I first heard about it in 1979 and the day was 23rd December. We’d just arrived from Zimbabwe for a Christmas holiday.Soon my cousins would join us for dinner in the moon. The air was fresh so was the food prepared by my granny.Amongst the delicacy, was Ngumbi and TANAPOSI.After that, we started playing and dancing to two popular songs of the time.The first one was “MWEZIWALE TISEWERE TIYIMBE” THEN FOLLOWED BY A MELODIOUS CHORAL –LAFIKA DZINJA-TISANGALALE TIANA TISANGALALE.
We could only anticipate how big it will be when my other cousins from Blantyre join us the next day for a family Christmas gathering .We were going to have more fun we thought.
Suddenly a strange sound came from out of nowhere. A sound so strange and scarily.I can’t tell whether it was “fwiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii or psyiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii but it was a strange noise.I jumped nearly out of my skin in frightened amusement. "What in God's name was that!?" I asked my grand ma.Just as she was about to answer, the night bird made the same whistling but this time.Iam not too sure whether it was fear or something real but it seemed something had landed on my grannies goats’ kraal.She hardly dared breathe.
She wanted to shut us up as we strained to hear and see the happenings.“Let’s go inside the house, she instructed us” Inside the house, she was not herself. She sounded erratic and became paranoid. As if fear is contagious, we became frightened too.But with adrenaline rushing through my veins, the only sound was my raised heartbeat .I breathed deeply. I had to stay calm, but it was hard to fight the rising fear. As the sound came again “fwiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii” my heart raced off and my body tensed again. Although in my fragile condition, I still wanted to know what the heck was going on and why my granny was so frightened .Then she gathered herself and opened up.
“That was the plaintive sound of the rarest bird on the planet called NKHWENZULE.”I remember her telling me.
The discussion that followed would then act as an induction course to the myths and mysteries of Malawian culture. Throughout the night at least the hours that I was awake, I could see my granny shaking in fear. She did not know what the next day will bring her. I joined her fear frenzy without knowing the implications.Contrary to her fears, my fears were more on the goats.I thought may be a hyna had come to steal the goats and that I would miss the poridge my grand ma would make from pure milk-no water.I used to love this stuff.It was like eating warm ice cream in a tropical village.
The following day at about 14:hrs, we saw a police man cycling towards my granny’s house. He was carrying a message;
it was a message of the death of my uncle.
He was involved in a car accident and died on spot. We thought we were going to have fun on Christmas but now we were mourning on Christmas.Nkhwezule in most Malawian communities is seen as a mysterious and sinister bird believed to be only hunting at night .Such is the mystery that the few people that I interviewed failed to find its English name.
It seems every conceivable Malawian scientist had a go at that old night bird myth and have failed miserably to come up with a plausible idea of what it is.Its exact colour and looks also sounds confusing as others seem to mistake it for an OWL[kadzidzi]
To some the mere idea of mentioning it was so scarring.Watipaso and Peter were the only people who burst into laughter when I asked about this bird.Their description of this bird was something funny.But Mr. Sukali was somewhat different.
"Nkhwezule is a dangerous bird" he said with his eyes wide open."In lomwe we call it NAMAME"His body language and the description tempo was congruent to the story he was talking about.
He was authoritative and I must admit,his description scared me.However this fear would soon disappear after confessing that he has never seen it.
WHERE THE HECK DID HE OBTAIN SUCH AN ILUSTRATIVE DESCRIPTION WITH AUTHORITY? I asked myself.
For years in particular the Ngoni ,the lomwe,tumbuka and Chewa tribes[at least those that I asked] Nkhwezule has been associated with, witchcraft and death with some believing it to be an evil spirit, in animal form, used by witchcraft practitioners to perform evil deeds and cast malevolent spells.
Over the years, the sound of a night bird heard on 23rd December 1979 had always been in my head until it started fading little by little and I could remember it no more .
This week as I laid down baby seating my daughter Zinzi, I switched on my hifi with an IPOD dock through which I have stored hundreds of Malawian music.The first song was Dr Daniel Kachamba’s Anthu mabodza,then Anazelia by a kasungu based band-[thanks to Dr Lwanda’s pantondo recordings].Then I jumped to Namakhwa brothers band’s achimwene musaope Ngongole and my favorite Novirikhana.Then there was a song by the katawa singers a group that had a man singing with a deep voice as if he had a gun on his head.I smiled a bit and told myself, "this man must have chewed a few conjex tablets after this singing explosion."
This was followed by a chanco based band with their song "WAZELEZEKA""Who ever was writing this song was talking about me and many other people particularly those in diaspora" The song is about a husband who goes about doing house chores-a monopoly of women in Malawian culture.
He cooks,takes care of babies etc and according to the singer this is not normal.UKU NDI KUZEREZEKA.
I cant tell how many times I have been interupted by my daughter whenever Im making a telephone call.
I can also tel from the other end,my friend trying to umpire a fight for toys by my friend's kids who happens to be a man.In all cases,these are examples of men at home with kids while their women are away either at work or school yet these guys from chanco thinks this is KUZELEZEKA???They could be right because I was baby seating and had to do the cooking for my son Ngaileka ,and do all those napkin changing rituals,but this was due to the fact that my wife had gone to work.Then came a song which took me back to Malawi.
I listened to the song and played it again.then again and again until I decided to put it on a permanent repeat modeMy mind flashed back to an earlier memory.
Suddenly I was seven years old again. I'd heard the scream of a bird in pain. The door was partially open, just a crack but enough to see the flash of a blade in the moon. I had run quickly from that sight that night. On awakening the next morning I had been afraid of my nightmare but had thought of it as just that, until now.
A spilt second later and I was back in this new more terrifying nightmare. It was a moon lit night once more like that night before.
The song starts with a night bird whistling sound similar to what I'd encounter some 27 years agoThen the lead guitar follows assuagely
"tinti tili ntili tinti tili ntili"
then the drums joins
"kan!!kanka! kanka !!gu
and finally from a distant horizon,a voice emerged in despair.It is a helpless voice desperate at chasing the prophet of doom.The message is clear, I don't want this bird within my yard.The impression created in this song is that of fog and mist which is so thick that the eyes of the desperatee play tricks on the bird and each shape encountered seem to be frightingly sinister .
PSYAA MBALAME" KAYUNI NJUWI BWANJI MUMANAMA KUTI SIMUNAPHE, MWAKHETSA MWAZI WA MUNTHU OSALAKWA
Here the singer WAMBALI MKANDAWIRE gets deep into the issues that mattered most to the Malawian society during one of malawi's bloodiest decade the eighties.
It is not a type of a song you can dance or play during celebrations because it is a purely lyrical process.
It is a musical confession of the soul, which unburdens itself through sounds just as a lyric poet expresses himself through poetry.Here WAMBALI was immensely knowledgeable, talented, and he had an innate sense that the music at that time was not so much a series of themes for different tribal tales, or changing tempi for degrees of action.
No, WAMBALI believed that in ideal situations there was an exact equivalence between the content of a song and the melodramatic nature of political paranoia during the Banda era. In other words, music in the dark, music in the air, music apparently played by artist, or music generated by the same mysterious and sublime force that is making the imagery move as if it were alive.
Not surprising indeed that soon after its release,it got banned by Banda's censorship board and months letter a family was blown apart.I have no idea whether Wambali had an insight of what was going to happen but in precise detail, he mentions the killing of innocent people including babies.From what I have gathered, it would appear like quite a number of people who have heard the bird hissing sound like the one I heard on 23rd December 1979, also encountered similar incidents prior to the loss of their loved ones.
When I heard about this,I paused for a moment and started thinking about those who died mysteriously.Did their parents,friends and relatives witnessed the same?When the Mkwapatira Mhangos were blown apart by the evil possessed MCP operatives in Zambia,did their relatives withness NKHWEZULE and if they did, did they try to chase it as Wambali would sing
What about the night before Dr Mpakati was murdered in Harare, who saw the NAMAME as the lomwe people would call it and if they did, who would say PYSAA!!! MBALAME!!!!!Then what about those who had information that would save lives of people. Would they be in a position to shift somebody's death by months and years in a fashion that would see Wambali's PSYAA MBALAME work?
How about when the decision to sell Maize to Kenya was made.
How many people died of hunger as a result of such a decision and how many people were terified by the hissing and whistling sound of NKHWEZULE a night before the death of their loved ones?Would their relatives death been avoidable through decisions that would say PSYA MBALAME and to their amazement,the bird that brings death fly past their village?
The ceaseless conundrum of whether one is predestined or somehow the author of a particular fortune or fate seems impossible to solve through human logic. Any explanation is limited to how I tell or hear the story.What religion did I grow up with, or what philosophies have I come to adopt?But the question of NKHWEZULE still remain unanswered.WHAT IS NKHWENZULE??