While visiting Malawi in 1990, I was detailed by police in Blantyre and questioned about my apparent interest in the country’s then President Hastings Banda.
In 1963, Banda was formally appointed as Nyasaland’s Prime Minister, and led the country to independence as Malawi a year later. Two years later, he proclaimed Malawi a republic with himself as president. He consolidated power and later declared Malawi a one-party state under the Malawi Congress Party (MCP). In 1970, the MCP made him the party’s President for Life and the next year he became President for Life of Malawi itself.
Banda remained friendly toward the West and was the only African ruler to establish diplomatic ties with South Africa during apartheid and the Portuguese regime in Mozambique.
Despite this, he was a virtual dictator and it doesn’t pay to mess with dictators.I went to Malawi from Zimbabwe for a 10-day, fly-drive holiday. I spent most of the time at a resort on Lake Malawi near Mangochi. I had a hire car, which I had collected on arrival from the airport in Lilongwe.
I had to spend one night in Blantyre before flying back to Harare. The drive from Mangochi was just over two hours, but I had trouble finding my hotel. Maps were not common in Malawi at that time and, of course, GPS was unknown.
Blantyre is the commercial capital of the country and has a population today of about 750,000. I suspect it was considerably smaller in 1990, perhaps about half that, and the CBD itself was not very large.
I thought it simply a matter of driving around for a while and I would find the hotel.
At one stage the streets were blocked by crowds of people and police were conspicuous. It was a happy crowd though.
I parked the car and spoke to a policeman, who told me the President was about to make a procession through the city.
Still having some sense at that time, I asked if it was okay to take pictures, and was advised against it. I should have asked the policeman for directions to the hotel.
I waited for half an hour or so as the crowd built up. Eventually, there was a chorus of women singing praise like a gospel choir and the President came through to the cheers and applause of his people.
The crowd dispersed and I continued my forlorn search for the hotel.
I knew things were going awry when the road climbed higher and began to leave the populated areas. Instead of turning around I thought “what the heck, I’m a tourist and should explore”.
That was a mistake because the road came to a halt outside the gate of a large compound with alert guards protecting the mansion behind them and its inhabitants.
This time I did turn around, but the guards sprang from their watch house and apprehended me.
I explained that I was an Australian tourist looking for my hotel, but they didn’t seem to believe me. They made me wait while they consulted higher authorities.
They told me where I was, however. It was the President’s Blantyre residence.A large number of children began milling around inside the fence, watching me intently. I assumed at the time they were Banda’s kids, but Wikipedia says he died with no known heirs. They were probably the children of guards and domestic staff.
Taken into custody
A senior police officer drove up from the city and accompanied me to the police station. I can’t remember if I drove, with him as a passenger, or if another officer drove my hire car.
The police station in Blantyre was a sparse, stone building with no real comforts.
I must say that I was treated respectfully at all times. Indeed, I was very lucky because at another time or in another country I might have been locked away without interview or trial.
I was not placed in a cell or a locked interview room. As I recall, we spoke in a small room adjacent the main counter.
The motivation to write this came after I read a story by Karen van der Zee at Life in the Expat Lane, about her altercation with soldiers in Uganda.
The Malawi officers were interested to know where I had come from and what I was doing outside the President’s house.
At the time, I was a journalist, albeit for a farming newspaper, but I had the good sense not to mention that. South Africa at the time discouraged journalists from visiting and I had some trouble getting my visa for that country.
I told the Malawi police that I was a public servant in the Agriculture Department.
Whether they believed me or not, I had no idea, but after an hour or so they let me go. In fact, they escorted me to the elusive hotel.
The next day I returned the hire car to the airport and boarded my plane for Harare.
As we waited for take-off, an official came through the aircraft and asked if Michael Gorey was on board. I answered him and he seemed satisfied.
That was the end of the matter and I left Malawi.
- Here is my other travel post from Malawi, about the Tyre Doctor