The Mighty Pen

Cocooned within the Western world, it’s easy to take for granted the virtues of a free press. But if forbidden from criticising your government outright, argues Jack Mapanje, you can always think more creatively and master that fine art of meaning without saying. He shares his irrepressible philosophy, and its consequences, with Nick Carson.

Discussing the subversive power of metaphor with one of Africa’s foremost writers makes for an intriguing blend of history and culture, and the smoky medieval pub in which it takes place only adds to the mix. We have an hour before Jack goes on stage to read from his works at the UK’s first Black Poetry Festival, organised by Coventry’s Heaventree Press.

To understand fully the lengths to which Jack Mapanje is prepared to go rather than compromise his writing, you have to look beyond the comparatively petty frustrations of our own ‘nanny state’ into the brutal totalitarianism under Malawi’s self-declared President for life, Hastings Kamuzu Banda.

Damning with twisted praise

Mapanje’s much-admired first volume of poetry, Of Chameleons and Gods, was published in 1981. It cast a critical eye on Banda’s twenty-year “frothful carnival” under the guise of the traditional praise form, a technique that echoes the heavily barbed poetry surrounding the English Civil War – when open treason would have had similar consequences.

Seemingly it took the Malawian government until 1985 to punch through the layers of meaning, and despite its growing international acclaim they banned the collection throughout the country. Two years later the poet who drew the world’s attention to the widespread poverty in the wake of Banda’s riches, “shocked by the tedium [of his] continuous palaver,” was thrown into the notorious Mikuyu Prison – where he remained until 1991.

No warrant required

When asked if he would be prepared to be imprisoned again rather than censor his work, Jack smiles; and with good reason. There was never a formal charge placed against him, and to suggest that it was his poetic mockery that fuelled the wrath of a dictator is pure speculation. “I wish someone had accused me of writing rude poems,” he admits. “I would be delighted to go back to jail if I was told why.”

“In a dictatorship, they don’t have to charge you with something; they just arrest you,” he points out. Pulled from the Gymkhana Club in September 1987 while enjoying a drink with a friend, Mapanje was soon stood before the assembled Commissioners of Police from across Malawi. But the tale that unfolded from there has a blackly comic edge to it, and the seasoned poet grins broadly as he tells it.

“The order for my arrest had come from Banda himself,” Jack explains. “If they investigated my case, it would appear that they didn’t trust him.” The beautifully surreal outcome was that his country’s senior police network was forced to ask him not only who he was, but why he felt they should arrest him.

Political friction

Many years later, Jack has two theories for what got the Secret Police onto his scent. The first is simple enough: With a respected PhD and three successful books, Banda thought his mocker was climbing too fast too quickly, and needed to have the rungs knocked out from under him. The second, more intricate version is featured in his upcoming prison memoirs: In his first venture into prose, he can at last say exactly what he means to say.

“Prince Charles came to Malawi with BBC journalist Kwabena Mensa, at a time when journalists were officially out-of-bounds,” he recalls. “The key issue was who would take over from Banda on his death, or retirement.” Although the ‘official’ word in Malawi was that it was impossible to tell, Mensa read in a Zambian newspaper that Banda’s concubine, Cecelia Kadzamira, was grooming herself to take over – and had placed her relatives in the country’s most influential positions.

Mensa’s report made its way onto the World Service. Immediately contacting the BBC to find its source, Banda was told it was the word on the street, even amongst distinguished circles at the University. Having judged a recent high-profile poetry competition for the World Service, Jack’s strong BBC connections lit him up like a lamp for a moth.

Violent retribution

Lending some weight to Mensa’s allegations, the Chairman of the University Council – John Tembo – was Cecilia’s uncle, and the Principal of the college where Jack lectured, Zimani Kadzamira, was her brother. The third, somewhat open-ended question asked of Mapanje on his arrest was ‘What have you been doing to each other in the University,’ which implied that Tembo and his nephew had bypassed the police force and reported directly to the top.

Prison was a horrible ordeal, but it could have been considerably worse. The journalist behind the original Zambian newspaper report, Mkwapatira Mhango, was an exiled member of MAFREMO, the Malawian freedom movement, and had already drawn Banda’s attention for allegedly leaking information to the foreign press. In 1989, he and his entire family of nine died in a tragic firebomb attack or, as Jack puts it, were “accidentalised.”

The pragmatic approach

With a PhD in Pragmatics, Mapanje has mastered “the art of meaning without saying,” as he describes his field of expertise. “In my prison memoirs there’s no need for metaphors; I can be direct, not abstract,” he admits. “But poetry is a lovely mode of expression. You can hide behind stories – even folk tales – and assume that people will see the symbols within. One of the best examples is Animal Farm; everyone knows what it truly represents.”

“At the time I knew it was dangerous to say anything directly, and our writers’ group tried to establish various ways of talking.” Yet in a cultural environment where poetry is declining as a popular form, can any ingrained political message reach the voting majority?

“Reading poetry to an audience gives you a presence; if you write it down, it depends how many people read it,” Jack remarks. He first read in his own country in 2002, five years after Banda’s death. Having been persuaded to hold Malawi’s first open election for thirty years in 1994, the life President finally lost his grip at the helm to his successor, Bakili Muluzi. “I finally discovered how much my poetry meant to people, and couldn’t believe it.”

Time will tell

Free press or not, some subjects in the West remain taboo until they’ve had a chance to heal. “I was at a conference in Canada when 9/11 had just happened,” Jack explains. “There were five people there from England, questioning the circumstances leading up to it: I joined in and said, ‘Why can’t you protest?’ But it was too fresh in their mind.”

“Time is a fascinating thing; it solves everything. Now the Americans are talking freely about what went wrong, but back then I think you might have been killed for satirising 9/11 even slightly.” But Mapanje remains adamant that creativity can thrive under even the most oppressive regime.

Back in 1986, the year before his arrest, he defiantly concurred with Polish novelist Tadeusz Konwicki’s sentiment that censorship “forces the writer to employ metaphors which raise the piece of writing to a higher level.” He may have spent over three years in prison for it, but ultimately his works are still on the shelves.

© Nick Carson 2004. First published on Channel 4’s IDEASFACTORY West Midlands

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