The sudden death of Sam Mpasu on February 15, 2018, former Speaker of Parliament, cabinet minister, writer and diplomat, shook the country to its core. Sam Mpasu was instrumental during the fight for multiparty democracy during the early 1990s when he was approached to be part of the United Democratic Front (UDF), which was an underground political pressure group.
UDF turned into a party in October 1992 and campaigned for multiparty democracy, alongside, and notably, the Alliance for Democracy (AFORD). The party challenged Malawi Congress Party (MCP), which had then been in power for three decades. It went on to win power under President Bakili Muluzi to become first party to lead Malawi as a democracy in the Second Republic.
Sam Mpasu was part of that change, and would win the Ntcheu Central parliamentary seat in 1994. In 1999 he became speaker of the National Assembly besides holding various ministerial positions in the UDF government which lasted till February 2005. After that his most notable political presence was when he challenged former President Muluzi’s comeback bid to unseat President Bingu wa Mutharika in 2009. Sam Mpasu was vocally against the move and ended up leaving the party.
Whatever praise he got after his death, Sam Mpasu deserved it. But his friction with politics started way back from 1965 when he was a student at the University of Malawi – Chancellor College. He was elected as chairman of the student union in 1968. He finished his studies and graduated in 1969 and worked for Horace Hickling & Company before joining the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Tourism before one day the Police Secret service during the one party era came for him.
He was thought to have been in contact with ‘rebel’ political exiles when he was a Malawi diplomat in Ethiopia and for writing and possessing a book, Nobody’s Friend. The book was though to imply that President Kamuzu Banda was nobody’s friend for his iron fist on Malawians. Sam Mpasu was detained without trial and would be in prison between February 1975 and March 1977. He was first taken to Zomba Maximum Security prison and then to the notorious Mikuyu Prison, still in Zomba.
The details of his time during the arrest and prison are contained in his book, Political Prisoner 3/75 of Dr. H. Kamuzu Banda of Malawi. The prison number telling that he was Mikuyu’s political prisoner number 3 in the year 1975. I first heard about this book over ten years ago. When I was in a discussion with a friend on the one party era detentions he brought up this book. By then it was hard to find it and all I knew about it was from what the friend told me: Sam Mpasu was arrested without any real crime; he suffered a lot in prison; he was a strong man and came out strong to be one of the leaders in the democratic Malawi.
In December 2017 I happened to be at Chancellor College in Zomba for some engagements. As usual, I went past Anglia Bookshop just to have a look at the new books they are selling. I was in the bookshop for some minutes before I went to a table in the middle of the room. I saw several books by Malawian authors and I drew closer to them. For some months now I have dedicated myself in reading from Malawian authors, especially those who write on our history.
I saw a blue book. There were close to five of them, stack together. It was Sam Mpasu’s Prisoner 3/75. I opened inside just to look at the price. To my surprise it was going out at just K4, 000. I further opened it to have glimpse of what was written. I read a few lines in its introduction and I resolved to buy it right there. I went to the paying desk.
From there I went back to the room I was and started reading it. Hear it from me, I finished reading the 158 paged book in less than 48 hours. The moment I opened it I could not manage closing it. By then I had a whole universe of work to do but I just had to give time to the Sam Mpasu story. Whatever my friend said about the man Sam Mpasu was right.
In addition, it gave me one great life lesson: Be resolved to speak your mind no matter who is before you. Sam Mpasu was in the same office with the most feared and infamous Focus Gwede, Chief of the Special Branch police then. But he always remained true to his thoughts to the point of flooring Malawi’s chief spy in arguments. But then he was powerless and eventually ended up to be in jail where exactly two years later Focus Gwede found him after falling out of favor with the government.
Apart from my usual formal routines, I am also a member of the Malawi Writers Union (MAWU). A week before buying the book the union’s President, Mr. Sambalikagwa Mvona, called telling me about a meeting at Alendo Hotel in Blantyre. He has always called me when such times come by. But due to commitments I have been failing to be with fellow writers in such forums. This time I just had to be there because time was on my side. From Zomba I went past Blantyre for the meeting and on the same day I started off for Lilongwe.
It was my first time being at a MAWU meeting. We were served well with snacks, drinks and a cocktail afterwards. But since I had to be on my way to Lilongwe in good time, I excused myself from the after-meeting event. I never contributed anything during the meeting which was more on how to make Malawian writers write even more. I knew few people, except for the President and a few other individuals.
I can be reserved when it comes to being my first time at a place leading to people concluding that I am a quiet person. But I am not quick with my thoughts and words when there are strangers around. As people were contributing, I saw one face at my far right end and it seemed familiar. It was that of Sam Mpasu. This was my first time seeing him in flesh, and more, with his book in my bag. It was after I had read it and I was looking at him with some wonder and admiration
Here was a man who met and challenged Focus Gwede and survived prison and all sorts of challenges that fell on his way. If I had seen him without first reading his book I could have a “there is a former cabinet minister and Speaker of the National Assembly” attitude. I could not have given it much care. But the book made me look at him with awe and there was no way I could go out of the room without meeting and greeting him. I also had my pen ready for his autograph on the book. Soon after the meeting I went straight to him.
“Good afternoon Mr, Mpasu,” I started.
“Hey, how are you?” he happily asked me back.
“I am fine. My name is Wonderful. Wonderful Mkhutche,” I said.
“Oh wonderful Wonderful!” He said back, and we all laughed.
For those who have been with Sam Mpasu before, even if it was my first and only time meeting him, the man had a smile that told you to feel welcome. He looks at you with some great confidence and non-verbally asks you to be free before him. And free I was.
“I bought your book just days ago at Chancellor College. I read it and wow, it left me inspired and touched at the same time,” I continued.
“Oh great to hear!”
“I like how you challenged Gwede… and you say people were eating live rats in prison because of hunger!? I asked in wonder.
“Yeah. It was terrible I tell you. People hitting themselves against the wall just to die…” he further said.
“I tell you, this book has some scary events in it. But I just had to read it anyway,” I said and we all laughed.
A couple of people wanted to meet him as well. So I had to cut short our talk before I gave him my pen and the book to sign on it. He took the two, opened the book and for some seconds thought what he should write in it. The he started writing: “With my best compliments to Mr. Wonderful Mkhutche. Sam Mpasu.” SIGNED.
Immediately after that I took the book and the pen, gave him a handshake to thank him for the time he gave me and I left for the outside. There I met MAWU’s President and we had a talk for some minutes before I gave him a calendar for the project in my previous job. I brought over 250 of them and I gave one to each of the participants and staff at the hotel as well before I finished the rest on my way to Lilongwe and then in my parent’s neighborhood, Gulliver, Area 49.
Unknowingly, that was my first and last time I met Sam Mpasu. When I walked out of the room I never knew I was also walking out of his life as a fellow living human being on this earth. But in just that brief moment, and also his book on the other hand, I felt I met a better Sam Mpasu than the one I could meet when he was a high ranking politician.
He is now gone, but if ever the other side of the world listens to us, may Sam Mpasu know that even if I met him during his last days, it was more than enough. He was a man who had a strong heart and a wonderful smile, not forgetting his zeal to tell his story that has changed how some of us look at our one party era history. He left us, but as they say, legacy is eternal. That of Sam Mpasu is filled with courage, service and effort, qualities worth emulating.