Zimbabwean-born woman on 30-year journey with Kamuzu Banda

In the Malawian political lexicon, she was known simply as Mama Kadzamira (mother of the nation).

However, in official government circles she was the official state hostess during President Hastings Kamuzu Banda’s presidency which lasted from 1964 to 1994 when the multiparty system of governance was introduced to Malawi.

She was born in Dedza district in 1938 and raised in Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), where her father, Lameck Kadzamira worked as a medical orderly and lived with her mother, Milika Natembo.

When she was growing up, Kadzamira hoped to follow her father’s footsteps by pursuing a medical career.

Imbued with the ambition of becoming a nurse, she returned to Malawi in the mid 1950s, undergoing training at Zomba General Hospital.

When Dr Banda (a medical doctor by training) returned to Malawi in 1958, Kadzamira volunteered to work as one of the nurses at his Limbe Clinic.

At the time, Kadzamira was due to marry Augustine Mnthambala. But she jettisoned for Banda.
It was highly unusual in those days for a woman to give up marriage in order to pursue a career as a private nurse, a secretary and later as the official government hostess of Banda.

While the official literature has portrayed Banda as a staunch Christian, he, however, appeared to have a controversial relationship with his secretary, Mrs Margaret French, while practising as a doctor in the United Kingdom.

Mrs French was divorced by her husband and Banda was ignominiously forced out of the UK, relocating to Ghana where he worked for some years before moving back to Malawi at the height of the independence struggle in that country.

Mrs French apparently expected Banda to invite her to become the country’s first lady after Malawi obtained independence, but that was not to be the case.

At the time, Kadzamira held a powerful position as a confidant of the president.

The Banda/Kadzamira relationship — which, it was repeatedly impressed upon the public, was a platonic one — lasted throughout Banda’s 30-year rule.

That Kadzamira’s position as the official state hostess bestowed upon her enormous power and influence in the politics of Malawi during Banda’s presidency cannot be disputed.

Not only did she influence the running of day-to-day affairs of government but also managed to obtain significant business and job favours for her relatives and acquaintances with the president, to the chagrin of many Malawians across the country.

For instance, John Tembo, the perceived long-standing heir to the presidency, was her maternal uncle.
He ascended the ladder of power to become a very powerful and dreaded politician in Malawi’s first republic.
Kadzamira’s own sister, Mary Kadzamira, was Banda’s secretary. Her brother, Dr Zimani Kadzamira, was principal of the Malawi University’s Chancellor College.

And Mama Kadzamira’s other sister was appointed first woman principal secretary in the country’s government ministry. 

During Banda’s rule, Kadzamira and Tembo came to befeared by many Malawians throughout the country.
By 1983, opposition to Kadzamira and Tembo was visible on every front.

Perhaps the most bold opposition move was when Dick Matenje and Aaron Gadama tried to institute change within the ruling Malawi Congress Party (MCP).

The move was seen as a direct challenge to the Kadzamira/Tembo political axis and the influence that they had over the now ageing Banda.

With the use of the state apparatus and the goodwill of the president, the two managed to neutralise the opposition.

All this time, Kadzamira’s power and influence over the political governance of Malawi continued to grow and was felt in virtually every sector, including government appointments, the conduct of business, and the running of the affairs of MCP.

As Banda grew older and became increasingly dependent on Mama Kadzamira, so did she also tighten her grip on the reins of power.

She founded a new women’s organisation called Chitukuko cha Amai M’Malawi (CCAM) in 1984, even though there was a Women’s League already in existence.

Banda was initially reluctant to allow its existence but at the time Kadzamira was too powerful to be rebuffed, having found a new spirit of assertiveness due to her closeness to “my old man,” as she referred to him.

It was at that time and moment in history, while addressing the United Nations, that she made the oft quoted: “Man cannot live alone” remark that was interpreted by many not only to remind the public of her position but to underscore who she was in power politics.

Curiously, a few days later, she retracted the remark.

By 1987, CCAM had been turned into a government department in the Office of the President and Cabinet and Kadzamira became its national advisor, shoring up her position and that of her erstwhile uncle, Tembo, in the succession bid.

She utilised CCAM to fend off any challenge by those perceived as ambitious leaders within MCP and the opposition by using the organisation’s branches already established around the country to stamp her authority.

Because of the influence she had over Banda, some pundits have likened her to Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth.

They have argued that from the late 1980s, Banda began to speak openly in terms of “Mama and I think this or that,” implying that whatever decisions that emanated from State House had the stamp of the duo. 

While Banda never married, it was an open secret that every State House and palace in Malawi contained a pair of well-furnished adjacent bedrooms and private dining rooms.

Until such a time as Kadzamira writes her memoirs or provides an interview that frankly addresses her role and relationship with Banda, her life story shall continue to be shrouded in rumour.

Kadzamira accompanied Banda wherever he went and gave state visitors a warm welcome. From the 1970s, Mama Kadzamira began to establish strong contact with first ladies of some countries such as Kenya.

It is reported that adoption of the title “Mama” by Kadzamira was a result of her closeness to Kenya’s former first lady, Mama Ngina Kenyatta, owing to Banda’s friendship with Mzee Jomo Kenyatta that began during the Pan-Africanist days in Manchester.

By 1989, Kadzamira was in constant and close communication with the first ladies of Zimbabwe and Zambia. She was able to forge close links with the two countries through the Women’s League and CCAM, while building strong bridges for Banda with Presidents Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia and Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe.
Banda did not entertain any talk or gossip about his relationship with Kadzamira or the earlier relationships that he had had prior to becoming president.

In fact, it became a detainable offence for anyone in Malawi to engage in talk that implied that Kadzamira was more than the official state hostess.

The relationship between the Ngwazi Banda and Mama Kadzamira was special to the extent that even after Banda was defeated in the multiparty presidential elections of 1994, Kadzamira stayed by his bedside and nursed him until his death in November 1997.

Whereas Kadzamira retired from active politics, she has continued to influence the politics in MCP. –The East African

HanningtonOchwada@missouristate.edu