A 100th-birthday party may seem like a good time to celebrate a life well lived.
But Patrick Ziba, a retired Adventist pastor and teacher in Malawi, saw his 100th birthday as an opportunity to share a tragic lesson about the importance of obedience to 150 well-wishers, including a government minister.
Ziba told how four stubborn students from a Seventh-day Adventist school perished with nearly 150 other people on a capsized ship on Lake Malawi after rejecting his pleas to accept punishment for theft.
The tragedy, which happened when Ziba was 31, has tormented him for the rest of his life.
"Our father never tired of telling his children the story as a moral lesson that it pays to be obedient in life," Margaret Limbe, the fifth of Ziba’s nine children, said in an interview with the Malawi News Agency. "He has told us the story countless times from the time the tragedy happened."
The story began when 14 students were caught stealing peanuts from a barn at the Luwazi Mission School in July 1946, according to an account of Ziba’s birthday published by the news agency.
The theft of the school-grown peanuts had been going on for some time and was only discovered after an investigation into why the barn’s supply was shrinking.
The school principal gave the 14 students the option of being expelled or facing punishment. Each would have to dig an outhouse.
The students, all from the same village, chose to go home.
Ziba, a teacher, thought that the students had made the wrong decision. He invited them to his home, where he and his wife urged them to humble themselves and accept the punishment.
The students refused and left the campus on July 27 for the port of Nkhata Bay, where they planned to take a ship home.
Ziba refused to give up. The next day, he walked the 15 miles (24 kilometers) from the school to the port.
"He found the pupils at the port and again pleaded with them to return to school," said Limbe, his daughter. "He spent the whole day trying to reason with them."
The students again refused to accept the punishment.
Six of the students bought tickets and boarded the MV Vipya ship when it docked. The other eight scattered, looking for odd jobs to pay their passage.
The 130-foot (40-meter) ship, making its fourth trip since its launch a month earlier, sailed from the harbor with 194 passengers and crew on board, including the six students.
The Vipta, custom-built in Belfast by the same shipyard that built the Titanic, started to roll heavily amid a strong wind during the voyage, according to the Bradt travel guide "Malawi." The crew members urged the ship's captain to head to shore when the ship started taking on water, but he refused. Just as the captain ordered the hatch opened for an emergency evacuation, an enormous wave capsized the ship, trapping most of the passengers and crew below deck.
At least 145 people drowned in the disaster, which remains the worst accident on Lake Malawi. Among the 49 survivors were only two Luwazi students.
The news of the drownings devastated Ziba, who blamed himself for not doing more to stop the students from leaving the school, his daughter said.
Ziba told the guests at his 100th birthday celebration at the Mzuzu Hotel, located in the city of Mzuzu, about 28 miles (45 kilometers) northwest of the port, that he still felt terrible about what had happened.
The Malawi News Agency, in its account of the Dec. 28 birthday, editorialized that Ziba’s desire to help the 14 students exemplified the selfless life that he has led.
“It is this virtue of willingness to help others that made the retired pastor popular wherever he lived, doing God's work,” it said. “He may have retired today from preaching, but people still speak highly of him.”
Patrick Chandamuka Ziba, the youngest of four children, was born in Kafukule and went to school at Luwazi Mission. He married Vickiness Jere in 1939 and returned to Luwazi Mission to work as a teacher, pastor, and principal. Later, he received ministerial training at Solusi College (now Solusi University) in Zimbabwe, and served as a pastor in various districts of Malawi before retiring at Luwazi Mission. In 1994, he traveled to the U.S. and preached in the states of California and Washington.
Five of his nine children are still alive, including a daughter, Rennie Zumazuma, who lives in the U.S. and flew to Malawi for the birthday.
Birthday guests described Ziba as an inspiration and a parental figure.
“I have known him since I was 6 years old,” said Rose Chibambo, 86, Malawi's first female government minister.
“I am happy that my father is around,” Chibambo said in a speech carried by the Malawi News Agency. “At my age, he is the only one I can call father. I wish him many more years.”
View a photo of Patrick Ziba with Rose Chibambo at the birthday
Ziba, dressed in a black suit, black bow tie, and a trilby hat that he has worn since 1936, looks younger than his 100 years. Photos published by local media show a lean, handsome man with a wide smile. Ziba also walks without assistance, speaks without trouble, and does not wear glasses.
His longevity is unusual in a country where the average life expectancy is 58 for men and 62 for women.
Ziba said he has lived so long because he takes care of his health.
"I do not believe in traditional medicine. I neither drink nor smoke. As for my diet, I like simple food such as rice porridge and kondoole,” a thick cassava porridge, he said. “To reach 100 years is not a joke.”