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Derelict old Mana headquarters building evokes past memories

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Anthony Kasunda

By Gospel Mwalwanda:

I stood with my arms akimbo and stared in disbelief at the building in front of me.

The sight of the desolate building instantly evoked memories from the past.

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One Thursday morning 38 years ago, I walked into the building along the road leading to Sanjika Palace in Blantyre to start work as an Information Assistant.

This was the headquarters of the state-owned Malawi News Agency (Mana) under the Ministry of Information where I started receiving on-the-job training and would be employed for 34 years.

The news agency headquarters was vibrant and boasted some of the best editors in the land who selflessly imparted their skills to trainees when Malawi did not have even a single journalism school.

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It was from this building that the Deputy Managing editor then, Nelson Magombo, aptly headlined one of my earliest feature stories ‘Ticket to ride’, about the city’s commuter buses of the time.

“What comes to mind with the headline?” Magombo teased, handing me the edited hard copy.

I told him it was a title from a song by the fabulous four, as the Beatles were affectionately called.

The now retired Magombo was revered within the news agency for his mentorship skills, and I owe him an enormous debt of gratitude for teaching me tricks about feature writing.

It was again in this building that during one editorial meeting eight months in my employment, the Managing Editor (ME), Sandy Kajumi Kuwali, tested reporters’ knowledge on current affairs.

We were in Kuwali’s office when suddenly he asked us if we knew of the news that was trending that day. The question caught us off guard and we stared blankly at him.

Kuwali told us the American singer and songwriter Marvin Gaye had died.

And it was in this building that I came to know Grey Jusu Mang’anda, an affable person with whom I established a reporter-editor relationship that benefitted me a lot in the early days of my career.

Mang’anda gave me invaluable tips about writing before he left for The Polytechnic, now renamed Malawi University of Business and Applied Sciences (Mubas) to teach journalism students.

Morgan Mayani, Simon Mhone, Manuel Green Siyani, Fred Chimaliro, Nelson Mkwapatira and Fred Makalande were some of the editors of repute who contributed greatly to the growth of Mana.

Then there was Paul Akomenji, a jovial USA-trained journalist who also assisted in empowering Mana journalists across the country to achieve their professional success through his editorial skills.

I heard that there also had been other brilliant MEs before I joined the news organisation in 1983 in Alfred Mkandawire, Richard Paliani and Francis Harawa.

The list would be incomplete without mentioning Joe Wade, a Gambian national who was the first ME when Mana was established in 1966 with French aid through Agency France-Presse or AFP.

Mana’s mandate at that time was to provide comprehensive coverage in all fields of national activities and interests to the print and electronic media for public consumption.

It was also from this building that Steve Nhlane, one of Malawi’s respected writers, started his journalism career and headed the news agency before he left for Nations Publications.

Retirees Diverson Owen Napuwa and Maxwell Khumbanyiwa are unsung heroes who also mentored countless interns from the building, some of whom went on to make names in the media industry.

The list of journalists who were mentored in the old building is endless, but names of Wellington Kuntaja, Anthony Kasunda, Eunice Chipangula and Deogratias M’mana instantly come to mind.

Govati Nyirenda, regarded as Malawi’s best photo journalist now with State House, carved his career from the old Mana building as did his boss, the late Joseph Kubwalo before he entered politics.

My heart therefore sank when I looked at the building in its squalid-like state that early Monday afternoon.

And when I looked through the window in what was the office of the ME where we used to hold our editorial meetings, a grim sight greeted me: a room strewn with trash.

Perhaps what was most harrowing was when a guard at a neighboring building told me that sex workers on the prowl for men at night in the CBD use the place as their tryst.

Apart from being a meeting place for sex workers’ nocturnal amorous activities, the security guard said some street children around the city centre sleep in the building at night.

The building housed the Regional Information Office for the South after Mana headquarters moved to Lilongwe in the late 2000s, and has remained locked after the regional office later vacated it.

Magombo expressed shock and dismay when he learnt that a building that was once a force to be reckoned with in the world of journalism was in bad shape and had become an eyesore to the public.

Magombo, who was ME from 1985 to 1993, said he wished the building had been converted into a museum to show equipment the news agency used before the internet arrived.

“It’s a historical building. If we had thought properly, we would have turned it into a Mana museum and have all the equipment such as fax and telex machines there,” he said.

The building itself is shrouded in mystery because despite the fact that Mana headquarters had occupied it for years, it seems no one knows who really owns it.

The fact that it seems ownerless explains why the building looks dingy, standing conspicuously along the road leading to Sanjika Palace.

News that the old Mana building was in a pathetic condition also saddened Khumbanyiwa, who headed the news agency for five years before retiring in 2005.

Khumbanyiwa said he too had no idea who the owner was since “it never came to my mind to think about the owner. I just thought it belonged to government.”

While the old Mana headquarters is mostly known for grooming some of Malawi’s finest journalists, the building is also a reminder of a sad event that happened there in the mid- 1980s.

Police officers in plain clothes one morning paid a surprise visit to Mana. They arrested Kuwali and Akomenji over some reporting after covering a function.

A dark cloud hung over the news agency as staff trooped out and watched helplessly Kuwali and Akomenji being whisked away in a civilian car.

The two were to be detained for 14 months without trial, together with the editor of Malawi News at the time.

Kuwali (now deceased) and Akomenji lost their jobs after their release on May 23, 1986.

As I stared at the building, I replayed events of that dreadful day, March 11, 1985.

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