Malawian Mandela: Still militant at 87

Matchipisa Munthali is a typical political animal. He fell afoul of the late Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda, for which he was condemned to prison life for 27 years.

After leaving prison in 1992, he tried but failed to become a Member of Parliament for Rumphi East. Now at 87 and even in the face of such setbacks, Matchipisa’s political fire is still burning. He shares his thoughts and ambitions with Bright Mhango.

“I was very popular, so they wanted to arrest me. Luckily, the police from Rumphi came to my bottle store and said that if I am found home that night, I would be arrested and handed over to the Young Pioneers, so I left for Tanzania.”

That is the voice that did not lose its edge even after 27 years in jail. Even today, it retains the touch and militancy that landed its owner in the penitentiary.

The man who lays claim to this voice and these words is the Nelson Mandela of Malawi, otherwise known as Matchipisa Munthali of Mlowe, Rumphi.

There are many legends about the Malawian Mandela. Some say he arrived from Tanzania with a canoe full of guns while others say he actually had an army that was ready to go against Dr Kamuzu Banda’s autocracy.

He was promptly arrested somewhere in Karonga and charged with high treason. The ensuing 27 years in prison earned him the nickname Mandela. His wife’s phone, a Nokia 2310, has a ‘Mr & Mrs Mandela’ streaming across the screen and almost everyone in Mlowe calls him Mandela.

Around 1964, Matchipisa, as he is popularly known, was being hunted by Banda’s regime for his active role during the 1964 Cabinet Crisis. He was Kanyama Chiume’s representative and a popular politician in Rumphi East.

Chiume fell out of favour with Banda, alongside the likes of Rose Chibambo and Masauko Chipembere. To many people, the Cabinet Crisis marked the beginning of Malawi under dictatorship.

Matchipisa fled to Tanzania and received a ‘scholarship’ to study guerrilla warfare in China. He boasts of coming out top of his class.

“I even beat my instructor. I was there with my fellow Malawian, Chikwakwa, and even he couldn’t match me. When I came back to Malawi, I saw that people hated Kamuzu Banda but were afraid,” he said, his head leaning on his left elbow which is sunken into the arm of his expensive looking and comfortable sofa.

He doesn’t admit that he was assembling an army, but says he was telling the youths how to go about doing ‘some things.’

Well, that was too much for the authorities. On his way to Karonga, he was intercepted at Nyungwe and people thought he was Yatuta Chisiza who was clearly labeled by Kamuzu as a rebel.

“I thought about it and said no, no, no, war is not good. I actually sent a message to tell people not to pick up arms. Of course, I had guns, but I did not use them. I had two guns; a pistol and a rifle,” he said.

After being cornered, he was taken to Karonga Police. He remembers a Briton, John Savage, who was head of the regional police overseeing his interrogation.

“They beat me all night, but I didn’t fall down and John Savage said he had never seen a tough guy like me, so they went to an electrician to use shock on me. Luckily, the white man forbade that,” said Matchipisa.

It was September, and after waiting for the sun to go high up in the sky, they took him to the beach, stripped him and laid him on the hot sand to make him talk.

He recalls that he could not walk a month after police had tortured him.

He was later taken to Maula Prison in Lilongwe where, he claims, he had a cell specially designed for him.

At the time, Matchipisa had just married a young wife. When he settled in prison, he sent her a letter freeing her to marry because she was young.

Despite being sentenced to five years in prison under the ‘Prevention Act,’ nobody talked about his release and he felt it was unfair to the young Grace.

His wife remarried and had a son. When Matchipisa was freed from prison in 1992, he claimed her back.

Strangely, the other man agreed, so Grace and Mandela are still a strong family.

Classic stuff

At 87, he is fit and handles his own affairs like a 30-year-old. He jokes that being locked away in jail prevented him from eating junk food, hence his sound health condition.

The only sense that has betrayed Matchipisa is hearing. To carry a point across, one has to hike the decibels in their speech.

He has a gracious house built of stones and he terms it his rest house. He lives about 110 kilometres from Mzuzu City, but he smells the city: a refrigerator hums in the background, the security bulb is still on at 9am.

Outside his window, one can see his old TATA trucks; the smell of dung from the kraal speaks of the livestock that he owns. He employs people in his rest house and bottle store. While some herd his livestock, others operate his trawls.

Some are drivers and assistants, all from the village.

Matchipisa never gave up politics. After being freed, he immediately joined the Alliance for Democracy (Aford) which was being headed by the late Chakufwa Chihana.

He said he planned to form a party (Malawi Democratic People’s Party) but when Chihana also said he had a party in mind when they met at Maula Prison, the two agreed that whoever goes out first will announce his party.

He said he will stand again for the position of MP in 2014 if people in the area want him to. He couldn’t reveal the party he will represent, but swore that standing for DPP will be madness.

“DPP is the worst regime ever. MCP’s brutality was acceptable because people were illiterate and we were under one party,” he charged.

He has lost three times as MP, but he is not giving up yet. In 1997, he stood as an independent candidate, in 2004 he represented UDF while in 2009, he was independent again.

“Chakufwa feared me; he instructed people not to invite me to executive meetings when I was in Aford. He intimidated people in my constituency and sponsored violence when I was standing as an independent MP in 1997. He even dressed me down at a rally in Rumphi,” said Matchipisa.

When he was released on 12 June, 1992, he sued government for wrongful arrest. He was given K4.5 million which still sets him apart from many ex-convicts.

In his prime, he had 22 canoes, 2 trawl nets, 30 cows, 22 goats, 13 sheep, 7 houses in Rumphi, 7 houses in Mzuzu, two Tata Trucks, 1 Toyota Venture, a Rest House and a bottle store.

He also has a boat under construction and a deep water trawling license is being processed.

Matchipisa is involved in multiple charity projects. He was also instrumental in bringing electricity to Mlowe and dug deep to help build Mlowe Community Day Secondary School.

“For me, being an MP is not about making a name or getting the money. I want to help the community. I just want to develop the area. That’s why I built a rest house and bottle store right here in the village,” he said.

Meanwhile, he spends his days on his table scribbling his life onto a paper. He is on his autobiography which he will call: Matchipisa: An Autobiography.

That is Matchipisa’s continuing story. 

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