depths?
In the slums, the poor souls’ once-upon-a-time bursting buoyancy gave way to gloomy thoughts over their injustices long ago. Their dreams are now devoid of the greatness of being. The incumbent State President’s rule is like an open artery, incessantly draining away the blood of optimism. These meek children of the land continue to waddle in wretchedness while the State President rapidly gets outrageously rich. They battle face-to-face the biting prices of basic commodities while the State President makes merry in the affluent corridors of State House. They pay an arm and a leg to board rickety minibuses when going to workplaces or markets while the State President recently bought himself a jet. They cram themselves in grimy shacks of houses with their bloated families while the State President is presently erecting in his home village a state-of-the-art mansion – similar to those enchanting homes in the swanky neighbourhoods of Los Angeles.
But, today, they – the down-trodden masses who have suffered in silence for long – have gallantly declared ‘enough is enough!’ Today, they have unfalteringly resolved to engage ‘people power’ and get rid of this State President who has become a god. Today, they are prepared to bring down this hardnosed dictator dressed in the robes of a democrat. Today, the State President’s foul-mouthed wife will see red. Today, the headless chickens, notorious rats, desolate cockroaches and ungrateful fools will pour into the streets to present their declaration at the sacred gates of State House. And it is an incredibly blunt statement: The State President must pack up his filthy administration and go!
At the Police Station
It is now around 7:30am. The skies are clear and it has already turned out to be quite a blistering day. Blantyre City Police Station, housed in one of the old colonial buildings, has already turned into a hum. Senior and junior officers appear extraordinarily prepared for duty today. And an atmosphere of fear swamps the air here. The officers discern quite well that days like today bring with them unsettling packages. They know pretty alright that days like today are deadly. On days like today, some of their comrades-in-arms have ever been victims of fatal injuries. And, on days like today, some have even lost lives while on duty. Furious masses are vicious. Mad masses are like marauding tigers on the rampage. And in a bid to sound a death-knell to their stinging poverty, some desperate looters go on the loose on days like today and break into shops, deviously taking advantage of the otherwise peaceful mass demonstrations. They are scary days, these. They are bloodcurdling days, these. They are days of destruction and darkness, these. And days like today, by and large, smell of gloom and doom.
The station officer-in-charge, who holds the coveted rank of Senior Assistant Commissioner of Police, is oddly early for duty today. There is quite a plausible reason for this strange occurrence. The much-publicised public march to State House falls within his area of command. He has to organise his charges in good time. The job has to be executed thoroughly. There are always rank promotions attached to successes accrued from such operations. And the silent rule of the game is to be on the side of the powers that be and callously crush the demonstrating masses – whether they are armed or not, hostile or not.
“Our duty today is not to facilitate a peaceful march but thwart it. We must employ ruthless thoroughness if need be,” the station officer-in-charge barks at his boys and girls in uniform who have fallen in line for an impromptu address. “After all, we took oath to, at all times, defend and protect our Commander-in-Chief who happens to be the very same State President the masses want ousted.”
Tension soars to higher levels as a hollow silence spreads out between the officer-in-charge and his pack of officers. His is a a thunderous voice. His is bulky physique – a giant of a man who has seen it all as a career cop. And he is of the type that eats money. He lives in an enviable spacious institution house in Blantyre City’s pristine Mount Pleasant suburb. His charges, mainly those belonging to junior ranks, are pretty emaciated. They are of the kind that scavenges on crumbs. They reside within the confines of the mucky police camp in dilapidated houses that are as tiny as match-boxes. And they get crammed alongside their children into these match-boxes like bags of beans inside some storehouse.
“We have code-named today’s exercise ‘Operation Abort’. We must not let down the State President, the all-powerful Commander-in-Chief of the country’s armed forces. In the event that the masses do not cooperate, we must shoot to kill. Yes, you got me right: Shoot to kill! Do you get me, officers?” the colossal Senior Assistant Commissioner of Police yells out haughtily.
“Yes, Sir!” the gaunt officers tamely chorus – like a swarm of terrified kindergarten kids.
And the officer-in-charge’s word is final. His word is command. He is the authority. A perfect insignia of tyranny. No questions, no suggestions, no queries. So, it is: “Go ye officers, and carry out the word!”
And the officers, while armed to the teeth, will be dispatched in batches to be positioned at various strategic points along the city’s streets, entirely on the alert to deal with the demonstrating masses – whether they will be peaceful or vicious as per the ‘gospel’ according to the station officer-in-charge. And, thus, ‘Operation Abort’ will be transacted scrupulously and religiously.
At the Freedom Park
It is now around 8:30am. The skies are clear and the day is boiling to perilous levels. It is quite a scorching day, this one. Untold tension reigns in the air, all over. A raging human sea surges into the streets of Blantyre. This bitter sea is a collection of bruised masses from the city’s vast shanty towns of Mbayani, Ndirande, Chirimba, Chemusa, Chilobwe, Chilomoni, Bangwe and Manase.
Of course, there are also some demonstrators from the city’s middle-class locations of Nkolokosa, Chiwembe, Kanjedza, Chigumula, Chitawira and Manja, but it is doubtful if there are any from the leafy upper-class suburbs of Namiwawa, Nyambadwe, Mount Pleasant, Sunnyside, Naperi and Mandala. History has it that such types of demos are mostly supported by the society’s underprivileged – the poor and the helpless. Such demos are, by and large, a manifestation of smouldering feuds between the weak and the powerful finally bursting into furious flames. A clash of classes.
The livid masses are heading to the city’s Kabula Freedom Park from which they will collectively march to State House. It is here, at Kabula Freedom Park, that the seeds of the struggle against colonialism were sown almost a century ago until, at last, that much-touted latter-day Messiah returned from the land of the whites to liberate the nation from the stubborn jaws of the colonial master. It is also here, at the same freedom park, that the sparks of fire against one-party despotism were lit some decades ago, forcing the Messiah-turned-Murderer to pack up his heinous regime and leave the comfort of State House. And it is also here, at the very same freedom park, that the masses unveiled their burning wrath against the first president in the newly-born democratic Malawi the time he expressed his insatiable yearning to stay in office longer than the constitutionally-prescribed two five-year terms. It appears the history of the nation is strewn with a series of revolutionary struggles – out of the ruins of colonialism arose tyranny and out of the ruins of tyranny arose phony democracy.
So Blantyre City’s Kabula Freedom Park will today go down into the annals of history for the umpteenth time as a sanctified ground where the country’s political terrain gets altered. Actually, apart from teaching arrogant leaders some justly bitter lessons, the freedom park has time and again been the scene for brewing mass protests against various socio-political ills that have bedevilled the country over the years. Talk of the mass protests against Cashgate – that scam involving brazen pilfering of public funds by unpatriotic civil servants who connived with ravenous politicians belonging to the then ruling party. Talk of the mass protests against government’s purchase of posh fuel-guzzling vehicles for cabinet ministers at that time the country plunged into a brutal economic crisis. Then talk of the mass protests against the wanton hiking of salaries for members of Parliament at that time public hospitals were hit by an acute shortage of drugs and rundown medical equipment. Surely, Kabula Freedom Park has seen it all.
“If not you and me, then who?
If not tomorrow, then when?
Nothing for us without us.
The attire is red.
Let’s meet in the street.
And if there will be only two people,
Then let it be you and me…”
Thus read the compelling mobile phone text message making rounds yester-night, calling upon the kindred of the land to this noble event being staged today. This potent message was also in high circulation on Facebook and Twitter. Looks like the public space has truly shrunk these days, making it pretty much easier and quicker to mobilise the masses – thanks to the various affordable social media tools at our disposal.
And the enraged masses, clad in red attire while valiantly waving red scarves, have responded overwhelmingly to the sacred call. And it is a crowd seething with fury. And it is an assemblage bursting with fully-fermented anger. And it is a perfect gathering of disillusioned souls. Disgruntled souls.
The freedom park has metamorphosed into a melting pot of sorts. The freedom park has turned into another Tahrir Square of Cairo in Egypt. Another Benghazi in Libya. A Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia. There is massive din here, courtesy of the never-ending furious chants from the masses.
“Down with repression! Up with all liberties under the sun!” Thus the gathering here spiritedly chants.
“Away with this economic malaise! Up with genuine ‘economic engineering’!” Thus the congregation here erupts.
“Colonial rulers plundered our natural resources; you loot our public funds! Greedy plunderers replaced by bloody looters!” Thus the crowd here explodes.
“United we are rock! Divided we are sand!” Thus the assembly here preaches.
“Forward Ever, Backward Never!” Thus goes the masses’ battle cry.
And all this flavoured with blaring vuvuzelas, earsplittingwhistling and stabbing ululations.
The streets surrounding the freedom park, which were once redolent of purity, now lie higgledy-piggledy. Stones of all sizes, rags of all colours, twigs of all lengths and old as well as new tyres are scattered all over the place. And these have been brought out to give the occasion all the much-needed atmosphere of a socio-political mass protest.
The streets, once scented with serenity, have turned into a sprawling beehive of precarious activity. Tyres, rags and the country’s ruling party cloth have fallen victim to the fire lit up right in the middle of the streets, forming dark clouds of smoke that ferociously twirls into the air.
Someone flashes out two huge underwears. One – black in colour – is for a man and the other – red in colour – is for a woman. He shouts at the top of his voice, claiming that the underwears have been smuggled out of State House. The crowd detonates into cheers and jeers. Then he throws the ill-fated underwears into the raging flames of fire. The crowd explodes into fresh cheers and jeers.
“We have burnt their underwears! They will now walk around without underwears!” The highly-animated masses launch a litany of taunts.
A bunch of some fanatical youths breaks into an instantaneously composed song:
Ukamwa mowa, usayendese dziko, ukamwa mowa x2
(Don’t rule a country while drunk)
Oyendesa dziko, samwa mowa x2
(A ruler of a country does not drink beer)
The energised masses spontaneously join in the singing. It appears everything is quite infectious here. And the singing flows smoothly, flawlessly. And the bold message in the song is loud and clear: Don’t drink and rule.
As a matter of fact, the serving State President is a known drunk. Actually, some naughty fellows sternly claim that the State President still has bills from the past to settle at the famous Chigwirizano Night Club in the capital city, Lilongwe, which – so they solemnly testify – he frequently patronised before he became tenant at State House. Uncouth fellows, these! Roguish fellows, these!
Then one of the organisers of the mass demonstrations jumps onto a table, which has been brought here solely to act as a platform of sorts from which to address the masses. This is kind of a re-enactment of Adolf Hitler’s stunts when he jumped onto chairs and tables in the beer halls of Munich City to dish out revolutionary speeches after Germany’s shameful defeat in the First World War.
The man – now firmly standing on the table – signals for silence and instantly the din dies away. Nicknamed ‘Commando’, the heavily-bearded man is someone with a quite commanding personality. A renowned civil rights activist who time and again spits scathing condemnation at the sitting State President’s rotten rule, he is a favourite of the private media in the country, hence small wonder his face is a regular feature in the local newspapers. Actually, at some point, Commando staged a one-man demonstration to deliver a petition at the much-dreaded gates of State House. A fiery fellow, this one!
“Viva Malawi!” Commando shouts with verve, his clenched right fist punching into the air.
“Viva!” the masses vivaciously respond.
“Away with dictators masquerading as democrats!”
“Away with suppression of expression!”
“Forward ever with solid freedom!”
“Backward never with our hard-won democracy!”
“Folks, should one misguided man steer the entire nation to ruin with his visionless rule?”
“Should we allow some hidebound demagogue to treat us, upright citizens, like chickens?”
“We sent the white man packing together with his stinking colonialism; can we fail to do the same to a fellow black man who all of a sudden thinks he has become superhuman?”
“We chased out of State House that so-called Messiah of a State President when he turned into a lion of sorts; can we fail to do the same to this Satan of a State President who is but a mere cub?”
“We prevented that self-styled ‘Political Engineer’ from prolonging his stay at State House after his mandate came to an end; can we fail to deal with this weakling of a State President who all he knows is to issue empty threats through the banging of tables during press conferences?”
“Who owns this country?”
“We, the people!”
“Who makes State Presidents?”
“We, the people!”
“And who can unmake a Sate President?”
“We, the people!”
“Then power to the people!”
“Power to the people!”
“Up with genuine democracy!”
“Up with genuine democracy!”
“Down with repression of any form in a democratic Malawi!”
“Down with leaders without honour!”
“Down with leaders whose wives are as heartless as the Tsarina of the Russia of old!”
Here, though the masses have responded with gusto, it is with no doubt that many of them do not know who the Tsarina was, let alone have they ever heard about her. But all that matters at this material time is the mere understanding that Commando has poured venom on the snobbish First Lady.
The valiant rights activist descends from the table. The masses detonate into a series of ringing cheers – ceaselessly cheering this latter-day Adolf Hitler for minutes on end. Then the infuriated masses hurl a string of insults at the State President for ceaselessly pouring on them what they call “buckets of filth”. The irate masses also do not forget to fling another dosage of verbal abuse at the First Lady, with some warning to pee into her foul mouth today. The fuming masses are now thoroughly fired up. The masses are now thoroughly consumed by fury. This is history in the making.
On the Road to State House
It is now around 11:30am. The skies are extremely clear and the day has graduated into quite a blistering one. The time has come. The hour is nigh. All is set for the much-awaited march to State House to commence. At the meantime, nothing can stop the firm crowd. The people, chanting disgruntled chants while carrying twigs and placards, unswervingly pour into the road leading to State House.
And the placards tell it all:
“HE STINKS! HE MUST GO!” thus shrieks one.
“HE IS THE NEPOTISTIC DEVIL STICKING ONTO OUR BACKS!” thus yells another.
“WE ARE TIRED OF EATING STONES!” screams another one.
“HIV/AIDS HAVE BECOME RAMPANT DURING HIS SICK RULE!” accuses another.
“WHY DID HE CHASE AWAY INTERNATIONAL DONORS?” squeals that other one.
“HE IS LUCIFER INCARNATE!” thunders this one.
“HIS WIFE IS A DAUGHTER OF ZION!” taunts that one.
The masses march on. They march on. The people are determined. It is today or never. The suffering must come to an end. The torture must come to a halt. Christ of Nazareth already suffered on their behalf in that grubby manger, in that hunger-infested wilderness, in the Garden of Gethsemane during that night of blatant betrayals and on that wooden cross at Golgotha. This march is a journey from Egypt to Canaan. It is a journey from outright slavery to ultimate freedom. It is a trek from the land of famine to the land of plenty.
The masses march on. They march on. The people are resolute. The people are unwavering. It is now or never. This brutal raping of the nation’s soul must come to a stop. They are now singing the land’s venerated National Anthem. It is a fervent prayer for the nation, this one.
The masses march on. They march on. The people are unmoved. The people are unyielding. It is today and now. They zealously sing that part of the sacred National Anthem that asks the Almighty Lord to grant them solidarity and valour. Join together all our hearts as one/That we be free from fear – thus goes the said part of the anthem. They sing it with total vitality. It is a supplication to the Almighty Lord to grant them bountiful bravery to never turn back but forge ahead and ran the full course. It is a petition to the Almighty Lord to grant them abundant gallantry to never be afraid of oppressive leaders and, of course, their heartless wives. Forward ever. Backward never.
But, all of a sudden, a hurricane of lethal teargas canisters gets unleashed. The masses have been taken unawares. It is an ambush, this one. A surprise attack on the otherwise peaceful people. Another consignment of teargas cans rains down. The masses become infuriated. And, in ferocious reprisal, angry stones fling into the air. Horror has taken possession of the livid peoples’ souls. Rage is printed all over their faces. The police get scared. The masses are now mad. The masses are now incensed. They resolutely let loose a volley of stones at the police. And, in hardhearted retaliation, the police set free a fresh torrent of teargas cans.
It is now total war. The combat is now in full swing. The road to State House is now a complete battlefield in Sudan’s Darfur. It is now another North Kivu in D.R. Congo. Another conflict-riddled zone of Bujumbura in Burundi. More fatal cans, more furious stones. More cans, more stones. Cans, stones, cans, stones, cans, stones. Skirmishes, scuffles, running battles.
Finally, a gunshot tears into the air. One drops down – dead. Another gunshot. One more drops down – lifeless. More gun explosions, more martyrs. More blasts, more blood. Blasts, blood, blasts, blood, blasts, blood. Turmoil and terror all over the place, reminiscent of the massacre witnessed in some parts of the country that day the white colonial administration declared a state of emergency some decades ago when the natives fiercely demanded self-determination.
Screams of anguish pierce the atmosphere. Shrieks of pain and grief spread all over. And echoes of agony are heard in the mountains of Mpingwe, Soche and Michiru which stanchly stand guard over the commercial city. The masses have been rendered helpless. The masses are now hopeless. The masses scatter. The masses flee. Demonstrations aborted with savage cruelty.
Then silence … silence … cemetery silence.