By Yokoniya Chilanga, Contributor:
The 1991 Phalombe floods will always go into the annals of Malawi’s history as a complete tragedy.
Hundreds of people died from the mountains of waters that came down the Michesi hills.
A story is told that, almost one whole village drowned. In which case, there was no one to mourn for the other. All the harvest, goats, cattle and chickens went together with the people.
It was like an exodus of a people living in the slopes of the Michesi hills moving to settle in the deep sands of the Indian Ocean- where the ocean prepared one grave for one whole village.
There is a monument in the district which reminds people of these floods. Some of the survivors of the floods recall the day with very sad memory, and the day haunts them, almost 30 years after.
Lawi’s new song, titled ‘Gitala Lokha’ departs from this memory to recreate a story of how God saves and loves, and raises some people from different hard situations to become important people in the society.
While Lawi mentions various hard times like how Malawi soldiers survived in the war in Mozambique, the main feature of the song remains his guitar which he survived with in the Phalombe floods.
Lawi reinvents the Phalombe floods and sees himself as one of the survivors.
After his property, parents and uncles, and brothers and sisters drowned in the floods and were carried to a very distant place where he can never find them – the Indian Ocean, only his guitar survived and remains with him.
Now, a lonely figure in the world, destitute, only armed with a guitar, through hard work and resilience, and above all, God’s protecting hand, his life has changed. The guitar has taken him to great cities in the world that he never thought of.
He says God has picked him from the shanty Safarao in Ndirande Township to some of the great cities in the world where great people like Obama lives (Kukakhala kulimbika, ife tizalimbikabe, Mulungu alipo amatisamalira. Zolimbazi, ife tizalimbabe, Mulungu alipo amatisamalira. Watichotsa ndi Mulungu, kwa Safarao, ku Ndixville, mpaka Adis Ababa, takaona kwawo kwa Papa mpaka kwawo kwa Obama ndi gitala lokhali).
And he further, says it proudly that he will continue to sing.
Thus sings Lawi: “kamba ka chikondi cha zoimbazi, zonse zitakokolokera kunyanja ya mchere, tidatsala ndi gitala lokhali, tidali ndi gitala lokha, amayiii, tidali ndi gitala lokha amayiii, ndi nyimbo mumtima (for the love of music, we only remained with this simple guitar and a little song hidden in the heart). 60 days in the jungle, uwouwowo, fighting for survival”.
Lawi seems to draw the song from his own life experience as well as the experience of other people from Malawi, that he has known and seen rising from humble beginnings to become great vessels of the gospel or great football players.
The song, which is a Lawi’s fusion of Allan Namoko’s genre – that he discovered back in 2013 in ‘Amaona Kuchedwa’, and carried it to Zonena Kuchuluka in 2017 and now to ‘Gitala Lokha’, has Phalombe as its main setting, of which rivers, we may guess, Namoko frequently crossed, before his death in 1995.
In ‘Amaona Kuchedwa’, there is an impatient man who walks on foot all the way to Mulanje, after his car got broke, yet his friends advised him not to use it.
It seems in this kind of songs, while Lawi successfully sings in a borrowed Lhomwe tongue, he also has a special liking of the districts where we find most of the Lhomwe people.
Perhaps, it is a constant reminder to us that the legendary Namoko, came from one of these districts. The phenomenon of floods, commonly known as Napolo, has been used by various artists in Malawi.
For example, the late Professor of English at Chancellor College, Steve Chimombo, wrote extensively on the wrath of Napolo.
Black Paseli, also recorded the song Napolo as early as 1947. A song which was later picked by Gides Chalamanda and also Makasu Band.
Lawi, however, goes beyond these narratives of the wrath of Napolo, and represents it as a symbolism of human adversity that can be challenged.
Indian Ocean, as a metaphor signifying the end of all things, has been previously used by other artists as well. For example, Dymon Kudzala, in his song, ‘Ndikaima pa Phiri’, he paints a picture of himself as a person who is disillusioned with life.
So, just like as is the plot in Ken Lipenga’s short story, Waiting for a Turn, he climbs to the peak of Mulanje Mountain.
But while the character in Lipenga’s story is ever standing in a queue, willing to jump from a cliff on Sapitwa peak and throw himself into the abyss, the persona in Kudzala’s song, goes to the source of Ruo River, where, in a suicide act, will get himself drown into the Ruo, and Ruo will carry him to Shire and will end up in Indian Ocean as his grave.
But Lawi and his guitar, did not end in Indian Ocean. God protected them. And the guitar that he carries with him wherever he goes is testimony to his life.
While the symbolism of a guitar as the only thing that survived with him, could be interesting, but Lawi does not say where the guitar was at the time of the floods.
Was it with him when the waters came and he managed to clutch to it through the waves until he found himself to a hard ground?
Or is it the guitar that saved his life; he saw it while drowning and he rode on it like a boat to the dry land?
Or did Lawi went searching for the guitar after the flooding waters had gone, and reclaimed it in the mud sands?
Or he just saw it, plainly floating in the water?