Cashgate

How a scandal started with a poor housemaid and ended up taking down the most powerful woman in Africa

Story by Shaun Raviv in Lilongwe, Malawi. Additional reporting, translating and fixing by Golden Matonga. Illustrations by Andrew Berry.


Many centuries before Paul Mphwiyo was shot in the face, there was a hill in East Africa settled by a clan searching for edible roots. One group from the clan slept at the bottom of the hill and one group slept at the top. The people who slept at the top of the hill, the Phiri, were known for their political power. The people who slept at the bottom of the hill, the Banda, were known for their ability to make rain. Once they had been a single clan, but the hill turned them into two. Years later, those two clans would help establish the country of Malawi.

Not far from the same hill, many years later, a housemaid who went by the nickname Anaphiri — meaning her family hailed from the Phiri clan — earned $48 a month cooking, cleaning and taking care of a child for a family in Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi. She was in her 40s and spent almost all her time behind the wall that surrounded the family’s home. She’d been working full time for them for six months when, in early September 2013, she told them she was going to a funeral and never returned. When she left, Anaphiri took with her three million kwacha in cash, a king’s ransom in Malawi.

According to one version of Anaphiri’s story, she gave part or all of the stolen money to her good-for-nothing son, who went around spending it at the bars in Blantyre, Malawi’s other major city, like he was some big-shot. Everyone at the bars knew the son was dead broke, and their jealous chatter eventually reached the local police. Questioned about the source of the money, the son led police back to his mother, Anaphiri, a lowly housemaid who had no business at all having three million kwacha, then worth about $9,000. The housemaid told the police she stole the money from her employer, a young government worker named Victor Sithole.

When the authorities showed up at Sithole’s house on Sept. 7, 2013, he was basically a nobody. In six years of working as an accounts assistant in Malawi’s Ministry of Climate Change, he hadn’t gotten a single promotion. He was 27 years old and earning 40,000 kwacha, or $120 per month — enough in Malawi to rent a small home and pay for food, electricity, shared transport and a mobile phone. Not enough to ever own a car or a new computer or to buy a plane ticket.

Until just a few weeks before Anaphiri stole the money, Sithole and his family had been living in Lilongwe’s Area 25, a modest neighborhood of small brick homes crossed by uneven dirt roads. It’s hardly the poorest part of the city — that would probably be Mtandire, a dense neighborhood mostly lacking running water and electricity — but it’s far from the wealthiest. In addition to his job in government, Sithole owned a bar that brought in $100 a month. He also bought and sold maize and other common Malawian crops for extra income. Sithole was better off than most Malawians but not by much.

Then during the summer of 2013, he suddenly moved the family to Area 47, where houses have manicured grass, sculpted bushes, security guards and high walls. Area 47 looks like a paranoid version of a San Francisco suburb. Successful business owners, ambassadors and expatriates — the 1 percent of Malawi — tend to live there. People who drive nice cars, own iPhones and dine at Western-style restaurants.

The police that came to Area 47 that morning encountered a young man living well above his means; the rent on his new house was 250,000 kwacha, six times his monthly salary. But that was barely a blip compared to what else police found: lots and lots of cash. Inside a Toyota Fortuner, police discovered 80 million kwacha, and in a Toyota Vitz another 32 million. When they searched the house, they found 121,000 in South African rand and $32,000. The police arrested Sithole for possession of stolen property and illegal possession of foreign currency. The total value of the money discovered at his house amounted to roughly $380,000. It would have taken Sithole 263 years to earn that much with his government job.

Victor Sithole

Malawi is a narrow strip of a country nestled between Zambia, Tanzania and Mozambique. While it is landlocked, most of the eastern border runs along Lake Malawi, which contains more species of fish than any other lake on the planet. Not including the lake, Malawi is about the size of Wyoming but shaped more like a pointy-ended New Jersey. It has a tropical climate with temperatures that vary from cold in the mountains to temperate in the lowlands. Lilongwe, with an average elevation above 3,000 feet, is comfortable year round, though storms during the rainy season punish those without cars, which in Malawi means almost everyone.

Malawi is poorer by most standards than South Sudan or Haiti or Afghanistan. The average person in Malawi has about one-fiftieth the purchasing power of a typical American. But that might undersell the level of poverty in Malawi. A 2016 Credit Suisse report put the average wealth of a Malawian at $107, perhaps the value of your sneakers. A survey released in 2012 found that a quarter of the country was “ultra poor,” not able to meet even minimum daily food requirements. To make ends meet, 40 percent of children in Malawi work. While other African countries have seen incredible wealth increases in recent decades — see Botswana, South Africa, Ghana — Malawi’s GDP per capita grew by only a dollar a year between 1979 and 2014.

The vast majority of Malawi’s 18 million people survive by growing their own food. Seventy percent live under the international poverty line of $1.90 a day. They seldom eat meat. They do not have running water, electricity, television or the internet. “For them to access basic things like salt or soap, it’s always a challenge,” said Henry Kachaje, the head of the Economics Association of Malawi. “Basic things that you and me take for granted, where you have a toothbrush and you can brush your teeth with some toothpaste, that’s almost a luxury in most villages.”

Blantyre (Nicholas Vilelle)

The struggles of the poor leave a lot of room for Malawi’s rich to take advantage. The top quintile in Malawi takes in more than half the country’s income. Because labor costs are incredibly low, wealthier Malawians and expatriates drive their own mini economies, employing maids, gardeners, private chefs, drivers and security guards, each of whom will earn around $50 a month. Anyone with a moderate income in Malawi hires a full-time housemaid to help take care of the children.

Ask any Malawian what has caused such extreme poverty, and corruption will be high up their list. Corruption is an obsession of Malawian leaders across the board, including President Arthur Peter Mutharika. He has made halting corruption a signature goal of his administration, pledging “zero tolerance” against those found guilty. With a background far from the stereotype of an African politician, Mutharika presents as a perfect partner in the international fight against corruption: He has degrees from the University of London and Yale, and spent 39 years as a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis.

“In the last few decades, we slowly made corruption our culture — our way of life. Whatever we are seeing today is a result of what we planted over the decades,” said Mutharika while opening an anti-corruption conference last year. “It is for us as a nation to curtail this culture and never pass this disease to our children. As government, we will do our part!”


In January 2017, I met a man named Paul Mphwiyo at the Crossroads Hotel, a popular meeting place for upscale business types in Lilongwe. Mphwiyo is a muscular 40-year-old with a narrow, graying beard and shaved head. His right cheek balloons out unnaturally, like he’s sucking on a gumball. He grew up in southern Malawi in the Zomba region and has an MPA in economic policy management from Columbia University. He’s spent most of his career working for the Malawi government in the Treasury Department. He also worked for the World Bank for a year as a consultant on their financial integrity unit, helping to track the movements of Somali pirates. Mphwiyo — pronounced mm-pwee-yo — had never spoken to the press, but he agreed to meet me and tell the story of the night in 2013 he got shot.

But first, he had to tell me about his job. Three months before the raid on Sithole’s house, Malawi’s then-president Joyce Banda summoned Mphwiyo, who was deputy director of economic affairs in the Ministry of Finance. She wanted to stop government theft, he told me, and wanted to know if he was up to the task. Mphwiyo told Banda he knew how government systems work, and he’d be happy to advise. In July 2013, Banda appointed him budget director in Malawi’s Ministry of Finance. She brought him in, he told me, specifically to halt fraud within government. Mphwiyo quickly noticed the government was spending far more than what the treasury had authorized. “The overall picture was a huge discrepancy,” Mphwiyo said.

A few months after he started his new job, and six days after police raided Sithole’s house, Mphwiyo was having drinks at a bar called Africana in a trendy area of Lilongwe. He had two or three Heinekens with a friend, quickly stopped by another bar, and then headed home around 10 p.m.

By this time, he’d received threats related to his new position, specifically from associates of government ministers who wanted Mphwiyo to use his role to push illicit payments forward. He’d refused, he said, but he wasn’t worried. Like anyone in the country with a minimal amount of money, he lived in a gated house with a 24-hour guard to prevent petty theft. The house was in a secure upscale neighbourhood. Plus, Malawi is not a violent place. On the Global Peace Index, it’s ranked just above France and below South Korea. For all its poverty, Malawi has a murder rate less than half that of the United States. So Mphwiyo didn’t take the threats seriously.

The primary building materials in Malawi are known as burnt bricks — molded out of red clay, left out in the sun to dry, and then stacked into a tall kiln, in which new bricks are burned and hardened. You see stacks of these bricks all around Malawi, wherever a new home is being built. There was a tall pile of burnt bricks on the property adjacent to Mphwiyo’s home.

Just before he reached his house, Mphwiyo hit the remote button for his gate, which took about 30 seconds to open. As he pulled up to the still-opening gate, Mphwiyo saw a group of men come out from behind the bricks. It was dark, but he recognized at least a couple of the men and wondered if their car had broken down. A third man, only a few meters away, held a handgun. Suddenly, he heard loud noises, felt numbness in his face, and saw blood oozing down from his right cheek. He’d been shot three times. “It was pretty quick,” Mphwiyo told me. “Pah, pah, pah!”

His face was literally coming apart, but somehow he still had the wherewithal to drive. The gate wasn’t yet completely open, so he rammed the car, a Mercedes GL500 SUV, right through it. His attackers left, but they probably thought he was dead. Mphwiyo had been shot twice in the right side of his face and once through the right shoulder. His throat was swelling fast and air couldn’t get through. “I was choking,” he said. “I was choking to death.”

His wife heard the noise and drove him to a private medical clinic still wearing her nightgown. In the back of the car, Mphwiyo’s 13-year-old daughter held a towel to his face to soak up the blood. At the clinic, the doctor told Mphwiyo that if he’d arrived five minutes later, he’d have been dead. He was quickly transferred to Lilongwe’s public hospital, Kamuzu Central. Doctors there performed a tracheostomy, clearing an airway so he could breathe through a hole in his neck. The bullets had knocked out teeth, bone and skin, and his mandible was out of place and still had bullet fragments in it. After 16 hours in the ICU, Mphwiyo was flown to South Africa for reconstructive surgery. When it was clear Mphwiyo was going to live, President Banda called it “a planned and targeted attack aimed at silencing him and the government in the fight against high levels of corruption and fraud.”

Malawian media reported that the shooting was connected to Mphwiyo’s “tough anti-graft measures within the government system.” The Guardian said Mphwiyo would be the “№1 state witness” against the perpetrators of a wide ring of government theft. Three months after the shooting, when he returned to Malawi with his face still healing, Malawians expressed relief that Mphwiyo was finally back to tell what happened. Banda, too, added, “It is only Mphwiyo who can tell us the truth.”

He had only been budget director for three months, but in that time, Mphwiyo told me, he saw a lot of theft. He said there were illegitimate payments requested by senior cabinet ministers. And he saw not just individuals making bad payments, but cartels competing with each other to steal public money. It seemed those cartels wanted him dead and his investigations halted. “The whole entire government of Malawi is a criminal enterprise,” Mphwiyo told me. “That is what I discovered.”

Paul Mphwiyo

The attack on Mphwiyo just a week after the money was found at Sithole’s house began Malawian media’s obsession with what they dubbed Cashgate. It also began a string of arrests of government workers from, among others, the Accountant General’s Office; the Ministry of Tourism; the Ministry of Lands; and the Ministry of Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare. All the arrests made headlines that were read by Malawi’s development partners.

The repercussions were real for Malawians. Foreign donors provided 40 percent of the government’s budget, and the amount of aid brought to Malawi was almost equivalent to the country’s entire economic output. Within weeks of the shooting, donors canceled an estimated $150 million in direct budgetary support to the government of Malawi. “No one would want to put money into a bucket that has holes and is still leaking,” German Ambassador Peter Woeste said after Cashgate broke. When the U.K. withdrew £17 million of budget funds primarily supporting health and education programs, Michael Nevin, the British high commissioner to Malawi, said, “We want [the] government to put its house in order by implementing systems that will not allow pilferage of public funds.”

Much of the burden of the Cashgate scandal fell on Banda, an international darling, and only the second woman ever to lead an African country. In 1981, Banda took her children and left an abusive husband, an uncommon act in Malawi at the time. As a single mother, she learned how difficult women had it in her country. With an acumen for business and her refusal to bow to powerful men, she became a force for women’s rights. In 1989, she founded the National Association of Business Women, a nonprofit formed to empower small-scale female entrepreneurs. For that work, she received a prize in 1997 from the Hunger Project for contributing to the sustainable end of hunger in Africa. She used the $50,000 award to form the Joyce Banda Foundation and continue to educate poor women and children. When she went into politics, she had a solid grassroots network and a deep connection with Malawi’s rural poor.

In 2004, she was elected to parliament, and by 2005 she was Malawi’s Minister of Gender and Child Welfare under President Bingu wa Mutharika, the older brother of Malawi’s current president. In 2009, Banda ran alongside Bingu — an economist and former director at the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa — in his re-election campaign. They won in a landslide, and she became Malawi’s first female vice president. Three years later, Bingu had a heart attack and died. The country became Joyce Banda’s to run.

Banda began on the right foot with much of the international community. She sold the $12 million presidential jet bought by her predecessor, along with a fleet of 60 luxury cars. (“I am already used to hitchhiking,” she said.) In solidarity with a controversial national austerity program that she implemented, she cut her own salary by 30 percent. On advice from the International Monetary Fund — advice that Bingu had ignored — she devalued Malawi’s currency by a third. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Malawi and praised the reforms. The World Bank and the Millennium Challenge Corporation approved $500 million in grants to show support for the much-praised leader’s programs. “The message she sends is that principled leadership for the benefit of the people is the right thing to do,” the U.S. ambassador to Malawi told The Washington Post. “She cares about the people, while a lot of African leaders are more caring about themselves.”

Joyce Banda and John Kerry

But the honeymoon at home was short lived. A year after Banda became president, Anaphiri stole the money from Sithole, Mphwiyo was shot and Cashgate broke. In October 2013, under strong pressure from European donors, Banda sacked her entire cabinet, telling reporters via a spokesperson that it was “to make sure the ministers who may be implicated don’t interfere with police in the investigations.” In a press conference that month, she said, “I am committed to fight corruption and fraud wherever it exists, and it will be exposed.”

She kept her word. By November, 48 civil servants — many of them working at high levels and at least one in the office of the president — had been arrested and the accounts of 60 government-affiliated private businesses frozen. To help put the house back in order, the London-based accounting firm Baker Tilly was brought in to find irregularities in government spending during the six-month period before the cash was discovered at Sithole’s house. The forensic audit found 15 billion kwacha in government transactions that had been fraudulent or deleted from the system. It also found an additional nine billion kwacha that were “at risk” of being fraudulent, including returned foreign currency transactions, questionable purchases by the Malawi police, and payments for supplies that appeared overvalued.

In total, Baker Tilly found more than 24 billion kwacha, or $73 million, was likely stolen from the government in that half year alone. To illustrate the blatancy of the theft, the auditors described a single withdrawal of stolen government money, which, if stacked one bill on top of the other, “would give rise to a tower of bank notes over 400 feet high.” No one at the private bank even flagged the transaction as suspicious.

Malawians, though furious, were not at all surprised by the theft. It was common knowledge that many government employees were living well above their means. One mid-level employee convicted of stealing 63 million kwacha had built an enormous house adjacent to cornfields where farmers worked for pennies. An entire neighborhood of Lilongwe, where more enormous houses were being erected, was soon deemed Cashgate City. “We knew there was corruption happening. We just didn’t know what kind — the scale of that corruption,” Reinford Mwangonde, the former executive director of Citizens for Justice, a Malawian advocacy group, told me. “Cashgate just brought that into light.”

A mansion in “Cashgate City”

“It was the magnitude that shocked me more than the fact that it’s happening,” said Atuweni Juwayeyi-Agbermodji, the director general of Malawi’s Financial Intelligence Unit, which froze dozens of bank accounts in the wake of Cashgate. “It seemed so well-orchestrated. And just the impunity of it, that people just didn’t care one way or the other.”

As the thieves were taken in by the police, so were the suspected shooters. In November 2013, five people were arrested for the conspiracy to murder Paul Mphwiyo. Among them was Ralph Kasambara, a prominent lawyer who had twice been the country’s Attorney General and worked as Banda’s Minister of Justice. Mpwhiyo told police Kasambara had pressured him to approve bogus payments to companies owned by Kasambara’s friends. Mphwiyo said Kasambara was one of the faces he saw rushing out from behind the burnt bricks.


In September 2013, just as Cashgate hit the media radar, researchers from Chancellor College, part of the University of Malawi, were in the middle of conducting a survey on corruption in Malawi. The results were dire. After the high price of food, Malawians rated corruption as the most important factor holding back the country’s development. “There is widespread perception among citizens, businesses and public officials that the incidence of corruption has become more serious and its frequency has increased,” wrote the researchers. Nearly every person surveyed felt that corruption in the country was “a very serious problem.”

At the end of 2013, World Bank president Jim Kim said, “In the developing world, corruption is public enemy №1.” More than a billion people pay a bribe to get public services every year, the most common being healthcare. Other sectors where bribes are widespread include education, law enforcement and the courts — in other words, the institutions that allow society to function. And the losers from corruption are naturally those at the bottom, whether in developed or developing countries. Charles Kenny writes in his book Results Not Receipts, “corruption is frequently regressive; poor people are made to bribe with greater regularity, often for access to services that should be free.”

I spoke with Matthew C. Stephenson, a professor at Harvard Law School who runs the Global Anticorruption Blog. Unlike grayer forms of corruption that might have some positive benefits — like paying a bribe to see a doctor — he called Cashgate a straightforward case. “Governments need to spend money on things like public health, especially in very poor developing countries,” he said. “And when that money is stolen, that means that money is not available to spend on any number of public services or other things that are really important to alleviating poverty and promoting development.”

Richard Record, a World Bank economist based in Lilongwe, told me Cashgate, and especially the pulling of donor money that resulted from it, instigated a breakdown in public financial management. The government wasn’t equipped to react quickly to such a large deficit and still had to cover the basics, like salaries and electricity bills. So they borrowed domestically, which sped up inflation and prices for everything increased. “The country got stuck in this vicious circle of large deficits, high borrowing,” Record said. “The whole system kind of fell apart from the shock.”

This came at the worst possible time. In early 2015, Malawi experienced severe flooding that displaced more than 350,000 people, killed a further 176, and destroyed crops, roads, schools, health clinics and houses. Almost immediately after, the weather reversed and the country experienced a major drought. This caused a food shortage that affected 6.5 million people and a state of emergency was declared.

Malawi’s population is expected to double over the next two decades. This will only put more strain on a country that already struggles to feed its people and perform even basic government functions, such as paving roads and providing clean water.

To see what a total lack of public services looks like, I visited a village called Kupeta 2. The village has 78 families living in burnt brick homes with dried grass roofs. They grow maize and groundnuts, and lots of tobacco. Much of the land surrounding the village swamps easily, and tobacco prices were down, so there was little income. Despite being just 30 kilometers outside Lilongwe, where elites frequent casinos, Italian restaurants, spas and a $70 million soccer stadium, Kupeta 2 has no electricity, no running water and no cars. “Government makes a lot of promises. During the elections they come and pledge a lot of things. ‘We’re going to do this. We’re going to do that for you as communities.’ But in the end they are not providing those things,” one of the Kupeta 2 men told me. “There is a direct link [between Cashgate and poverty] because the money which is stolen is supposed to be used for development work. … When there’s a humanitarian crisis, for example, there’s hunger in the village. That money’s supposed to buy food for the people.”

Kupeta 2’s water source

Kupeta 2 used to have a working well, dug by a nonprofit years ago. But when I visited, it was dry. The water source was a puddle in the middle of a muddy tobacco field. It looked like a tyrannosaurus footprint. The water in it was milky, almost opaque. Women dipped plastic containers in the hole to gather water for drinking, cleaning and bathing.

Corruption drains money from schools, where you may find 200 children sitting around a tree being taught by an underpaid teacher, and where exhausted students try to learn on one meal a day. Only 17 percent of Malawians even start high school. Corruption weakens hospitals, where doctors are scarce and lack the most basic drugs, where children die of preventable afflictions caused by diarrhea, malnutrition and malaria. One out of 16 children dies before their fifth birthday in Malawi. Corruption steals from maternity wards, where thousands of women die giving birth every year at a rate 20 times that of most wealthy countries. Corruption takes money that could have bought electricity, which 96 percent of rural Malawians don’t have in their homes.

“We have an education system that is crumbling. We have the health system that has stopped working,” said Henry Chingaipe, director of the Institute for Policy Research and Social Empowerment in Lilongwe. “Nearly at every stage, at every level of governance, the story is the same. There is no money, but money has been stolen. There is no money, money has been stolen. The opportunity cost in terms of public goods and services is huge for this country. In terms of the money being spent, we can see the voids now, but I think the long-term effect is even more disastrous because we’ll end up with a more sick nation because we can’t sustain the healthcare services.”

At the end of 2016, President Mutharika said, “Cashgate was so devastating that we will continue to face its consequences for the next decade.”


By October 2014, more than 70 people had been arrested in connection with Cashgate, with the investigations led by the Anti-Corruption Bureau. Despite the arrests, which continue even today, the ACB has been criticized incessantly in Malawian media. Nearly everyone I spoke with told me the primary body tasked with fighting corruption in Malawi has itself been corrupted.

Last year, Chingaipe published a scathing study on the ACB for the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa. He portrayed a bureau that is completely at the whim of the executive branch, regardless of who is in power. “In its current state the ACB is destabilized, incapacitated and skewed towards serving the interests of the incumbent government and not necessarily the desires of the public,” wrote Chingaipe. Since both the director and deputy director of the ACB are appointed by the president, they “must dance to the tune of the executive or else risk being fired.”

When I spoke with Chingaipe, he told me “the ineffectiveness of the bureau has created the perception that you can get away with it. So it has created a perverted incentive that encourages corruption.”

I spoke with a former ACB investigator, Z. Allan Ntata, who said the ACB does good work but is limited by the will of the president, who can pick and choose which cases get investigated. “They have plenty of cases because corruption is everywhere. The question is how big are the cases? Who is involved?” said Ntata. “How many of these are actually cases that matter? There is almost nothing. They have files and files that are locked away.”

The Norwegians, the third-largest bilateral donor to Malawi, had been supporting the ACB financially for 15 years until last year. When I spoke with Kikkan Haugen, the Norwegian ambassador to Malawi, last January, he gave several reasons for stopping the support after so many years, but one stood out: “The political interference in the work of the ACB.” Haugen said the ABC director refused to investigate cases that might involve the government. (Then-director Lucas Kondowe has since left the ACB.) “The real proof of dedication [to] fighting corruption we will only see when we see the government investigating its political allies, and not only its political opponents.”

Cashgate files at the ACB office

The first president of Malawi, Hastings Kamuzu Banda (no relation to Joyce Banda), controlled the country from independence in 1964 until 1994, when internal and international pressure forced him to step down after a long period of dictatorial, single-party rule. Veiled corruption wasn’t an issue during his reign so much as transparent authoritarianism. If anything, Malawi was more orderly under Kamuzu Banda.

But since Kamuzu Banda stepped down, presidents of Malawi have made it practically a tradition to show their mettle in the fight against corruption by arresting their predecessors. When Kamuzu Banda left office, Bakili Muluzi, the country’s next — and first elected — president, swiftly had Kamuzu Banda arrested for murder. (He was acquitted.) When Muluzi finished his constitutionally capped second term in 2004, Bingu wa Mutharika had Muluzi arrested for stealing millions of dollars of donor aid. (The case is ongoing.)

Bingu’s first five-year term was successful; he oversaw a booming economy and a food surplus. With Joyce Banda as his running mate, he was re-elected in 2009 in a landslide victory that broke historical trends of ethnic and regional voting allegiances. But not long into his second term, Bingu began showing dictatorial tendencies that turned off donors and tribal favoritism that turned off Malawians, all while an international recession helped cause shortages of fuel, electricity and food. Bingu passed laws that made it difficult to protest, to grant an injunction against the government and to criticize the ruling party in national media. He passed a law handing police the ability to conduct warrantless searches.

In April 2011, he expelled the British High Commissioner after a leaked cable quoted him as saying Bingu was intolerant of criticism. In July that year, at least 20 people were killed by riot police, and hundreds more injured or arrested, during nationwide protests against Bingu’s leadership. Bingu said the protesters were “being led by Satan” and warned his detractors, “This time I’ll go after you! Even if you hide in holes I’ll smoke you out!” In response to Bingu’s crackdown, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, a U.S. agency, suspended a $350 million aid package to Malawi.

By that time, just two years after helping them storm to victory, Joyce Banda had been kicked out of Bingu’s Democratic Progressive Party. After promising Banda he would support her presidential run in the next election, Bingu changed his mind and proposed that his brother, Peter Mutharika, succeed him when Bingu’s second term was over. When Banda refused to back Peter, she was shunned by the DPP. All of her ministerial responsibilities were stripped by a ruling party that despised her, so Banda formed her own party, the People’s Party, and remained vice president in title only. Banda was the most prominent backer of the protests against the president, and the DPP was attempting to impeach Banda when Bingu died.

On the morning of April 5, 2012, Bingu was in a meeting with Agnes Penemulungu, a member of parliament. Penemulungu was telling him about some of the challenges facing her constituency, on the outskirts of Lilongwe. The nearest medical clinic was more than 10 kilometers away, and she asked the president if it was possible to pave the road to the clinic to shorten the trip. Penemulungu looked down at her notes, and when she looked up, the president’s arms and legs were stiff and his eyes unblinking. “Bwana, bwana,” she shouted. Boss, boss!

Not long after Bingu arrived at the ICU, doctors told Peter Mutharika, the president’s brother and Minister of Foreign Affairs, the situation was hopeless. He had likely been dead on arrival. Peter insisted the hospital staff continue performing CPR, but by 2 p.m. the president was cold and the ECG monitor was showing no signs of life. His death meant that Banda, the party’s archenemy, and her newly formed People’s Party, would take control of government. There was only one way to stop that.

It wasn’t exactly Weekend at Bernie’s, but for 48 hours the DPP did their best to project the idea that Bingu was still alive. First, they kept the body attached to ventilator equipment for hours after he had died. Then the statehouse issued a press release that evening stating that the president was ill and being flown to South Africa for treatment. Half of that was true, as the president’s body was actually put in an air ambulance (under the pseudonym Daniel Phiri). The South African pilots at first refused to take the body because they did not have permission to transport a dead person. With the permission of then South African President Jacob Zuma, the pilots relented and Bingu’s body arrived at a hospital in Pretoria early the next morning.

Meanwhile, back in Lilongwe, Peter Mutharika and other top officials of the DPP requested an injunction with the High Court to stop Banda from being sworn in. They also asked for an immediate order to allow cabinet ministers to elect an acting president, who would be Peter. In the event this caused Malawians to revolt, Peter asked the Malawi Defence Force commander, Henry Odillo, if he would take control of government if need be. The situation was edging close to a military coup, and by April 6, two conflicting narratives were ruthlessly pushing against each other to determine who would take power in the wake of the president’s death.

The momentum quickly swung to Banda’s side. The American ambassador advised a close confidante of the Mutharikas that the constitution was clear on succession and should be followed. Bingu’s predecessor, former President Bakili Muluzi, held a press conference in Blantyre supporting Banda. General Odillo rejected the idea of the military taking power and joined Banda for a press conference. Still, more than 36 hours after the president died, the DPP publicly asked Malawians to be patient in waiting for news on his health.

By the morning of April 7, the Attorney General and Minister of Justice said the attempt to stop Banda in court would not work. The DPP’s last-gasp effort had failed. At 8 a.m., the office of the president announced Bingu’s death and at 4 p.m. Banda was sworn in as president. Banda appointed a commission of inquiry to look into the death of her predecessor and the transition of power. When the inquiry was concluded in early 2013, Peter Mutharika and 10 others were charged with treason and arrested.


In May 2014, Forbes named Banda the most powerful woman in Africa and the 40th most powerful woman in the world, alongside luminaries like Michelle Obama, Angela Merkel, Oprah Winfrey and Malawi’s former colonizer Queen Elizabeth II. But the 2014 election that same month showed that, in her own country, Banda’s star was waning. Just two years after becoming president, Banda had to defend her title.

Cashgate had happened on her watch, and most Malawians thought she was involved, or even its architect. To repair her reputation with the international donor community, Banda brought on the British PR firm Bell Pottinger, a move that backfired in Malawi when reporters discovered links between the firm and arms dealers. As a Malawian writer put it: “There seem to be two Joyce Bandas: the Joyce Banda causing so much debate and controversy within Malawi, and the Joyce Banda who has won the hearts of the rest of the world.”

After voting closed, the Malawi Electoral Commission announced there were “discrepancies and obvious errors” in some voting locations. Early exit polls also showed Banda losing. For one or both of those reasons, she ordered the Malawi Electoral Commission to undertake a recount. But Malawi law requires that the MEC announce results within eight days of the close of polling, and on the evening of May 30, the eighth day, the High Court ruled that the numbers must be released despite any irregularities.

With Cashgate weighing her down, Banda came in third in the closest election in Malawi’s history. Her archrival, Peter Mutharika, running while out on bail for the treason charges, won with just 36 percent of the vote. When the chairperson of the Malawi Electoral Commission announced the results, noting how divided his country was, he broke down and wept.

Mutharika pardoned himself and took the presidential reins he had tried so hard to grab in 2012. He appointed a new head of the ACB in October 2014, and the agency soon announced new rounds of arrests for Cashgate-related offenses. Among them were General Henry Odillo, Banda appointee Nelson Bophani, who had been deputy inspector general of police, and several prominent members of Banda’s People’s Party, including its former spokesperson.

In a dramatic turn that same month, in the middle of the trial of the men accused of trying to assassinate Paul Mphwiyo, Malawi’s director of public prosecutions arrested her star witness: Paul Mphwiyo. Once hailed as a crusader against graft, a national hero who would bring clarity to Cashgate, now Mphwiyo was being called the mastermind of the whole damn thing.

Peter Mutharika

In January 2017, Mphwiyo’s trial began in Lilongwe. His case had 18 other defendants, so to accommodate all the people involved, including more than 20 lawyers between the two sides, the trial was transferred from the High Court to the office of the Lilongwe city council, which has a round table nearly, but not quite, large enough for all the players. The room was packed with the media, and family and friends of the accused. The defense team was a who’s who of Malawian lawyers, including Mphwiyo’s lead counsel, Titus Mvalo, who at the time was also representing Madonna, then adopting her third and fourth Malawian children.

The first, and most important, witness in the trial was Leonard Kalonga, a former assistant director in the Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Culture. Before his arrest, Kalonga had worked as a low- to mid-level civil servant since 1992. As part of his plea bargain, he admitted to playing a large role in Cashgate and helping to steal more than three billion kwacha from the government of Malawi.

In his confession, Kalonga described how a broad conspiracy across ranks worked around the checks put in place specifically to stop government theft. Even with a watchdog accounting system, and treasury checks requiring multiple signatures from people in different agencies, the theft was only discovered when a maid ran off with a small stack of bills.

Kalonga said he was introduced to Mphwiyo in April 2013 through a friend from the Accountant General’s office, who told him Mphwiyo could accelerate Kalonga’s career. Meeting at a gas station, Mphwiyo invited Kalonga to participate in a fraud scheme in exchange for money and eventual promotion. Kalonga was told to recruit the chief accountant of the Ministry of Tourism, who could make sporadic requests for supplementary funding from the Treasury Department. Mphwiyo, in his then role as deputy budget director, would approve the funding.

To spend that money, two accounts assistants in Tourism were recruited, at least partly because they had access to the government accounting system. They would create payment vouchers needed to produce government checks. The country’s Accountant General, along with others in his office and a manager from the Financial Intelligence Unit — a branch of government tasked with preventing organized theft and money laundering — were responsible for making sure the checks got through the system undetected. Once the Accountant General’s office delivered the checks, Kalonga distributed them to private contractors — called suppliers, though they supplied no goods — and the chief accountant made sure the payments were invisible to other users of the accounting system.

The suppliers — Kalonga alone recruited 11 of them, including his own sister — would cash the checks, take a commission, and deliver the money back to Kalonga and Mphwiyo. They used cardboard boxes and sisal bags to store the bundles of cash. Mphwiyo told Kalonga that this had been going on for years in other departments. “Mr Mphwiyo assured us that there would be no problem at all as people were already in place at all levels to make sure that these transactions passed through,” Kalonga said.

Suppliers took a commission of between 10 and 30 percent of the money they were laundering. Kalonga and the other civil servants also took a commission. The rest of the money, a full 60 percent of it, according to Kalonga, was going to Banda’s People’s Party. At least, that’s what Mphwiyo told Kalonga and Kalonga told the court. Cashgate wasn’t just about filling pockets, he said. It was about filling ballots for the 2014 election. But Banda ended up losing that election anyway, in no small part because of the very scheme she was accused of leading.


In February last year, I flew to Washington, D.C., to meet Banda. She left Malawi in September 2014, a few months after the election loss, and moved into her daughter’s condominium in Fairfax, Virginia, with her husband, former Chief Justice of Malawi Richard Banda. While it was a perfectly fine suburban-American home, the condo seemed a tight space for two former dignitaries. That evening, Richard mostly sat quiet, almost physically displaying his support and deference to his wife’s accomplishments while slumped into the couch in a country club sweater. Though wary of my intentions, Banda told me nobody in the media had ever asked to hear her side of the Cashgate story, and she welcomed the opportunity. She wore one of her signature bright Malawian dresses and a matching hat, like she was still in Lilongwe standing on a podium before her country.

Rather than a stain, Banda told me she considered Cashgate to be her greatest accomplishment as president. “I brought out Cashgate,” she said. “I don’t know how many presidents in Africa [would] hold a forensic audit in their government, during their time.” Her fight against corruption, she told me, was what should stand out. Cashgate was not an event that happened only during her term, she said, but “a continuation of theft” that had been happening in Malawi for years.

She was correct that the theft of money that was exposed in 2013 — which Baker Tilly estimated at 24 billion kwacha — turned out to be just a hint of the pilferage that had been happening since well before Banda had been president. In 2016, an expanded audit by RSM Global on the government’s spending found 236 billion kwacha, or $800 million, in payments that could not be accounted for between 2009 and 2014, an amount equivalent to 40 percent of the government’s annual revenues.

The RSM audit detailed instances of bid splitting, in which the same company bids against itself for a government project under two different names. It found double payments, overpayments and payments for goods not supplied; multi-million-dollar payments to companies listed in the Panama Papers; a payment for police uniforms that would have provided every officer in the country with 14 sets of fatigues; and a contract for tear gas and rubber bullets at seven times the going rate.

The initial Baker Tilly report identified seven people affiliated with companies connected to Cashgate who had recently stood in parliamentary elections, including Banda’s son (he has not been charged with any crimes) and candidates from at least three major political parties. The theft was a large and sprawling mess of individuals and cartels in and out of government, and it started well before Banda was president.

“The Cashgate process that happened in 2013 was a perfection of a system, a manipulation of the system, that had already taken place some three years previously under a different regime,” said an expert who works with the International Centre for Asset Recovery, an arm of the Basel Institute on Governance, which assists with corruption investigations in Malawi, including those that are part of Cashgate. “What we see now with some of the earlier cases of investigation is that they were a forerunner to what took place in 2013.”

Much of the theft happened during the rule of Bingu wa Mutharika, before what the expert at ICAR called the “pure Cashgate” of 2013 occurred. Many believe this has given incentive for Peter Mutharika to focus on 2013 cases in order to protect his brother’s legacy, a key reason why Henry Kachaje, the economist, said the executive branch’s control over ACB appointees is troubling. “ACB will only act on cases mostly of people that are not connected to the current political system,” Kachaje told me. “If the cases are involving the PP government, they will go full throttle, because you get political mileage by weakening that party. You become stronger.”

Banda told me Peter was trying to strengthen himself for the 2019 election by keeping her out of the country. In May 2017, at the opening of a Trade Fair in Blantyre, Peter taunted Banda in public. “Tell that someone who stole our money and fled the country to come back. Tell that somebody to come here in Malawi,” he said sarcastically. “I want you here.”

If she returned — or when, she assured me — Banda feared she would be the next former Malawian president to be arrested. In April 2017, her sister, Cecilia Kumpukwe, was arrested along with another top People’s Party official, charged with writing a fake resignation letter in the name of the vice president. Banda told me the arrests were meant either to scare her from returning to Malawi, or to test how Malawians would react if someone in Banda’s close circle was jailed. After her sister’s arrest, Banda texted me via WhatsApp. “I grieve for my beloved country,” she wrote. “Now I am more determined than before to return home. Let him kill me.”

In the U.S., Banda was leading a life typical of a former foreign leader. When we first spoke, she had a joint fellowship at two distinguished think tanks, the Center for Global Development and the Woodrow Wilson Center. She’d been writing a book, traveling the world, giving talks at the U.N., and hanging out with other current and former world leaders through groups like the Club de Madrid. Last May, she went to Japan to accept the Global Women’s Leadership Award. In April, she was in Addis Ababa steering the African Union’s African Women Leaders Network. She’s always been respected abroad, but it was clear she wanted to be in Malawi.

When I visited her in Fairfax again last summer, we had dinner at Bonefish Grill, a casual seafood franchise in a strip mall. Used to being chauffeured around Malawi, the Bandas didn’t have a car, so I picked them up in my brother’s wobbly 17-year-old RAV4. As I wiped away crumbs left by my niece and nephew before letting in the former president and chief justice, I could see why Banda was anxious to get home.

“This is somebody who has lived in a 16-bedroom house,” she had said about her former government-owned residence, which she called Kamuzu Palace. If she was the mastermind behind Cashgate, there was no sign of her payoff. She lamented her situation, living in her daughter’s condo. “If you ask in Malawi…they will tell you, ‘She went to the U.S. She lives in a huge house. She lives in a mansion.’ Where else can I stay? I can’t afford anywhere else. I live here.”

As a retired president, per Malawi law, she is owed a tax-free monthly pension, a housing allowance, two cars, utilities and telephone, medical services, a personal physician, in-country air transport, an allowance for staff, medical insurance, clothes, and food. She wanted to take advantage of these benefits, none of which had been paid out since she lost the election. She never dreamed that Peter would win in 2014, much less that Cashgate would be the fuel that propelled him to victory. “I really feel so sorry for myself,” she told me. “For trying to straighten a situation, I’ve become a victim.”

“Every president in Malawi arrests his predecessor,” Banda told me at her condo after our dinner at Bonefish. “That is how I know I will be arrested.” It was late in the evening, and we were drinking tea. She seemed completely exhausted with the fight against Cashgate, the fight against Peter Mutharika, the fight to defend her legacy. “After all I’ve done, they call me a thief,” she said. “This is what kills me.”

At least some Malawians missed Banda. They missed her so much they danced in large People’s Party gatherings wearing chitenjes, traditional cloths, bearing her likeness. They sang and danced and prayed for her to come back, as I saw in videos Banda texted me. Since our first meeting, Banda and I had texted often about happenings in Malawi. When her sister was arrested, when Peter said something nasty about her, when there was an interesting twist in the Mpwhiyo trial, when a stampede at the national soccer stadium killed eight of her people. She wanted to be there, not having to rely on social media or her phone to get updates on her country. “That’s my home, and I will go home,” she told me. “The question is, when I go, am I going to come out alive?”

It was not an unfounded question. During our in-person talks, she repeatedly banged the table between us. On the phone, she laughed a lot, and told jokes over WhatsApp even when discussing serious matters (“I think my book will be written in Prison Hahahah!”). But she is 68 years old and nowadays moves slowly on her feet. Sometimes, when talking about Cashgate and the election, she looked away and her voice became somber. “I never stopped to think that Peter might win,” she told me. “If there is anybody that he hates, it’s me.”

Joyce Banda

There’s no doubt that the current administration wants to take down Banda. When I was in Malawi, Mutharika’s director of communication, Bright Molande, told me that a warrant for Banda’s arrest was imminent. Banda, he said, has used the Cashgate money to sow revolt against the DPP and keep the current government from doing its job. “The money that was stolen from government is being used to fight government, including exaggerating the corruption perception,” Molande said. “She wishes this government to fall.”

A high-ranking official in the Mutharika administration who wished to remain anonymous leaked me a 35-page report compiled, he said, by a private intelligence organization. The document stated that Cashgate was a “well-planned scheme, with command structures,” codenamed by its plotters as “Project X25.” It was “coordinated by the Office of the President and Cabinet” with the help of an American white-collar crime consultant. The sponsor for Project X25, according to the report, was Banda.

The goal of X25, aka Cashgate, per the document, was to raise 50 billion kwacha for the People’s Party for the 2014 elections, and that money was laundered through the Joyce Banda Foundation, a charity that provides schooling and aid to orphans and supports medical clinics in Malawi. The report also claims that one of the higher profile Cashgate suspects, Joster Njanji, a former principal secretary in the Office of the President and Cabinet, was going to reveal details of X25 before he was murdered by poisoning in 2015.

The document lacks details and seems like amateur work. It provides no evidence, only conclusions. So I didn’t think much of it. But in a recent speech Mutharika mentioned X25, so even if the report is a fabrication, the president either believes what’s in it or wants others to. I asked Banda over text if she’d ever heard the term X25, and she said no. The known evidence against Banda, aside from the dubious report, has thus far been solely based on statements by convicted Cashgate criminals, such as Leonard Kalonga.

Kalonga said Mphwiyo told him the money was going to the People’s Party. But Mphwiyo, whose trial is expected to end in mid-2018, denies he stole any money at all and told me that Banda wasn’t involved in Cashgate as far as he knows. “I want to get one thing in your head,” he told me. “If it is through me, Joyce Banda never took a single penny from government. Never.”

Mphwiyo said the campaign against him is really a way to get to Banda. Senior officials have, in the past, offered him a deal to implicate the former president, he said. “It’s so easy for me to lie about Joyce Banda and free myself,” he said. “I am not a guy who will cut a deal from something that doesn’t exist.”

“This is a head of state, close to an election and she takes bold steps to fire ministers and even arrest them,” Mphwiyo added. “And she loses an election. I can tell you, most African leaders would never have taken such a route. She had authority and power to confuse that investigation and let it die down if she was an interested party. To me she is the only head of state who has genuinely tried to fight corruption. And that is from deep down in my heart.”

Another Cashgate criminal who mentioned Banda was Oswald Lutepo, a businessman connected to the money in Victor Sithole’s car and initially arrested for planning Mphwiyo’s shooting. His charges for the attempted murder were scrapped, but he pleaded guilty to stealing and laundering five billion kwacha. He’s made conflicting statements, but when I visited him in prison in Blantyre, Lutepo told me he personally gave 15 million kwacha to Banda. However, he said he couldn’t say for sure where she thought the money was coming from. Banda told me she has a letter from Lutepo that proves her innocence, but she’s holding it as evidence if she gets arrested.

Tressa Senzani pleaded guilty to stealing 63 million kwacha through her position as a principal secretary in the Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Culture. Some Malawian journalists have speculated that Senzani traded a short sentence for a willingness to provide testimony against the People’s Party. In her written confession, she said she met Banda at Sanjika Palace, the president’s residence in Blantyre, soon after Mphwiyo was shot and told her about the Cashgate scheme being run by Mphwiyo, Kalonga and others. According to Senzani, Banda said receiving funds from the scheme didn’t make her the thief. Senzani served two years in prison and died a couple months after her release. That’s the last of the incriminating evidence against Banda that has surfaced.

One problem with having Mphwiyo advocating for you is that, in addition to being an accused Cashgate thief, Mphwiyo is an unreliable witness. Sometime in the past year, long after the trial of the men who shot him ended, his memory of the shooting changed. I asked him if he personally saw Ralph Kasambara, the former Minister of Justice, come from behind the burnt bricks that night, as he testified in court. Mphwiyo, who still has two bullet fragments in his body, said he wasn’t sure, that the prosecutors put a lot of pressure on him to finger the former minister. “I could have been deluded,” Mphwiyo told me. “This government…they have serious issues with Kasambara.”

Ralph Kasambara (left) and two other defendants accused of the attempted murder of Paul Mphwiyo

Kasambara is not President Mutharika’s favorite person. A leaked ACB document shows that when Bingu died he had a net worth of $369 million stashed in real estate and bank accounts in at least 10 countries. Peter has called out Kasambara in the media for being behind the investigation and besmirching his late brother’s good name. Kasambara told me via WhatsApp from Zomba Prison, where he was serving a 13-year sentence for shooting Mphwiyo, that he wasn’t involved in the Bingu investigation or the shooting. (If you can afford to bribe the guards in Malawi prisons, you can have a cell phone.) Kasambara, who is now out on bail, said that Mphwiyo would be changing his story publicly soon, and that Mphwiyo texted and called him all the time. Not behavior you’d expect from a victim toward his would-be assassin.


“This country is not used to nice things. We are used to poverty. …That poverty affects how we perceive things, how we perceive success,” Mphwiyo told me in the hotel. “Somebody’s success is not something people really celebrate.” When he said that, he was talking about his own success: the large home, the cars, the trips abroad, the nice suits that most Malawians couldn’t afford in a hundred years of piecework.

But there’s a difference between envy of the things a neighbor has earned and anger for the things a neighbor has stolen, for those things continuously being taken out of the hands of the poor year after year, administration after administration. Martin Chiphwanya, the national secretary of the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, offered me a different take from Mphwiyo’s. “Malawians are not a very difficult people,” he said. “Most villagers don’t own much. What they want is food on their table and medicine when they go to the hospital. Good schools for their kids. They will be very fine.”

In Fairfax, I asked Banda what she would say if she got a chance to meet the housemaid that brought down the most powerful woman in Africa. Banda said that people like Anaphiri should not be the victims of corruption. She said leaders in Africa can fight corruption successfully, engage people with honesty and integrity, and create an environment that would make women like Anaphiri flourish. There’s no need for politics to become a pit of fraud and lies. “My plea would not be with that woman. My plea would be with me, with people like me, with leaders, to fight corruption, make sure money is not being stolen,” Banda said. “I’d tell this woman to have hope.”

In Malawi, I discovered a second version of the housemaid’s story, which shined a different light on the beginning of Cashgate. I met a female chief in a village called Kaduya, about 85 kilometers from Lilongwe. Police had told me that Anaphiri’s son, a young man named Sam, had fled to the village with some of the stolen money. There, Sam had spent lavishly. The chief told me that Sam bought luxuries that few, if any, villagers in Kaduya knew: a mattress, a bucket, kitchen utensils, pots. Sam, she said, would drink juice after a meal, rather than water. He didn’t even eat nsima, Malawi’s staple food. He would instead eat rice. “For villagers like us, these are very rare things and very expensive things,” the chief told me. “That is why the whole village was shocked.”

When the police came looking for Sam in Kaduya, it was easy for the villagers to point him out because of his spending. Everyone knew the man who ate rice and drank juice.

Once the police had Sam, they had Anaphiri, and once they had Anaphiri, they had Victor Sithole and Paul Mphwiyo. They may soon have Joyce Banda, who has never lost her resolve to go home. In Malawi, unearned grains of rice can bring down a president.

At the end of July 2017, just days before Banda told me she was planning to return to Malawi, the police announced a warrant for her arrest for Cashgate-related crimes. She was in South Africa when she heard the news, and we spoke on the phone. I asked what she was going to do now that she knew about the warrant. She said her only plan was still to go home. “I’ve done nothing wrong,” she said. “I’m not panicking.” But every time I heard a new rumor that Banda was heading to Malawi, it proved false. Until it didn’t.

On April 28, Banda finally returned home. She landed in Blantyre to a large crowd of People’s Party followers who stormed the tarmac, followed by a rally at which thousands of Malawians wore the party’s signature orange color. A reporter asked police spokesperson James Kadadzera if Banda would be arrested now that she is within reach. “All I can say in a single sentence is the warrant of arrest is still valid,” he said. (The warrant itself has never been produced to Banda or her lawyers — only announced — according to Banda.) The new head of the ACB, just days after she landed, said that Banda was still under investigation. In an interview soon after her return, Banda was asked about Mutharika’s record fighting corruption since she lost the election. “I don’t know what corruption is going on now,” she said. “Because I have just arrived.”

Joyce Banda greets a crowd after returning to Malawi in April 2018

Some say Cashgate is just an extension of systemic corruption that goes back to the democratization of Malawi, or independence, or the colonial era when the British controlled everything. Every president of Malawi has been accused of terrible crimes against its people, the poorest on earth. It makes one wonder if it’s possible to fix a political system that seems to corrupt every president elected into office, no matter their credentials — Bingu the U.N. economist, Peter the law professor, Joyce the women’s rights activist.

Where the housemaid’s son stayed in Kaduya

Though I spent weeks searching for her, I never found Anaphiri, an anonymous woman caught up inadvertently in a national scandal. Neither the police nor her former employer knew where she was from or even her real name. Anaphiri was the ultimate symbol of what corruption had done to too many Malawians, rich and poor: It had turned them into thieves. Anaphiri was the ultimate incarnation of Antonio Ricci, the bicycle thief of the classic movie. After losing so much to theft, in the end he cannot resist stealing himself. When the Anaphiris of Malawi have been stolen from their entire lives by those in power, they too are forced to steal. And that may be the biggest crime of all. To recover from such a long string of political scandals, Malawians may have to force a reset in government, to start from scratch. For this, there is historical precedent.

Before the scandals, before the shootings, before presidents tried to kill and arrest each other, before the ugliness of Cashgate and perhaps before cash, period, there was the hill. One clan slept at the bottom of the hill and one slept at the top. The clan that slept at the top of the hill, the Phiri — whose descendants include Anaphiri, the housemaid — were known for their political power. The clan that slept at the bottom of the hill, the Banda, were known for their ability to make rain.

Within a 4,000-page manuscript by the youngest son of Chief Molin Tengani is a myth about the Banda and Phiri clans, the ancestors of modern Malawi. The two clans split, but continued to intermarry and share customs and even a chief. They were separate only in elevation, in the thickness of the air they enjoyed. And whenever the group at the top lost sight of the group at the bottom, they would set the hills alight. The hills of Malawi could one day burn again.


Shaun Raviv is a freelance journalist based in Atlanta.

Golden Matonga is a journalist based in Lilongwe.

Andrew Berry is a multidisciplinary artist, illustrator and designer based in Berlin.

Like what you read? Give Shaun Raviv a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.