By Peter Moll
Before Hurricane Irma, I narrated a series of chronicles about my time as a librarian in Malawi. The most recent instalment, which appeared in the Beacon the week before the storm, recounted my quest for the coolness of the Zomba plateau, when I was fortunate to escape the attention of the prowling leopard which savaged a villager to death.
Around the same time, both the outside temperature and my pressure of work were heating up, with queues of enquirers often forming outside my office door. One of my major challenges at work was to overcome the hiatus created by the mysterious arrest and imprisonment of Joe, my predecessor, over two years before my arrival in Malawi.
The day before my first full staff meeting, the library displayed a notice that there would be very limited services available next morning, while the “training session” was in progress.
The meeting was held in an office on the top floor. Before it started, Miss C (the only female on my staff) asked permission to attend a funeral later in the morning. Not having time to ask for more details, I replied, “Yes, of course,” and she left.
Quoting complaints from the lecturers, I gave the staff a brief pep talk on the importance of being on time and said I would be coming in on Sunday afternoons to complete an important task requiring my undivided attention (i.e. updating the Laws of Malawi binders). I would be prepared to man the counter myself if there were insufficient staff on duty, but the missing staff would have to come to my office the following morning to explain their absence(s).
I told them they were all invited to an evening meeting of the Malawi Library Association at the Polytechnic in Blantyre sponsored by America House, featuring a film produced by the United States International Communication Agency. No further details were given, but the promise of refreshments beforehand was enough to arouse interest.
While application forms were being passed around to determine what size transport would be needed, an assistant at the back raised his hand.
“Yes?” I asked him.
“Can I help myself, please, bwana?”
Ambale, a senior assistant, quickly leaned across and whispered, “He’s asking if he can go to the toilet.” A bit bemused by the expression, I replied, “Yes, of course” and he left.
Assisting the MPs
I felt reasonably pleased with the meeting afterwards, but wondered whether I should have made my points more concisely. It had left me very thirsty, so I headed straight to the Senior Common Room for a quick coffee. While there, I was told that two members of Parliament were waiting in my office. This puzzled me, as the law professor had promised not to refer queries about the laws of Malawi to me until I’d finished inserting their two-year backlog.
A Mr. Nyerenda and a younger MP greeted me politely and said they needed some information on four British MPs they were going to the airport to greet at 8 o’clock the next morning. I tried to stay calm and told them I would see what I could do, if they could send someone to collect the information later in the day.
After they left, I was pleased to discover that the library subscribed to “Keesing’s Contemporary Archives,” an excellent source of current affairs, but then found its binders had not been updated for two years. The most recent facts about the British MPs were over 10 years old, with nothing on their more recent careers — and what if they had divorced and remarried since then?
I dismissed a passing thought that Joe might have been sent to prison for supplying MPs with embarrassingly inaccurate information, as the president treated Parliament like a rubber stamp for his decisions, not valuing it sufficiently even to move it to Lilongwe, the country’s new capital, in 1974.
In fact, he may have deliberately left Parliament behind so as not to chance the cultivation of any opposition to his policies in the new capital. It was still located in Zomba, next to the National Archives and close to the beautiful Botanical Gardens — all tourist attractions.
Help from a friend
I telephoned Paul, Bunda Agricultural College’s librarian, for help. Fortunately, he updated Bunda’s Keesing’s himself and later rang back with enough information on the British MPs for their Malawian hosts to impress them with their knowledge.
I asked Paul to give my regards to John Sutcliffe, my fellow passenger on the plane from London, who had said that he would be coming to Zomba from time to time to take a class for MPs in English as a second language. That puzzled me as I’d learnt that Malawi had only two official languages — Chichewa and English — unlike Zambia’s seven.
In the middle of all this, two assistants appeared at my office door to ask if they could go to their uncle’s funeral. It turned out to be the same one that I had permitted Miss C. to attend that morning, but they told me that its time had been changed to 2:30 p.m.
Since I had far more important concerns on hand, I told them that they could go if the senior assistants could spare them, but bit back the “of course.”
The USICA film
My staff enjoyed meeting their counterparts from other libraries at the MLA meeting. Its membership was open to all library workers, whatever their status, with only qualified librarians having to pay subscriptions (usually reimbursed by their employers, the largest being the Malawi National Library Service, the public library).
They also enjoyed the refreshments and the film about some black Americans visiting Africa for the first time. The USICA representative who introduced it seemed a little taken aback by their reaction to its opening sequence, in which largely brown-skinned Americans sang “We are all Africans” with gusto. The Malawian audience pealed with laughter, then settled down to enjoy the comedy chosen for their entertainment.
The two MPs must have found the information I gave them sufficiently useful for them to approach me three months later with a similar enquiry about three lady members of the House of Lords. I was better prepared by then.