Rose Chibambo is gone.
As I hunt for memories with which to pay tribute to her, to recapture echoes of her voice, I think of the many ways in which people will remember her, depending on how they knew her or interacted with her. For some, she was the woman on the K200 note, for others, she is remembered as mother, grandmother, friend, former politician.
For me, my memories of the woman who died on 12th January, 2016, are captured in a number of journeys.
I remember travelling to Mzuzu in 2012, after she had agreed to a series of interviews about her life. On the day I arrived in Mzuzu, I did not know that she had decided to make my trip easier by making one of her own; she drove to the depot with the intention of meeting me. We missed each other, and I got to her house at Kaning’ina not knowing she had gone to meet me. When we finally met on that day, we laughed at the mix-up, arranged for the interviews for the next day, and then she drove me to where I was staying. That was Mrs Rose Chibambo; warm and welcoming.
A few incidents come to mind. I remember how she recounted her own experiences as a traveller. There is, for instance, her arrival on Planet Earth on 8th September, 1928. She talked about the meaning behind the name; Lomathinda, meaning one ‘snatched from the grave’. Professor Boston Soko had given me the meaning of the name, and I wanted Chibambo to give me the background. She explained; it had been a difficult birth, but mother and child had survived, and the journey had begun.
There were the childhood trips to live with an older sister, and later, to go to school. There was the journey towards love, courtship, marriage, motherhood. And then there were the political journeys, quite often linked to the family journeys in such a way that made isolation challenging. For instance, there was the journey she made to Makwasa in 1959 for the birth of her fifth born child, Gadi. Two days after giving birth, Chibambo was forced to make another journey, this time with a child in her arms, to Zomba prison. A Nyasaland Times article at the time reported the event as follows:
Mrs Rose Chibambo, one of the four Congress officials named by the governor, Sir Robert Armitage, to launch “R” day was detained under the Emergency Regulations Act last Sunday after being discharged from Malamulo Mission Hospital.
Last week she gave birth there to a baby girl. Mrs Chibambo was removed to Zomba Central Hospital where there are facilities for her. Mrs Chibambo was leader of the Congress Women’s League. (Nyasaland Times, Friday, April 3, 1959).
“Where there are facilities for her.” I always found that expression intriguing; it suggested the luxury of a hotel, when the reality was different; what Chibambo remembered was sitting on a veranda with mosquitoes whining around her as the baby in her arms cried.
There was the journey to freedom, the journey towards independence. In 1964 came the rift between several Cabinet Ministers and the then President, Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda. She was among those who were fired from Banda’s government during the Cabinet Crisis, which included, among other issues, differences of opinion over whether people should pay for treatment in government hospitals, Malawi’s policy on relations with Portugal and South Africa at the time, and the way in which the Ministers often felt undermined by Kamuzu Banda. For Rose Chibambo, the ensuing Cabinet Crisis resulted in another journey; exile into Zambia. She was not able to take all her children with her.
I think of other journeys she talked about; the return from Zambia, the disillusionment of those early days. And how, even though so much had changed, she forged on, knowing the journey must go on.
There was the journey to Karonga for the Living Legends Project in 2014. I was asked to chair a panel on Chibambo and Gertrude Rubadiri. They spoke about what it had meant during their time to fight for independence. They spoke, and grabbed the audience’s attention. There was a young lady who sang at the function; Rabecca Mwalwenje . Chibambo admired Mwalwenje’s spirit , and afterwards commented on her confidence, “ She reminds me of myself a long time ago.”
I think of the journey I made a few days before her death. I had been told she was at Mwaiwathu; I got to the hospital around eight in the morning; it was past visiting hours. The blue plastic curtains around her bed were drawn, and the nurse, politely and firmly, told me to come back later. It was a reasonable request, and I left. When I came back around 12, I headed straight for the ICU, where I was told she had been moved to a dialysis machine; visiting hours or not, I would not be able to see her.
“At least you made the journey. That was important,” my mother, who had escorted me to the hospital in the afternoon, said.
When news came of her death, I thought of that trip to Mwaiwathu over and over again. She had gone, but I still needed a way to say good-bye. A way to say, “Mrs. Chibambo, here’s your book. I’m sorry you did not get to see it in your lifetime.”
When Dr. Ngeyi Kanyongolo suggested travelling together to Mzuzu for the funeral, I welcomed the chance. Here was someone who had also worked with Rose Chibambo, someone who remembered. We talked about her; about the Nyasaland African Congress Women’s League and how it later metamorphosised into the Malawi Congress Party Women’s League. Dr Kanyongolo talked about interacting with Chibambo as part of the UN Women’s project, I complained about how some news reports wrote stories on the assumption that Chibambo had been arrested while pregnant in 1959. We talked about this woman who had shared memories and who had made memories. It was a journey that took us two days, with a stop-over in Lilongwe before proceeding to Mzuzu.
We did not miss the church service or the burial ceremony. At some point, when we were seated, waiting for the burial ceremony to begin, there was someone who asked, politely, “In what capacity are you here?” Later on, we laughed about it. The answer, on hindsight, should have been, “ We are here as ourselves.” And it was as ourselves that we got to lay wreaths and say good-bye.
As we travelled back, we agreed the long journey to say good-bye had been worth it. I thought about the woman on the K200 bank note, and I remembered her story of a short trip she once made to the supermarket in Mzuzu:
I remember the other day, I was at a shop, at Panorama, near St. Andrew’s Church. I went into the shop, and there were these ladies who were selling their vegetables. And as I came out, I found that there was a crowd…but as if they were moving, but pretending to be moving, but…now they started whispering to each other.
So when I went in my car, then another lady came, akuti, ‘ Ndimwe yayi muli pa ndalama yira[Aren’t you the one on the money]?’
I said, ‘Which money?’
‘That money, K200, is it not you?’ I said, ‘No, we just look alike.’
(Laughs) Cos I felt so embarrassed. Then they said, ‘Oh, no! It’s her!’
But by then, Rose Chibambo had driven off, leaving memories in her wake. May the memories continue, inspiring other journeys.