Thursday 7 March 2019

The Way of The Witch Doctor

Witch Doctor's Pharmacy, Khondowe, Malawi.
To become seriously ill and then to be cured by one's ancestors is the way a witch doctor is most commonly forged, according to Dr Kappela, the witch doctor at Rwarwe. And he was no exception, because this was when his ancestral spirits first came to him. They appeared in a dream and instructed him on which plants to gather, and how to make the medicine that would cure his sickness. It must be appreciated in Dr Kappela's case, and in many others of former years, that diagnosis and treatment by modern medicine was, and in remoter regions is still not readily available. Needles to say, on the advice of his ancestral spirits, Dr Keppela was cured, and his visions have come regularly ever since.

Saturday 2 January 2016

Who was Palombe?

Palombe 1924 - 2013 

Of all the times I met with Palombe, only once did I interview him. What follows is an account of that interview, compiled from the notes I took at the time, presented here as his personal testimony. Much of the information it contains is otherwise undocumented and remains as an aural tradition, shared between family, friends, and colleagues who, if not already with Palombe in a place of rest, are soon to join him there, taking his story with them. At the time of the interview, only one of his siblings, a sister, remained alive. The interview took place at Palombe's residence in Ruarwe Village, Malawi, East Central Africa, on 6th November 2008.

*  *  *

I was born in 1924, in Ruarwe at Ukulunga Village, the last of 6 children, of which four were boys, and two girls. I completed my studies to Old Standard 4, aged eighteen, benefitting from free education provided by the government.

I have 4 houses, or clans: Muguguza, Chakwenda, Kalunga, Chegwele, that are related by a common, distant ancestral mother and father, who originally lived in the hills behind Ruarwe, where they were farmers growing cassava. After a dispute over the price of fish, with Jato, a cruel, mean man that lived on the beach, my ancestors joined forces with other hill people and made war, and chased Jato away to settle further along the Lakeshore to the north. This happened before 1875. Since then the Lake level has risen and the village retreated to its current position.

From 1938 there was a telephone and post office at Ruarwe, and that was why the ferry stopped here. In the beginning there was the Chauncy Maples, a charcoal steamer run by the Anglican Mission from Likoma Island. Later came the Mupassa, and then the Vipya, which sank off Chulumba in 1946, on its third voyage. Amongst the passengers were two muzungas (white people) and a dog, but of all 136 souls on board, only two survived. One was given the name, Chancy, because of his good fortune. The cause of the disaster was blamed on the captain, who was Indian, because he had argued with his crew before setting out against their wishes to Chitimba, amongst rough conditions and a gathering wind. At Livingstonia, school children were given permission by the head master to leave lessons to go and collect the bodies that were washed up on the shore.

I first married in 1944, aged twenty, but soon after our first child was born I left for South Africa in search of work. The journey was long and difficult, and money had to be found for food and fares, and visas to cross Mozambique along the Tete Passage, and to enter Zimbabwe. The last part of the journey was made with a group of fellow Malawians, cross-country from Bulaweyo to the Transvaal. It took 21 days, and was fraught with danger of attack by wild animals and interception by the police. Once in the Transvaal, through a connection in a hospital attached to the goldmines, I was offered work as a medical orderly. After six months I was promoted to senior medical orderly, and taught by one of the doctors how to sew wounds, give an injection intravenously, apply plaster casts to breaks and fractures, and how to apply a catheter when a patient is unable pass water. 

While I was in South Africa I was encouraged to take up boxing by my neighbor, Inock Sharpo, who was a professional boxer. I was twenty four years old at the time of my first fight. I weighed in at 180kg, and was knocked out in the first round, but went on to win eleven out of fourteen fights. In 1953, after being paid 900 Kwacha for winning a fight I hung up my gloves. In my absence in South Africa my wife divorced me, and I didn't marry again until 1974. During the interceding years I worked for a short time at Nkota Nkota district hospital, before returning to Ruarwe in 1947 to open a dispensary, that I was left alone to run because to my partner was fired for embezzlement of the funds allocated by the government.

I became involved in politics in 1953, when I accepted the position of ward counsellor for Ruarwe and Khondowe, representing the views and requests from my district to the council at Nkata Bay. In 1964 I was elected Councilor Chairman, and my popularity grew. In spite of lack of education, through my abilities and many skills I gained respect amongst my peers, particularly during a cholera outbreak, when there was no loss of life in Ruarwe compared to Usyssia, where 17 people died. But my successes were marred by the death of my second wife giving birth to our first child. For the next twenty years I absorbed myself in work, and in August 1988 I became Head Man at Ruarwe. On advice from a friend a suitable bride was found for me. Her name was Rebecca, and she was living in Usyssia, divorced from her previous husband with whom she had born five children. We married in 1992.

As Head Man I am paid a monthly allowance of 250 Kwacha from the government, which is often delayed by 2 or 3 months. My duties include the authorization of building projects and other initiatives, and dealing with anti social behavior. I am also charged with settling cases of witch craft. To do this, first the witch has to be identified, and I call an assembly of villagers to point out the suspect. Inevitably the charge is denied, and I write letter for the complainant take to the singanga (witch doctor).

From 1954 there was a very powerful witch doctor in Ruarwe called Chikanga, whom I once had reason to consult. This happened in 1956, when I returned to my house one day to find the bed sheets and walls smeared with blood, and that night I was woken by the feeling of being strangled. Chikanga advised me that the witch was a cousin of mine, and recommended a magician that could give me something for protection. This came in the form of an oxtail to put under my pillow at night, that would vibrate and ward off the witch. In recent times also, I have had reason to suspect that someone was trying to bewitch me. A few weeks ago, I was fishing far out on the Lake when I was attacked by a crow. The crow only had one eye, and as I tried to swipe at it with my paddle, I lost balance and the canoe capsized. I was getting into difficulty, when some boys happened to be passing and came to my rescue. God is Great.

* * *

In January 2009 I left Ruarwe for the last time. It was when I last talked with Palombe, and once again a chair had to be sent for so that we could both sit down, as we chatted under the shade of his grass roof. Now that he was without a wife and I was without a mother, because she had just recently died, a faint pall of sadness hung over us, and it seemed some of the luster had faded from our lives. I knew from our previous meeting that Rebecca had gone to Zimbabwe to be with her sister who was ill, but a year had passed since, and there was still no word from her. And this deeply worried him. 

What happened in Palombe's life, over the time since we last shook hands and his death in 2013, I have no idea because our correspondence tailed off. From our conversations, I knew that his life, in general was becoming more of a struggle, but he seemed fit and able enough to cope, although perhaps in need of a little fattening up. News of his death from a series of strokes only reached me recently, through Rosa Nissim of the charity Phunzira, that is currently doing wonderful work in Ruarwe. Perhaps, in the final analysis, all of Palombe's remarkable traits were crowned by that of survivor, because it is not easy for anyone to reach the ripe old age of 91, but for a Malawian, it is especially to be admired.

Images from the Africa Series

Wednesday 23 December 2015

Palombe: in memory of a remarkable man

The headman, if not up in the hills farming, is to be found sitting in the shade of his veranda, with a bible cradled in his hands. Now there is no sign of him,  just a door shut to the rain.

Palombe Blues
A wiry, mature man with a shaved head strolls down the beach towards me. He has an air of confidence indicating authority. He is barefoot and dressed in slightly ragged white trousers, and a yellow shirt with sleeves rolled up to the elbows.

“How are you, I am Palombe, the head man of the village.”

He speaks slowly, pronouncing each word clearly and deliberately, as if they are of special significance. He questions me, asking where I come from, where I have travelled, where I am going after Ruarwe. As we talk his handshake changes rhythmically over and back, from a full grip with thumbs interlocking, to a usual Western grip. He seems to be assessing, gently weighing me. For a few moments time stops, and the bustle and chatter of people melt into silence, bright colours blur and soften, the sun loses its burning heat, and everything fades, becomes muted and distant, except Palombe’s gentle hand clasping mine, and the sympathetic, warm fatherly tone of his voice.

We walk up the beach to his house; a modest, mud-brick building with a small ornamental front garden, the entrance of which is marked by an archway made of sticks interwoven by a creeper. The doorway is shaded by the overhanging grass roof. He disappears inside and returns with a chair and offers it to me. He then calls a young boy, who happens to be nearby and gives him some instructions, at which the boy runs off to return a few minutes later with another chair.

“This is my house. I know it’s not much” he says, and smiles politely, but also with relish at having an unexpected guest.

“I live here with my wife. Come, sit down you must be tired. I’ll ask my wife to make some tea.”

“Thank you, that would be nice,” I say.

“That would be nice, “ he echoes after me.

Under the shade of the grass roof the air is cool, and there is a stillness that seems to spread out into the surrounding village like a magic carpet.

“Would you like to come in and have a look around,” he says, and ushers me in, lifting his hand up to my head to stop me from banging it on the low doorway. The narrow passage is dark and claustrophobic after the brilliant sunlight. There are two small rooms with simple wooden beds, and a larger room with white washed walls that give a comparative sense of spaciousness. It has a table, but no chairs. At the back of the house, facing out to the Lake is a small yard partitioned by grass screens. Part of the area is roofed and has a fireplace for cooking.

Palombe’s wife brings a tray, with cups and a white ceramic teapot, and places them on the table. As she does this Palombe’s eyes guide my attention towards her and, with a gesture of his hand, intoning each word with the reverence of a prayer, he says:

“This is my wife. Her name is Rebecca”.

Rebecca smiles. She is Zimbabwean, with light skin and delicate features of the people from Mutare region. She makes a small curtsey and holds out her hand for me to shake. Palombe brings in the two chairs from outside and we sit down. He pours the tea and offers me sugar. When I decline, with a look of astonishment he says: “Tea without sugar,” then proceeds to pile five or six spoonfuls into his cup.

Thursday 17 December 2015

The village tailor with a smile in his eyes

Sitting on his porch getting drunk, the village tailor has a question written in his smile: What is that mzungu doing out in the pouring rain?
Bea Beans, 2009
Bea Beans is the Village tailor and proud owner of a Singer sewing machine. It was given to him while he was attending a one year course in sewing and tailoring at the Magomero Centre in Blantyre. Unfortunately he wasn’t given anything else, except a tape measure in the way of materials or support, which made it very hard for him to get started up in business. As a result of contracting polio at the age of 7, Bea is lame and has never been able to attend school. After leaving Blantyre, he returned to his home in the small village of Khomora, tucked away in the hills above Ruarwe. Unable to find any business there, he moved down to Ruarwe in 2003 and rented four rooms in the house at the heart of the village, where he now lives. 
As well as doing alterations and repairs, Bea makes clothes for women, though sometimes he gets big orders to makes suits for festivals and weddings. Most of his business comes from Ruarwe and the surrounding villages. Being unable to travel to get material, thread and buttons, he has to send someone all the way to Lilongwe, where the shops sell cheap goods imported from China.
Bea's father is head man at Khomora, and an excellent farmer, growing cassava as a cash crop. Of his three brothers and two sisters, Bea was the only one to get polio. When he showed the first signs of sickness, he was taken to hospital in Blantyre, returning home to Khomora six months later, permanently paralysed from the hips down.
Because he was unable to travel to find a wife from outside the village, as is the custom to prevent inbreeding, Bea had his eye on a certain local girl, the beautiful Stella. They became boy and girlfriend, and one day Bea summoned up the courage to ask for her hand in marriage, and she accepted, because she had fallen in love with him. He had told her that if her parents didn’t agree to the marriage, he would leave her to find another husband, but fortunately they gave their consent. All this happened years before my time at Ruarwe, but that was one wedding I’m sorry I missed. Like many African women, Stella is an excellent farmer, and during the time when Bea was struggling to get his business started, she was able to support him.
In 2003 their first child, a girl was born at home, and being premature died three months later. After a year Stella was pregnant again and gave birth to a son called Joshua, followed by a daughter called Wisegirl. As well as two children and a beautiful wife, Bea has his smiling eyes.
He says:” God has been good to me by giving me two children that can walk, and I know that in the future my children will change my life. Business is going well, but my plans are hindered by shortage of money to expand my business and build my own house, so there is somewhere for my children to live when I’m gone. I am happy here in Ruarwe, because I have many friends and people are good to me.”

"Palombe" Portrait of an African Chief

portrait of an african chief
"Palombe" oil on canvas 46 x 35.5 cm
Palombe was the first person I met, when I arrived in Ruarwe, Malawi, East Central Africa, on my first visit in January 2006. I soon learned that he was “Head Man” of the Village, and lived in a small, mud-brick, grass roofed house on the beach. I photographed and drew him on a number of occasions, and once again his portrait was the first one I made in Ruarwe.

He seemed not only to embody the Village, but the land and animals that once roamed there. From our first meeting he struck me as a man of an ancient type of nobility that  knows how to bare hardship with dignity.

Palombe was the first subject from Ruarwe that I developed into a painting, because it offered the possibility of making a portrait that represented something of what I had discovered in my travels and reading about Africa.