Face to Face
By Wanangwa Zondani Mtawali (Malawi)
President Nderi wa Mbongo had no child and this was what had worried him most in the six years he had been Head of State of the Republic of Bonyaland. Otherwise, he was the leader who had won the hearts of so many people because immediately after ascending to the high office he instilled hard work, discipline and reforms in the civil service. The regime disdained corruption. The economy was back on its feet, food was everywhere and all the cities were neat.
Widely regarded as truly a man of the people, Nderi wa Mbongo often used to leave the comfort of State House to mingle with citizens even in places a figure of his calibre and status was never expected. It used to be great fun especially in Zolozolo, the Capital City of the Republic. Scores of residents lined up the streets to wave at the presidential motorcade as it cruised around with sirens blaring.
The President and his wife propelled themselves up through an opening on the roof of the presidential limousine to wave back at the excited crowds, smiling broadly. People liked seeing Nderi wa Mbongo and his wife smiling. The smiling of the two brought in people a sense of assimilation with the first couple.
Wearing his trademark, short sleeve stylish black shirt with matching trousers, Wilson hat and shiningly polished pointer shoes, Nderi wa Mbongo sometimes alighted and majestically walked amidst residents as he happily shook hands with them and inspected what they were doing.
Tall and brown in complexion, Nderi wa Mbongo stood out even amidst a multitude with his roving eyes surveying above the head of everyone. People liked him even more when he spoke. He spoke in a low, calm and convincing manner. He cracked jokes, sending his audience into stitches of laughter.
But the persistent guilt of having no child so much bothered Nderi wa Mbongo that he often times thought he should never have existed. Being in the mid seventies, he had surely aged and could soon die.
He had even resorted to having secret mistresses just to have a child but things never worked out. He also visited herbalists both inside and outside Bonyaland for the same cause but all this was in vain.
Meanwhile, an armed robber who looked like President Nderi wa Mbongo was wrecking havoc in Zolozolo. In fact, those who had seen the armed robber hardly ruled out that he was either the President’s son or his little brother.
The armed robber, Kabeza, targeted the elite. With a gang of fit and highly skilled young men, Kebeza only took away money and other valuable items from his victims. He drove posh cars, ate in hotels and stayed in decent mansions.
News reached Nderi wa Mbongo that he resembled Kabeza and looked forward to seeing the naughty kid one day. However, the President always brushed aside assertions that the armed robber could be his son or his little brother until Joseph Diyelo, his closest ally paid him an emergency visit at the State House.
Time was fast approaching midnight. A black Mercedes Benz with registration number RBL 3 pulled up on the concrete parking bay in front of the white Villa Superior and halted in one of the spaces far from the main gate, facing south.
The Villa Superior was the biggest state mansion in the Republic of Bonyaland standing amidst evergreen trees on top of the pyramided Mount Heaven, overlooking the vast and elegant City of Zolozolo which stretched out to the far west. A two lane tarmac road snaked round the mountain up to the Villa through natural trees and shrubs.
There were two high barbed wire fences to get to Villa Superior. One went round the edge of Mount Heaven. Another, on top of the mountain surrounded by beautiful flowers and short green grass, accommodated Villa Superior. Offices and homes for staff working at the villa were outside this gate, built at a distance of about two hundred meters away, circling the palace.
The main gate to the palace was a huge rectangle of thick metal sheet painted black with shiny steel bars on its edges. The wide parking bay in front of the entrance was painted golden and drawn with white lines demarcating spaces where cars parked. A black metal pole stemmed high at the centre of the concrete with Bonyaland’s white flag waving at its tip.
Nderi wa Mbongo had mostly lived here since he became President. He liked sitting on the veranda of the top floor of Villa Superior so he could comfortably view almost the whole of Zolozolo City.
The front right door of the black Mercedes Benz immediately flew open. Joseph Diyelo, the Minister of Defence and Home Affairs disembarked.
State House guards quickly surrounded the Merc, apparently astonished that the minister drove alone at that time of the night without even a body guard. Wearing a black sports trouser and matching sandals, Diyelo buttoned up his white shirt.
“I want to see the President, now!” he barked at the perplexed guards.
The guards jostled as they promptly began leading Diyelo to the gate. He was the most powerful, influential and respected cabinet minister in Bonyaland. He was with the President in most times and in many places. Like Nderi wa Mbongo, Diyelo was tall as well. Of course, the difference was that Diyelo was a bit fat and had darker skin.
Diyelo was ushered into a spacious lounge with a red carpet on the floor. In the middle were two blue velvet arm chairs, facing. Between the chairs was a shiny brown coffee table. A large portrait of President Nderi wa Mbongo hung on the southern wall. Diyelo stood behind one arm chair, waiting for the President to come.
A young beautiful lady in white attire emerged through a door on the northern wall with a tray containing two white mugs, nuts, tea bags, a bowl of sugar and a silver kettle. She placed the tray on the coffee table, poured the steamy water from the Kettle into the mugs and left.
Then, Nderi wa Mbongo came through a door on the eastern wall which Diyelo faced, accompanied by two guards. He was just about to go to bed and so, was in pyjamas. It was white pyjamas. The two great men shook hands cheerfully.
President Nderi wa Mbongo was sometimes openly bemused with these impromptu meetings with his close ministers and aides, especially during odd hours. His impatience growing, he asked after Diyelo’s nocturnal visit immediately after they had sat and began drinking tea.
“What has brought you here this time?”
“I have just seen him,” answered Diyelo.
“Who?” Nderi wa Mbongo asked.
“The armed robber.”
“You mean, Kabeza?”
“Yes, in fact, your son,” said Diyelo, incredulously.
“But he is not my son,” the President placed down the mug. He rose, looking down upon Diyelo, sternly.
Diyelo recalled the encounter with Kabeza in his own house about an hour ago
The main door of Diyelo’s mansion abruptly flew open. A muscular young man wielding a gun stormed in, closed the door and leaned against it. Tall and brown in complexion, the young man looked exactly like President Nderi wa Mbongo. Diyelo gasped in the sofa as the armed robber charged towards him.
“Hands up!” Kabeza shouted.
Diyelo raised his arms and went down on his knees while whimpering with fear. This time, a battalion of thugs flooded the sitting room. Some spread to other rooms.
The operation ended within ten minutes and the thugs left. So many things had been stolen including the plasma TV, the home theatre, the fridge and the cooker.
Diyelo ran about the house frantically as if he was mad. He went outside. His dogs were busy feasting on the grilled thigh of a goat. He checked his security personnel. They were gagged and tied.
“There is no mistake about it, Mr President. This boy must be your own son. I saw him with my own eyes.”
“Diyelo, how can you say that?” Nderi wa Mbongo banged the coffee table. The mugs with tea almost fell.
“Nderi, remember the past. This boy must be your own son. You need to do something about it quickly before things go extremely out of hand.”
With these words, Diyelo rose and began walking away.
Which past? Diyelo’s words really touched Nderi wa Mbongo. He smelt truth in the words which were uttered with the strongest conviction. Suddenly, he blamed himself for being too hypocritical with his own past. Surely, he needed to stop this nonsense. He called back Diyelo.
The two old men stood too close, staring in each other’s face. They grew up together, attended same primary and secondary schools and later university. After graduating, both found lucrative jobs in the city of Zolozolo. They were successful young professionals, especially Nderi wa Mbongo who had been widely accepted as a revered economist. He was often in the press, analysing the economy of Bonyaland and projecting its future. That was almost forty years back.
One incident dating back to that time slowly came into view in the minds of the two old men as they still stood, gazing in each other’s face. They were together in a park on the outskirts of Zolozolo City. A young woman stood in front of them. Nderi wa Mbongo’s car, a Mitsubishi Pajero was parked on the right side of a tarmac road which led to the park.
“I am not responsible for this pregnancy!” Nderi wa Mbongo had shouted, pointing at the young woman’s belly.
The young woman had been his love bird. Her name was Laria.
“But Nderi, why do you do this to me,” sobbed Laria, “I mean after two years of being in this relationship, two years of love making, you deny responsibility?”
Nderi wa Mbongo threw a long hard glance at her.
“Perhaps, you did not hear me well prostitute. I meant, I am not responsible for this pregnancy!”
“You call me a prostitute!”
“Yes, a whore! You want me to take care of the pregnancy when you have been sleeping around with other men? Laria, you should be ashamed!”
It was getting dark. The front doors of Nderi wa Mbongo’s Pajero bang shut as it suddenly groaned into life and sped off.
Laria was left alone in the park, sobbing. She had been dumped. Laria felt this was very unfair. Who could she turn to now? She was just a second year Bachelor of Education student at the university and Nderi wa Mbongo helped her with many essentials as her parents were poor.
Laria’s pregnancy grew larger and heavier. She left the university. And so, she went to live with her parents in Kang’ona, a village on the outskirts of Zolozolo.
Laria was beautiful and intelligent. As she grew up in Kang’ona, her parents and villagers hoped that one day she would become somebody. They were disappointed when she got impregnated by an unknown man.
She had never told her parents or anybody in Kang’ona that she was in a love relationship with Nderi wa Mbongo, a man she first met during an economics symposium at her university’s campus. Even after they parted, Laria did not spill the beans because she felt it could not make any difference after all.
Life was no longer the same for Laria after she got impregnated. The love and respect she got from her parents as an intelligent and university daughter suddenly vanished. Her peers who dropped out of primary school and had several children laughed and gossiped her, saying they were now equal. This made Laria cry. She lived an isolated life. Survivor was difficult in her father’s small house without money. Laria feared for her life and that of the incoming baby.
Tiny bulbs of sweat sprouted on the faces of President Nderi wa Mbongo and Diyelo. They began to pace about in the lounge in deep thought. Could it be Laria? She was the only girl Nderi wa Mbongo had loved and had sex with in his youth. Did she keep the pregnancy and eventually deliver this bastard who had become an armed robber? But even if this was right, how could Nderi wa Mbongo begin to claim that Kabeza was his son, having denounced and disowned Laria’s pregnancy? After all, his present situation proved without doubt that he was impotent. So, how could he have made Laria pregnant?
With these clueless questions and thoughts in mind, the conclusion Nderi wa Mbongo had, unlike his friend Diyelo, was that perhaps they were just going too far with this matter. Maybe he and Kabeza just resembled.
Nderi wa Mbongo picked up a towel from the tray and wiped his face. He slumped back into the chair, shaking his head. Then he grabbed the mug once again and gulped at once its remaining contents. The past continued to dominate his mind. After terminating the love relationship with Laria, he went overseas to study masters and PHD degrees in economics. He ended up living and working there for many years.
Then, calls for his return to Bonyaland began mounting. His hard work in diaspora had impressed people home. People wanted him back in Bonyaland to help change things for the better in the country. Besides being intelligent, people said he had a very clean moral track record.
Nderi wa Mbongo later came back to Bonyaland to live and work among his people. After all, he had had a strong liking for politics from childhood. He had always wished to become the Head of State or at least an influential cabinet minister.
Nderi wa Mbongo forgot Laria after they parted. Living a more comfortable life with full of recognition and respect in the years that followed, Laria meant nothing to him. She was a prostitute and never deserved remembrance. But as Nderi wa Mbongo grew older with his attempts to have a child always failing, he eventually remembered Laria. He began to feel that the pregnancy Laria had was maybe his.
Diyelo placed a hand on Nderi wa Mbongo’s shoulder to awake him from the past.
“I implore you to humble yourself and look for Laria.”
“Are you convinced that Laria was pregnant for me?” asked Nderi wa Mbongo.
“I’m convinced beyond any doubt. Kabeza is your own son. You look alike so much.”
“What if we just resemble?”
“That is why you have to look for Laria. You can also have Kabeza arrested so that he is questioned.”
There was silence from Nderi wa Mbongo.
“This must be done soon,” Diyelo concluded and left the palace.
Kabeza pushed away the white sheets. He jumped out of the comfortable king size bed, walked to a large mirror on the southern wall of the room and stood before it. He smiled, acknowledging that indeed he was truly a replica of President Nderi wa Mbongo.
This was in a mansion in Utowe, a decent low density suburb to the far west of Mount Heaven. Here was where senior civil servants and tycoons lived. Kabeza moved away from the mirror. He swerved a curtain on the middle of the northern wall and disappeared into the toilet and bath room.
He had robbed so many houses and enterprises in Zolozolo. Apparently, his men went all over to carry out the sinister missions and reported back to him. Kabeza only took part in high profile robberies that required extra skill and a great deal of strategy. Stolen property was stuffed in vans and driven to other cities where it was sold.
Kabeza was popular. Some people longed just to see him, to appreciate his similarities with the Head of State. So, whenever Kabeza went about his personal business in town, scores of people especially loiters flocked around him. These people also admired the armed robber’s posh cars and extravagant life style.
The police failed to arrest Kabeza and bust his empire of gangsters because he had deals with some officials of the ruling party. Actually, some officers in the police service were on his payroll.
Kabeza reappeared through the curtain, wiping himself with a large white towel. The invasion into Joseph Diyelo’s compound in Ulemelelo the previous night was the most sophisticated and a risky mission in his robbery career. Ulemelelo was another decent low density suburb to the far south of Mount Heaven. Most cabinet ministers and diplomats lived there.
Kabeza and his gang had gathered behind the southern stretch of the high brick wall surrounding Diyelo’s mansion. The stretch was about hundred meters from the back of the house. It was around eleven. The wall, with electrocuted barbed wire on top, shuttered their chances to jump into the minister’s yard. Then first, second and third smash of a portion of the wall with a huge metal bar, thrust with the mighty force of twenty energetic men, created a hole which was wide enough for the gang to pass through.
Five thugs remained at the hole. Kabeza and the other fifteen men silently inched towards the house, first passing through an orchard, then a maize field and finally reaching a wide bed of beautiful flowers stemming from short, well-cut grass. Having gone that far, light from the mansion’s bulbs shone upon the thieves. They hid behind the flowers for a while, fearing they may have been seen.
Then, Kabeza jumped over and landed on the other side with a thud, awakening two huge vicious dogs that lay in the drain in front of the back door. The beasts growled as they readied to spring upon the shaken Kabeza to tear him apart. Just then a grilled large-thigh of a goat flew from behind the flowers and fell nearby. The dogs hurled forward, dug their nasty jaws into the spicy meat and began pulling it among themselves.
A man in military regalia emerged, brandishing a gun. Kabeza whipped down the guard with his legs and then quickly seized the gun. Another guard materialized. This one fiercely yanked off the black mask from Kabeza’s head, exposing the robber’s sweating face to the light. Kabeza immediately retaliated with a heavy punch in the face which ultimately sent the security man sprawling to the ground.
This time, all the thugs had jumped over. Five, were tying up the prostrate guards with ropes. Another five had already hurried to the main gate to deal with two more guards there. Kabeza with five more thugs headed to the front door.
Massaging lotion on his body, Kabeza chuckled triumphantly as he finished reminiscing over the encounter. Then, suddenly, reality struck him that, although he had succeeded with his men to rob Diyelo, they had invited trouble to themselves. They had robbed a powerful and influential minister. Already, sources had tipped Kabeza that the issue had reached the President. Hunting for him were not only policemen but even members of the defence force. He had to leave Zolozolo before it was too late.
Kabeza dressed up fast and left the bedroom. It was about seven o’clock in the morning. He pushed open the front door of the house and walked with ease across the veranda and then on a pavement to a waiting Prado near the gate. There were thick hedges and flowers along the pavement. As he neared the car, there was a loud and jolting sound of a gunshot.
Kabeza looked up. Armed soldiers stood on top of the brick fence, circling his yard. He began retracing his footsteps to the house. A few paces ahead, five armed policemen blossomed behind the hedges to the right of the pavement. He turned to the hedges on the left. Five more policemen also appeared there. This time, some soldiers had jumped from the fence and were also very close. Kabeza raised his arms in surrender.
“You are under arrest and you have the right to remain silent,” one policeman told Kabeza as he was being lead out of the fence.
In the neighbourhood, scared and curious people thronged out of their fences only to see a handcuffed Kabeza amidst policemen in a speeding Land Rover Pickup. Following the pickup was a defence force truck, full of soldiers.
News that Kabeza had been arrested in Utowe had already spread to the city centre like bush fire. As the pickup and the lorry slowly drove through due to heavy traffic, scores of people flocked around and chanted.
“Kabeza! Kabeza! Kabeza!”
The arrest of Kabeza was breaking news on a number of radio stations in Bonyaland.
“Notorious armed robber, Kabeza, has been arrested,” the deep voice of an announcer was heard on Bonyaland Broadcasting Corporation.
Star Radio boomed, “Commotion in Zolozolo as security agents’ corner hardcore criminal.”
“End to insanity as security agents’ bust notorious commander of an armed robbery gang in Zolozolo,” that was the headline on Joy Radio.
However, the broadcasters remained mum about which police cell, kabeza had been taken to. Actually, a search by a horde of reporters to various police units in Zolozolo did not yield anything.
The room with a red carpet on the floor was large. An honourable man of medium height with a plump body sat in front between two unknown but equally important gentlemen. He was Unenesko Nguwemi, a High Court Judge. Justice Nguwemi had headed so many Presidential Commissions of Enquiry in the Republic of Bonyaland and was highly credited for uncovering the truth through his probing questions.
Near the western wall, a few paces from Nguwemi and his colleagues sat Kabeza, facing the eastern wall. About five meters to the left of Kabeza, numerous chairs stretched out to the far northern wall. President Nderi wa Mbongo, Joseph Diyelo and other cabinet ministers occupied the first line of chairs followed by advisors to the President, then senior government officials and finally senior members of the ruling party.
Silence reigned in the room. Justice Nguwemi grabbed a microphone placed on a shiny desk before him.
“Stand up,” he said, pointing at Kabeza.
Kabeza rose slowly, making sure his mouth was level with a microphone standing upright before him. All eyes of people in the room fell on Kabeza except those of the President who cast his face down.
His arms wrested on the desk, Nguwemi inclined his head forward and fixedly looked at Kabeza.
“Tell us, who are you?” he asked.
Kabeza blinked and darted his tongue across his lips.
“Of course, sir, you know that I am Ka...”
“I mean, tell us about the district of your origin, your parents and relatives,” Nguwemi interrupted.
“I am an orphan, I was brought up at Zaninge Orphan Cottage. I ran away from the cottage with a few friends and we became street kids.”
“Why are you robbing people? Whose interests are you pursuing in this republic?”
“I am pursuing nobody’s interests. Robbery is my only means of survivor. I have suffered a lot. No parents. No education. No job.”
“But surely, there are other things you could do. Piece works such as farming, garden boy.”
“I tried that. Bosses ill treated me. What else could I do, sir?”
Kabeza spoke with ease and composure, however, always avoiding people’s eyes.
Interrogation had to break for about an hour to enable staff from Zaninge Orphan Cottage come to Villa Superior. Zaninge Orphan Cottage was at Zolozolo City Centre near the city’s main market. The cottage was home to orphans, vulnerable and abandoned children from time immemorial.
“When did you run away from the cottage?” Judge Nguwemi resumed.
“When I was ten years old,” answered Kabeza.
“Staff from the cottage do you know him?”
A woman in her late sixties walked to the front. She looked at Kabeza closely for some seconds and then nodded her head with glee.
“I remember him. We brought him up in the orphan cottage. He escaped and we could not trace him. We used to call him Chakusola. Of late, we have been seeing Kabeza and we have just been likening him to Chakusola, the boy who escaped from the cottage,” she explained.
“When and how did you bring Kabeza, then Chakusola to the cottage?”
“It’s about forty years back. Some kids were playing in Kang’ona, a village on the outskirts of Zolozolo and heard a baby crying in a toilet. They called out for help to the elders who drew out the baby and handed it over to us.”
Shock and disbelief crept on the faces of people in the room. Was this true? A baby drawn out of a toilet had grown up to become such a notorious armed robber? It was weird. Murmurs grew among people. Even Kabeza shook his head with pity as he sat bolt upright listening to the old woman’s startling revelations. Nderi wa Mbongo still cast his face down.
“What about the baby’s mother? Did you try to find out about her?”
“The baby’s mother was Laria, a well known girl in Kang’ona. We were told she was a university dropout and this was her first pregnancy. Actually, some people claimed they saw her hiding in the village’s graveyard some metres away from the toilet. However, they could not bring her to account for what she did because she escaped and was later found hanging dead in a forest which was some miles away from the village.”
“Did she leave any note behind, explaining why she had done this?” Justice Nguwemi enquired further, looking straight at the old woman.
She coughed and swallowed hard.
“Good, I expected this question,” she said, wiping tears off her eyes with a white greasy handkerchief. The tears had come about with the impact of the cough.
Then, she gestured to some two women of her age in the crowd who brought her a black old faded diary from which she pulled out a stained photo of a young man and a woman sited passionately together during what appeared to be a high profile conference.
“I have done all this because of this man in the photo. He is the only man I loved and had sex with. But he rejected me after I became pregnant.”
These words were written at the back of the photo in blue ink. The woman waved the photo in the air so that everybody could see it.
“This photo was found in Laria’s blouse at the place where she committed suicide,” she said.
Nguweni held the photo in his hands to examine it. The young man’s face was very familiar. In fact, the judge remembered that when he was still in secondary school, the young man in the photo had been a popular economist. Then, he went and lived overseas for some decades and came back home to become the Head of State. A sudden wave of fear crept through Justice Nguwemi’s body as he envisaged where the matter was heading to. He shrugged his shoulders and let the rest of the people in the room view the photo to judge for themselves.
The woman from Zaninge Orphan Cottage cleared her throat and resumed talking.
“We kept this to ourselves in the cottage. For a long time, we waited for the young man in the photo to come back so we could lay the matter before him. He did come back, but fellow country people, you know how self destructing it is to confront those in power with such issues.”
There were murmurings in reaction to what the woman had said especially at the far back of the room.
“So, we had eagerly waited for this moment, which we believed would eventually come, no matter what,” she concluded.
Nderi wa Mbongo intently stared at the photo while shaking his head. The smiling young lovers in the photo were undoubtedly himself and his departed sweet Laria. Nderi wa Mbongo also remembered that it was at the conference in the photo where he had introduced Laria to Diyelo and his other friends. He had happily told them that he deeply loved her.
Nderi wa Mbongo cupped his face with his shaking hands as tears streamed down his cheeks and sprinkled on the photo on his lap. Here he was, face to face with his own son, the foetus he rejected years back. He felt a huge cloud of shame and guilt weighing down upon him.
Diyelo patted on the back of the President to soothe the risen remorse in him. Though equally remorseful, a sudden feeling of excitement and pride built up in Diyelo. At last, his dear friend now had a child.
Then, the two great men rose slowly and walked up to Kabeza in company of alert body guards and personal assistants. Nderi wa Mbongo held Kabeza’s head between his hands and looking straight into the eyes of the armed robber, he said.
“Forgive me. You are my own son. Your mother Laria who dumped you in the toilet was my girl friend but I disowned her when she was carrying you in her womb.”
Confusion erupted in the room. Some people ululated. Others walked out in shame and in disapproval.
“But father, why did you do this to my mother? Why could you let me suffer the rest of my childhood?” wept Kabeza.
Shaking with anger, he gave his father a hard slap in the face. Nderi wa Mbongo whined with untold pain as he slowly fell down like a tall blue gum tree.
Wanangwa Zondani Mtawali is a journalist and writer from Malawi. He is based in the country's northern City of Mzuzu and currently works for Joy Radio as a reporter.