Tuesday, February 12, 2013

I have no regrets; Tembo looks back at his life lived so far

He has been at the head of the central bank, University of Malawi,  Press Corporation, he has been ministers and is considered to be the closest crony Kamuzu Banda has, so far he is the longest serving parliamentarian in Malawi and heads the opposition in Parliament, but that is far from being all that makes John Zenus Ungapake Tembo.

I landed an exclusive with John Tembo on condition that I will stick to my promise that I will not ask political questions; of course we both knew that was not true for a man like Tembo.
No regrets for me...

I was ushered into his Area 10 house’s living room at exactly 2:10 pm, I was made to wait for a couple of minutes and I wondered what the interview would be like, with the man that had been a politician over thirty years before I was born.

He is definitely a collector, his living room which spans the size of a volleyball court is laden with vintage ornaments, and four sets of Ivory block the fireplace, pure copper bowls and containers fill cabinets, gold plated gourds…

A painting the size of a three-quarter bed hangs over the fireplace, there are several over picture frames but among them, the biggest picture of a person is of Kamuzu, a youthful Kamuzu standing behind a chair and placing his hands on it, whoever lives in this house, I concluded, must love Kamuzu Banda.

“very close in as much as a politician, a president of a party later on of a nation…I became a very senior follower of Kamuzu and royal to him, I became a royal servant of Kamuzu which I am still, although he is late, I pledged royalty to him and I pledge royalty now, to him to the foundations of his policy in the party and in the government,” he said, slowly.

Those who say Kamuzu was dictator have wrong literature, to Tembo kamuzu was not a dictator, he was a nationalist and a fighter for freedom, democracy which today’s youths should actually emulate.

He said the fact that Kamuzu left his medicine practice in Ghana and Europe to liberate Malawians from bondage speaks of the man Kamuzu was.

Tembo sees little difference between the politics of 1961 and now and actually said democracy was there too it is why Kamuzu had a competitor of the United Federal Party member from Kasungu and himself opposed by a Mr. Mwase in his Dedza constituency.

Tembo had a smooth run in the thirty or so years Kamuzu Banda was in power, most of Kamuzu's friends fell out of grace and were exiled, and detained without explanations…I can cite the likes of Jen Mlanga and Focus Gwede.

After MCP was voted out of the limelight at the start of the 90s, Bakili Muluzi was to become of on John Tembo's worst nightmares, he was constantly telling Malawians that Tembo has blood on his hands  and knows something of the 1983 Mwanza murders in which four prominent cabinet ministers were mysteriously slain.

And yet Tembo was soon working with Bakili Muluzi, did he not feel bitter over the court hustles that the Muluzi regime dragged him through?

“Dr. Muluzi and I speak to each other now …if you ask him properly he will tell you that it was all wrong to accuse me of murder, I went through a lot of bad things in the opposition, I was arrested several times, went to jail several times I was acquitted in all of them.

"I think anybody who holds and maintains hatred in his heart is not a politician, he is a crook,” he said, then paused allowing me to take down his exact words.

But I was unconvinced, all this talk about Banda being a dictator about murders such as that of Mkwapatira Mhango has to have a basis, so if Kamuzu was not a dictator and Tembo clean in all the dark ages Decades Malawi went through, why is Kamuzu's name still crimson?

“It’s his political enemies beginning with the colonialists...after all the colonialists imprisoned Kamuzu and even sent him to Gweru in Rhodesia and knew later it was wrong this is why he became the first prime minister of this country they knew he was fighting for the poor,” said Tembo, briefly disturbed by a phone call.

The Manchester United fan, a mug sits on one of the shelves to certify his claim. He says he loves reading politics, sports and philosophy and has a lot of books in his private studies at his Area 10 and Blantyre residences.

His secretary Mrs. Chinangwa is busy seeing to parliamentary bills that Tembo will be seeing to as leader of opposition. But at 80, something looks normal; he looks 50 and still very active, active as a 35 year old. I had to ask, what is his survival kit made of?

Well, he used to play soccer and do athletics but that was in his youth.

“I live well, I eat well and I look after myself, I am active in life. Old age is what a person thinks about himself: Some people are old so early and some are young so late in life, it depends on the mental interest of the person,” He said, still inserting pauses in his speech stride.

Despite taking pride in his wife, Ruth who he said is a great cook and a professional dietician; he still maintained that food is just a small part of life.

And then he dwelt on his wife; he first met her when he was a university chap in Lesotho and her in secondary school and the next time he met her in London some years later, he could not wait another moment.

Was he ashy guy so as to meet a girl in college and wait till he was a minister to ask her out?

“A proposal is made when you are ready to propose marriage and when you propose marriage it means you know the person…at the time we were both mature, she is the one god chose for me. She is a magnanimous woman, very loving, very responsible and a very straight Christian,” said Tembo

After dating her for three years, he married her in 1969. He boast of her England trained culinary prowess, he married her while she worked as a dietician at a Leeds hospital.

“She is an excellent cook, I grew up eating nsima, and up to bow I like nsima with ndiwo, whether its vegetables, meat or fish,” said Tembo.

As a person, Tembo revealed that his principals are linked to his growing up in the village where he herded his grandmother’s sheep, goats and cattle, gardening and doing almost all that the village puts to a youth man.

With a Christian background of a father who started as a teacher and ending up as a reverend, Tembo remembers his father as a very kind person who liked people with people liking him back, he along his 8 siblings had to move from mission to mission.

“My father was a reverend of the CCAP church…very disciplined, he taught all his children to be disciplined, you should also ask about my mother, she was a very kind and generous woman, everybody who visited her house did not leave without eating something, that was her philosophy,” said Tembo.

He says he is proud father, saying he never used a rod on his children and let associations in school and society. All of them graduates and working outside Malawi.

After teaching for a brief stint, Tembo joined politics and he says his success in politics stems from the fact that since his youth he has always been committed to people and his experience in teaching and head mastering fostered his values of excellence and discipline.

On the upcoming MCP convention where a few young brains are ready to take him on for the post of the MCP presidency, Tembo could not only say that he is barring no one and said those declaring that they are candidates are not bonafide MPC members because the convention is the one supposed to decide that.

“The choice of candidates is the responsibility of the convention, it’s not therefore my responsibility to break the rules, regulations and tradition of the MCP and start saying I am the candidate, I will stand as a candidate, it’s not for me, it’s the responsibility of the people of the MCP if you find anyone saying I will be, he is not a member of the MCP, he is not, he is somebody who is trying to exploit members of the MCP,” said Tembo, rattled.

On the quality of the debate of the Malawi Parliament, Tembo bemoaned the immature people who come to parliament to get rich.

“When you find people becoming MP of this political party next time they join another, and another time they join another, those are not politicians. Multiparty politics does not mean prostitution of one’s life in politics,” charged Tembo.

He vehemently denied the rumours that went to town that he was on the card to being the second vice president in the Joyce Banda’s regime.

He also trashed the accusations that he is now a lesser opposition politician because President Banda has appointed his son and relatives to top positions namely Nancy Tembo to the Electoral Commission and Tembo’s own son to the diplomatic office in England.

“Never, I mean people who say that don’t even know who president Joyce Banda is and who I am...they don’t know… do you think I am in a position to go to a president of a country to say go and appoint Morgan Tembo to this or his wife that or my son to that?

“Do they think I can do that? It shows ignorance: No Malawian citizen is barred from appointment in the government if qualified,” said Tembo.

On Bingu Wa Mutharika’s leadership, Tembo just had a sentence on it.

“Argghh it was hopeless, declamatory …he destroyed the foundation and dignity of this country,” said Tembo and refused to expound.

He reminds me that his life is not over to describe his highs and lows and proudly declared that he has no regrets, whatever came to his life bad or good he took it, moved on

“I haven’t reached my highest point [in life]…In a normal life of person, you take the full range of experience, but there is no experience I regret for,” said Tembo.

“I have never changed, I stick to my principles…I believe in the dignity and life as a Malawian and of Malawians…I believe in the dignity of African, there are people such as Nkrumah, Sékou Touré, Kenyatta who have inspired me…,” said Tembo.

He revealed that he is a musical person and enjoys classical music, he enjoys listening to his daughter who when she come from overseas plays the piano and the classical guitar.

An extensive traveler, boasting that he has been everywhere in all the continents and the only significant country he has not been is Australia.

On the current situation rotten economy Malawi is swimming in, Tembo said Malawians need to focus of agriculture and be handworkers.

“We have to develop our own country, we must be hardworking, this country is agricultural, priority must be given to agriculture, over 80 percent of our people live in the rural areas and are involved in agriculture…”

Still on the economy, Tembo said the current bad economy is partly due to bad economic management saying the current standing of the Kwacha to the Dollar speaks for itself, when he was Reserve Bank governor, he says Kwacha was at K2 to a the British Pound which he said was no mean feat.

He also rained on the people that have led to the woes rocking the University of Malawi where some students at Bunda had to live in grass thatched houses and some are currently being housed where there used to store cement, among other woes.

“The people that led to that are not serious, university education should be university education, you only do what you can afford and develop quality students,” said Tembo.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Leave lesbians alone: Malawi's first ever openly practicing lesbian speaks out

We have seen the men: Steven Monjeza, Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Fortune Banduka. But have we heard from the lesbians? Are there any in Malawi? Brace yourself.

Mercy Kumwenda, 23 says she is tired of living in the shadows and has come out to declare that she is a lesbian and she has called on “whoever is makes the laws” to leave lesbians alone and to protect them.

“People think that you are a witch, abnormal, satanic or you just want to make money but for me its inborn. I mean how do you I sleep with a man if I have no feelings for a man, I have tried dating men but it didn’t work,” said Kumwenda.

Kumwenda was speaking on the sidelines of a women’s rights consultation meeting organised by the ministry of gender in conjunction with Oxfam and Gender Coordination Network at Wamkulu Palace in Lilongwe on Wednesday.

The meeting was aimed at hearing the voices of rural women in preparation for the next set of millennium development goals; among the invited was Mercy Kumwenda.

Unprecedented .... Mercy in flesh, not hiding.

Kumwenda is of medium height, with an unforgettable face owing to a scar on her face. She harbours no shyness about her plump build and played confident as she mingled with the rest of the delegates.

The first question I fired at her was if she was sure of coming out in the newspaper, which she said she was, this despite her admitting that she hasn’t told her parents about her being gay yet.

“Currently only people from my work know…there are millions of lesbians out there but they cannot speak out because they fear being called names and jeered at in the streets,” said Kumwenda.

She however said that without coming out, like she did, government would not help her and her friends would continue to suffer oppression.

She denied any possibility of being a learned lesbian saying she found out about her being gay in standard eight when she got very attracted to her best friend who later became her lover whom she claims she continues being very close to.

“We actually have a name Mathanyula for it showing that being gay is not from the West, it has been in Malawi for a long time,” said Kumwenda.

The horrors that gays face in Malawi are well documented starting from those sanctioned by capitol hill where being gay is punishable by a jail sentence that can go up to 14 years, almost all Malawian gays according to literature occur in underground networks.

 “My friend sustained a broken arm after being beaten at a club for kissing a fellow lesbian. The hospital also looks at them in askance when we want to access medical care for STIs and they ask us to bring partners which we cannot do because we would be picked on therefore lesbians go to private hospitals if they can afford, ” she said.

She said lesbians do not need to come out to prove that there are out there, she said whoever wants to quantify them should commission a research.

Kumwenda said she knows about 40 lesbians in Blantyre and Lilongwe and with the secretive lives they lead, potential partners are identified through these cells of friends a point she stressed eliminates fake lesbians from real ones.

“If you are a fake lesbian you wouldn’t know the connection lesbians have by merely looking at each other,” she said.

A member of the Assemblies of God church, she believes that homosexuality is not a sin arguing that an inborn natural phenomenon cannot be a sin. She insisted that man should not rush to judge because there is only one judge: God and that he is yet to call for the judgment day.

Asked what she had to say to the framers of law who made homosexuality illegal, Mercy said she doesn’t even know who made the law and where he got the authority and the law makers and homophobic Malawians, Mercy had a brisk message:

“Leave lesbians alone. They are human being no matter what people say. Let them be, make laws to protect us we were born here and there is nowhere else we can go.”

Homosexuality in Malawi took the agenda when a gay couple Tionge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza were arrested after holding public engagement ceremony in Blantyre, Malawi in 2009. Late President Bingu wa Mutharika has equaled gays to dogs and a pastor in Lilongwe has called for the death of gays reflecting the harsh homophobia on the streets.

The constitution guarantees nondiscrimination on Chapter Four/ Section 20 but this is sharp contrast with the penal code which promises 14 years to all gays.

Malawi President Joyce Banda has been shaky in the face of the debate; she at first gave hope and hinted at suspending homophobic laws but upon local pressure from her electoral competition relented and said it is up for the nation to decide.

Human rights activist have long argued that homosexuality needs to be decriminalized in Malawi because its discrimination and fuels HIV. Current figures indicate that HIV prevalence is at 21% among gays way higher than the 14 percent of the rest of the population.

Research conducted on the subject blames the current HIV rates on the fact that gays are not targeted with HIV messages and are forced to sleep with each other in their crammed cells owing to the dangers of coming to the open.
It remains to be seen how Mr. Kumwenda will react to their daughter coming out but what we can tell here is her coming out is a milestone, she is the first ever lesbian to come out in Malawi.
I support Kumwenda with all my journalism. To be gay is not a crime.