Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Bothering surgeon Varela

Dr Carlos Gomez Varela, 37, is one of very few surgeons Malawi has. He has performed over 5000 surgeries including separating conjoined twins. He is the only surgeon government banks on to service the whole of the central region and as I found out, he is a jolly element Malawi should celebrate.

The wide battered door to the main theatre at Kamuzu Central Hospital swung open and there in front of me he stood.

Dressed in a black collarless top and a black and yellow bandanna atop his head, the towering doctor ushers me in to the office. His beard trimmed thin and to a pattern making a distinct “w” under his mouth.

The Portuguese name, Carlos Gomez Valeira, is just his name, he is a proper Malawian, his mother from Mzimba and father from Ntcheu, his ancestors came in from Mozambique of course.

“I am a very technical guy, I like fixing things. I wanted to be an orthopaedic surgeon but that dream never came true.”

Valeira did his primary school at Namiwawa, and then went to Phwezi Secondary School. He was elasticated from there while in form three and had to finish his form four at Liwaladzi in Nkhotakota from where he got selected to go to Chancellor College.

“My father was not happy and I wanted to make up for the shame I had brought my family so I told him that I would become a doctor.”

He did and his parents are now proud of him.

He left Chancellor College and joined College of Medicine. He salutes Dr. Arturo Muyco, his mentor and former head of the surgery department at KCH and his mother for inspiring him to go for further training, his mother actually offered to pay for his further training. So he did.

Apart from the seven years at COM, he did an extra 5 years at Groote-schuur which is under the University of Cape Town in South Africa, under the Fellowship of College of Surgeons South Africa.

His Malawian friends he trained with in South Africa picked up jobs abroad. Valeira returned and as of January 2012 assumed the mantle of head of surgery and is the consultant surgeon at KCH.

“I would have decided to stay where I was but I feel for poor people, that is why I am still stuck here. Poor people drive me; I decided that if there is no one for them, I would have to be the one. It is a calling.”

Valeira however does not rule out the possibility of flying out of Malawi, he says he works under serious challenges which might frustrate him.

“For example, I was supposed to operate on five people today but because we don’t have gauze, I will just do two. It’s not the financial part but the work dissatisfaction. We have no equipment such as patient monitors, sometimes we don’t have anaesthesia or antibiotics.”
Surgery is definitely an art

Valeria performs five or six operations per day and he works does the surgeries on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays on the other week days, he does ward rounds and his job description does not stop there: He does administration and is a lecturer at College of Medicine.

“An am always on call that is I can be called at any hour of the day. I never really go on holiday, I cannot afford to be abroad for more than two weeks and even when am abroad, I have to keep my phone on sometimes so that I can advise on complications.”

The brain drain problem which sees fine doctors like him trek to the United Kingdom or anywhere but Malawi does not always involve air tickets, some doctors are lost to private practice right here in Malawi.

So far government boasts of two surgeons in Blantyre, Valeria in Lilongwe and on in Mzuzu and one wonders what the ratio of surgeon to Malawians would be in this case.

Not that Valeira is a boring workaholic. He still has his weekends off, his three children Caroline, Ashley and Hoollie still get to go to play grounds or visit their grandparents in Blantyre.

His wife, Amanda whom he met while he was in fifth year of college still goes to bed smiling because he sometimes cooks for her.

Valeira also plays basketball and now and then enjoys a cold one with friends. He is also a fan of action thriller movies and Malawi music, so relax, not all doctors are nerdy.

A catholic, he does not hide his respect for intelligent design.
Valera separated these twins who shared a liver

“Sometimes when I am about to operate on a complex case, I inwardly pray because I know that no matter how good a man can be there is need for divine guidance.”

Talking of Jesus. Comparing Valeira to Jesus, Valeira has made many people healthier but like Jesus not many come back to thank him, he says he gets an occasional whisky bottle or a tie as gifts…but then again, Jesus never lived to be thanked.

 Devine guidance aside, Valeria is good. I joined him in the theatre as he was performing a revision colostomy for an imperforated anus. Scratch that: a girl was born without an anus and before they can make one, she has to use a hole on her belly and the procedure was to repair something about that hole.

The theatre was crowded with about eight adults in masks, aprons and gloves. Machines flashing graphs and digits and beeping pulses. The patient covered in linen and the only exposed part was her belly.

Valeira did his magic in thirty minutes, using what I would swear was a soldering iron to cut her open, grab the intestine, clamp it with about ten silver scissors and them yank off about 15 centimetres which was thrown away.

The way he stitched the belly would make a seasoned tailor want to go back to school, working the thread with careful dexterity. Are surgeons born or made, was my constant query as I watched.

While the operation was underway, jokes were being cracked and the anaesthetist bringing in more news of cases that need the knife.

“We work as a team in here,” said Valeira introducing me to his team, as if I would know them in the masks.
As he worked, his assistant on the other side stands next to about a thousand tools, scissors, pincers and knives and thread and fluids, when Valeira demands a tool she fishes is instantly and hands it over and when the assistant needs a tool she barks the instruction to another assistant to the assistant who fetches it from the drug cabinet in the corner of the room.
Its teamwork

One guy sits on the head of the operating table with a stethoscope constantly in his ear, another minds the monitoring machine, I gasped when the machine stopped beeping, I didn’t want to witness anything apart from a surgery and I was lucky, he buried his hand under the linen, fumbled with something and soon the beep was back!

Valeria earlier told me that he has lost two people on the operating table, one was a case the maternity team failed to handle and he was called in too late, the other was a stab victim who also came to the table too late and both died due to lack of blood.

“Like I said, we try but things such as lack of blood supplies frustrate us sometimes,” complained Valeira.

The colostomy revision was over and another guy lowered a pipe hissing with air into the patient’s throat and in a flash the baby coughed, she was then instantly attached to the oxygen supply.

Asked to cite some of the interesting cases he has attended to, Valeira points to the case where he separated Siamese twins who had one liver. He said he can remove cancers and repair blood vessels but he said he enjoys trauma surgery.

“Surgery interested me because it gives you instant results, you bring in a patient, I work on him and instantly see them improve.”

Again he complained that even if he can do cancer surgery, it is not complete without radiation and chemotherapy machinery.

As Valeira took of his gloves and chattered with his team my mind was racing with questions, does the extravagant government know his real value? What if he gets frustrated and goes abroad? Will Malawians get surgeries on political podiums?
I was there to see Valera in action

I stepped out of the theatre and someone wondered how I managed to stand the sight of blood and cutting tools. Well, it was not that bad, my photographer Thoko Chikondi refused to join me and I knew why.

But at least I witnessed a minor one, Valeira showed me photos of someone whom he fixed by opening his chest, I asked him what he used to open him up and he said “hammer and chisel,” to which I replied by staying silent.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Curious Life of a Mortuary Supervisor

Village Headman/ War movie lover/ Mortuary supervisor

I was supposed to arrive at 10am but I came at 4pm and the mortuary area at Kamuzu Central Hospital in Malawi’s capital Lilongwe was deserted save for a woman sitting in the waiting area, the mortuary was closed, but I could see activity inside the translucent glass.

I peered through a crack in the window and there they were: a figure was lying in the floor and it was being bound by two men one in an apron, face mask and gloves and the other I could not read. I had arrived and the figure being bound was a dead body alright.

“You are late,” said a strange man I had never met before, apparently he had been told of my coming. I saw him drop his gloves into the waste bin and I made no attempt to start any handshake affairs as he ushered me into his office next to the mortuary and next to the incinerator.

 I sat so close to him during the interview that I noticed the gr

ey hair that is starting to creep into his closely cut hair and eyebrows. His office is oversized so he chose one corner and put his brown desk and chair there, on the table sits his laptop.

Lufeyo Cheliyaya Mphimbi, 54, a father of eight children is the mortuary supervisor for Kamuzu Central Hospital, he has been working in the mortuary since 1999, before which he was a telephone operator.
Displaying spoils of an exhumation

He is medium height, with a stout body and a business look and so far, he is the most frank of people I have interviewed as he took me deep into his mind without being diplomatic about the truth.

After he described to me what his job entails for some ten minutes, I set sail; I asked him what it was like to go from attending to telephone calls to attending to dead bodies.

“At first I was hugely affected because, I will never forget this in my life, in 1999 a boat travelling from Salima to Chipoka on Lake Malawi capsized and all 15 on board died and the bodies stayed in the water for about four days, by then there was no hospital in Salima and the bodies were brought here.

“That was in the very week I started my job and it got to me because when we handled the dead their skins and finger nails would come off into your hands and flies were everywhere. I went home and didn’t report for work for four days,” he tells me.

 He says he is now so tough that even Dr. Charles Dzamalala, Malawi’s renowned pathologist, likes to get him to his assignments in the northern and central districts of the country.

He has seen it all, he says; exhuming bodies some as old as fifteen years; doing post-mortems and embalming, he says the job has taken him to all districts in Malawi minus Nsanje and Likoma. He combines the one year training he got from College of Medicine and his vast experience.

 “I used to dream scary things, people dying... that was then. I stopped dreaming about that but what happens these days is that when I dream of an accident, I come to work the following morning and find three or two deaths from car accidents,” he confided.

He assured me that death is not all he dreams about but I still took home the point that he dreams of and about death more than the average James Phiri.

To help him cope, some visiting doctors from College of Medicine tipped him in the very first month of his job to take up the bottle to drown the scary sights he meets and so he broke his Jehoviah’s Witness’s creed by taking up alcohol and challenged me to say beer has never ran out in his house since.

“They also told me that when I see an accident victim say with a burst belly I should go and buy goat or cow offals from the butchery and eat them...

“Many people say we use juju here but they are wrong, it’s just these simple tricks, when I drink a little it helps me get to terms with what I see and when I see open flesh, eating meat at home helps me. I used to eat meat almost daily until doctors warned me against it for health reasons,” he said.

We do post mortems here
Mphimbi sees about 10 dead people per day and this has gone on since 1999, he says it doesn’t surprise him anymore, no faces stick in his head to haunt him like they do most of us who view the dead at funerals.

The job does not change his personality at all; he still loves his wife more especially when she cooks his favourite meal; nsima (maize paste) with eggplants or cassava leaf vegetables.

He says he always pulls his children and grandchildren together whenever he can to tell them stories. And yes, he can cry too, he says seeing dead people has made him more responsive to suffering such that he is very sad when it comes to embalming a child.

Now for every boy who grew up in a  normal setting, we always told each other tales that mortuary attendants have a hammer in place ready to finish off any dead person who wakes up for fear of embarrassing the doctors who certified him or her dead.

Mphimbi brushes this off and says if anyone ever wakes up on his watch, he would invite international media houses to witness it. He assured me that it takes serious verification for someone to come to the mortuary such that when doctors say you are dead, you are really gone.

I then took him into the supernatural category, this being Africa where almost everyone believes in witchcraft and knowing that witchcraft centres more on the dead; does he not get haunted by ghosts since his office is next to dead people? Has he seen any witches?

Strangely, he says no, but he described one case which he is sure was out of this world.

“I never believed in witchcraft until I saw this one case. He was a reverend and he dropped dead at one of his sermons, he was brought here and we were asked to embalm him but when they took him to his home people got the shock of their lives as the dead man’s mouth started elongating.

“His mouth got so long that it touched the coffin class, he was brought back here and we did all we could but we couldn’t contain him, we then realised that his case was traditional so people went to Area 33 to get a concoction for such cases but even that failed.

“I tried to cut his intestines but nothing helped, his body kept on expanding and his lips kept growing, he was taken home and the body was rushed straight to the grave and his coffin had to be tied with a cloth. That case was unique, I am yet to see another of such a case,” he said.

There are in-house dos and don’ts: No mortuary worker is allowed to work on relatives and no photos of dead people are to be taken, the last rule, I feared had just been made for me.

The dead lie behind him
Taking up beer was not the only Jehovah Witness rule he broke, he also accepted to be village headman for his village in Mponela, Dowa, he was thus excommunicated from the church and he says he is currently just a float, not going to any church.

In his free time, he loves listening to the radio or playing with his laptop. He also likes watching war movies which says help him garner courage. So far he is only village headman I have met who likes his laptop and watches movies. Africa has grown!

He then takes me on a tour of the actual mortuary, he shows me a letter he has authored complaining to management that there are about 16 bodies which have not been claimed for two months and need to be disposed of.

He opens a cold room; like shelves in a supermarket or the beds in a ship lie several bodies, completely bound in cloth like Egyptian mummies, the smell is also telling, the coldness cannot utterly prevent decay.
“I see you are afraid, you are failing to come near, Mhango,” he says to me.

In my mind, I answer him saying I will come here when am dead and there is no need to rush things after all the sun had just set and the mortuary was dark and empty.

I deserved it, I knew what I was getting into from the time I went to ask for the interview from the Principal Hospital Administrator. I rushed of the building hurriedly and from my minibus window, I sat and thought about the interview  and saw someone with a cooler box on the roadside and it took me back to the cold room.

My phone rang, I picked up and it was Mphimbi.

“Mr. Mhango, you forgot your notepad in my office!”

What journalist leaves the very notepad he recorded the interview in? But am not the only one, even Mphimbi, a career mortician, is not fully over the effects dead people cast on the living.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Chimunthu Banda: His Story..from soccer, politics to Reggae

This might as well be the only authoritative text on one Henry Chimunthu Banda, MP and Speaker of Parliament. I sent a zillion questions to him before the DPP convention, I wanted to get a round story on him and I did. He might have lost the bid to lead DPP in 2014, but we now know him better, thanks to himself.

He is a rare guy, he answered me from his Blackberry, then Ipad indicating that he is not behind the times, his email has the phrase "MoreBlack," indicating a dosage of Rasta or Pan Africanism there...

99% of the text below was written by Chimunthu himself, the questions have been eliminated. Enjoy.

...born on 30th December 1962

....am from Chipembere village, T A Kanyenda in Nkhotakota.

.....The highest qualification I have is Master’s Degree in Leadership and Change Management (from Leeds Metropolitan University).

...married to Felistace with whom I have three children (one girl and two boys).

......My wife is a graduate of Bunda College.

.......my favourite dish is fresh fish either roasted or grilled served with nsima.

........on romantic days we tend to listen to some old songs and albums to remind ourselves of those early days of our relationship. On such days we normally play music of such artists as: Eric Donaldson, Don Williams, and Dolly Parton.

....... During my free time I normally do two things: either going to any one of our farms to supervise farming activities or attending to flowers around the house. In addition to growing crops such as sugarcane, soya beans, maize, burley tobacco, ground nuts, we also rear cattle and goats and do fish farming as well.

....... On music: my favourite is country and western as well as Reggae music. I also like listening to local music of such musicians as Skeffa Chimoto, Lucius  Banda, and Symon ndi Kendle just to mention a few.

...... Favourite sport is football. I like watching as well as playing football.

....... I am inspired by whoever climbs the social ladder against all odds. Without mentioning names, these are individuals I have great admiration for.

........ I am a Christian and a member of CCAP church.

......... My favourite Bible book is Jeremiah...

.......major hobbies: swimming and sightseeing. I like seeing green vegetation around me and around my home. For this reason, quite often I undertake nature walks to admire and appreciate the natural green vegetation, the breath- taking landscapes as well as the lovely water courses that our country is endowed with. You may wish to know that geography and earth sciences are my areas of specialisation.

........ I am aware that in the last two weeks there has been an avalanche of propaganda statements that have been churned against me. But I will not respond to such statements so as not to dignify them. Those statements need to be viewed as signs of desperation for power which I believe is very unfortunate.  However, there is information in the public domain to the effect that I have always been bad- mouthed by certain individuals in the party even when late President Prof Bingu wa Mutharika was alive. There is documentary evidence to that effect.

But as if that was not enough, last year my detractors generated a story that I have sold five houses to raise money for my DPP presidential campaign. Today the story is that I have been given money to destabilise the party. This is very laughable! And I can foresee more propaganda statements coming up as we approach the 17th of April.  But I will not be deterred from achieving my set goal of offering the much needed leadership to the only political party that I helped to form and am it's Trustee.  

I am determined to offer my services against all odds for the furtherance of its ideals. As such I have no I'll-feelings against colleagues who are peddling unfounded stories in the run up to the Convention. I take it that that's the strategy they have opted for.

 .......Question: you recently called your competitor and regional governor south and advised them against practicing politics of regionalism. What was your intention?

Answer: Basing on the contacts that I have had with convention delegates in all the four political regions, it is obvious that I will carry the day during the convention. Party members at Constituency, District, Region and NGC levels are all geared towards ushering in new leadership at the helm of the party. Majority of them have assured me that they want leadership which is tried and tested.  This being the case, I do not want to take over the party which is divided on regional lines.

This is what motivated me to call the colleagues you have asked about.  As president of the party after 17th April, I will continue to reach out to all members of the Party including those who publicly portray the impression that they may not vote for me.  Therefore my immediate task shall be to put systems in place that give confidence to all party members and supporters that the party belong to themselves irrespective of their region of origin.

........Intra- party democracy: what do I promise Malawians and DPP party supporters?

Answer: intra party democracy is an essential element in the functioning of every political party. I consider intra party democracy as democracy within the party itself. Where there is intra party democracy there is collective ownership of decisions which emanate from the culture of free debate of critical issues without fear of reprisals. My vision of the DPP therefore is that of a party that will promote internal debate with an ultimate aim of reducing factionalism.

It will also be necessary to create internal conflict management systems. In the current constitution of the party there is a provision for the creation of the Disciplinary Committee, and my immediate task will be to operationalise this committee for the simple reason of proper handling of emerging conflicts within the party. Furthermore, I am looking forward to creating non- personalised leadership and to identify myself with the people as a servant leader. This is possible because my style of leadership acknowledges the fact that I am simply the first amongst equals.

 My vision for DPP

> Let me begin by saying, the DPP remains the most popular political party in the country at the moment. But that be as it may, there is urgent need to rebrand the party in order to enhance our chances in 2014.

This is so because as a party in power some twelve months ago, there might be areas where we needed to change and position ourselves for yet another victory next year. This is in light of the fact that the party enjoys popular support in all the four political regions.

But as Albert Einstein put it: “you cannot solve problems with the same thinking that you created those problems". My view is that we need to carry out an honest SWOT analysis of the party's strength and weaknesses. Difficult questions must be asked which must be provide honest responses. By so doing, we shall show that we are not only democratic, but progressive as well.

> My vision therefore is to have a party that encompasses the views of all its members in all the four political regions. A party that every member would truly call theirs. I want to lead a party that respects its own fundamental ideologies which were espoused at its formation. My vision is a party whose Members are equal irrespective of their region of origin.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Day I Saw 16500 Crocodiles in Malawi

Teachers spend hours and years trying to shape students, journalists chase after sources to get a story, it is how life goes. But for one man, every day is potentially his last as he deals with humongous hungry crocodiles: stealing their eggs, feeding them and killing them. I have been in Salima and been mingling with the reptile handler there.

Away from the white sandy beaches that revelers throng in Senga Bay, Salima lies one fenced establishment, from the outside it is just low lying fences with threes growing inside. But if only the swimmers at the beach knew that just 600 metres from where they are there are 16,500 crocodiles, they would think again before diving head first into the water.

The “Croc Farm” or Nyika Farms lies some ten minutes off the road going to Livingtonia Beach Hotel and next to Kambwiri Lodge. It is a breathtaking site, not aesthetically, but for what is grown on the farm: crocodiles.

About thirty humans mingle to and fro inside the fenced establishment, a carpenter, someone is slashing grass and there is general beehive activity with each person doing their niche and from a vantage point all is normal.

One man stands out from the crowd, he barks out instructions, he jumps from driving a tractor to talking to guests, and labourers slightly bend their bodies when talking to him. He is definitely in charge.

Goliati Chibakuwa, 39, was just like any other school leaver before 1999, he landed a job as a truck assistant and plied his trade in Dwangwa and then one day his boss says to him, “I have bought a crocodile farm and I want you to manage it.”
“By then, I had never seen a crocodile, all I knew about crocodiles were the rumours that they are a dangerous creatures,” says Chibakuwa.

Chibakuwa is medium heighted with a roundish face and eyes set deep in his skull. He wears his beards long and his cleanly shaven head brings one to think of a boxer or members of the Apostolic faith. He is the second in command at the Croc Farm and he has been since the farm started back in 1999.

“When I saw a crocodile for the first time, it corresponded with rumours I had heard of the beast. I was tensed,” He confessed.

But what was he to do, go back to unemployment?

He was soon on the bus to Zimbabwe to learn all there was to learn about minding crocodiles. He learnt how to breed, how to feed and how to slaughter crocodiles and what to do with the meat and skin after slaughtering.

“Crocodiles are unlike other animals that you get used to, they can never be tamed. Each time I deal with them I am mindful of that, it’s why I have no scars despite handling thousands of crocodiles,” said Chibakuwa outstretching his hands like Jesus did to his disciples to show his scars.

There are several brick fenced pens on the farm of about one and a half metres with a wire lining tilted inwards for obvious reasons. Inside the pens several trees stand alongside man made shades to provide shade to the coldblooded reptiles.

I did not learn the collective name for a group of crocodiles in primary school, so I will go with “gang.” There are gangs upon gangs of crocodiles in the pens with some piling on top of others. Their unmistakable greenish yellow skins dominate the place.
Some with mouths constantly open like a mouse trap, some only showing their nose and eyes on the surface of the water in the pens. The place is silent, apart from the hiss of the wind and the distance cracking of the waves at the lake; it is like being in a horror movie just before the beast strikes.

As one is guided from pen to pen, the size of the crocodiles does not change significantly, only their ages. At four years the crocodiles are still diminutive, but they don’t have to rush to grow up, they can live up to 160 years according to Chibakuwa.

Most of the crocodiles have their teeth removed to avoid damaging each other’s skins while they pile up and definitely to keep the handlers safe. There are however a set of adult ones that still have their teeth intact, these adults are not to be slaughtered and are used to produce eggs.

One male is allocated seven females and after mating in the months of May to July the females start laying eggs in September and can produce forty to a hundred eggs each. The eggs are laid in the sand next to the pools and Chibakuwa and his assistants have to invade the pools to get the eggs for incubation.  It will be 90 days before the eggs can hatch.
“We feed them on every second day of the week; each of these young ones gets about half to one full chicken every two days. The adults can get up to ten chickens each,” said Chibakuwa.

Chibakuwa has to see to each egg, making sure it is not damaged, after it hatches, the younglings have to live in warm water otherwise most of them die, a boiler sits on standby to heat the water for the newborns to swim in.

Since they never get to meet their mothers, Chibakuwa teaches them how to feed by dropping small fish into the water and letting them grab.

After enjoying more chicken than the average Malawian household for five years, the honeymoon ends, the animals are stunned and taken to the butchery, a secluded building on the farm.
Those about to face the knife are not hard to miss; their pool water is coloured red with Potassium Permanganate to heal the skin.

“We slice them somewhere on their neck just below their heads where it’s softer and we insert a wire into their spinal cord, which kills them fast. We skin then, clean the skin and salt it and then put the skin in a cold room ready for export.

“We have markets in Italy, France, South Africa and Germany. The meat from the slain ones is fed to the others,”

14 years ago when the farm was being set, people were afraid and understandably so with the tales from the Kamuzu Banda era where some dissidents are said to have been fed to crocodiles. Now the farm employs 18 people from the immediate areas.

There was no need to inquire as to the price of each skin, but if one feeds chicken to a beast three times per week for five years, it has to be for a reason.

And as people invade the market in Paris, Venice or Sandton to buy crocodile leather products, they might not know wha

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Cremation 101

"I have burnt …46 human bodies"

When Fanuel Moffat started working at the Hindu crematorium he never expected more than being a guard, to prevent thieves and vandals from encroaching. That was in 2003, ten years later he might as well as the person who does all the cremation that happens in Malawi.

I got curious of the practice of cremation a long time ago when I saw it in a movie should be Strike Commando. When I moved to Lilongwe and saw the sign at the crematorium along Blantyre the Lilongwe M1 road, I just wanted to know more.

Thakrar, Teacher
My quest brought me to the Hindu Temple at Area 2 in the city and after introducing myself and my mission, one of the seers of the temple got me on his car and I was soon being driven to meet the person who is the custodian of Hindu culture and the one who would ably speak on cremation in Malawi.

After a few mazes, I was in a shop that sells braids and mesh and as soon as I was introduced, I was shown into a backroom, given a coke and the guardian, Jayantilal Thakrar, who is the Head of the Hindu Temple in Lilongwe, joined me.

Do not be scared by the long name or his designation, Thakrar is more Malawian than many Malawians, he has been in the country for 71 years, he can juggle Chichewa, English and some serious Hindu as he wishes.

 And he knows his Gods: in his office, next to his accounting files there is a recess where there is a picture and models of Hindu gods with an incise stick standing in front of the lot.

He has a religious tattoo on his wrist and his son, who runs the shop, has one on his forehead.

The coke and warm welcome do not derail me from my mission, after listening to a crash course in Hinduism 101, I still fired my question: Why do Hindus burn their bodies?

Thakrar thought about it for a minute, scribbled some Hindu terms in his receipt book and lowered his reading glasses to look at me.

“The body is made up of several elements: water, air, fire, earth and vacuum, when we die we have to burn the body to make it return to its original elements and the ashes we take and immerse into the river or sea because it also belongs to god,” he said, slowly.

He insisted that there I nothing cruel  about cremation because the dead know nothing.

I lay the body on six of these logs
To Hindus, the body comes with a soul, the soul never dies and once it dies, the soul gets born into another body, such that Mr. Thakrar is probably in his 20th life.
Cremation, I later learned, is only done on bodies of those from six years upwards.

Women are not allowed at the cremation owing to their faint traits, but this is not final, the brave ones who can live with seeing their loved ones in flames can attend.

“Burying contaminates the earth,” added Thakrar, to which his son added that that it’s not just Hindus who do cremation, Chinese, Koreans and some Europeans do it too, he said.

When a Hindu dies, a priest is invited to do prayers at the house and then the body is taken to the crematorium where further prayers are conducted, rites performed and then the body is left in the hands of Fanuel Moffat.

Moffat is a Chewa from Dedza; he is daringly termed Gauo by those that know him. He is a rickety but serious character.

“When I got employed, I was employed as a guard but soon they invited me to the cremation, showed me how to do it and that was it, I was surprised of the practice because I had never seen it before but I wasn’t scared, I have seen dead people before and conducted burials before,” he says.

He has overseen 46 cremations, he keeps record of them all and he insisted that his dreams are normal, that he still loves his wife and two children the same way, the job he does doesn’t make him any callous, he insists.

He also rubbished my assertions that he might have some juju to make him courageous; he says he is a catholic and knows his God well.

“I first get notified, then they bring the body, they do the prayers and then I get the body lay it on six logs, in between the logs we put tinder and over the body we form a triangle of smaller wood engulfing the body wholly.

“Then I light a stick with a fireball in front of it which is given to the relatives, they light up the body, after the fire catches, we move back and relatives soon go away and leave me alone here,” he narrated.

Moffat poses infront of the crematorium
Now, here is where it gets creepy, everyone has left, the crematorium is a quiet place with a high fence and spanning almost two football grounds and there he stays making sure that the body is burnt to ash. In laying the body, he has to put wood to as close as the body’s face.

“The legs and arms burn quick, but the hip area for women and the chest for men take time. I see it all, burning fresh, annals and as it burns, I have to keep the fire burning by restacking the firewood,” he said.

Holy mother of god! Behind you!
The six underlying logs are coated with ghee and this makes ghee, not the burning flesh, dominate the air, the body is also sprayed with sesame seeds which Thakrar said make the body to burst up quickly and burn effectively.

Takes five hours for the cremation to complete and the bereaved family returns the next day to collect the ashes.
Thakrar said the prayers continue up to the thirteenth day after which they believe the soul leaves. The prayers are for god to do what he will with the soul. He said in Hinduism Karma or deeds matters, such that the life one lived in this life will determine whether he or she is born rich or poor, healthy or diseased in the next life.
Moffat in holy garb
I asked Moffat if he has fallen in love enough with the cremation to the point of thinking about going the same way, he vehemently refused, saying he is an African and wants to be laid at Mayani, his home village, he is just an employee, he says.

I agreed with him, I am also just a journalist, I want my whole body (if they will find it) buried at Khata Village in Mlowe next to my father and mother. If I am unlucky, I will burn in hell, not here in Lilongwe.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Joyce Banda of Malawi versus Madonna of Material Girl: The War (No Comment)





Claims and misgivings have been expressed by Pop Star, Madonna and her agents, against the Malawi Government and its leadership for not giving her the attention and courtesy that she thinks she merits and deserves during her recent trip to Malawi.

According to the claims, Madonna feels that the Malawi Government and its leadership should have abandoned everything and attended to her because she believes she is a music star turned benefactor who is doing Malawi good.

Besides, in the feeling of Madonna, the Malawi Government and its leadership should have rolled out a red carpet and blast the 21-gun salute in her honour because she believes that as a musician, the whiff of whose repute flies across international boundaries, she automatically is candidate for VVIP treatment.

For not receiving the attention and the graces that she believes she deserved, Madonna believes someone, not lesser in disposition than the President's sister, Mrs. Anjimile Mtila-Oponyo, has been pulling the strings against her following their earlier fallout bordering on a labour dispute.

State House has noted these claims and misgivings. State House has followed the debate incidental to these claims with keen interest, and would wish to respond as follows to put the record straight:

1.    Neither the President nor any official in her government denied Madonna any attention or courtesy during her recent visit to Malawi because as far as the administration is concerned there is no defined attention and courtesy that must be followed in respect of her.

2.    In any case, even if the defined parameters of attention and courtesy existed in respect of Madonna, the liberties of discretion to give or not to give that attention or courtesy would ordinarily and naturally remain the preserve of the host. Attention or courtesy is never demanded.

3.    Granted, Madonna has adopted two children from Malawi. According to the record, this gesture was humanitarian and of her accord. It, therefore, comes across as strange and depressing that for a humanitarian act, prompted only by her, Madonna wants Malawi to be forever chained to the obligation of gratitude. Kindness, as far as its ordinary meaning is concerned, is free and anonymous. If it can't be free and silent, it is not kindness; it is something else. Blackmail is the closest it becomes.

4.    Granted, Madonna is a famed international musician. But that does not impose an injunction of obligation on any government under whose territory Madonna finds herself, including Malawi, to give her state treatment. As stated earlier in this statement, such treatment, even if she deserved it, is discretionary not obligatory.

5.    It should be put on record that Madonna did not come to Malawi at the invitation of the President nor her government. In other words, she was neither the guest of the President nor of her government.
6.    For all that is known, she came to Malawi like any other visitor that feels like coming to Malawi. Such visitors don't have to meet with the President and are never amenable to state attention or graces.

7.    If the argument is that because she is an internationally renowned star, and, therefore, Madonna believes she deserved to be treated differently from other visiting foreigners, it is worth making her aware that Malawi has hosted many international stars, including Chuck Norris, Bono, David James, Rio Ferdinand and Gary Neville who have never demanded state attention or decorum despite their equally dazzling stature.

8.    Among the many things that Madonna needs to learn as a matter of urgency is the decency of telling the truth. For her to tell the whole world that she is building schools in Malawi when she has actually only contributed to the construction of classrooms is not compatible with manners of someone who thinks she deserves to be revered with state grandeur. The difference between a school and a class room should be the most obvious thing for a person demanding state courtesy to decipher.

9.    For her to accuse Mrs. Oponyo for indiscretions that have clearly arisen from her personal frustrations that her ego has not been massaged by the state is uncouth, and speaks volumes of a musician who desperately thinks she must generate recognition by bullying state officials instead of playing decent music on the stage.

10. For all that is known, Mrs. Oponyo has never been responsible for arranging state meetings with foreigners who are looking for those meetings. If Madonna was indeed a VVIP and a regular guest of State Governments as she wants to be seen and treated, she would have been familiar with procedures that have to be followed to get such meetings. They don't happen by simply sneaking into a country whose President and Government you scarcely desire to meet.

11. Even if Madonna followed the procedures to have her meetings with the President or government officials, the administration reserved all its rights to grant the meetings or not.


It must be noted that the President, Her Excellency Dr. Joyce Banda and her Government are ready to welcome any philanthropist seeking to assist in improving the welfare of the people of Malawi knowing that Her Excellency, herself, is a known philanthropist. However, acts of kindness must always remain as such; they must not smack of blackmail. In addition, let philanthropists not hold to ransom the President and any official of her Government because they showed some kindness to any Malawian.

Tusekele Mwanyongo