By Noel Misanjo (Malawi)
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By Noel Misanjo
You could feel the pressure, or at least, the short and stout man clad in a dark blue safari suit standing in the witness box, could feel the pressure in the packed court house. Although it was cold, no amount of mopping with his handkerchief could eliminate the beads of sweat that were breaking on his clean shaven face like dew. To him, the deadly silence in the court was like a lull before a devastating storm.
Like a trapped animal, he miserably watched the towering figure of the prosecuting lawyer menacingly rise from the squeaky chair. Examination-in-chief had begun.
“Mr. Kwizinga, where were you in the afternoon of 12th September 2009?”
“I had gone to work that day and after twelve I drove home.”
“What did you intend to do at home...?”
Kwizinga moistened his lips. “I...I was supposed to have a meeting with...er Fred.”
“You mean the accused?”
“Yes,” Kwizinga croaked.
“Where was the accused person by the time you were starting off for home?”
“He...he was already at my house.”
“Why did he get there earlier than you?”
Kwizinga’s eyes strayed to the thin, scarred man shivering in the accused dock. He was shocked to see what the two weeks in police cell had done to him. Fred Vwatata, the jolly man, was gone. What he could see was a shell of his old friend filled with sheer desperation.
There were no two ways about it-the future of his long time friend depended on his testimony. He knew Vwatata very well; there was no way he could survive the 12 to 14 year sentence with hard labour the lady magistrate was likely to mete on him.
Being the sole bread winner, his family would be thrown into destitution. He could see Fred’s 13 year old daughter who fondly called him ‘uncle’ thrown out of school and maybe forced into prostitution. What would happen to 10 year old Fred junior ambition to become a pilot?
Kwizinga shuddered. He wouldn’t only be destroying one guilty life; he would also be destroying several innocent ones in the process.
What had gotten into his friend to do what he had done? Why had he thrown away his life like this?
Earlier in the year Vwatata had contested in the parliamentary elections for that part of the city. Although he failed to make it, the participation alone had made him famous in the area. Further to that he owned a big transport business in the area and his name was popular on the lips of many.
Kwizinga remembered that one day Vwatata had said a witch doctor had advised him to engage in some nasty acts in order to double his wealth. Kwizinga had just laughed it off as some bad joke. He believed that Vwatata, as decent as he had been across the years, wouldn’t give it a go.
Shifting further to the public gallery, his eyes rested on his wife sitting in the front chair. He could see a mixture of anger and hate in her eyes as glared at Vwatata as if he was a demon. She looked as dangerous as a cat staring at a man who had just killed her kitten.
Kwizinga understood her. What else could a loving mother do when her only child, born dumb and mentally retarded, had met a calamity of this nature?
“Apart from the accused was there anybody else at your place before you arrived?” the questions rained on.
“No, only my daughter.”
“Why was she the only one from your house present at that hour?”
“Because my wife was out of town and our housemaid had gone to the grocery”
“How old is your daughter?”
Again, Kwizinga felt that he had better have kept the issue to himself. He regretted having hit his friend on the head with a chair in a moment of blind fury. The accused had screamed in pain and neighbours had thronged to Kwizinga’s house to see what was happening.
From there things had moved fast. The neighbourhood had beaten Vwatata up and left his face completely disfigured. The police had descended on the scene in no time and the matter was out of his hands. Child rights activists had also taken over the matter, making press statements and other pronouncements demonising Vwatata. And then they hammered the last nail into Vwatata’s coffin by hiring Thengolapsa, the private lawyer, to prosecute the matter.
Yet should he have had behaved differently? Which sane father could condone what Vwatata had done to his daughter? And yet-
He could still not manage to summon enough courage to implicate his old friend. His testimony would be the only weapon that would lead to prevalence of justice to Zunzo; and yet something so strong held him up.
At that point, Counsel Thengolapsa straightened his neck and shifted away from his desk and moved towards the witness box. As if surprised at something, the lawyer looked closely into Kwizinga’s face.
“What time did you get home, Mr. Kwizinga?”
“About a quarter to two pm”
“Did you find anybody in the house?”
“My daughter and the accused”
“What did you see immediately when you got into the house?”
Kwizinga’s mouth opened and closed like that of a person being strangled. But the opening and closing mouth failed to produce any words. The magistrate looked at him with keen bewilderness.
Members of the public sitting in the gallery were also eagerly waiting to hear the answer. But the only sound that came out the mouth of the ambivalent witness was a forced cough.
He took a long gaze at the accused, and slowly memories began to flash back in his mind...
28 years ago, he and Vwatata were both pupils at the same primary school in the outskirts of Zomba town. They were together almost everywhere. Their fathers were both teachers at the primary school. Actually Kwizinga’s father was the headmaster. The friendship of the two boys was well known and approved by parents of both. Their parents also became friends because of them.
Things were going on fine and joy was between them until one day when Kwizinga’s father passed away. It was reported that he had been killed by thugs on his way from the DEO’s office where he had gone to collect teachers’ salaries for that month.
Soon after the burial of Kwizinga’s father in his home village, Kwizinga’s family returned to the village for good. The only bread winner of the family had passed away. That time Kwizinga and Vwatata were just a week to sitting for their primary school leaving certificate examinations.
In view of the examinations, Kwizinga had no choice but to return to the school, or otherwise he could have missed the examinations that year. Vwatata’s father accepted to keep him in his house. That year Kwizinga wrote the examinations from Vwatata’s house.
Even after the examinations he stayed there. Subsequently, both Kwizinga and Vwatata got selected to the same secondary school. Their friendship deepened. It was Vwatata’s father who was paying for school fees for both of them. During holidays Kwizinga was staying at Vwatata’s house. He was treated as a child from that house.
After secondary school they both got selected to the same university. Vwatata’s father paid for their upkeep throughout their university years.
When Vwatata’s father died a few days before the two finished their bachelor’s degree studies, they were both greatly demoralised. Tears swept their faces. Kwizinga remembered what Vwatata’s father had said immediately before he died.
“My children,” Vwatata’s father had said, “you have been friends for a long time. I’ve seen you grow together. I have seen you go to school together. Please value this amazing friendship. My spirit will be happy if you take care of each other. Support each other in everything for the betterment of yourselves and your families...” and then his eyes closed for ever.
“Mr Kwizinga, what did you find the accused doing in the house at that hour?”
The question catapulted Kwizinga from his recollection. The lawyer was at it again. He had to prove his case beyond reasonable doubt. Sweat had engulfed the whole of Kwizinga’s face. Some of it rolled onto his safari shirt. He shook his head. Sweat continued to roll down his cheeks. He shook the head again. No, he couldn’t do it.
He didn’t find the courage to reveal to the court that he had found Vwatata defiling Zunzo.
“Your Worship,” the lawyer, sounding disappointed, turned to the magistrate, “I need a 10 minute adjournment to confer with the witness.”
“Adjournment granted...” the magistrate said.
The court rose.