Blantyre — Africa's long history is filled with narratives of powerful chiefs who ruled large and small kingdoms. Many traditions of power remain, though they are somewhat reduced in the evolving politics of nation states. In a suburb of Blantyre, a man in dreadllocks proved capable of serving his vast community.
Here is another in a series of articles about some of modern Africa's traditional rulers.
The headman of three densely-populated villages in Blantyre, Malawi, is Somanje-Makata. He is a tall, dark-skinned young man with dreadlocks. He speaks with humility and appears free of care. And when it comes to what he wears, he prefers smart casual clothing.
Somanje-Makata belongs to a religious minority - the Rastafarians - whose members burn and smoke cannabis as a religious sacrifice.
There were many people in Makata who doubted that a young Rastafarian would succeed as a headman. In Malawi, people who smoke cannabis are considered to be of unsound mind and potential trouble-makers thanks to health campaigns linking cannabis to mental illness.
Putting their trust in a Rasta man
His childhood name was Limbani Makata and he was the son of Evance Makata. When his father died, the family chose Evance Makata's son to succeed him. He gave up the name Limbani and is forever known as Somanje-Makata. But he kept the beliefs and practices of a Rastafarian. Somanje-Makata knew his religion would raise eyebrows about his religious faith, so he set out to prove his doubters wrong.
"What our family told the people is that everything starts in Ndirande," says the chief five years later. "And now the Makata family shall demonstrate that Rastafarians are peace makers."
"And it was a time when this village was highly in conflict over chieftaincy issues. But when I came in, I united all these people.
"I can claim that I have demonstrated that people can trust a Rasta man."
Joe Sosola is a resident of Mlanga, one of many villages under Makata's rule. Joe says he is now happy to live under the Rastafarian son of Evance Makata.
"This is contrary to what we were expecting," says Sosola. "We thought he will be taking advantage of his chieftaincy to abuse people and that he will be pompous. But what see now is different.
"He is proving to the one of the best chiefs we have ever had in this villages".
Makata's young chief is impressed with the responsibilities he has been given. "Imagine at my age, elderly people, coming to you seeking advice.
Heavy weighs the head that wears the crown
"And the other thing is that whenever people get married, they have to come to you; every child born, people have to come to you, and every funeral people that happen in the village, people have to come to you. So it's a thing which when I am by myself I ask the Most High [God] 'why me?"
The chief's record book shows that Makata has population of over 40,000 registered villagers, making it one of the most populous villages in or around Blantyre. Makata, who is an ethnic Yao, says during his reign he has managed to maintain peace and unity in this large semi-urban village which comprises people of mixed ethnic groups.
Makata also plans to share authority with the other 10 village headmen -- family members who will serve under him. This will be an addition to three small chiefs who currently owe allegiance to him.
Elders help their chief
The 37-year-old chief concedes that he does not do the job single- handedly. He gives credit to a Chief's Council made up of 65 village elders who act as his advisory board on crucial village issues and offering their opinions on how he should settle disputes among residents.
Makata says he has also learned how to represent his village of 40,000 in matters concerning the municipal officials of the nation's financial and commercial capital of almost 2 million people.
"We work hand in hand with the city assembly, only sometimes the plans we may have may be different from the city assembly's plans," Makata confessed. "But in general, I can say the working relationship has very much improved because even the chief executive [of the assembly] himself has been in the forefront facilitating developmental meetings between the chiefs and the city assembly."
The son of a former member the opposition Malawi Congress Party, Makata says he would not allow his own political affiliations to interfere with his chieftaincy.
He chooses to play more of a non-partisan leadership role. "As chiefs, we are parent to every political party," the chief says. He describes the recent May elections in which Malawi elected a new president, Peter Mutharika.
"... nobody complained that chiefs under me were favoring a certain political party. We played a rightful role as stakeholders so that the elections can be free, fair and credible."
When childhood friends break the rules
Makata says the most challenging part of the job is when someone forces him to lose his temper. This can happen when, perhaps, someone who knows him from childhood when he was called Limbani commits a crime, but fails to come the chief's court to be disciplined.
"Imagine you are summoning somebody, just because, maybe, he knows you from birth, you grew up together. He tries to test your powers saying 'I cannot come to Limbani."
The childhood friend thinks, 'This is my friend. We were on the same desk in the school. So I can use my powers.'
But those old friends have learned that Chief Makata is not afraid to give fair judgment.
"I don't look to anybody's face or whatsoever," he says.