Two Men


We all stood, reverent when he entered. Special staff carried in placards with his face on them, lifting them to solicit applause. Women had come just to dance for him, singing as he entered the room.

Again we stood, reverent when he left. The staff carried a dented, rusted stretcher, their latex gloves and cotton masks bringing sterile silence. Women had come just to mourn for him, weeping as his face was uncovered.

His Excellency, Professor Arthur Peter Mutharika, President of the Republic of Malawi, had arrived at the inaugural National Youth Conference. He chaired a panel interview with six leading youth entrepreneurs and activists before officially launched the Youth Status Report, co-produced by the UNFPA, National Youth Council of Malawi, and the Ministry of Youth, Labour, and Manpower Development.

The night guard didn’t have a name. It wasn’t till the newspaper obituary came out the we learned it was Samuel, and that it was a stroke that had left him lying on the office porch. Our accountant found the body on his way into work at 5:00 am. The law stipulated that the body couldn’t be moved until the police had completed an examination. They didn’t arrive for three hours.

Over a thousand people were in the auditorium. A Malawian pop artist had the whole crowd waving their arms to the theme song “Hold My Hand”. Speeches from UN officials and government ministers. A military band played the anthem. After two hours, the President was ushered on to his next engagement, his departure accompanied by as much pomp as his entrance.

Tradition demanded the entire staff bear witness to his body’s removal, and so we gathered in the yard, watching from a distance, gasping at the stiffness in the body as the medical staff  lifted it onto the stretcher. They hoisted the stretcher into the back of the pickup and quickly drove away.

We stood for a while, but it was Monday morning and we had to start our work. A trite “What a shame” was the best that we could offer as we walked back inside.

But the shame was our own. The death was as much a tragedy as an interruption. After all, we didn’t even know his name.

As a part of making sense of all this, a colleague composed the following:

The Old Man left us without a Name

I came in today to find the vehicles lined up outside.
Got inside the office being greeted with the sad tidings
There was no name attached to the story.
Only the description of the man.
The old man went without a name.

I went in through the corridor and came to the office on the right
Greeted the man inside as I leaned on the door and
He had the same message too, of the bad news
The man who served here night and night is gone
The old man went without a name.

I proceeded to greet the other group in the other room
The fellow native in and is explaining to the mzungu
What was his name, the mzungu asks
We did not know, says the native. We just called him madala
The old man went without a name.

I do remember. I remember asking him his name
Happily he told me, but I’d soon forget it
I called him malume and he so did: respect was the mask
I could have asked him again, you know, but I didn’t
The old man went without a name.

The old man left us without a name.
But we never cared to have it, did we?

Solomon Madalitso Mlinda


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