Last week, I described my first couple of days in my hilltop bungalow on the outskirts of Zomba, Malawi’s former colonial capital. On Monday morning I eagerly boarded the minibus which was to take me to work for the rest of the week.
The library was meant to be open at 8:30 a.m., but the front door was still closed and the only activity was within small groups of students waiting patiently outside. A man opened up just before 9 a.m. and I joined the students who drifted in, resolving to collect my own keys from administration as soon as possible.
The man introduced himself as the guard on duty. He said he’d tell the college librarian I was here when he came in, and showed me to my office near the entrance. I’d heard that my predecessor had left two years ago, so was gratified to see how tidy it was. Somebody had clearly looked after it meanwhile.
A slim young Malawian greeted me as he came in, closed the door and introduced himself as Mr. Ambale, a senior library assistant. He brought the college librarian’s apologies, as he was sick. After a brief chat, I asked him to send in the rest of the library staff, as and when they could be spared from their duties.
Mr. Kuntembwe, the other senior library assistant, some library assistants and attendants (including a lone female), and two guards came in one by one. Each said in their own way how pleased they were to see me and how difficult it had been without a librarian in charge, especially to cope with the demands of overbearing lecturers.
Senior common room
Frank took me down a long covered corridor to the senior common room for a tea break. It was a large, pleasantly decorated room with ample natural lighting. Several teaching staff were queuing up at the bar in the corner for cups of tea or coffee and biscuits. Frank pointed out a new notice on the board announcing a reception on Wednesday evening to welcome newcomers.
A few lecturers came over to meet me, saying that the library needed to be managed properly again, as the unsupervised library staff had done whatever they liked while Messrs. Ambale and Kuntembwe had struggled to control them. Some Sunday afternoons, no counter staff came in at all.
I remarked to Frank that all the library staff and lecturers who had volunteered any information on my predecessor, Joe, were agreed on two things about him: that he had been a government spy and that he’d been in prison for two years!
Blind law student
It was almost noon by the time I got back to my office where Mr. Ambale was waiting for me, looking very flustered. He told me that he was due to read a textbook to a blind law student, but one of the assistants had not yet come in. I told Mr. Ambale that I would help the law student if he would man the counter.
Mr. Ambale introduced the student to me and we went into a small inner office, where I spent my lunch hour in slowly reading to him the chapters he wanted, while he punched out notes in Braille with a small hand machine. He was very adept at such a laborious task. This was the first time I’d ever read a law text.
I noticed on a desk some law books in Braille borrowed from The University of South Africa in Pretoria. After the student left, I also spotted some publications marked “on restricted access” next to a University Library publication titled “100 years of Chichewa in writing 1875-1975.” A notice inserted in it read, “Deleted items per the advice of the censorship board,” apparently regarding several entries struck through by hand with a black marker.
I was later told that the Board was directly modelled on a similar body established in South Africa, an example of the president’s cultivation of cultural as well as commercial ties with the apartheid regime.
The midweek reception was very convivial, although many old hands appeared to feel they’d done their duty sufficiently by greeting the bunch of newcomers as they passed them on their way to the bar to refill their wine glasses.
However, I felt obliged to stand up near the end of the closing ceremony to introduce myself as the new RSL and say, “On behalf of the other newcomers and myself, I wish to express our sincere thanks to the college authorities for welcoming us so well. We all look forward to working with you in our various capacities.” Then I sat down.
An embarrassing silence followed before the set speeches continued, as if I’d not said a word. Listening to the following remarks more carefully I realised I had probably committed a major faux-pas by not having prefaced my remarks by giving thanks to the Malawi president — who was known as His Excellency or H.E. — for making the occasion possible.
I later realised that the administrative staff had not welcomed unscripted comments by a newcomer whose remarks might have attracted the attention of the government’s censorship board.
My enjoyment of living on the top of a high hill was dampened by the prospect of having to find a dependable means of transport to the college after the minibus service ended. Frank had generously taken me home for the first few days, but would obviously expect me to become less reliant on him. However, nobody would be passing my door.
My indiscreet speech at the reception bore some unexpected fruit, though, as, to my great relief and surprise, a lecturer in the French Department approached me the next day. He was about to go to Paris on study leave and offered me the use of his VW Beetle while he was away.
Frank pointed out to me the main filling station and motor vehicle repair shop, owned by an Indian who had been forced to leave Uganda. He did good work at reasonable prices, but it was said that if a Mercedes was repaired there long enough it would turn into a Nissan.
H.E. took a more pragmatic approach to grass-roots resentment of “foreign” ownership of businesses than General Amin. He forced Asians to transfer village stores to Malawians, but permitted them to operate in three or four major towns.
Their new owners’ lack of commercial experience led to the closure of many village stores, while the concentration of Asian businessmen and capital in the towns led to their domination of urban economic activity. However, they paid taxes and voluntary donations to the government, so that situation was accepted.