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Margeret Gardiner & Vera Chirwa
Margaret Gardiner and Vera Chirwa

By Rosalind Richards

Margaret Gardiner who founded the Nchima Trust, died in 2005 aged nearly 101. Vera Chirwa and Margaret became friends at a time when close relationships of this kind between a European and an African were not accepted. Vera was then a distinguished lawyer, the first woman in Malawi to become a barrister. Her husband Orton Chirwa became a Minister under President Banda. He fell from grace and was imprisoned. Vera was also imprisoned for 12 years, during which time she vowed daily that on her release she would devote her life to helping her fellow women in Malawi and, eschewing tempting offers of important positions at the UN, this remarkable woman has stuck to her pledge. She now runs the Malawi Centre for advice, research and educational rights which helps women who run into legal difficulties to understand and claim their rights, she also teaches them how to make wills so they are not left destitute when widowed.

I visited Vera in Blantyre in order to tell her about Margaret's death. I read her excerpts from Margaret's unpublished "The Nchima Story", which contains many reminiscences of their friendship. This touched her deeply. In return Vera sent her version of the same events which she wrote for Margaret's Memorial celebration.



By Vera Chirwa

I first met Margaret in Zomba, the then capital city of Malawi. I was working at the Government Secretariat in Zomba, a young mother of 24 years of age with three children, two girls of five and four one boy of one year. I was working as a dispatch and filing clerk in a very busy department of all European lawyers when one day I received a letter from my dear late husband Orton Ching'oli Chirwa in England.

The letter said. "Vera, a friend of mine is coming to Nyasaland to visit their tea estate, Nchima Estate. I have given her your work place address. Meantime I am coaching her in speaking Chiyanja". After three months I received a call at my office. As I listened, it was an English woman's voice. "Who can this be?, "Is that Vera Chirwa, it is Margaret Bernal here from England" I was filled with happiness. We arranged to meet at Ku Chawe Inn where she was putting up for lunch! I of course told her that there was colour bar in Nyasaland and I being an African with black skin would be barred from entering that Hotel. She insisted. "No Vera, I will tell them you are my guest". When I arrived at the Ku Chaw Inn, she met me and hand in hand we approached the door into the hotel. The staff confronted us " she cannot come in here, Africans are barred from entering this hotel," "she is my guest" said Margaret. They put their foot down.

So we decided to stroll among the bushes and shrubs of the mount Zomba where Ku Chawe Inn is built. We came across one shrub, I ran and cut a branch and from this cut off two pieces of about five inches long, I peeled off the bark and gave one to Margaret. "What is this for Vera?" I giggled, (I was 28 years younger than Margaret was and shy) "You can make a toothbrush by chewing the peeled part". I started chewing mine till it was soft and started brushing my teeth with it and she did the same. This brought us even closer and, with my shyness gone at the same time Margaret's rage at barring us from eating ended. From that time out friendship grew stronger and stronger.

Margaret discovered that we had identical political views, I hated discrimination and racism, it did not matter by whom, hated dictatorship and oppression of ordinary people. So we talked a lot about the League of Malawi Women, which I formed in Malawi.

I was at the University College of London studying Law from 1963 to 1967. I thank Margaret and Mr. and Mrs Mary Nicols for putting me on my feet in London I would have felt very lonely and miserable especially during weekends and holidays as I knew no one in London. Every alternate weekend Margaret would come and collect me and in her well stocked kitchen downstairs we would chat usually about politics in Malawi and around the world while she was preparing our meal and I was helping her peeling and cutting onions and tomatoes. She was a good cook. I always enjoyed her meals. I remember her cooking while I was busy telling her about political stories in Malawi. She would make scathing criticism against Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda's dictatorial tendencies and violations of the rights of Malawians.

One of two things that I found very strange in England was kissing in public and children calling parents by first names. After the first Saturday visit to Margaret's home, when she brought me back to my college hall at about 10.00pm, soon after dropping me I found these young men and women locked in pairs kissing each other. I felt very shameful as if it were me doing it and did not want to watch them "Excuse me, Excuse me", I said as I passed them till I reached the door. When I was with Margaret again as we were dinning I related my experience to Margaret. In Malawi couples do not kiss in public and young people do not kiss each other! Margaret laughed. I also expressed surprise as Martin her son called her 'Margaret'. She laughed again "My dear Vera; old England was not like this. But we are now experiencing new ways of thinking and doing things. Look at women wearing mini-skirts, look at women and girls starving themselves slimming". In my own heart I wondered whether such ideas would come to Malawi and how Malawians would take them. My dears, they are already in our undeveloped countries and some people are practising them as "civilization".

One Christmas holiday as we were sitting in the sitting room chatting and analysing the government of Banda, we were also reading what was happening in papers and over the radio. This time he had banned a song in the Hymn Book of the Presbyterian Church, which goes "reka kugomezya munthu nanga wazirwe viwi, kweni gomezga chiuta chita urunji pera". "Do not trust a human being, but trust God and always do good". She suddenly said, " Vera I do not know how you will take it but what I want to tell you is that I have written my will. In that will you are on of my beneficiaries, not much. I have left you a small amount of money and two items of jewellery. Since I do not know when I will die, I want to give you the necklaces so that you can make use of them". On hearing this I thanked her for being so generous to me, extra generous actually for I was not her relative but a mere friend. But my blood chilled to think of her dying. In my society at that time we never talked about death so freely, it was sort of taboo for only witches and wizards would kill others for (one of the reasons) inheriting their properties. I told her "I am very grateful Margaret, but I am not accepting the idea of your giving my the necklaces now. It is never heard of in my society. Apart from that, I feel bad to think of you dying. I cannot bear it". She cheered me up. "No Vera, do not think I will die now because you have accepted to make use of these necklaces which are part of my will while I am still alive". Here in England it is very common. Moreover, I want to see how you look in them, we laughed. She went to fetch them from her bedroom, she told me both of them were made from tin and gold in China and India. They were gorgeous. She put one on my neck, the bracelet on my arm and earrings on my ears. There you are my dear you look gorgeous that is what I wanted to see! We hugged each other, in appreciation, "What kind of a European is this I reflected. In Malawi you cannot even enter a European's house, the closest you would be welcomed to is the veranda".

Margaret noted that I was a kind loving person who did not want to see people hurt or suffer. When I visited her at home when I happened to be in London on official duties, I would relate to her how I hated to hear Judges pronouncing death sentences on accused people for whom I had conducted prosecution. So when I told her in one of my letters in 1973 that I had left the Attorney Generals Chambers in Tanzania and that I was now at the University of Zambia teaching Law, Margaret was relieved. "I am pleased for you Vera; you always hated prosecuting people. I hope you are happy and enjoying teaching law instead of prosecuting people. Congratulations!!!!.

It was my late husband Orton Edgar C. Chirwa who sponsored my education at University College London and not the government . So when he left government during the Malawi Cabinet crisis due to the majority of Ministers criticizing President Banda for his dictatorial tendencies and violation of human rights, I was in financial trouble. Apart from the university authorities coming to my aid, paying my fees and accommodation, it was Margaret who played a very important role. When I completed my studies obtaining a Master of Laws Degree and a diploma in International law and qualifying as a Barrister at Law, I did not have the money to buy a ticket to Dar-Es-Salaam to join my husband and family who were now in Tanzania as refugees.

Margaret provided me with enough money to buy my ticket in 1968. At the same time she accommodated me at her house until I left London. My first born is called Nyamazao Marjorie, Margaret fell in love with this child the moment she came to Malawi the first time. Each time we met she used to ask me about her progress. "Vera how is your lovely pretty little Angel doing? I lover her bewitching eyes" we would laugh.

I remember in our early days of friendship, it was now her second visit to Nyasaland. She took me to Nchima Estate. We visited the school which the owners of the estate had built for the children of their employees. This was unheard of in Malawi among the tea estate owners. I was very much impressed. She showed me their houses which humanly compared with those of other estates. When the workers saw us especially the women, they all rushed and greeted her cheerfully by shaking hands. I was just mesmerized. "A European being friendly with Africans, Africans who were also her employees! And when we sat down with the women and their babies whom Margaret was giving small gifts to, handling some of them though not well dressed, I knew she was indeed a true socialist.

For some time we lost touch as I was a prisoner of conscience for twelve years in Malawi. When I came out of prison in 1993 each time I was in London I made an effort to see her. She told me about her wonderful event at the age of 90 when every friend of hers attended the swimming pool to witness her daily morning swim and had breakfast with her. I was very happy to notice that she was still the Margaret I knew in the sixties and seventies. I thought, a bit frail. "Vera I cannot stand for long these days but I will still cook for you". She protested when I offered to cook lunch. "You are my visitor Vera. I missed you".

I last visited her 3 years ago. After writing to her and telephoning her in vain for some years I happened to be in London attending a workshop and after several more times of telephoning I decided to go and check at her house. My cousin and I knocked for 30 minutes without success. Then an idea came to me that we could move into the street a bit and try to call her over the window in case she was sitting upstairs. We did that, eventually the window opened and she peeped outside. We were so pleased and excited, "Margaret it is Vera here". She came down and opened the door. "Vera I am not all that energetic these days so I spend most of my time upstairs". So we all climbed the stairs very slowly. We exchanged old memories for about 30 minutes and she said, "I am tired and my time to rest in bed has come. Next time you are in London stay with me for a few days. I am sorry I cannot entertain you these days as I used to ". I told her I would do the cooking. This is how the curtain dropped down, not to see her face to face again, the friend at whose home I found solace and real love. A friend who never abandoned me when I had problems, a friend who encouraged us, Orton and I in further studies and in politics. Margaret was a friend in need and in plenty, she will always be in my memory.

May her soul rest in peace.

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