“The Slave Boy Who Became a Priest” by Kevin Denny (Malawi)

Kevin Writes — I have appreciated the recent writing in which RPCVs personalize the impact the Peace Corps has had on their lives. I have a story I would like to add to the collection. It is a story that covers less than a day, but it is one that makes me value my experience more every day.

The Slave Boy Who Became a Priest

by Kevin Denny (Malawi 2964-66)


It was my last day in Malawi. I had said good-bye to the village I had known for two years and the was making my last stop at the post office. There I ran into Father Tovey, an Anglican priest, who asked me when I was leaving. I told him the Peace Corps lorry would be at my door early the next morning to start me on my homeward journey. Then he asked me a rather strange question: Had I ever met Peter Kilakwa? I admitted that I had never even heard his name. He then insisted I must meet him before leaving.

Rev. Canon Kilakwa

Father Tovey had told me where to find Peter, and after lunch I jumped on my Ducati. When I reached his village, a small man with glasses as thick as English muffins, wearing a well-worn cassock with a faded crimson cincture, greeted me, “I presume you have come to hear my story.”

He guided me to two wicker chairs under a mango tree and began his story.

“I grew up in this very village. I was about six and I’ll never forget that day. I was playing near the lake when I heard loud shouting coming from the village, and then I saw grass roofs burning. Then I heard my mother’s voice crying out, ‘Run Tembo, run,’ but I could not leave her. I hid behind a rock and what I saw was beyond human belief. My grandmother was lying on the ground, her life bleeding away. The body of a small boy was hanging headless from a tree. To the slavers it was only the men who would have value at the slave market of Zanzibar.

“I ran toward my mother, but one of the slavers grabbed me and said, ‘You are a brave little one, but you cannot save your mother now,’ as he lashed my hand to my mother’s wrist with rope made from bark to bring our journey to the slave markets of Zanzibar.

He then described the unfathomable brutality of the slavers as they used their whips on those who could not keep up with the caravan as it marched to the sea. He stopped, his eyes watery, “I could not believe how one human could treat another.”

After a minute he was able to continue.

“At the slave market, an old Arab, with the look of Satan himself, threw down a few coins in disgust, saying I wasn’t worth a penny because it was unlikely I would live to see Oman. My only good fortune was that when they dragged me to the dhow I saw my father. But my relief was brief because I saw slavers pushing him down into the cargo hold, from which he would only emerge briefly twice a day.

“Then, after three days at sea, I could see a dark cloud rising from the ocean. One of the younger slavers yelled, ‘They are coming! They are coming! The men who eat little children for breakfast are coming!

“I could see the slavers were frantic. They began dragging their human cargo up to the deck. Some they just threw in the ocean. My father tried to grab my hand, but a wicked looking slaver pulled him away from me. Not finished with his work, he picked up his scimitar and severed my father’s head before pushing his body into the sea. With a lightened load, the dhow made a desperate attempt to outrun the approaching ship. Then the cannons began to boom, and I knew my life was over.

“The first canon shot fell short, but, as the ship headed full steam toward us, its accuracy improved. It was only a matter of minutes before they had a direct hit that tore our mast into splinters. Then the dhow began to tilt and swiftly dropped to the bottom of the sea.

“I had never learned to swim, but when I surfaced, I spotted a section of mast and learned quickly. Somehow, I reached the mast and held on like my life depended on it . . . which, of course, it did.

“The next thing I can remember was seeing men in a rowboat heading toward me. It was terrifying because I had never seen anyone like them. They were all dressed in blue, had pale skin, and beards that reached to their bellies. And I knew they ate children for breakfast!

“The rowboat came toward me. One of the men reached out and grabbed my arm. As he was pulling me into the boat, I heard him say, ‘Okay, Okay’, as he wrapped a blanket around me. I could not understand anything he said, but the men in the boat seemed kind. After there were no more bodies to be seen on the surface of the water, they rowed back to their ship. There were seven other survivors in the rowboat with me. One was an Arab, and I could not understand why they would save someone so evil.

“When we reached the frigate one of the men carried me up the ladder and, when we reached the deck, another man gave me hot tea and a warm blanket, which I gathered was to keep me alive until they were ready to have me for their breakfast. But they treated all of us with kindness, bringing us dry clothes and stew. Soon the sailors were treating me like their pet. One of them even made a little blue uniform for me and taught me how to salute.

“After we had been sailing for two more days, I could sense a change. The men began talking among themselves, but they had lost their laughter. I knew the ship was headed back to the shore to return the few of us that had survived. Then, later in the day when we could make out land, one of the sailors took my hand and led me up the stairs and into the captain’s quarters. The captain did not seem happy. He just walked over to his sea chest and lifted its top. One of the sailors lifted me into the chest, squeezing his finger to his lips . . . a message for me not to say a word.

“We stopped only long enough to deliver the survivors to the shore, still miles from their homes. After we had sailed out to sea for a few hours, the Captain lifted the top of sea chest and said, ‘Now, little man, you are one of us.’ And that is how I began my 23 years in the service of the Queen.”

The sun had begun its descent behind the mountains. Peter’s eyes began to flutter, and he said, “I am an old man. I am sorry, but I am growing very tired. Would it be possible for you to come back in the morning to hear the rest of my story?”

Kevin Denny saying goodbye in Malawi

Early the next morning the lorry arrived as promised, and I began my journey home, leaving behind a story half-told and a hunger to know the rest of Peter’s journey. When I returned two years later, the villagers remembered me and told me, “Peter is no more.”

Peter was in his nineties when I met him. It is possible that I could have been the last person with whom he shared his story. I returned home and completed the first chapter of Peter’s Perils, but the start of the next chapter brought my own reality. How could I tell the story of a man when I knew so little about his life? In the end, it is my hope that Peter would have been pleased, not just by how I told his story, but more importantly, by how I conveyed that his sorrows were never stronger than his faith.

Kevin Denny (Malawi 1964-66) has a masters in both Anthropology and Public Health and a medical degree from Case Western Reserve Medical School. 

In 1991 he co-founded the Malawi Children’s Village, a community-based orphan care program that received the NPCA’s Sargent Shriver Distinguished Humanitarian Award. Today, he lives in retirement with his wife in County Mayo, Ireland.

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