Mama Cecilia Tamanda Kadzamira, Malawiâ€™s official Hostess during the Kamuzu Banda era, rarely opens up to the Malawi media. In this exclusive interview with Albert Sharra, the elegant, beautiful, Women of Distinction Lifetime Achievement Award recipient draws us into her world with anecdotes of her childhood, her life as an official hostess, what she learnt from Kamuzu Banda and her life after she left the State House, among others.
You were recently awarded the first Women of Distinction (WODA) Life time achiever award. How do you feel about this?
I feel both honoured and humble. I have accepted this award with full commitment to undertake specified activities that may help uplift girls and women in the country. I would like to thank the First Lady, Her Excellency Madam Callista Mutharika, for championing the Women of Distinction Awards initiative, the sponsors for making WODA 2012 possible; the organisers and most of all, the people of Malawi for nominating me Lifetime Achiever.
I will cherish this recognition forever. I am very excited, especially since I will be travelling to Jerusalem soon on a raffle ticket offered by the Rotary Malawi as part of the award.
What do you think earned you the recognition?
Through Godâ€™s grace, I have and continue to help others which, inadvertently, has had an impact on the lives of many. I think it is this giving hand coupled with my efforts to transform the lives of the needy that has earned me the recognition.
Long after you served as official hostess, Malawians still refer to you as Mama. How do you feel?
The title Mama was first used by the late Jomo Kenyatta, first president of Kenya, in reference to me during one of Dr Bandaâ€™s historic visits to Kenya. It was picked up and later given emphasis by His Excellency the Ngwazi Dr. Banda when he conferred me the honour of the Order of the Lion of Malawi (OLM).
Soon after, Her Majesty Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland conferred on me the title of â€˜Dameâ€™. â€œMamaâ€ stuck as the local equivalent to these honourable titles.
How would you describe yourself?
I am a person who has maintained my own dignity and the dignity of others in what I do. I believe in serving people with a human touch, with integrity, dedication, loyalty and commitment.
How did you become an official hostess to the late Dr Kamuzu Banda?
When His Excellency the late Ngwazi Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda returned home in 1958 to lead his people to self government, he opened a surgery in Limbe where he continued with his medical practice. I was selected to provide nursing services in the surgery. It was only later that I was appointed official hostess.
Honourable Ismael Surtee, then speaker of parliament in Zomba, proposed that I become official hostess. The cabinet discussed and approved of this. When this decision was announced, I was overwhelmed and felt greatly honoured that government would entrust me with such a responsibility. At the time, I was not even aware of what the job would entail, but with guidance and direction, I learnt what was expected of me in that capacity.
What does the job of an official hostess entail?
In a nutshell, an official hostessâ€™s main roles are to primarily to provide management oversight of State Residence. This involves coordination of some of the roles to ensure that State House programmes and visits are organised at high standards, arranging reception and hospitality needs of State house guests and so on.
Could you elaborate on this?
The head of state receives in audience at the State House all fellow heads of state and heads of government visiting the country, high commissioners and ambassadors who are presenting letters of credence from their respective governments as well high commissioners and ambassadors and other members of the diplomatic corps already accredited and serving in the country. As a head of government, the president regularly meets teams of members of cabinet and their deputies, the judiciary, the house of parliament and the security services, chief executives in private and parastatal sectors, traditional and religious leaders, leaders of women, youth and civil society and non-governmental organisations and other interest groups, students, sports men, and women, members of the press. We, therefore, had endless meetings which required meticulous planning and coordination. We had equally numerous official engagements outside state house and my task was enormous. Admittedly, the banquets and redecoration are part of the job and took their toll on me, but at least I had people to help me with organising them.
What is life at State House like?
It was normal. Pressures on your time and a big work load can make life quite stressful. You need to be able to balance work and leisure. I did this by doing a number of nonofficial activities such as gardening, interior decoration, teaching handicrafts and setting up basic lessons in home management for wives of staff at the State House residences in Mzuzu, Kasungu, Lilongwe, Mangochi and Blantyre.
You have wined and dined with some of the worldâ€™s greatest leaders and their first ladies. What did you learn from them?
I am blessed to have had that opportunity. If I might add, I also interacted with kings and queens, princes and princesses. This is something I will cherish all my life. I had to be self disciplined, attentive and observant. Interacting with these people of distinction taught me etiquette, proper dress code, decorum, table manners and many other things. I would encourage younger women to aim high for the future and to be keen on education. Young people should value interacting and networking with people of distinction or their own role models.
Had you not become an official hostess, what would you have wanted to become?
I would have upgraded my nursing qualifications and studied to become a Doctor in Paediatrics.
You were active during the pre-independence season. What important roles did you play?
The pre-independence years were a difficult time for everyone. Malawians looked to their leaders in the then Nyasaland African Congress and its successor the Malawi Congress Party to redeem us from British Colonialism and the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. Some of us worked with these leaders and through Nyasaland Africa Medical Organisation (NAMO) to which I was elected to serve on the executive board.
NAMO advocated for changes in the medical field and was also interested in the political environment, but was abolished during the state of emergency in 1959. Many of our members were arrested and imprisoned. We were constantly under pressure because we did not want to bring harm to our families and at the same time, we had to continue with the struggle for independence.
Perhaps the most important role that we played and would share with the nation is â€œnot to abandon our collective cause for freedom even in times of tribulation.â€ The Bible tells us in Hebrews chapter 4 verse 16 â€œLet us be brave then, and approach Godâ€™s throne where there is grace. There we will receive mercy and find grace to help us just when we need itâ€
You are a role model to most girls in the country but have kept to yourself. Why is this so?
I am not heard, yes, but I am felt. I touch but I do not speak. I touch the lives of people I serve. These are the young girls or young people, women, the poor, disabled and all vulnerable groups. I do not feel that it is necessary for me to go on the podium to speak about my work. The impact of what I do says a lot.
Of course, I have plans to write my biography in good time but for now, I would like to target the vulnerable and the voiceless. I touch them through what I do. You have to live life and leave your footprints. I do this through charity work.
Do you have a different perspective on Malawi now that you are out of State House and have to hustle like the rest of us?
Life at State House was very protected and aside from the president, all the people I met were state dignitaries, VIPs and mostly the people I closely worked with and supervised on daily basis. That life comes with its hustles. But now as a private citizen, I go everywhere, anywhere, anytime and meet with anybody, anytime. The scope of contacts and interaction with family, friends and acquaintances has definitely brought a different life perspective. This life has its hustles as well, but I now have a normal life.
What qualities do you reckon a â€˜Mother of the Malawi Nationâ€™ must have if they are to survive the pressures of life in the political limelight?
A mother of any nation should be presentable and command respect; should be disciplined, God fearing, honourable in mannerisms and speak eloquently and with clarity. A mother is supposed to be exemplary in everything she does including politics, because she is a role model for the nation. As the Chichewa saying goes â€œmake mbuu, mwana mbuuâ€ (Like mother, like daughter).This means that the nationâ€™s children will take after the motherâ€™s character.
The late Ngwazi Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda was a smart man as well and always dressed elegantly. Were you responsible for his wardrobe?
No! The Ngwazi himself, being as meticulous as he was, was responsible for his own wardrobe. Sometimes, perhaps when pressed for time due, for example, to multiple engagements, I or the Major Domo would only help in selecting but he knew exactly how and what to dress in.
Is there anything you remember that you had in common with the late Dr Banda?
One thing I had in common with the late president was our medical background. There was no such time that we would just chat. As I mentioned earlier, life at State House was for work, attending to official guests, ensuring that appointments are kept and ever always on time and so on and there was no time left for a leisure chat. But then Dr. Banda inculcated in me and indeed in those who worked for him, the attributes of hard work, loyalty, obedience and self discipline and the desire for excellence in all you do and the belief that in unity there is strength.
Dr Banda was a man of discipline and class. What did you learn from him?
I learnt self â€“discipline and class. I learnt to organise my work and manage my time. I continue living a classy life, a disciplined life that has kept my stature to date.
No doubt your self esteem took a blow when you left the State House and Dr Banda died…
Yes, it was a blow to see him pass. At the time of his death, the political environment was different which affected my confidence level but as the saying goes â€œTime is the greatest healer.â€ I took on a low profile to let the tide pass. This does not mean, however, that I remained dormant.
By the grace and promise of God as well as family support, I was able to continue with my charity work and get through it all. Significantly, there were church friends who consistently came to pray with me, whose prayers and intercessions gave me the strength and courage to carry on.
What do you cherish most about your life?
I cherish my family very much. I cherish the Christian upbringing my parents gave me. I also cherish the fact that I served such a man and leader as Ngwazi Dr. Banda. I also cherish the impact my work has had on the nation, especially on women, girls and people with disabilities, through my work with MAP for the eradication of Polio in Malawi, through Orthopaedic Assistants for every district in Malawi, through CCAM which contributed greatly to the development of women as human capital, some of whom as we speak are political leaders, government ministers and principal secretaries.
I also value the national awards I have received in recognition of my humble services to this great nation. These are: The Order of the Lion of Malawi(OLM) conferred on me by the first head of state, The Order of the Malawi National Achiever (MNA) conferredÂ on me by the current head of state Dr. Bingu wa Mutharika in 2009, The Honorary Degree of Doctor of Humanities (D.Hum) conferred on me by the University of Jerusalem in December 2011 and just recently the Lifetime Achiever under the Woman of Distinction.
What do you like doing during your free time? What are your special interests?
I like reading historical autobiographies, English Literature, current news, magazines on home and gardening. I have a passion for interior decor.
You have travelled across the world. How many languages do speak?
I speak Chichewa, English and Shona fluently. But I also speak and understand a little of French, Latin, Greek and Portuguese.
You should have a role model. Who are they?
I have two roles models from the Bible from whom I draw my inspiration; Ruth and Esther who dropped everything and followed their calling from God. But, as a citizen, my role model is my late mother for the way she lived her life and raised me and my family. I also admire Queen Sikirit of Thailand and Queen Elizabeth because of their composure, presentability, etiquette, beauty and royal stature.
Where does the story of your life begin?
I was born at Nkhoma in Lilongwe where my parents, the late Mr. Lameck Misheck Kadzamira and Mai Milika Natembo Kadzamira were stationed at the mission of the Dutch Reformed Church, now Nkhoma Synod of CCAP and where my father worked in the Missionâ€˜s Dispensary. There were nine of us in our family; five sisters and four brothers. The eldest brother John Wycliffe Kadzamira who was the second born in the family, passed on, so there are eight of us remaining now.
My father left Malawi (then Nyasaland) for Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in 1938 and my motherÂ followed with three of us children in 1939. I was a mere toddler then. I started school at the age of three from sub A through to standard 6.I completed 10 years of school in High fields in Harare and then proceeded to do a course in Midwifery at a Maternity Hospital at a place called Gomo (meaning hill) in Harare. I returned to Nyasaland in 1955 and enrolled as a Trainee Nurse at Zomba General Hospital.
How did your parents mould you into what you are today?
Both my parents, just like their own respective parents, Mr Isake Kadzamira senior, my paternal grandfather, and Reverend Zenus Ungapake Tembo, my maternal grandfather, were strict disciplinarians and dedicated Christians. They put emphasis on education and prayer, being charitable to others and attending church without fail.
What are your favourite foods, colours, music and art?
I enjoy Nkhwani wotendera and grilled chambo. My favourite colours are gold and Ceres Pink. In music, my best artists are the late Jim Reeves on oldies, the late Donald Kachamba on local tradition and Ethel Kamwendo Banda on gospel. Handelâ€™s The Messiah is my favourite song in classical music and finally on art, I like any Picasso.
Mama has been involved in the following charity projects starting from the 1970s
l Honorary Life member of Malawi Â Â Â Â Against Polio (MAP) now named Malawi Against Disabilities
l Co-founder and member of the
Malawi Orthopaedic Assistants Project led by Dr Blair.
l Co-founder and member of Chitukuko Cha Amayi Mâ€™Malawi Â Â Â Â Â (CCAM) from
l Presently founder and trustee of Â Â Â Â Â Dzidalire Community Development Â Â Agency, a charitable organisationÂ founded in 2007 to promote projectsÂ and activities aimed at enhancing womenâ€™sâ€™ self reliance.
l Trustee and Board member of Mtendere Orphanage from
lInvolved in charity work as a member of the Womenâ€™s Guild at Church.