73. Winston Phiri’s troubles

Peter Fraenkel

He sat by himself – sad, ill, depressed, grey.

Africans, under stress, do sometimes appear almost grey.  Winston did.

Normally he had chattered cheerfully. Or whistled. Not now.

A colleague told me, in confidence, that Winston had been hit by misfortunes – a whole series of misfortunes. His house had been burgled. He had sprained his foot. His bicycle had been stolen and now – it seemed – his wife had walked out on him.

“Troubles don’t ever come singly, do they?” they said ”You’ve had rotten luck, old boy, haven’t you…?”

But that’s not how he saw it:  This wasn’t a question of luck… someone was doing him harm… harm by witchcraft.

And that was also how other Africans saw it. His friends found it politic to avoid him.

Belief in witchcraft was universal in Africa at the time. Probably it still is. Illness, individual disasters, death are all believed to be caused by witchcraft. Any unusual success is achieved at the expense of others.  A successful person lives in constant fear of attracting the antagonism of rivals. And that means witchcraft.

Now at this period I was due to fly over to Nyasaland – now called Malawi – to reopen a radio studio that our CABS – Central African Broadcasting Service – had abandoned several years earlier for lack of funds. I was to take one of our Nyanja-speaking broadcasters with me. The most obvious candidate was Masanya Banda.  But Michael, my boss, pulled me aside. “Would you be willing to take Winston with you? Please understand: I’m not putting any pressure on you. He could be a bit of a handful – he’s in such a state. But I have a feeling it might do him good. If it doesn’t, don’t hesitate: send him back and we’ll send you Masanya.”

I had always like Winston. And I’d been reading up on witchcraft. Could getting him away from suspected enemies, cure this man?

“O.K.,” I agreed, “I’ll give it a try.”

When Winston heard he had been selected he appeared to change overnight. His luck had turned! In the plane that flew us to Malawi he whistled cheerfully. Our studio at Blantyre had long stood empty. It had been invaded by termites. We had been promised a cleaner and a handyman, but they had not yet appeared. I made some phone calls, without much effect. Winston did not wait. He set to work and I followed. We refurbished the long neglected studio by ourselves and soon got it operational. We recorded a first programme and flew the tape back to Northern Rhodesia/Zambia for transmission.

Many other programmes followed. I was enjoying it. So was Winston. But I had only agreed to come to Nyasaland provided that, after three months, I could to return to base. Winston said he would like to stay. He had – he confessed – found a new girlfriend.

Fast forward: six or seven years.  I had by now left Northern Rhodesia and moved to England. I had found work at the BBC. The ill-fated Federation of the Rhodesias and Nyasaland was collapsing. Staff on federal contracts deserted Nyasaland, leaving that territory deprived of trained broadcasters. Unbeknown to me, the Prime Minister, Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda, had had precautionary discussions with the BBC. If federal staff were withdrawn from Nyasaland would the BBC come to his aid? “Of course,” they told him….and then forgot all about it.

Soon telegrams arrived: Where were the staff the BBC had promised?

Consternation! A very senior BBC man came rushing into my office: “Fraenkel,” he said, “you’ve got some sort of African experience, haven’t you? Would you be willing to fly out to Nyasaland – almost immediately?”

The timing could not have been more awkward: I was due to take my family on leave to France later that week. We had booked a cottage in    Normandy.

It took me a moment to realise that none of them had any idea that I knew Nyasaland and, moreover, that I spoke Nyanja – the main language of the territory.  I guess I was the only person in the BBC who did speak that language ….though, I must admit, I never spoke it well. Later I used to joke that I felt like Churchill when thatcall came. “It is as if all my previous life had but been a preparation for this moment!”

I agreed to go. How could I refuse? But I made a condition: I would first take my family to France, settle them in there and then fly out to Nyasaland. Would they undertake to arrange for my family to follow a month or two later?

They had never envisaged sending an entire family, but what else could they do? They had, after all, promised Prime Minister (later President) Banda.

I was happy to go but had, of course, not realised how much change there had been in Nyasaland in the years I’d been away. At independence they found themselves with a very talented team of ministers.  These men (and one woman) decided to invite back the country’s first medical doctor – Hastings Kamuzu Banda – as a figurehead president. Or so they thought. He thought otherwise.

Not long after assuming the presidency he fired the entire cabinet. They expressed their outrage in parliament.  We were broadcasting parliamentary debates. Kamuzu summoned me: “Stop broadcasting parliamentary debates – at once!”

There were protest marches. Kamuzu sent the thugs of the Malawi Youth League to beat up the marchers.

Now having an old and trusted friend in Winston proved a protection. I might rashly ask “What has happened to X or Y?”  Winston would give me a warning look which meant “Don’t ask: A non-person.” It saved me from many a faux pas.

Winston’s fear of witchcraft had receded.  The enemy was visible now and with such an enemy he could cope.

One morning our best broadcaster, Ceciwa Konje, did not turn up for work. Her brother – one of the ministers – had been arrested the evening before. That same night she and her husband had fled across the border into Zambia. Similar things happened to others of that talented first cabinet. Broadcasters I had sent “up country” to record programmes were intercepted at checkpoints and beaten up by the Youth League.  Anyone with a good education was targeted as “Anti-Kamuzu” – which, by now, most of them were.

This was not how I had envisaged my return to beautiful Malawi. I demanded the BBC withdraw me. They tried to dissuade me. I insisted.

Thus ended my long affinity with Africa – but not my fascination with that continent and its people.