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.

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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.

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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