57. Tryst with Destiny

By Peter Fraenkel

Britain once had a great number of colonies, many of them in Africa.  One after another they were granted independence in the 1950s and 60s.  The British had discovered that good profits could be repatriated from the copper or gold or iron deposits of these lands even without a Union Jack flying over their Government House. Independence ceremonies were perfected:

At the hour of midnight in a packed stadium– silence. Then a roll of drums. Lights would go out. In the dark the Union Jack would be lowered. At this point a vulgar cheer would have been embarrassing – at least for British audiences watching it on newsreels. When the light came on again a new national flag would be hoisted; a new national anthem played and the people of the country, now with a new name, could cheer wildly.

Since TV had not yet reached many lands, thousands participated in these ceremonies by radio only.  In the case of Nyasaland – about to be renamed Malawi – I was responsible for these broadcasts. I had been rushed out by the BBC a few weeks earlier and had trained one running commentators in English another in the Nyanja language. I knew I was not much good at improvising on the air myself so I kept myself back, simply linking and introducing the other commentators.

At least that’s what I intended to do, but in Africa nothing ever works quite as planned.

As the drums rolled our microphones went dead.  The great occasion was about to take place in radio silence and the people of Malawi would have had no participation in their great moment. We had not anticipated that for that planned brief minute of darkness, someone would increase the effect by switching off the electricity mains for the stadium. Fortunately one of our engineers – borrowed from Kenya for the occasion – had laid on an emergency line.  He nearly knocked me over diving under our table with a plug and cable in his hand.  In the dark he fumbled until he found the socket. I think a mere ten or fifteen seconds of sound were lost. We were back on the air. (I got him a bonus before he returned to Kenya.)

Not long after Prime Minister Hastings Kamuzu Banda rose, glass of wine in his hand (even though he was a teetotaler) and proposed the toast to Her Majesty the Queen. I now expected several speeches to follow (I had the list of speakers).  We would broadcast them. But I was wrong. Banda simply sat down again and cigars were offered around. I realized the speeches would not follow until those long cigars had been smoked.  But I was on the air. The commentators I had trained had disappeared in the dark – probably gone off for a drink. They had left me alone speaking into that live microphone.

I had to fill in time.  How long? I did not know. What to say? Fortunately I had, in my hand, a list of all the invited guests. Whether all had turned up I did not know. Nor, I suspect, did anyone else. In desperation I improvised: “And here is Mr. Ako-Adjei from Ghana.” He was one of the few I recognized. “Sir, would you care to say a few words about Ghana’s hopes for this new independent state?”

“No,” he said, “I would not. There is a time for all things – a time for interviews … and a time for drinking.  This is the time for drinking.”

I was clutching that microphone hard and sweating but in my other hand I had the guest list.  So – in desperation – I worked down the list, claiming I could see this minister from Zambia, that one from Tanzania – and adding a few things I knew about each of their countries.  I worked through page one, then page two, then reached three, the last page of my list.  Would I have to start all over again from page one? My delivery was becoming … stuttering. One of our engineers saw my agony. He crept up to me and handed me a note: “Microphone now connected to band in ball room. Hand over to band whenever you wish.”#

I did – fast.

The next day I was summoned to see Prime Minister Hastings Kamuzu Banda.  He complimented me on our broadcasts. “Wonderful!”

“But sir,” I said, “you couldn’t have listened to any of it?”

“I get to hear things. My mother was very enthusiastic.”

Not long after this, shaving one morning, I detected a first grey hair. I attribute it to Malawi independence.