Mkhululi Ncube, Chronicle Reporter
HIS advanced age and the tragedy of losing his homestead to an arson attack has made Mr Lewis Phiri, who could have remained a hidden figure in Tjinjika Village in Bulilima District of Matabeleland South province, a very popular old man.
At 108 years old, Mr Phiri walks without the aid of a stick, can hear without much difficulty and still has most of his teeth.
He even challenged this reporter to buy him a bicycle so that he can cycle to church as he is a Catholic.
“Am no longer able to walk far but if you buy me a bicycle I can manage to go to church. You can also get me that noisy police bike I can ride that one,” he says as family members break out in laughter.
He is seated under an amarula tree enjoying the morning breeze and seems oblivious of the harm the falling fruits of the tree can cause to his head that is only protected by a straw hat.
Mrs Esinathi Phiri, his wife, has already welcomed us at the gate and seems at a loss of words to thank the Chronicle for publishing their story which has helped mobilise resources for reconstructing their home.
“Ukhulu ungale,” she says pointing to the big amarula tree where he is seated.
My interest is in viewing the one roomed house which was undergoing last minute touches before its was ready for occupation than having an interview with him.
When I finally reach the place where he is relaxing, I have already seen the terrible destruction that the arsonist did to the three huts.
“I used to enjoy amasese beer so much and I was very talkative when drunk. But I decided to quit. Now am of sober habits,” he says.
With most of his teeth intact, Mr Phiri says he can eat most produce from his piece of land.
“Umumbu ngiyawutikitha. I eat everything from the fields but I enjoy maize a lot,” he says.
After every response, he breaks into infectious laughter which shows he was a humorous character in his hey days.
Asking Mr Phiri about his year of birth draws a blank as his mind fails him but the wife says the only proof about his year of birth are documents from Malawi which were burnt in the fire which showed he was born in 1913. “We could not salvage any of our documents, they were all burnt to ashes. Khulu did not apply for Zimbabwean identity documents as he was using his Malawi particulars. Even his papers for cooking courses were also burnt,” says Mrs Phiri
Mr Phiri narrates that he was a cook for a number of white families which include the JR Goddard family and another white man Mr Gibbs. “My father and mother came from Malawi. My father used to work at Old Nick Mine in Bulawayo. I was the only boy in a family of seven. I have lost contact with all my family members and I don’t know if they are still alive,” says Mr Phiri, a hint of sadness creeping into his tone.
Pointing to his wife and perhaps to show how strong their love is, Mr Phiri said she is the only person that has kept him from returning to Malawi.
He says he had a short stint at Old Nick Mine before he ventured into his profession of choice — cooking.
“I am a very good cook. I was an all-rounder and the whites used to love me for that. I also worked at the railways cooking on the trains. I love cooking and if you buy me ingredients, I can make you a very sumptuous meal,” he says and breaks into spontaneous laughter once again.
From the conversation, it is clear that Mr Phiri’s old age is fast catching up with him as he mixes up events in his recollection of the past.
Mr Phiri recalls with nostalgia that he was once a soldier in Malawi and fought in the British war at some point in his life.
He goes on to talk about the Lobengula war before talking about the war for Zimbabwe’s liberation which he says, with reverence, was led by the late Vice President, Joshua Nyongolo Mqabuko Nkomo.
He says Mrs Phiri is his second wife. His first wife with whom he had four children passed away.
“I was working in Shangani for JR Goddard when I met her in 1993. I was already old, she was a widow working at Meikles Farm as well. We have one child, a girl born in 1996. She went to South Africa.With the first wife I had four children I don’t know whether they are still alive in Malawi,” he says.
After retiring from cooking Mr Phiri moved with his wife to stay in Makokoba suburb in Bulawayo but they were affected by Operation Murambatsvina .
“I had stopped working and my wife was taking care of me. We were then moved to Plumtree town before we were settled here. This is now my home. I will die here and when I die I want them to bury me here. I don’t want to go back to Malawi. Zimbabwe is now my home,” he said.
Mr Phiri says his favourite food is isitshwala and meat, although he can no longer afford it.
“My long life is due to God’s love for me. I used to smoke and drink a lot of amasese, ngangiyisidakwa esingaphumi ebhawa,” he says as he laughs again.
Mr Phiri says after stopping working he could not afford to buy beer and would follow his friends to beer halls so that he could drink with them.
He said he used to love reading and would read the then Rhodesian Chronicle, now the Chronicle which was bought by his white bosses.
During the interview, the centenarian responds in fluent English.
“I used to speak English with my bosses. I would make them good tea and they would call me to join them to enjoy the tea. That is when I learnt English. My wife and grandchildren can’t understand me when I speak English. I am happy today I got someone to speak English with,” he says as he gives me a soft knuckle on my shoulder.
To test if he is in tune with current affairs, I asked him who is the president of Zimbabwe and after a short pause he responded: “Mnangagwa.”
He is even aware that there is a virus that is killing people called coronavirus.
Mr Phiri says he does not fear death.
“I do not know when I will die but I have been on this earth for a long time and when death visits me, I will be ready.
“I had even prepared my suit that I would be buried in but the fire burnt it. I have to find another suit fo my burial,” he said.
Before we finish the interview, we ask Mr Phiri to sing a song and he sings an old traditional song in Chewa language (Izigure). — @themkhust