He has been a Cabinet minister, has headed Malawi’s central bank, University of Malawi, Press Corporation, was probably the closest crony Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda had, is the longest serving MP in Malawi and heads the opposition in Parliament. But there is more that makes John Zenus Ungapake Tembo. Bright Mhango finds out.
I landed an exclusive interview with John Tembo on condition that I stick to my promise that I would not ask political questions. Of course, we both knew that was not possible for a man such as Tembo whose life is politics itself.
I was ushered into the living room of his Area 10 house in Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe, at 2:10pm on Tuesday. As I waited for him to join me, I wondered what it would be like to interview a man who has been a politician for over 50 years—one whose foray into politics came well before I was born.
Tembo is definitely a collector; his living room, which spans the size of a volleyball court, is laden with vintage ornaments. Four sets of ivory block the fireplace, pure copper bowls and containers fill cabinets, gold plated gourds…
It is almost Victorian, the three chandeliers hanging on the ceiling, the lavender upholstery.
A painting the size of a three-quarter bed hangs over the fireplace. There are several other picture frames, but among them, the biggest picture of a person, is of a man whose life is intertwined with Tembo’s, Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda. A youthful Kamuzu is standing behind a chair and placing his hands on it.
The place exudes taste. This exemplifies the life of the man who was not only close to the fallen Ngwazi, but also shares some of the defining features that set Kamuzu apart from the rest—a touch of quality.
“I was very close [to Kamuzu] as a politician, president of a party, later on of a nation…I became a very senior follower of Kamuzu and loyal to him. I became a loyal servant of Kamuzu, which I still am, although he is late. I pledged loyalty to him then and I pledge loyalty now, to him, to the foundations, his policies in the party and in the government,” he said, slowly.
Those who say Kamuzu was a dictator have read the wrong literature; to Tembo, Kamuzu was not a dictator, he was a nationalist and fighter for freedom and democracy which today’s youths should emulate.
He said the fact that Kamuzu left his medical practice in Ghana and Europe to liberate Malawians from the bondage of colonialism speaks volumes about the man he was.
Tembo sees little difference between the politics of 1961 and now and actually said democracy was there in 1961. He said that is why Kamuzu had a competitor of the United Federal Party (UFP) member from Kasungu and himself opposed by a Mr. Mwase in his Dedza Central constituency.
Tembo had a smooth run during the 30 or so years that Kamuzu was in power. He was untouchable as part of the fearsome triangle of power that also included Kamuzu and Cecilia Kadzamira.
He, like Kamuzu, was a colossus who sat astride the Malawian society—he was a politician, board chair for statutory corporations, governor of the Reserve Bank of Malawi… He was everything.
After MCP was voted out of power at the beginning of the 1990s, Bakili Muluzi was to become one of Tembo’s worst nightmares. Muluzi was constantly telling Malawians that Tembo has blood on his hands and knows something about the 1983 Mwanza murders of four prominent politicians.
And yet Tembo was soon working with Muluzi. Did he not feel bitter over the court hustles that the Muluzi regime dragged him through?
“Dr. Muluzi and I speak to each other now …if you ask him properly, he will tell you that it was all wrong to accuse me of murder. I went through a lot of bad things in the opposition. I was arrested several times, went to jail several times [but] I was acquitted in all of them.
“I think anybody who holds and maintains hatred in his heart is not a politician, he is a crook,” he said, then paused, allowing me to take down his exact words.
But I was unconvinced; if Kamuzu was not a dictator and Tembo was clean in all the dark decades Malawi went through, why is Kamuzu’s name still crimson?
“It’s his political enemies, beginning with the colonialists…after all, the colonialists imprisoned Kamuzu and even sent him to Gweru in Rhodesia and knew later it was wrong. This is why he became the first Prime Minister of this country. They knew he was fighting for the poor,” said Tembo, pausing to answer his phone.
Tembo, a Man U fan
He is confessedly a Manchester United fan; a mug sits on a shelf to certify this claim. He says he loves reading politics, sports and philosophy and has a lot of books in his private studies at his Area 10 and Blantyre houses.
At 80, something looks unusual; he looks 50 and still very active, active as a 35 year old.
I had to ask why; what is his survival kit made of? Well, he used to play soccer and do athletics, but that was in his youth.
“I live well, I eat well and I look after myself. I am active in life. Old age is what a person thinks about himself: Some people are old so early and some are young so late in life; it depends on the mental interest of the person,” he said, still inserting pauses in his speech stride.
His love for Ruth
Despite taking pride in his wife, Ruth, who he said is a great cook and a professional dietician, he maintained that food is just a small part of life.
And then he dwelt on his wife; he first met her when he was a university chap in Lesotho and her in secondary school. The next time he met her in London some years later, he could not wait another moment.
Was he a shy guy so as to meet a girl in college and wait until he was a Cabinet minister to ask her out?
“A proposal is made when you are ready to propose marriage and when you propose marriage, it means you know the person…at the time, we were both mature, she is the one God chose for me. She is a magnanimous woman, very loving, very responsible and a very straight Christian,” he said.
After dating for three years, they married in 1969. He boasts of her culinary prowess; he married her while she worked as a dietician at a hospital in Leeds, UK.
“She is an excellent cook. I grew up eating nsima, and up to now I like nsima with ndiwo, whether it’s vegetables, meat or fish,” said Tembo.
As a person, Tembo revealed that his principles are linked to his growing up in the village where he herded his grandmother’s sheep, goats and cattle, gardening and doing almost all that the village puts to a youth.
With a Christian background of a father who started out as a teacher and ended up as a reverend, Tembo remembers his father as a very kind person who liked people and people liked him back.
“My father was a reverend of the CCAP Church…very disciplined, he taught all his children to be disciplined. You should also ask about my mother; she was a very kind and generous woman. Everybody who visited her house did not leave without eating something. That was her philosophy,” said Tembo.
He said he is a proud father, saying he never used a rod on his children. All four children are graduates and working outside Malawi. He personally took me on a tour of their photographs, explaining his pride.
He said the late President Bingu wa Mutharika made sure his children never got employed in Malawi. That is why, he said, they are abroad.
After a brief teaching stint in secondary school, Tembo joined politics. He said his success in politics stems from the fact that since his youth, he has always been committed to people and his experience as a teacher and head master fostered in him values of excellence and discipline.
He reminds me that his life is not over to describe his highs and lows and proudly declared that he has no regrets; whatever came to his life, bad or good, he took it and moved on.
“I haven’t reached my highest point [in life]…In a normal life of person, you take the full range of experience, but there is no experience I regret for,” said Tembo.
“I have never changed, I stick to my principles…I believe in the dignity and life as a Malawian and of Malawians…I believe in the dignity of an African. There are people such as [Kwameh] Nkrumah, Sékou Touré, [Jomo] Kenyatta who have inspired me…,” he said.
He revealed that he is a musical person and enjoys classical music. He enjoys listening to his daughter who, when she comes from overseas, plays the piano and the classical guitar.
His is an extensive traveller, boasting that he has been everywhere in all the continents and the only significant country he has not been to is Australia.
Quite much like his life; he has been everything except president of Malawi. But it was naïve of me to ask him how it feels to miss out on the ultimate prize of the political game.
His stare reminded me that I had promised to skip politics during the interview!