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Kapalepale: entertainer extraordinaire

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His voice powered through the airwaves, flew across the mountains and valleys of the country into the ears of millions and warmed their hearts with joy and laughter.

History remembers the 1980s and 90s as the great times when this voice was at the pinnacle of fame. But now the man behind this golden voice of humour is in pain somewhere at Muliya Village in Mulanje. His name is Smart Likhaya Mbewe, one of the great voices to have graced radio drama in Malawi.

With the 82-year-old Mbewe fighting the debilitating effects of stroke he suffered in 2004, some hearts of great affection decided to pay him a visit.

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Upon arrival in Muliya Village, a signpost to his home reads “Mbwiye” as per his nickname generated from his radio drama days.

In and out of acting, old Likhaya Mbewe loved and loves to call every male counterpart “Mbwiye”, which means “mate” in Lhomwe.

Getting closer to the house, one is greeted by a helpless sight of the old Likhaya Mbewe seated in his chair, with his clutches by the side.

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And then what follows is an exciting shocker; the frail looking Mbewe greets you with such a punchy, sharp voice with a huge smile on his face, a true jovial character who maintains high spirits even in sickness and lonely old days.

From the top of his mind, the sharp-minded Likhaya narrates of the fateful afternoon of April 17 2004 when the stroke struck him at his home, living the octogenarian paralysed on the left side.

Since then, he has sought for medical help all over the country, both in public and private hospitals. An operation was recommended as a lasting solution but doctors have failed to conduct one.

“In all the hospitals, the saying and outcome is the same: no help due to my old age and frail condition,” Mbewe says.

Worse still, the old man is a lonely figure at home. His wife divorced him after the stroke. But thanks to her sister, Lydia Manunda, who takes care of her brother despite being aged too. Life is difficult for both of them.

“Sourcing basic meals is a big challenge. At times I have nothing to feed my brother on,” Manunda says.

Such is the life of a man whose hands of artistic prowess cupped the hearts of millions into fists of humour.

Going by the name Kapalepale, he brought joy to listeners through two radio dramas, Pamajiga and Sewero la Sabata Lino, at Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) Radio One.

In old age, he still owns his commanding voice and manages to reverse the hands of time by sharing insight into an epic career spanning 39 good years.

Mbewe joined the public broadcaster in 1964 as a member of the administration team. But September 19 1965 marked the day his career took a whole different path when he was invited to take part in the radio play, Sewero la Sabata Lino.

“I made my first and lasting impression and this was the beginning of my radio acting career. In my first appearance, the producer felt my voice was good and said I had what he called a ‘moving idea’,” Mbewe says.

A moving idea in acting refers to one’s ability to logically present facts with a good sequence by omitting unnecessary information in order to best drive the message home. That is what the then producer late Willy Khoza saw that he immediately took him on board.

Unfortunately, their collaboration did not last long. Khoza, who was working with Chancellor College, moved to Zomba when the college relocated from Chichiri, Blantyre. However, something good emerged out of this separation.

“When Khoza moved, I was recommended to produce both Sewero La Sabata Lino and Pamajiga plays. I was writing, directing and producing four plays in a week, which was extraordinary,” says Mbewe.

Reminiscing on his most memorable play, Mbewe points to one in which his ‘wife’ in the play, a Namukhoviwa, sold their dog in order to raise money for her to enroll for an adult literacy programme.

He says the play was special because it was advocating women empowerment. Those were the times of delight.

But the old joyful days are gone as the radio drama legend now lives a penniless life at his home village in Traditional Authority (T/A) Juma. The ripple effects of the stroke have left him helpless.

Mbewe served at MBC from 1964 to 1993. He was recalled from retirement in 1999 and worked for another decade until 2010.

Mbewe’s life story in radio drama commands respect from modern generation artists like Michael Usi, a radio and television drama artists popularly known as Manganya.

Usi crowns Mbewe as the “father” of radio drama in the country and recalls his youthful days when every Saturday at 6:30 pm he would rush to listen to Kapalepale on Sewero La Sabata Lino.

“It was during those days that I got inspiration and motivation to venture into radio drama. I enjoyed the plays he produced and participated in,” says Usi, adding that he once acted in a play produced and directed by the radio drama legend.

“He is the one who realised my acting potential and advised me to always remain humble in my work,” says Usi.

Usi is one of the people who have come to the aid of Likhaya Mbewe in his sickness. He grieves what is becoming a familiar pattern and path that celebrities like artists, footballers are forced to take in the times of pain.

“There will not be much to call a future if people like Mbewe are not taken care of,” Usi says.

Born on October 10 1934, Likhaya Mbewe is not forgotten as people still remember him for his brilliant works. He is the entertainer extraordinaire whose greatness still flows like a river into the dry terrain of a struggling radio drama industry in Malawi.

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