By J.G. JESMAN
The CV was impressive—though littered with old language. The candidate crammed his opening letter with words like “abreast,” “canonically,” “mammoth,” and other unusual— no, very un-African turns of phrase. For example, in the summary of his academic paper, Malpractices in Traditional Authority Leadership, he wrote: “…for the chiefs to gain community trust, Caesar’s wife must remain above suspicion.” As you can imagine, the candidate stood out. He astonished the interviewing panel at St. Thomas Secondary School in Malowena. It made them picture their old president Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda, addressing the nation in Received Pronunciation. Why should a Malawian man of twenty-seven speak of former duties being “orchestrated with much aplomb?”
The school was looking for a history teacher. The old one had a stroke—chalk in hand—in front of his form two class. The Principal, Mr. Mpeni—whose name meant “knife” but was in fact, duller than a spoon—arranged for the head of humanities and the director of the school to attend the “oral” interview.
What they did was this: if a candidate was successful in the first interview, they would hold a “practical” in a classroom setting where other teachers—who weren’t in the first panel—would rate the candidate’s performance.
To sensitize the teachers, Mr. Mpeni had gone around the staff rooms, reading aloud, highlighted sections of the curriculum vitae (“Check the way he signs it: Most sincerely, Clifton Gombeza”). Everyone was so taken up they couldn’t help but chuckle—not out of cruelty but a kind of admiration. It was juvenile, really. Mr. Mpeni was the kind of man to gyrate his hips at the urinal. He was too playful. Most teachers had long discarded the “Mr.” before his name. (“Can you believe what Mpeni said?” or “Mpeni wants the schemes of work,” they would say.) Mpeni was forty-nine; on the cusp of his fifth decade as a balding man with an avocado shaped body. Though his face was unintimidating, and shy of any structural merit, it could unleash a fiery temper when stoked. This unpredictability— dreaded by the students—is what made him a longstanding principal.
On the Friday before the interview, Mpeni ordered his secretary, Mphatso, to confirm the appointment with Mr. Gombeza. (He wasn’t going to deny himself the pleasure of a first impression.) Even during downtime in his office, he avoided LinkedIn or social media, employing his mind to picture a wide-shouldered young man in an Oxford blazer with a frilly handkerchief shimmying out of the breast pocket—a leader, with a wide nose supporting clubmasters like Malcom X. The young buck certainly had the record, but did he have the drive? He earned a scholarship at one of the top universities in the country: a great asset to any school. The cheeky devil! Mpeni thought, giddily. We can take him down a peg or two—eventually, but let’s see how he performs first. Such were the kind of thoughts somersaulting in his mind.
Monday. In a fancy little office with a marble floor, a ceiling fan and fresh-coated walls of blue paint—the only ones that weren’t leprous in the entire school; Malawi being so sunny that oil paint peeled off—a nervous Principal Mpeni sat cross-legged, exposing his multi-coloured socks to his colleagues: the Director and the Head of Humanities; all of them waiting for the candidate to arrive. Just that morning Mpeni said to his wife, “Mai-a-Jessie, ndipatseni Obama uja. Lelo tilandila ka mwana kochenjela zedi!”— “Jessie’s Mum, throw me Obama’s suit (beige). The kid we’re interviewing today is nothing short of a genius!”
The interview was to start at 9 a.m. and the Casio on Mpeni’s hairy arm inked a bold 9:02. His “genius” was late. Embarrassing me in front of the honorable director, he sighed. Before his frustration flipped to anger the young man rapped on the door.
Mpeni could hardly keep his mouth closed when he saw the candidate. There he was, expecting Malcom X and what he got was Malcom with a cross over him. Where to start? One, his shirt was crisp-packet-crinkled; two, he had no jacket or tie; three, his trousers were black bordering on grey; four—though a minor detail—there was a funky scent about him, like iodine, and it brought up images of hospitals. Apart from his forehead (which was now pooling with sweat) his shoes were the only things gleaming.
“Mr. Gombeza!” Mpeni said, hiding his disappointment. “Hello, sir,” the young man replied in a deep voice.
Mpeni ignored the attire and focused instead on the firmness of his handshake, and on the way he spoke—which not too far from how his CV sounded. “Welcome to the interview, Mr. Gombeza,” he said. “Did you bring additional papers: an ID card for example?”
The young man nodded.
“Mphatso!” Mpeni yelled out to his secretary. When she came, demanded: “Make us copies of these, will you? Chop-chop!”
The principal enjoyed his authority. Even in front of the owner of the school he couldn’t help but thump his chest. As the candidate nervously awaited the documents, Mpeni took on the role of a herald addressing an audience: “Welcome, welcome. Let me introduce you to my fellow members. Over here, we have Mr. Errand—heading humanities.”
A sour-faced man forced a smile onto his lips. “How do you do, sir?”
“Very well, thank you.”
Mpeni tapped the candidate’s shoulder. “This,” he said wagging a finger at the director, “is Mr. Kapanga, the owner and founder of our institution.”
St. Thomas was an elite private school boasting “international students” from several Sub-Saharan countries. It had been running for ten years and had won numerous awards for its exceptional MSCE and JCE Examination results. Of its two hundred final year students, three-quarters of them would surely pass with flying colors to join Malawi’s most prestigious universities: Chancellor University or Malawi University of Science and Technology. But the director and owner (would you believe) had never stepped foot on a university campus. Mr. Kapanga was a farmer’s son, who, though born in poverty, was not successful at failing. He started with a vegetable selling business, which expanded to tobacco; then, he bought himself a minibus, then two, three, four, fifteen until he was able to buy a struggling school from another business man in Malowena. The school at the time was called One Hope. Mr. Kapanga, who was a devout Christian, and had taught himself English (as well as business) decided on the name St. Thomas. Why? Because in order to know something, “One must first cast some doubt,” he said. Questions, were— to him—the beginning of all wisdom. And money.
“Yes,” Principal Mpeni said to the candidate, “Mr. Gombeza, we have been very much—” he tried to look for a big word to impress the young man—“entertained, fascinated, hypnotized, intrigued by your submission. Please, tell us about yourself.”
Mr. Gombeza cleared his throat in an attempt to kill his nerves. He could feel the principal’s eyes saying, “Don’t let me down, you!”
“My name is Clifton Gombeza. I’m from Dedza Boma, traditional authority: Kachindamoto. I hold a BA in African Studies from Chancellor College. Reading the work of D.D. Phiri as a young man is what inspired me to pursue a career in history. Like him, I wanted to teach and record our Malawian traditions.”
Mpeni listened to the young man with great intensity, like a child hearing a bedtime story. “Are you married?”
There was an almost imperceptible shudder on the candidate’s shoulders when he said, “Yes.” Mpeni noticed this and so began digging into his personal life.
“Your parents… are they?”
“Alive but in poor health.”
He said. “No.”
“Uh-huh,” Mpeni murmured. He was about to keep going along these lines when the head of humanities coughed to steer him back to academics. “Okay, today is the twenty-second of January 2014. Last week, Malawi mourned its great revolutionary, John Chilembwe. What can you tell us about him?”
“Well, he sailed to America with Joseph Booth in 1890 where he was ordained as a Baptist minister in Virginia. The ‘radical’—at the time, black or negro independence movements of Booker T. Washington and others offered him a new perspective on the colonial practices when he returned to Nyasaland 1897. He was appal—”
“Such as what?” Mpeni interrupted.
“The grabbing of local land, wrongful evictions, thangata or the ‘hut tax,’ and of course, the brutal business of racism.”
“Oh!” Mpeni moaned. “Why did they hate us so much, these azungus?” It wasn’t a question, but a sentiment he couldn’t help express.
“Whites couldn’t stand the idea of educated blacks like Chilembwe becoming their equals, or worse: enlightening the masses.”
Unconsciously, Mpeni shook his head and loosened the noose of his tie.
“Chilembwe was critical of the British,” the candidate continued. “He used the bible to shed light on the injustice. All this—plus the fact that colonials didn’t want him building any more schools—led to the 1914 uprising, which failed miserably and brought him to his death.”
Mpeni glanced at a slanted picture frame on the wall, next to a faded image of the current president. “Can you see, there?” he pointed. “That’s our mission statement. Please read it.”
“To provide holy and holistic grounding for Malawian youth.”
“What does that mean, to you?”
“Adding spirituality into the syllabus?”
Mpeni leaned into the young man. “Like who?”
A nine-month pregnant pause was carried before Mpeni answered his own question. “John Chilembwe. Hee-hee! You see?” Mpeni was so chuffed by his wit that he slapped Mr. Errand’s knee to emphasize the point. “Without the very same religion brought here by the white man there would be no missionary schools, therefore; no Chilembwe; and no rebellion, yeah? So, religion plus education equals destiny.”
The candidate reserved a comment.
For the next five minutes, the principal turned to a general, firing canon-upon-canon of his best questions. “With much aplomb,” all grenades were deflected. His interview traps snapped and collapsed unto themselves. Reluctantly, Mr. Mpeni handed over to his colleagues.
The director’s questions were mainly to do with pay and moving arrangements. If anybody was going to HARDtalk the candidate it would be Mr. Errand.
Although the young man was answering the questions well enough, there was still a ginormous elephant in the room: his shabby appearance. Why were his eyes so baggy and so tired-looking? Was he an eccentric or a weed smoker? Or both? Nobody really addressed this issue but all their eyes were weighing him up on a scale.
For ten minutes the young man wrestled Mr. Errand—who was possibly the best teacher at the school. And he knew it, too. He made that clear by issuing more complaints (and demands) than anybody else. He was sixty years old, and had the face of a chiboliboli— those wooden African carvings in gift shops. Sharp and rigid, like his personality. They had exhausted the Industrial Revolution and Africa’s involvement in the Second World War when Mr. Errand asked: “What can you tell me about the Cabinet Crisis of 1964?”
The young man ran a palm over his crinkled shirt. “In terms of what, sir?”
“Causes,” Mr Errand said, condescendingly.
“Dr. Banda wanted the power to arrest citizens without trial. Parliament didn’t support that. Secondly, he wanted to charge an already impoverished nation a fee to use the state hospitals. He criticized his ministers in public, and on the issue of apartheid in South Africa, he supported the whites—which infuriated his cabinet.”
“Chirwa, Chiume, Bwanausi and Madam Rose Chidambo were all fired. All other ministers—apart from John Tembo—quit in solidarity. Dr. Banda then held a parliamentary debate on the motion of no confidence through handpicked ministers who backed him. But even his closest advisor, Sir Glyn Jones, the British Governor General, resigned. Anyone who criticized the regime—Chipembere and so on—was either jailed or exiled.”
“Dr. Banda also did many great things for this nation. Should the books remember him as a hero, or a villain?”
“Describing history terms of good and bad is like judging a single brushstroke in an unfinished painting.”
“Okay, in what month did all this happen in 1964?” Mr. Errand said. The young man was dumbfounded. “I forget, sir.”
Lips curling like a matador who has just brought down a bull, Mr. Errand pointed out it was the Second of September. That’s the day Dr. Banda threw his ministers out. “It was on a Wednesday. A Wednesday of chaos.” Mr Errand unfolded his wooden arms and spread his bony knees apart. “Tsk! I’m surprised you forgot such an obvious detail.”
The young man could only nod.
“Alright.” Mr. Errand relaxed, satisfied the young man was not a “genius” and would therefore respect his authority as head of department. “What can we learn from all this?”
“Absolute power corrupts absolutely, as Lord Acton put it.” Mpeni, who had never heard the phrase, scribbled it down to Google later. “We can also learn,” added the young man, “that education is the only effective weapon against an oppressive government—whether the power is in the hands of the British, or one of our own. You can’t bamboozle a thinking public.”
Mr. Mpeni almost had to stop himself from clapping before he said: “Malawi has nineteen million denizens—mostly between fifteen and twenty-five. In your opinion, what’s the biggest problem with teaching History?”
“Students consider the past as a stuffy old relic. To me, history is a living organism that feeds on time. My job is to study it and present it as impartially as any credible scientist.”
Once all the questions had been exhausted, the young man was given an opportunity to ask his own. He didn’t. So after the director had given his customary “Thank you for coming, you’ll hear from us soon” speech, Mpeni embarked on arresting the trespassing elephant in the room. The candidate may be intelligent, he thought, but his hygiene is wholly unacceptable! St. Thomas had a dress code. One couldn’t run around with mud on his face like Diogenes. The least he could do is scrape his chin with a razorblade.
“Now, young man,” Mpeni began, “this is a magnificent omnipotent respectable school. What are these garments you’re wearing?”
The candidate studied the sharply-dressed panel before him, and then stared at his own rags as though he was seeing them for the first time.
“I’m very sorry, sir. I’ve had a problem.”
“What kind of problem?”
Mpeni’s head flew back; whacked by an invisible branch. “Ah come now, young man, what kind of marriage problem should leave you attending an interview looking like a vagrant, like a vagabond, like a degenerate, this way?”
The young man faltered.
“Well?” Mpeni nudged. “What do you have to say for yourself?”
“I am sorry for the way I have presented myself today, sir.”
“Why, is the question twisting in our cerebellums—aren’t we worth the effort? Haven’t the grapevines informed you that our teachers are immaculate dres—”
“If you must know… my home was attacked.”
With much too much pain on his face and in his voice, Mr. Gombeza said: “They stole some things…but…my wife… she was home alone at the time…and they…”
Silence. Dry throats. Shock. It radiated, stripping the men of their titles and graces; their wits; their flesh and bone. It stripped them right down to the bareness of existence: their souls.
“I was in A&E,” he trembled. “That’s why I haven’t washed. A man from the neighboring village has been apprehended.”
Mpeni laid a gentle palm on the young man’s shoulders. He wanted to say, “I hope they castrate the bastard and whip him to death!” but he said nothing.
“Ah-ah! Pepani, pepani,” said the director in the local language—I’m so sorry.
Mr. Errand just shook his head in horror.
Overwhelmed, the candidate packed his belongings and walked out. “Well…” Mpeni sighed, solemnly.
Sometime afterwards, the three men debated what to do with the candidate in hushed tones. Mr. Errand’s stance was clear: he was a vulnerable young man, and whatever happened would affect his work. Mr. Mpeni was bewildered, and upset they had blamed him for prying. (A charge he defended by quoting The Teacher’s Etiquette.) There was the question of the practical interview. How would the teachers react if someone was employed without formal assessment? As democracy choked on its opinions, the director finally ordered: “Take him.”
Later, Mpeni was touching up an offer of employment letter when this proverb came to him: Ntima wa nzako ndi tsidya lina—Your neighbor’s heart is a foreign land. How brave—no, desperate, the young man must have been, he thought, to attend an interview in a state of trauma.
Mr. Gombeza started work within a month. He arrived on time, usually dressed in a grey blazer—“Like Eddie Murphy’s in Trading Places,” Mpeni said. Most teachers—apart from Mr. Errand—were pleased with the new addition to the faculty. Students emulated him. He introduced a culture club through which they performed gule wamkulu and history plays. The young man was amiable enough but deep in his eyes was a reservoir of sadness. One day, he had been sitting alone on a playground bench when Mr. Mpeni patted his shoulder and said to him, “I’m truly sorry for what happened to your wife.” The new teacher’s face turned away, but not fast enough to hide the tears.
J.G. Jesman is a Malawian-British author and animator. His debut novel, Chisoni, was published by Penguin Random House South Africa in May 2022. His short stories have appeared on Fairlight Books’ featured short stories, The Interpreter’s House, Water~Stone Review, and elsewhere. He has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. J.G. holds a Master’s Degree in Film and Media, and has worked mainly in the videogames industry. He founded a blog in 2014 centered on the human condition, exploring aspects of religion and spirituality. He is particularly interested in the pathos of things and most of his stories deal with that theme.