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That madam

By Mankhokwe Namusanya:

The walls are dirtied by poetry. Or, more appropriately, the walls are beautified and beatified by poetry. Snippets here, again there. In a few places, complete poetry verses – the short ones.

The Wednesday of the other week I was there. In Manja. I was meeting with Alfred. He is Alfred Msadala, that columnist in The Sunday Times, but we just call him Alfred.

We were discussing the book launch that happened last Sunday. The Death of an Idea book launch. At Jacaranda.

Then, as it always happens, our conversation veered to depths and ends that we could not control. It moved from this, to that, to this and then that again. It was a conversation that was everywhere.

In between, somehow, I had to tell how that interest in literature developed in me. That was when the story of the places, the people and the experiences that have shaped me was told.

And, that story is incomplete without mentioning that secondary school along the Chikhwawa Road – Zingwangwa.

It was at Zingwangwa, in the secrecy of those walls and the murmuring of that river running near it, that I fell in love with literature. Before then, I had read books. It was in Standard 8 that I read the first book, for pleasure, which I ended up loving: Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s The River Between.

I was yet to fully develop but the way Ngugi toyed with words, told of secrets in a prose I could easily follow, was both humble and arrogant. It was beautiful. It was chaotic. It was orderly. It was intimidating. It was, most importantly, generous.

Past primary school, in Secondary school. There started that habit of reading – studying actually – to pass exams. Not for pleasure. It was as if, suddenly, I was a busy person who could not find the time to spend stealing knowledge hidden between the pages of a printed book.

In Form 3, we were assigned subjects. At Zingwangwa, they had decided to make literature lessons compulsory – at least for Form 3. Our class, Form 3M, was assigned the Literature in English.

High on some twisted concept of pan-Africanism, I challenged that I was not going to attend Literature in English lessons.

I opined that if there was a Literature class that I could attend then it had to be in my local language. Chichewa, in this case. This, withstanding the fact that it was compulsory to be speaking English at Zingwangwa.

Mrs E. Chalamwendo, for that was the name of the new Literature in English teacher, laid down the rule: her class was not compulsory, at least not in the sense of the word; therefore, if anyone did not want to attend her class, they could do so – provided that they would be busy doing some manual work the time that she would be in class (yes, she would be assigning you that work to do).

Her rule scared off the rest of the lot that had, like me, sworn that we were not going to attend literature lessons. I was, to use the cliché, the last man standing. I was ready to do that work while she went teaching.

My audacity must have impressed – or amused – her. She did not bother taking the issue to the head teacher. She simply said that each time I knew it was a Literature class then I should be carrying with me a grass cutter.

First lesson, it went well. And bad.

I went out of her class to the silent delight of my friends in class. Outside, she allocated me a field on which to cut the grass. To call it a field is to be generous, that was the whole school block. She was going to be in class for 45 minutes and, she said, within that time I should have finished cutting the grass.

It was not worthy it, I reckoned. So, to cut a long story short, after that lesson I went to her and told her something to the equivalent of:

“I just realised that freedom is not all that important. I am ready to obey you, madam. I will be that good literature student.”

Being that good literature student, I was.

And, later in life, I ended up finding that literature was quite relevant than most of the subjects that school forced me to study. In the years after secondary school, from Mrs. E Chalamwendo’s classes, if there has been a place that has given me comfort, it has been books.

It has been through books that my senses have sharpened. That friendships have been built. That social networks have been found. That systems have been tendered. If it was not for the book (s), most likely I would not even be having a column where I can listen, learn, observe and share.

Last week, on Friday, news trickled through: Mrs. E Chalamwendo, that madam at Zingwangwa Secondary School, who held the door and pushed me out of the ravaging fire of ignorance is no more.

For a moment, I had no reaction. It is hard to get a spontaneous reaction on someone whom you saw the time you were so young and idealistic – and naïve. But, also, it is not possible to just pretend that life can go on when the people that made the village that saw you grow into a responsible adult are going.

For that madam, Mrs E Chalamwendo, words are insufficient. Prayers might not be enough. However, in that corner of my heart, your name will always have a place. That one reserved for those who walk majestically into this life and march out with pomp while around them angels sing harps for the home-comer.

Rest, madam E Chalamwendo, rest gentle.

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