Exclusive with Orton and Vera Chirwa's daughter
Some people think children of freedom fighters in exile had it easy because they had sympathy, and got opportunities like bursaries and other financial aids on silver platter. This is not always the case. Others struggled to get to where they are today. One of them is Nyamazao Marjorie Mshana, Orton and Vera Chirwa’s daughter. She talks to Mwereti Kanjo.
Give us your background
I am a widow with two grown-up daughters. I hold a Bachelor of Science degree, and a Psychosocial Counselling certificate. I am the executive secretary and psychosocial counsellor with Women’s Voice (a support and shelter house for victimised women and children). I am 59 years old. I have seven siblings, four sisters and three brothers but I am first born to Vera.
Your parents, Vera and Orton Chirwa, were detained by the colonialists around 1959, how did you handle this?
As a seven year old who depended on dad and mum, I found it very cruel and unfair that they had taken both of our parents. They should have taken only dad. Since I was at a school going age, I went to stay with my grandfather, Crosby Chirwa, in Limbe. It was a double blow for me as I was separated from my brother and sister as well. They were sent to our home village, Manoro, in Nkhata Bay. I remember seeing mum in court, and wishing she could come back home.
What was your childhood life like?
I had a great upbringing. My parents loved, and nurtured us very well. They provided us with all our needs and wants. With his law firm, he was financially independent. This was even before he became Minister of Justice and Attorney General in 1964. My parents were disciplinarians; they hated lying. They taught us to respect elders, be humble, generous, and witty. They taught us to value education from when we were still very young.
Take us through your journey into exile?
It was in October 1964, and I was 12 years old. After hiding in the bush, he managed to escape to Zambia. My sister and I were staying with our aunt Mirriam at Bandawe in Nkhata Bay. It became evident that Malawi young pioneers were looking for us too. We left Bandawe and joined our brothers at our home village in Manoro, before being sent to Matuli in Mzimba.
For our safety, we, including Nkhondo who was four years old, had to walk. Zengani was two years old, so he had to be carried. We were accompanied by cousin Nyamanda and uncle Nyirenda who posed as our parents.
Fumbani, my brother, stayed with our grandparents at Manoro. We walked long distances, got some food, and sleep at some distant relative’s place, or just a Good Samaritan’s. They were some who would look at us with suspicion. We eventually reached Matuli. Being the eldest, I had to look after my siblings. Village life was not easy but we had to adapt. The men in the village were always on the lookout for strange people in the area, so as to keep us safe. The young pioneers had burnt down the houses at Manoro where our grandparents and Fumbani were. So, they left for Enyezini-Mzimba.
My father sent his brother, Bulukutu, who had fled to Zambia, to come and get us. He travelled at night and found us. We were supposed to take nothing, not wear red clothes as it was said that only Ching’oli’s children wore red clothes!
We got to Lundazi where a Land Rover vehicle took us to Petauke. We found father waiting for us. We could hardly recognise him. He had grown a beard like Fidel Castro! We were very happy and relieved. He sent a message to mother that we were safe. Looking back, I really believe God was with us. Through it all, we never got sick. This was a defining moment; I knew our lives had changed when we crossed that border.
How did you make the best out of your time in exile?
From Zambia, I went to Tanzania. My ambition was to become a doctor, since I was very good in math and science subjects. To get selected to a government secondary school, one had to pass Swahili. Although dad had put me in an English medium primary school, I knew I had to quickly learn Swahili. I was very keen on education. My dad influenced me a lot. Apart from the subjects I had to study in school, I borrowed books from the library to read at home. As a first born, I had to set a good example.
Through hard work, I was chosen to go to Tabora Girls Secondary School, one of the best schools in those days. After high school, I went to India to do my Bachelor of Science degree. Circumstances were tough, but my father made sure we continued with education. Although I did not become a doctor, I got married to one.
What did you do to get educated and be self-reliant?
During holidays when I was in Form Three in exile, I did part time work as a clerk at Ministry of Lands, where my dad was working. After finishing my A levels, I worked at a bank for almost a year. I was getting suitors to marry me but I chose to further my education. It was not easy for my parents in terms of paying the fees. They managed to secure me a place at Kerala University in India through an Indian colleague. His daughter went to the same institution. They struggled but managed to pay for my fees. After completing my degree course in science majoring in zoology in 1976, I came back to Tanzania, and started working as a food technologist at a national milling company. I was the first graduate food analyst in this company. I worked there for a year and then moved to Food Nutrition Centre as a food scientist. With my team, we created nutritious baby food called ‘Lishe’ a combination of maize flour, peanut flour, milk, and soya. It is still on the market now.
Apart from working with Women’s Voice, what else do you do?
I offer voluntary counselling to depressed people. I own and manage two properties in Tanzania and two others in Mzuzu plus a farm in Ekwendeni. These properties are sustaining me. Every now and then, I donate nappies and clothes to Open Arms Infant Orphanage. I feel I have to contribute to the development of this country, especially in uplifting lives of the underprivileged. I opened a restaurant called African Flavours. Due to some reasons, I had to close it.
What can you tell us about your kids and husband?
I had three kids. My son Robert Junior died at fourteen after a tragic car accident in Chikangawa, Mzimba, on 27th June 1996. I have two wonderful girls, Rhoda and Vera. Rhoda is an economist with a Master’s degree and is working in Tunisia. Vera is a barrister at law, with a Master’s degree. She is pursuing another MA of philosophy degree in tax law. She is working in Kenya with a tax consultancy firm. I met my husband and best friend Robert while in Tanzania. We stayed in Ethiopia, USA, Saudi Arabia, Gabon, Ivory Coast, and Nigeria because of his research work in leprosy, TB, malaria, and HIV, Aids. Sadly, he died in a plane crash on 30th January 2000 in Abidjan at the age of 46. I came to Malawi in 2008 to head Women’s Voice. My father taught me to value education, and I instilled the same in my girls. I am very proud of their achievements. They are my comfort.
How did your parents’ detention under Kamuzu Banda affect you?
When my parents and my brother were jailed in 1981, I was already married. We were staying in Addis Ababa, where my husband was pursuing a doctorate degree in immunology. This broke my heart. We had no information at all on how they were faring.
My husband and my Bible study group were a great support. I kept in touch with all my sisters and brothers. We comforted each other. My brothers who were still in school suffered very much financially. Nkhondo had to drop out of school in England, and started doing odd jobs. My husband would help him whenever he was London. But it still wasn’t easy. Zengani had to go on begging for upkeep money from relations. He was studying medicine at University of Zambia. Sometimes, he would go to our sister Virginia, who was working in Choma, Zambia.
Did you, as a family, get any support from outsiders or relations?
The Malawian High Commission in Addis Ababa was of no help, whenever we enquired about my parents. Most of the Malawian community shunned us. It took the Red Cross, who were eventually allowed to see them after some years, to tell the world about my parent’s condition. They were visited again by British lawyers from International Amnesty three weeks before dad died.
Sadly, throughout his imprisonment, he was being shackled in leg irons. They were both very weak, nearly blind, had no medical attention, and had no sufficient food! I was relieved when I heard that my brother was released, and that the death sentence had been commuted to life imprisonment. Unfortunately, father died mysteriously in jail on 20th October 1992. After a tremendous pressure from International Amnesty and other human rights bodies, mum was released, having spent 12 years in jail!
What memories do you have about your father?
He was a good and kind father. Mum had gone to Britain to study law and he played the parenting role very well. With his meagre pay (compared to a Minister’s salary) as a Commissioner for Lands, he would take us to the beach, cinema and his favourite Indian restaurant called Sheesh Mahal, sometimes. He was God fearing and a theologian. He made sure we went to church every Sunday.
If it were to happen again, what would you wish was different and why?
I would not wish it any other way because to say that would mean dad and mum would not be freedom fighters. They had to fight for freedom, it was in their blood. After all, I would not have met my best friend and husband if we had not fled to Tanzania! Although the family went through hell both emotionally and physically, and that my father did not get to see the democratic Malawi he was fighting for, it was all worth it.
Is this how you expected Malawi to turn out after independence and multiparty?
What would you want to see improve?
Hopefully, Malawi now is getting mature in democracy. Opposition parties should be strong with specific and formidable ideologies. People move from one party to another because they do not see clear cut differences between parties; what a party stands for and does not stand for. The ruling party should differentiate party issues from government undertakings. Opposition parties should contribute to growth and development of the country through constructive criticism.