When she published her first book How to Raise a Spiritual Child, at 78, probably some thought she had fulfilled the ambition of her life in getting published. They were wrong. Now 80, Queen Caroline Gondwe has done it again. Her second book—Savouring the Moment, ‘The Life Story of Queen Caroline Gondwe’—is her autobiography in which she counts her blessings.
The 320-pager, with 30 chapters, lighted up with pictorial illustrations, is her candid attempt to zoom into her illustrious, miraculous, grace and mercy-filled life. The grandmother of 22 children and great grandmother of one, narrates and relives the past with nostalgia, musing over how as a primary school teacher rose through the ranks to become a Cabinet minister during the Kamuzu Banda era.
A few hair-raising life experiences inform Queen Gondwe’s strong belief that divine intervention is the only reason she is still around today. The events are the defining moments in her life which she narrates with detail, vibrancy and yet also with anxiety.
In this book, Gondwe initiates a conversation on some outdated and harmful cultural practices. But she is not despondently dismissive of some of them. One such cultural practice is about the circumstances that surrounded her birth dramatised in the book’s Foreword:
“On her entry into this world, a village jury declared her persona non-grata. In their cultural wisdom, she did not cross the border in the accepted way. And there was one verdict for that—swiftly get rid of her. Seventy-eight years later, as she wrote the last chapter of her latest book, Gondwe is still all praises for her late mum, who she says defied all odds and stood firm against a retrogressive cultural practice.
“I will keep my baby. She is my precious gift from God,” her mum, AnyaNgwira told off the powerful village birth attendants who wanted the baby disposed of.”
She subtly questions some of their relevance today, but leaves it to the reader to make his or her own judgement. While feebly suggesting what to preserve, because there is wisdom in some of the cultural beliefs and practices, Gondwe is nevertheless emphatic about what to leave out. “At all costs, the good in them should be preserved, but we are not chained to the past,” she says.
At age five, while staying with her aunt at Chiguliro Village in Rumphi, Queen is struck by a debilitating cough. Little is known about the disease but it is highly symptomatic of whooping cough. But when her father in Zambia is informed about it, he abandons everything and catches the next bus back home. He takes his little daughter to Zambia where he worked as a public servant. At 14, on a picnic during a social outing with two schoolmates Queen has a close shave with a giant puff adder in a lush, overgrown suburb neighbourhood.
About a decade later, on a journey to Rumphi, she, her three children and her father-in-law, escape with minor injuries from what could have been a fatal road accident. Her father-in-law’s vehicle, in which they were travelling in, overturned several times on a hilly terrain just after crossing Rukuru River in Mzimba South, before resting on a small shrub. How was this possible?
For Gondwe, to not believe her life is a miracle and to not thank the Almighty God for all these miracles, would be the height of ingratitude to her Creator. Each one of these experiences comes with a revelation to her and further emboldens her belief in God’s abundant grace and providence. Life in general and, especially for her, is a miracle.
Born Queen Caroline Chirambo, the daughter of Rodger Muleza Chikontha Chirambo and Florence Khanyiwe Ngwira-Chirambo, there can be no doubt that she has a monumental life story. It must be told. From the village girl born in a small grass-thatched mud house at Lomborwe Village in Bolero, Rumphi, to a Cabinet minister under Malawi’s first post-colonial president Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda, the former Chitukuko Cha Amayi M’malawi (CCAM) Regional Chairperson for the North and close acquaintance of Mama Cecilia Tamanda Kadzamira, has both a tearful and celebrative story. Her meteoric rise from a primary school teacher to a Cabinet minister is a rare feat that only happens to one out of several thousands of teachers. To think about how many ‘Cabinet ministers’ the village jury might have dispatched to an early grave, is scary.
Queen Gondwe’s life journey has been swinging between Malawi—where she was born and spent her first six years—and Zambia where she mostly grew up and attended all her primary, secondary school and tertiary education. But after she accepts a hand in marriage with Geoffrey Rowani Chimbirima Gondwe (may his soul continue to rest in eternal peace), she spends all her working life in Malawi.
Queen Gondwe’s life journey is a departure from the traditional route that many Malawians take in their quest for a better life. While many Malawians seek greener pastures across the border, like her father did, after attending school and qualifying as a primary school teacher in Zambia, Queen returns home. She spends all her working life in Malawi. The Mount Pleasant CCAP Women’s Guild member quips about this: “I have no regrets for this, because it is what God destined for me”.
Queen Gondwe’s seeming dual nationalities, as well as her back-and-forth movements between Malawi and Zambia, could be the reason she volunteers a rich genealogy of her clan both from the maternal and paternal sides. The genealogy is also a good attempt to trace her roots given that her siblings, first cousins and their children—both alive and sleeping—are scattered between the two countries. The genealogy is also a ‘bible’ for Queen Gondwe’s younger relations to know one another and where they come from.