How long have you been in Berlin now?
Well I came to Berlin at the end of November 2000, having been in Bonn for two years prior to that. So I’ve been in Germany for six years now, the first four as diplomat and the last two as a artist and consultant.
Before coming to Germany I was in the embassy in Japan and had the option of going to Canada or coming to Germany . Since I had already lived in North America for almost ten years and had never lived in Europe, I decided to come to Germany . I know America well, I know the Far East well, and I also know Africa well. So there were only two continents left to conquer. So I came to Germany above all to see if the reality of being in Germany is the same of what we heard about.
Is Germany an important partner to Malawi in economic terms?
Germany and Japan are Malawi ’s biggest economic supporters depending of the foreign exchange rates. The Malawi economy depends mostly on tobacco exports and Germany is a major buyer of Tobacco. And of course we have also tea and sugar. So Germany was an important station to come to. And it’s the third largest economy in the world – you can’t ignore that. But for various reasons working in the embassy reached a point where I decided that I need a change. It is comfortable and secure but for me not effective enough. You see, I’ve always been an activist, as we used to have a dictatorship in my country when I was growing u – until I left it actually.
When did you leave the country?
I left the country in 1986 as a refugee to America and I was in America as a political asylee.
I was allowed to have a residency there. This dictatorship was supported by the West because it was a pro-West dictatorship. This is actually a reality in Africa until today.
If a government is good to the West then the powerful countries keep quiet. Then what it does to its own people is not important. Only when they start creating problems for the West, then human rights become an issue In Malawi we had an underground movement in which I was very heavily involved.
Even from the United States I participated in getting rid of this dictatorship. It wasn’t a yellow or an orange revolution but it still was a revolution without violence. And in 1994 we changed to a multiparty democracy and created a new political system. That was when I decided to go back and see how to help the country. Then I spend two years there and upon deciding to return to the States (where I had build up a life) I was offered the post in Japan at the Embassy. When I lived in exile – which was actually for nine years – I was the foreign representative of this underground movement. I had many contacts with people in Malawi nearly every day and that was definitely the most exciting time of my life.
The underground movement was fantastic. And eventually our political movement became a political party and the party contested in the elections and they won. So they became the party in government. I agreed to go to Japan as a representative for the people of my country. They are very poor and have nothing. They have freedom now but you can’t eat freedom. I felt very strongly that even though my interest is more in human rights advocacy they still need economic empowerment. And I have a lot abilities in that area as well. Japan was one of Malawi ’s biggest donor of this time I was assigned there. And Germany is another very important donor and partner of Malawi so I was assigned here, too. You know, when you are growing up, you always say “if it was up to me I would do this or that”. And suddenly I found myself in a position to actually make these decisions. I was the Deputy Ambassador and in Japan I was the acting ambassador. But I still felt that something was missing in accomplishing my dreams.
But how did you manage your education under the circumstances of dictatorship?
My formal education is as a political scientist. I went to University in Ohio where I studied political sciences with an interest in international relationships and with focus on leadership and issues of leadership. It wasn’t easy. I had to work. I worked in security, as a football coach in soccer while I was studying. You study and you work twenty hours every day. It was a private college a very expensive college.
You’ve got no support by your family?
My father was a political detainee. In 1980, while I was still in high school, the head of state sent him to a detention camp. My father was very involved in politics. The head of state had been taking public money for private use. One day my father decided to speak against it and the very next day he disappeared. Six month later we found out that they put him in a detention camp. In the first six month we didn’t know where they’d put him until a friend found out. I was 15 at that time and suddenly my self, my brother and my sister had to survive by ourselves. And when a member of the family was put into detention the whole family was no part of society anymore. Because when somebody else came to talk with the family this person had to got into detention too. And you were lucky when some people visited under cover of darkness. But today I know that it was a blessing in disguise from God that my father was in prison.
Why? How could that be a blessing?
Because other friends who disappeared were killed. In one incident. fathers of my friends were in parliament. They stood up in parliament and said we cannot continue oppressing the people. Because of that they were mutilated by the government the same day – openly. The government did not even hide their brutality. They cut off their hands, legs and private parts. They put out their eyes and cut off their tongues. They did very horrible things. The head of state would say openly, that if you go against me, I will feed you to the crocodiles. And he used to. He used to take people and have them thrown into the crocodile filled rivers. This was the reality under this dictatorship. But the world didn’t care.
Other governments knew about this?
Of course they knew about it and did nothing. That’s real politics. It was a really interesting education for me. When I was seven years old a foreign newspaper of Zambia wrote an article about my father in which they said he was a brilliant man and maybe some day he could be a leader in the country. The next day he disappeared. This was the first time. For one year he was in internal exile. My parents were told to go to their village and to stay at their house. They were not allowed to talk to outsiders. Policemen were watching the house 24 hours a day. Nobody could come to talk and nobody could leave the house. I was lucky to be able to go into boarding school, with support from some foreign friends.
But I remember one day when I had dinner at this school a person gave me an extra plate for myself – a special dinner he said. The next day I woke up with a breakout everywhere. They tried to poison me. When the government can’t do it through the father they do it through the children. But I had luck. A friend of mine was not. His father also was politically active and against this dictatorship and was killed in that same period. When my father was put in detention camp later when I was 15, I said to myself that something had to change and the normal way was not going to change it.
You mean you need to have a revolution?
You need to have a revolution. But you have to be very creative in the way you do it. Because this kind of dictatorship was one which made parents betray their children and children betrayed their parents. It was brutal.
Almost like here in wartime Germany . They had the brown shirts, we had the green shirts.
The closest friends of this dictator were Romania ’s Nicolae Ceausescu and Kim in North Korea .
We were outside of society. We were young and I was angry. First it took me six years to get out of the country because I was not allowed to go. If you are a dissident you have zero rights.
I was not allowed to apply to the university. I was even not allowed to apply for a job.
So we had nothing. My sister for example finished high school and decided to get married to her boy friend. He had a successful business at the time, but, the moment he announced his engagement they closed his company. And from one day to the next they lost their means of survival.
It was brutal. But we were lucky. When I say this I mean this. I had a friend; his name was George, young guy, very energetic and athletic. He had a beautiful girlfriend who was working for an airline. Some day a prominent politician saw this girl and he liked it. They called George and said to him that he had to leave her because this politician wanted her for a mistress. But George said no. The next day he was found, dead, with a bullet hole in his forehead..
It was public. They did not even pretend that this did not happen. They were so bold because they knew nobody was going to stop them. No one in the world would care. But there were some people for instance some in the embassies. Some individuals who really cared and they were very helpful – but quietly.
They gave you money?
Never money, but ideological support, ideas. I remember I used to meet with some people from other countries almost like James Bond Style. Not from the German embassy no. These guys were extremely helpful in those days. We used to talk and I used to give them information about what was happening and they would get it out. But the important thing is that I eventually managed to get out.
I got my passport creatively and then wrong-footed the security services. I told everyone I would be leaving on the following Saturday So, the security people were planing to intercept me on that day at the airport but I left two days earlier.
They were not prepared and on Saturday they went to the airport, then they went to my mother’s house and asked where is your son. Then I was in Harare for about 8 days and suddenly one day the telephone rang at the place where I was staying and there was just a voice saying “we have you, get out!” And I knew I had to get out. I put the phone down, put my things in my bag and ran down the street, took a taxi to the airport and there was an angel behind the ticket counter. I said I just need to go somewhere and asked for her help. “I have to get out of here.” And she put me on a flight, she checked me in. And I ended up in Lusaka . I stayed there for about three months and then the same thing happened.
They were after you?
Well, I suppose yes. Then again somebody, actually it was my sister, called and said “Thoko be careful, we have information they know where you are.” It was two o’clock in the morning. At four o’clock I was at the airport. I went to British Airways and I said to a lady there: “Look here is my situation, can you help me?” And she put me on a plain. No, in fact they didn’t have a place. She talked to her friend from “Air France “. And I went to Paris , and then found myself in London , then America . So, that is the background.
But you came back in victory?
This time we changed democracy. And I was in the embassy, helping them. But then I found, a few years ago when I was in Berlin that the leadership was going back to the old ways. The new democratic leadership was doing the old things. Theoretically it is democracy. But they can hide unpleasant things, they are cleverer, they know how to do it, but the situation is far from democracy.
Two things happened. Well, many things happened, but two important things in the end. One is that the leadership decided about four years ago to change the constitution so that the President could stand for elections endlessly. He told the senior officials, senior diplomats, that we must support this position. And I said no. You can’t change the constitution to support one person. I had been involved; – in fact my hand had drafted the first draft that became what was the constitution while I was in America . And there is no way to change it just to support dictatorial purposes. So that was my first mistake with the new government. Then they said that I am a dissident. The second thing that happened was a thing that cut the cord. It was in January 2003. You have to understand that in a country like Malawi the people are very poor. The families live on less than one dollar a day, 80 percent of them. They try to send one child to school, because they want at least one child to go to a university. This child is the hope of the whole family. So these kids, they go to the university, they go to the town and they live on campus. They completely depend on the campus food, everything. They have no money to buy candy, snacks, anything. They have nothing. In January and February 2003 the students demonstrated in the streets, peacefully. They just went through the streets chanting, that they don’t want the constitution to be changed.
So the president said, OK, they demonstrate against me, so close the cafeteria and let’s see where they will find the energy to demonstrate against me. So the university closed the cafeteria. These kids couldn’t go back to their village, they had no money. They had to live on this campus and nobody would help them. They had to live on this campus with no food for two weeks. And that is why I said no, I’m out, that is why I resigned, I left the embassy.
I had tried to change things from inside. It doesn’t work and so I turn to the power of the pen. I started to write. That is why I am a writer.
Weren’t you afraid of the security service of your country? Could something happen to you after such a decision?
In Berlin , no. If I went back to Malawi , yes. But I can’t go back. Since then they didn’t manage to change the constitution, but they picked somebody and put this person to be the next president basically. So, through the back door they kept themselves in power. There is no respect for the rule of law.
Weren’t these people who are now in the government dissidents before, fighting for democracy and a new constitution?
The last government, that I served and the people now were dissidents before 1994. Then they were against the government. But now they are part of the same system.
You won’t hear about it in the West. You will hear about Zimbabwe , because Zimbabwe has an Idiot. I am sorry, I know you are recording, but they have an Idiot for president. This guy Robert Mugabe. I hope that he lives a very long time, so that one day he can go before an international tribunal. He is a horrible man. The only difference between Mugabe and some of the other leaders is that Mugabe hurts not only his own people but also foreigners. That is why they hate him so much in the West. Leaders like mine, they are cleverer. And I know how it works. They know, as long they are nice to foreigners they can stay.
To say it simply, people who are in power now are interested only in their own business. They are not bothered about the poverty of people in their own country.
Definitely not. And the West is quiet about this. Because it is not that important to them, right now. They have other problems to worry about. But I hope, that through my writing some of these issues can be brought out into the open, for public discussion. I think, it is not only in Malawi . Also in other countries.
And not only in Africa . Right here in East Europe you have still countries where people don’t have basic rights. For example the biggest business today is the smuggling of people, of: women and children.
They are modern day slaves.
Exactly. Statistics are crazy and nobody seems to care. If you take a Mercedes, if somebody goes on the street and takes a Mercedes and tries to cross two countries, two borders to sell it illegally, he has a higher chance of being caught than somebody, who steals a child. Governments are more effective in preventing or protecting material things than in protecting people. And somehow this has to change. In Africa it happens. In Asia, South- East Asia it is terrible. If you are born as a female, as a girl child your chances of reaching adult age as a normal human being are very, very low. And this has been the case for so many years and it is not changing. There are maybe 12 Millions slaves today in the world. Four times of the population of Berlin live as slaves. While we are sitting here and drinking this nice cup of coffee, 12 Million people are slaves.
In West European countries as well.
Absolutely. These people also in the West European countries. I am sure, also in Berlin . These people come from Czech Republic and from Rumania and other poorer countries. They are taken sometimes because of their poverty. Their families give them up.
They hope for a better life.
Or they are promised something, they come over here and they have no rights. They have no protection and so they slip between the cracks.
Working as prostitutes.
Or they work in houses, cleaning houses, working 20 hours a day, not being paid. They are not given any papers, they have no way to go. These are not my numbers. These are real numbers. It is a $32 billion a year industry.
How do you know the statistic?
The United Nation or UNICEF keeps a track. There are agency for protection of children, women and children you can go there and see the statistics for yourself. The ILO, International Labour Organisation realises figures periodically on this issue. Take a look at https://www.iom.int/, run by the International Office for Migration. It is there yet it is hidden because people prefer or politicians prefer to talk about other things. My daughter is eight. If she was living in Africa today as a typical African child, there is a high chance, that she would be forced to work as a domestic servant, at eight, today. Pick a country, let’s go there, and you will see, that there are six or eight years old children doing labour that even an adult would not want to do. There is a real chance, that she would be forced into marriage or solved in some sort of bonded marriage by the time she is twelve. Today, 2005. In some countries there is a real chance, that she would be forced to go and fight in a war. A few weeks ago I was very upset. I watched a live news item and saw activist Bob Geldof. He sang “We are the world” and all this stuff. He is now advertising for more debts to be forgiven for poor countries and for more aid for poor countries. And he was there with the Prime Minister Tony Blair launching a new initiative for Africa . And in this panel of people, who were advising policy there were, I think five African leaders. I won’t name them. Every single one from them is a dictator, every single one. No, I will name some of them. Meles Zenawi, he is the President of Ethiopia. And today the West say, oh he is such a great leader. He was taking young kids and sending them fight against Eritrea just four years ago, not twenty years ago, four years ago. He was taking kids and putting them on the front line. And now they say h I a good leer for Africa !
And leaders of the European countries are in knowledge of this fact.
Of course they know this. United Nations speaks about this al the time. And who is going to speak for these kids? Who is going to give a voice for these women? We just see them on the 17th Juni street, wearing the reflecting cloths and we judge them. We drive pass them, we look out of window and we judge them: “Prostitute”. This is somebody’s daughter and she is not allowed to speak for herself. Who is going to speak for them?
You mean they are slaves? They are forced to do this job?
Yes, absolutely. Statistics are there. There are some, who chose it. I heard this so many time from people in discussions. And I say to them: put yourself into their shoes, choose to be humiliated and then taken such a job at such a young age, they are fifteen. They don’t know anything else, which means something else, is very wrong. Because, if they had the basic opportunity to go to school, to gain an education, if they had a good chance of getting a job – do you thing they would choose to go this way? So if they choose this, there was something else behind that that was fundamentally wrong. These are the things I write about.
When you start as a writer, you don’t have a name. You have to find someone, who will read it and invest money in you publishing this. How was it for you?
It was very difficult, extremely difficult. It was difficult, because first I write in English and Germany doesn’t support people who write in English. I have been to all the organisations here, “Literatur Haus” and all these places, there are supposed to promote literature. And they all refused. They won’t even look at the material. On the phone, when you call them, because of my English, they probably think he is from America , he is a diplomat. If I was an American diplomat or a Swiss diplomat, I would have no problems probably.
But you are an African writer.
And then you go there and suddenly this person, who was on the phone saying “yes, please, come, good idea”. You go there and suddenly, no, English, sorry, I can’t help you. Fine, thank you very much. This is one thing that is a little bit sad; because I think good writing should be supported no matter what language it is. The world is changing and every country, especially a country like Germany has a very important role to play in the world I think. It has an extremely reach literature tradition, maybe one of the richest in the world, one of the richest arts traditions in the world. I think it is important for them to support the literature in whatever language it is, as long as it is quality. And this support is missing. So, what I did with this first book is I published it by myself. Then I sent it to some people, I have some friends from my previous life. I know a very good author in America , who has written many books. And they were many times on the bestseller list. Her name is Debora Benton. I sent to her and asked for her comment. And her comments were 100 percent positive. She said, she hasn’t read the poetry like that from this generation. That gave me the power to ignore the reality here and to write a second book. So I have a second book, that I wrote and I asked a very famous Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho. He was very supportive, he said fantastic, keep writing and keep publishing. I haven’t published it yet because I am still looking for somebody to publish it.
Is this second book poetry as well?
The second book is also poetry. It is a book called “Miss Forever”. It is a story about a woman – it looks at life through the eyes of a woman. She sees what it is going on the world. First as a young girl she is pushed to the edge of these things we were talking about. She faces the exploitation, faces having no voice of her own. Of course she is very weak but then she looks within, she finds inside of herself a certain strength. She used to think that the people exploit her because she is weak and because they are strong. But at some point she comes to a wise realisation, that they exploit her because they are weak and they are afraid of her strength. When she makes this important switch in her mind, she becomes strong. And then she stands up and defines herself and she realises that they are really weak. Because the moment she confronts them they back off. Because they don’t have the strength to stand up against her strength. By this strength she begins to have a normal life, starts to raise a family and begins to feel the romantic, the passion, participation in life and society. She becomes Miss Forever.
Then I wrote a third book, which is a narrative. The narrative book is called “Seven Wisdoms”. It is based on what I learned while growing up in this dictatorship. Although the people were very poor and very oppressed they are very warm. They are extremely friendly people. Then I spent many years in America , living as an ordinary person and activist. I spent many years advising people. I advised people from the White House to the Malawi house, whatever. I saw qualities that made for bad leadership and good leadership, qualities, that make people succeed and make some people more equal than the others. What are these things, what are these qualities? And the same thing in Asia. I served in Japan and now I live here, at the top of society and now I live very simple. So I have seen life from the top and from the street. Many levels and many different cultures. I found that there are certain things that are universal, certain principals that are universal. When one understand these principals, not as a trick, not as a gimmick. There is a chance that individual lifes can be transformed and there is a chance that society can be transformed. So “Seven Wisdoms” is ready for publication and now I am starting my fourth book, which is called “Moments”.
Couldn’t you find someone, who would translate your books into German? It would maybe be easier to find a publisher in Germany in this way.
Yes. But. I left that behind, compromising just for the sake of making money.. I chose to live this new life. I could have stayed within the comfortable life. I am good at writing. I have been writing for leaders. I’ve been writing speeches since I was 23. Others speak my words. I see them on the TV and I know “I wrote that”. For the narrative “Seven Wisdoms” I have somebody who has looking at it with the view to translate it into German. I also sent it to someone in Poland to possibly translate it into Polish. And I am looking for somebody to translate it into Spanish. But the poetry is different because the poetry is not so easy to translate. So you have to have the resources or somebody to sponsor it.
Have you read the book of Senait Mehari where she wrote about her being a soldier as a child? She was from Ethiopia and managed to escape to Europe. What do you think about it?
I think it is brilliant. It is brilliant because it is real.The fortune in it is, that she was able to translate it into German, for the German audience.
In fact she was telling someone her story and he was transcribing this. A year ago you could see this book in every single bookshop on the prominent place. Through the advertising everybody knew about her. It is an example how marketing works. Publishers discovered in this story a good opportunity to achieve a profit. Today nobody talks about this.
I am told that a few years ago Steven King wrote a book. He sent it to people, who had published his prior works and to other publishers. But he sent it under a different name, not his name and everyone rejected it. He kept it up for about a year, kept submitting it and resubmitting and they just said no, no, no. And then he submitted it, but with his name and everybody wanted to publish it. True story. And this is in America . I think it is dangerous for the literature world and I think it is for most arts. You know, this book “The Storyteller”, if you put here the name of a famous writer, it would sell like hotcakes, without changing anything in the inside. It is all about making money. The publishers have lost touch with the real purpose of literature or arts. An art is supposed to open the minds of people to new ideas. And if it is well done and if it is given a chance somebody is going to like it.
Can you imagine a world without art, with no books to read? Let put it into Berlin , let’s take a typical Berliner. Can you imagine, that the only thing, that one can read is the newspaper, on the way to work in the morning? Or when they sit on the park? Can you imagine a world without music? Of course some people say, only a few artists are good many are commercial. That is the reality of life. Can you imagine these artists were rejected and told they can not sing? We all know the story about Mozart and Beethoven. Somebody believed in these people and gave them a chance. Now we have music and everybody believe it is timeless. This is what I say to everybody, who wants to listen, if they have an idea, follow it, if they have a dream, follow it. If anyone tells them, no we don’t publish English or we don’t like Russian or we don’t like poetry, OK there are six billion people on this world. This is one opinion. Move on to the next person and next person, and next person. It will take years. At some point the time will change. You will find somebody, who appreciates what you do. Look at the person, Dan Brown, who wrote “The Da Vinci Code”. His first two books, he had to pay more for the books, than the books made for him. He wrote “The Da Vinci Code”. It became a bestseller. Now his first books are also bestsellers. You keep on writing. You keep on putting your message at there. However there is a lot to be said for having enough funding for artist. Especially for new artists. I think more attention should be given to new artists. Then they are doing something for society. And this is another fight, which I will win.
You make photos as well.
It is only a hobby. I love taking pictures, portraits, people. I cannot take a picture of a building or a flower. It looks horrible, but people…I believe so much in people. I have seen so much in my own life. There are always incredible stories that people have to share. When you take a picture, especially a portrait, or scenery including people, there are so many stories you can read into that. When you walk on the street or you go on the metro and you look at people, you wonder where that person is coming from, why are they so happy, why are they so said? And I love capturing these moments. But this is just a hobby.