Lufeyo Mphimbi is no ordinary man. His life revolves around the dead. Now, the dead are not anybody’s friend, so when Bright Mhango went to Kamuzu Central Hospital in Lilongwe to chat with Mphimbi, he was overwhelmed by the shadow of death that hangs over the hospital’s mortuary where Mphimbi works as supervisor.
I was supposed to arrive at 10am, but I came at 4pm and the mortuary area at Kamuzu Central Hospital in Malawi’s capital Lilongwe was deserted. Save for a woman sitting in the waiting area, the mortuary was closed, but I could see activity inside the translucent glass.
I peered through a crack in the window and there they were: a figure was lying in the floor being wrapped in some cloth by two men, one in an apron, face mask and gloves and the other I could not read. The figure on the floor was a dead body.
“You are late,” said a strange man I had never met before.
Apparently, he had been told about my coming. I saw him drop his gloves into the waste bin and I made no attempt to start any handshake affairs as he ushered me into his office next to the mortuary and the incinerator.
I sat close to him during the interview and noticed the grey hair that is starting to creep into his closely cut hair and eyebrows. His office is oversized, so he chose one corner and put his brown desk and chair there. On the table sits his laptop.
Lufeyo Cheliyaya Mphimbi, 54, a father of eight, is the mortuary supervisor for the hospital. He has been working in the mortuary since 1999, before which he was a telephone operator.
He is of medium height, with a stout body and a business look. So far, he is the most frank of people I have interviewed as he took me deep into his mind without being diplomatic about the truth.
After describing what his job entails for some 10 minutes, I set sail; I asked him what it was like to go from attending to telephone calls to minding dead bodies.
“At first I was hugely affected because, I will never forget this in my life, in 1999 a boat travelling from Salima to Chipoka on Lake Malawi capsized and all 15 people on board died and the bodies stayed in the water for about four days. At the time, there was no hospital in Salima and the bodies were brought here.
“That was in the very week I started my job and it got to me because when we handled the dead their skins and finger nails would come off into your hands and flies were everywhere. I went home and didn’t report for work for four days,” he said.
Mphimbi said he is now so tough that even Dr Charles Dzamalala, Malawi’s renowned pathologist, likes to get him to his assignments in the Northern and Central regions.
He has seen it all, he said: Exhuming bodies some as old as 15 years, doing post-mortems and embalming. He said the job has taken him to all districts in Malawi, minus Nsanje and Likoma. He combines the one-year training he got from the College of Medicine and his vast experience.
“I used to dream scary things, people dying… that was then. I stopped dreaming about that, but what happens these days is that when I dream of an accident, I come to work the following morning and find two or three deaths from car accidents,” he confided.
Mphimbi said death is not all he dreams about, but I still took home the point that he dreams of and about death more than the average James Phiri.
To help him cope, some visiting doctors from College of Medicine tipped him in the very first month of his job to take up the bottle to drown the scary sights he meets and so he broke his Jehovah’s Witness’s creed by taking up alcohol.
He challenged that beer has never run out in his house since then.
“They also told me that when I see an accident victim, say with a burst belly, I should go and buy goat or cow offals from the butchery and eat them.
“Many people say we use juju [charms] here, but they are wrong; it is just these simple tricks. When I drink a little, it helps me get to terms with what I see and when I see open flesh, eating meat at home helps me. I used to eat meat almost daily until doctors warned me against it for health reasons,” he said.
Mphimbi sees about 10 dead people per day and this has gone on since 1999. He said it doesn’t surprise him anymore. No faces stick in his head to haunt him like they do most of us who view the dead at funerals.
The job has not changed his personality; he still loves his wife, especially when she cooks his favourite meal, nsima, with eggplants or cassava leaf vegetables, known as chigwada in vernacular.
Mphimbi said he always pulls his children and grandchildren together whenever he can to tell them stories. And yes, he can cry too; he said seeing dead people has made him more responsive to suffering such that he is sad when it comes to embalming a child.
Now for every boy who grew up in a normal setting, we always told each other tales that mortuary attendants have a hammer in place ready to finish off any dead person who wakes up for fear of embarrassing the doctors who certified him or her dead.
Mphimbi brushed this off and said if anyone ever wakes up on his watch, he would invite the international media to witness it. He said it takes serious verification for someone to come to the mortuary such that when doctors say you are dead, you are really gone.
I then took him into the supernatural category. This being Africa where just about everybody believes in witchcraft and knowing that witchcraft centres more on the dead, does he not get haunted by ghosts since his office is next to dead people? Has he seen any witches?
Strangely, he said no, but he described one case which he is sure was out of this world.
“I never believed in witchcraft until I saw this one case. He was a reverend and he dropped dead at one of his sermons. He was brought here and we were asked to embalm him, but when they took him to his home people got the shock of their lives as the dead man’s mouth started elongating.
“His mouth got so long that it touched the coffin class. He was brought back here and we did all we could, but we couldn’t contain him. We then realised that his case was traditional, so people went to Area 33 to get a concoction for such cases, but even that failed.
“I tried to cut his intestines, but nothing helped. His body kept expanding and his lips kept growing. He was taken home and the body was rushed straight to the grave and his coffin had to be tied with a cloth. That case was unique. I am yet to see another case like that,” said Mphimbi.
There are in-house dos and don’ts: No mortuary worker is allowed to work on relatives and no photos of dead people are to be taken. The last rule, I feared, had just been made for me.
Taking up beer was not the only Jehovah’s Witness rule Mphimbi broke. He also accepted to be village head for his village in Mponela, Dowa. He was excommunicated from the church and he says he is currently just a float, not going to any church.
In his free time, he loves listening to the radio or playing on his laptop. He also likes watching war movies which said help him garner courage. So far, he is the only village head I have met who likes his laptop and watches movies. Africa is developing!
Mphimbi then took me on a tour of the mortuary. He showed me a letter he has written complaining to management that there are about 16 bodies which have not been claimed for two months and need to be disposed of.
He opened a cold room. Like shelves in a supermarket or the beds in a ship, several bodies lie in the place, completely bound in cloth like Egyptian mummies. The smell is also telling, the coldness cannot utterly prevent decay.
“I see you are afraid, you are failing to come close, Mhango,” he said.
In my mind, I answer him saying I will come here when I am dead and there is no need to rush things. After all, the sun had just set and the mortuary was dark and empty.
I deserved it; I knew what I was getting into from the time I went to ask for the interview from the principal hospital administrator. I hurried out of the building and from my minibus window, I sat and thought about the interview and saw someone with a cooler box on the roadside and it took me back to the cold room.
My phone rang, I picked up and it was Mphimbi.
“Mr. Mhango, you left your notepad in my office!”
What journalist leaves the very notepad he recorded the interview in? But I am not the only one; even Mphimbi, a career mortician, is not fully over the effects the dead cast on the living.