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Desmond Dudwa Phiri: Mysterious sage who, after death, looms over Malawi

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By Richard Chirombo:

CELEBRATED— Author Ken Lipenga (left) hugs Phiri

Like a falling leaf, Desmond Dudwa Phiri— popularly known as DD Phiri— has returned to, as the Chinese say, roots of the tree.

What they mean is that it is good for one to die where they were born.

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And so it is that, tomorrow, according to his son Kwame, he goes to a place where graves are mounded together in all manner of fashions— each mound a story of pathos— at Henry Henderson Institute (HHI) cemetery in Blantyre.

Born in Mzimba District on February 23 1931, DD Phiri would, in the latter part of his life, be known as a relentlessly practical individual; no wonder, he leaves for us a horde of books, over 22, in fact—statistics of work and life well lived.

It is hard to look at cover pages of his books without a creeping wonder: Is this the work of one man?

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That one man, the London University-trained economist and historian DD Phiri, used to run two columns—’DD Phiri Forum’ in The Nation and ‘DD Phiri Insight’ in The Daily Times.

That one man wrote countless essays, giving Society of Malawi no option but to publish them into the book Malawi Our Future, Our Choice.

It is a journey that started in 1968, when the man DD Phiri authored the play The Chief’s Bride. It seems that, at that age of 37, there were publishers who had faith in him; for that is when Evans African Plays, an imprint of Evans Brothers Limited, published it.

However, it would take 39 years— from 1968 to 2007— before he would publish his second play, Let Us Fight For Africa, thanks to the warm embrace of Kachere Series.

Plays were not the only creative product he gave us; for biographies abound.

To his name, and to HHI cemetery he will not go without that story being told, are six biographies: Dunduzu Kaluli Chisiza; I See You-Clement Kadalie; Let Us Die For Africa – John Chilembwe and other books under the banner Malawians To Remember; Inkosi Gomani, James Frederick Sangala and Charles Chidongo Chinula.

Then, there are novels, notably Diniwe in Dreamland and novelettes such as Mankhwala pa Ntchito, Kanakazi Kayaya, Ku Msika wa Vyawaka and Ulanda wa Mavunika.

Other books to his name include History of Malawi: Volume 1; History of Malawi Volume 2; From Nguni to Ngoni; History of the Tumbuka; History of Malawi to 1915; Hints to Private Students, and; What Achievers Teach About Success.

There are more essays to his name, a man who also offered selfless service when he worked in the diplomatic service until 1976, when he felt he had served enough.

He did not sit on his laurels; instead, he established a distance learning institute, the Aggrey Memorial School, because he felt duty-bound to provide quality education at affordable rates to less privileged members of society.

He realised the importance of education way back in 1931 when, after his birth, he experienced, first hand, challenges Malawians were facing to access education services. It was with this picture in mind that he fought his way to Blantyre Secondary School and Livingstonia before moving to England, the United Kingdom, where he studied economics, history and sociology at the London School of Economics.

Looking at DD Phiri’s contribution to Malawi, it is as clear as day that the gulf he has created will remain unfilled

Today, the ceiling of hopefulness has dropped so low that it is difficult to stand strong, let along with a straight face.

That is why, when DD Phiri’s son Kwame got the news of his passing, he could not help but look at the world with a wan emptiness.

Nothing, not even the fact that his father has been hospitalised for some time, could placate him.

“At the moment, all I can say is that we are making burial arrangements so that we can bury him at HHI cemetery in Blantyre.”

Kwame may need an ancient force of belief to get past the sadness that life has imposed on the Phiri family. Nobody prepares for the day they may lose their loved one.

Not that thoughts of death may not impress on us the fact that we are not immortal; such thoughts come, but in a context that is almost imaginary.

When death turns into reality, one is haunted with another question: Why dad, uncle, mother, sister, aunt, niece, nephew, grandmother or grandfather?

To make matters worse, it is unlikely that, at HHI cemetery, DD Phiri will be encased by his own people [blood relations], but he can find solace in the fact that among those that lie peacefully, but dead anyway, at HHI are people who read his books.

Although death is a journey best carried out alone, book readers —like me, the living—may be there with him; this time, simply by reading his books and letting its message green over in our hearts.

It is as if people read through death’s intentions for, as recently as September last year, people gathered at Jacaranda Cultural Centre to celebrate the life of Phiri.

Before that event, in July 2014, DD Phiri had published his latest book on history.

He had given the book to me for review, and I felt humbled to assess the work of the giant-of-a-man that was DD Phiri.

This is what I wrote on History of Malawi Volume 2:

***

There is always a past. A new-born may, for instance, be younger in minutes but old in seconds.

This makes history unavoidable, and the eventual absence of national records on our journey from the Partition of Africa, colonialism, independence and democracy akin to committing suicide at the national stage.

It must be that prolific historian and writer DD Phiri appreciated this realism by the strength of his age, experience, academic prowess and familiarity to the Malawian subject.

DD Phiri, as he has come to be known, must have realised, too, that forth-coming generations would be acting within their mandate to seek answers from those that lived before them on why this suicide ever took place.

DD Phiri has ‘partially’ excused himself from such blame by publishing History of Malawi: Volume 1 in 2004. ‘Partially’ because the first volume limited the scope of Malawi’s history to 1915— a time the pint-sized ‘Amwandionerapati?’ criss-crossed the land.

Of course, volume 1 continued the tradition of other historians by making no mention of why the ‘Amwandionerapati’ were that short despite head of Malawi’s ‘Chipembedzo Chamakolo’, Fred Kwacha, saying, time and again, that height provided the country’s early inhabitants with cover and, so, they could easily spy on lions, tigers, leopards, rhinoceros, elephants, buffaloes, among other game, under the ‘cover’ of their height and forests.

Even though other issues— such as how the African continent was treated as a piece-of-clothes up for grabs, and how Nyasaland found herself under the giant armpit of the British emperor, the toils of the United States (US)-trained Providence Industrial Mission pastor, John Chilembwe, and founding president, Dr Kamuzu Banda’s trek to South Africa, the US, the United Kingdom, and Ghana, in that order are mentioned; it is a journey half-covered.

Now, DD Phiri has made ‘whole’ his escape from blame by publishing History of Malawi: Volume 2.

“As soon as Volume 1 was published in the year 2004, book-sellers were telling me that their customers were eagerly asking for the next volume and wanted to know when it was going to be made available…,”

DD Phiri says in the preface.

In so doing, he has also satisfied the desire of Malawians because history is unavoidable.

“…We do not need to be thoroughly versed in astronomy, geology or geometry if the careers we have chosen have nothing to do with such subjects.

“But we must be knowledgeable about personal and public health, as well as the history of our country. We cannot keep ourselves in good health unless we know what it takes to be healthy; similarly, we cannot love our country sufficiently if we are ignorant of its history.”

David Hume, in the essay, ‘On The Study of History’, observed in 1740:

“I must think it unpardonable ignorance in persons of whatever sex or condition not to be acquainted with the history of their own country, together with the histories of ancient Greece and Rome.”

An individual acquainted with history may, in some respect, be said to have lived from the beginning of the world and to have been making continual additions to his or her stock of knowledge in every century.

In the new volume, Published in 2010 by College Publishing Company, we see Malawi, from 1915 to date, pass in review before us.

There is, in this 396-page volume, the presence of that historical aspect; virtue, too. And orderly tucked in its 26 chapters are people and events in their proper colours. If DD Phiri has personal inclinations; then, they are not so visible to alter the overall state of facts and evidence.

Issues are presented in order of their occurrence, instead of chasing after the shadow of non-corresponding themes. He does the same with personalities involved; he does not introduce them for the sake of it, but ties them to events they play a part in.

The first four chapters start on a social, economic and natural resources’ note, with the first chapter chronicling the courage of local men who fought battles that were not theirs, and their contribution to British victory in East Africa during World War 1. The focus on land issues, education history and rail transportation sets the tone for the brunt tone that characterises volume 2.

But, that aside, the politics of nationalism and independence make chapters four to 26 political— with some unexpected economic and social issues making sporadic appearances in chapters 16 and 22— elements that satisfy Hume’s “three kinds of advantages found in History”, namely: amusement, understanding and virtue.

Amusement because it is entertaining to the mind to be transported into the remotest ages of the world and to observe human society taking the first steps of civilisation.

It enhances understanding in that it is more meaningful to see government policies, and the civility of conversation, and everything which is ornamental to human life.

As for virtue, it corresponds with truth. Truth, regarded as the basis of history, is apparent where anecdotes are employed. The book confirms that, indeed, virtue and truth help readers and writers avoid their interest from perverting their sense of judgement.

The book is a must-read for history teachers, students and the general population because everybody’s needs are catered for in its approach. Combined with word economy, logic and a modicum of evidence, the knowledge gates are truly opened.

DD Phiri, a University of London economics, history and sociology graduate, has over 22 fiction and non-fiction books to his credit.

However, History of Malawi, Volume 2 is not a paragon of innocence.

To start with, there are some confusing typos and, second, there are not many books on the subject.

Third, Malawi is still a ‘young’ nation. As Sir Francis Bacon said, “a young nation is fitter to invent than to judge”. Maybe this is why some of the assertions in the book cannot be backed up. Were they invented?

To this, DD Phiri says: “The writing of this book could have taken me even longer if it were not for the fact that most of the events narrated herein happened when I was already old enough to take interest and sometimes participate in them.”

Participation and narration can, sometimes, be fortresses that limit the view of the outside world and distort perspective.

Otherwise, DD Phiri’s latest publication is written for everyday use, replete with a permanence which the passage of time has very little modified. It presents the Malawi we have always had, being human; and to know it may help us to, where need be, recognise ourselves.

***

While it is almost like a state of mind for some people to abhor criticism, I was surprised that DD Phiri lauded my review when I met with him at Jacaranda School for Orphans in Chigumula Township, Blantyre, six months later.

This was after Marie da Silva of Jacaranda School for Orphans had brought people from the US to impart some technical skills in local children.

“I liked the review. You were also spot on on criticism. Keep it up,” DD Phiri said.

He, truly, had the heart of a writer— standing ready to accept both praise and criticism.

Other writers turn post-publication time into one of division, sometimes of terror; standing ready to pounce on critics.

Maybe they follow the counsel of the US author, William Faulkner, who said: “The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one. He has a dream. It anguishes him so much he must get rid of it. He has no peace until then. Everything goes by the board: honour, pride, decency, security, happiness, all, to get the book written. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the ‘ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of ladies.”

But DD Phiri was different. He was not ruthless to critics.

Today, Malawi is in ruins. The creative mind of DD Phiri, forever a scene of constant bustle, has been frozen; his temperate heart stilled at last.

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