Susan Dalgety bonded with Homba Mbekeani, the first qualified black nurse in Malawi, over frocks, chocolate cake, politics and the People’s Friend, while hearing stories about the racist attitudes of some British colonialists in the days of Empire.
We said goodbye to Hombakazi Tanaach Reve Mbekeani yesterday. As her chestnut brown coffin, its gilt hardware glistening in the afternoon sun, was lowered into the dusty red soil of Africa, I remembered the first time we met.
It was 11 years ago, a few days before the wedding of our good friends Debra and Peter Potani. Debra, a shy young woman, asked if I could meet her grandmother before the wedding. “She raised us,” she said, explaining that she and her six siblings had spent most of their childhood under the watchful eye of Agogo (Granny) Anabetha. “She is like a mother to me, as well as grandmother.”
Homba, who had just celebrated her 82nd birthday was, at first glance, a genial, grey-haired old lady, slightly overweight with the merest hint of a stoop. Appearances, as I was to find out within minutes of our meeting, are usually deceptive.
Hombakazi – which means beautiful girl in her native Xhosa language – was a force of nature.
She enveloped everyone with her charisma, at once chiding a great grandchild for being greedy, while continuing a conversation about the chances of Barack Obama becoming the next president of the United States. “He is going to be the first black president,” she declared with absolute certainty, “now, no more Coke, you have had plenty,” she said, looking young Bill directly in the eye.
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Homba was Malawi’s first qualified black nurse when she arrived from South Africa in 1954. She had married her Malawian “angel”, Jarvis Jimmy Mbekeani, a few years earlier in Durban and was determined to make his country her home.
“I tell people I changed countries for love,” she told me once. But she was less than enamoured by the institutional racism she encountered in the “warm heart of Africa”. To her angry surprise, she discovered she was not allowed to treat white patients, nor was she permitted to enter Blantyre’s few shops, which were reserved for “whites only”.
“Africans were supposed to be served from a window at the side,” she remembered. “On my first visit, I ignored that and walked straight in, my head held high. The white ladies didn’t know what to do,” she laughed.
She was less amused by the racism that prevented her from working in the mission hospital reserved for white people. “I was considered a ‘native’ nurse,” she recalled. “Even though I was a state-registered nurse, just like them. In Malawi at that time, Africans were not allowed to sit the exams that would make them fully qualified.
“We Africans were just not considered clever enough...” she finished, looking directly into my eyes.
The relationship between Scotland and Malawi is something to be proud of. Our two countries have shared a bond since David Livingstone sailed up the Shire River to Lake Malawi, 160 years ago.
Scottish missionaries built schools where Malawians were taught Latin as well as the scripture in their native tongue.
It was those same Scots teachers and preachers who fostered a feeling of African identity among young Malawians, which led directly to the formation of the country’s independence movement.
It was Scots traders who built the tea, coffee and tobacco industries, which remain crucial to the country’s economy today. Nearly half of Malawi’s export trade, which brings desperately needed foreign currency, is in tobacco, first introduced by the Perthshire-born Buchanan brothers in the 1880s.
But, as Homba experienced, not every Scot who made their life in Malawi regarded their fellow Malawians as equal. It was a Scottish nurse whose racist remarks almost destroyed Homba’s career as a nurse, as she recalled nearly 60 years later.
“We were not really allowed to mix with the white nurses,” she recalled. “But one time I had a violent argument with a nurse who had insulted me because of my skin,” she said. “And when I made a complaint, it was me who nearly lost my job. That is how it was.”
That is, indeed, how colonialism was. A few thousand white people, many well-intentioned, others not so, with absolute power over the lives of several million Malawians.
There are some who would argue that today’s development industry is, at its core, a few thousand white people with absolute power over the lives of 18 million Malawians, but that is a discussion for another time. Today is for remembering Hombakazi, the beautiful girl from the Eastern Cape, who made Malawi her home.
She and I were friends from the moment we met. We bonded over shopping for frocks, the ‘People’s Friend magazine’ – Homba was a huge fan – and a shared love of chocolate cake.
We met at least twice a year, and spent our time gossiping about shared acquaintances and the useless politicians who were damaging our grandchildren’s future – with the exception of Barack Obama of course, who remained Homba’s hero.
In the last two years of her life, she suffered a series of strokes which left her completely dependent on her grand-daughters. She railed against the “nappies” she was forced to wear at night, but was still able to quieten the gaggle of great-grandchildren at her feet with nothing more than a loud whisper and a stern, if lopsided, look.
She died, as she had so fervently prayed for, quietly in her sleep in the early hours of Wednesday morning, only three weeks after her 92nd birthday.
A few hours after her death, I found myself sitting on a reed mat on the floor of her now empty sitting room, swaying gently with the white bloused women of her church choir, singing her favourite Chewa hymns.
Homba, as always, dominated the space. Only this time it was her chestnut brown coffin, resting gently on a mattress in the middle of the room, that held our attention.
Inside lay the remains of a beautiful girl. A Xhosa chief, a loving wife, a health care expert, a matriarch who raised an extended family of 30 people and counting.
Above all, a proud African woman, who looked everyone in the eye, young, old, black or white, rich or poor. “Hello, I am Mrs Hombakazi Mbekeani, who are you?” Rest in peace Homba, the true spirit of Africa.