I picked up this book last week, the first book I’ve ever read from the small Southern African country of Malaŵi, which I called home for 8 years. Malaŵi is a small country that not too many people seem to be aware of. Maybe Malaŵi should thank Madonna for at least putting it in the controversial spotlight for a while when she adopted David Banda. Despite its size,Malaŵi, like all other African countries, has a rich history and culture. I was interested in this book of poetry as it was written by radical Malaŵian poet, Jack Mapanje, who was arrested under Malaŵi’s former dictatorial regime, for just under 4 years, for publishing a collection of poems that criticized the Government. He wrote a lot of his poems while in prison.
This is the man who terrorized Malaŵi for over three decades. His official title was His Excellency the Life President of the Republic of Malaŵi, Ngwazi Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda, quite a mouthful for a man who was barely 5 feet tall.
During Banda’s regime, most houses and all government buildings and offices had a portrait of Dr. Banda hanging on the wall. There was only one party, the Malaŵi Congress Party (MCP), and every adult citizen had to carry party membership cards at all times. Being found without one was one of the several reasons a person might be detained. Pretty much anyone who spoke out against the dictatorship could be detained without trial. People who refused to carry a party membership card, for example the Jehovah’s Witnesses, were targeted as well. Jack Mapanje was one of those political prisoners. He, at least, did not suffer the fate of being fed to crocodiles, like so many other political activists were.
I found the entire book of poetry fascinating. The poems detailed actual people who were a part of Malaŵian and African history, and also some actual events that have taken place. For example, one poem called Our Doctor Mr Ligomeka, tells the story of a doctor who was not scared to treat political prisoners, and even warned Mapanje not to take any malaria medicine from the prison nurses because he believed the Government was trying to poison him. Another poem, The Following Dawn the Boots talks about “that legendary gang of four” who were 4 Malaŵian politicians; Aaron Gadama, Dick Matenje, Twaibu Sangala and David Chiwanga, who died in a mysterious “car accident” in the early Eighties. Other subject matter touched upon include the 1994 Rwandan genocide and the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa by Sani Abacha.
The poems also depict the beauty of Malaŵi, recounting Zomba plateau, the jacaranda and mango trees. Also, the British influence on the country is very evident throughout the book, Malaŵi being a former British colony, with strong ties to Scotland.
Mapanje was released from Mikuyu Prison on 10 May 1991, after public outcry from foreign writers. Soon after, he was exiled to England, where he still lives.
In 1992, following pressure from primary donors, the UK, Malawi held its first referendum, in which the people voted for a multiparty democracy. In 1994, Dr. Bakili Muluzi of the United Democratic Fund (UDF) party became the first democratically-elected president of Malaŵi. Muluzi freed all political prisoners at this time. Although Mapanje had already been free for a couple of years, we must be grateful for people like him who were not afraid to stand up to the regime in order for people to gain freedom. Because of activists like Mapanje, women in Malaŵi are now free to wear pants and short skirts, men can now grow their hair long, people are no longer afraid to air their political views.
The title of Mapanje’s book comes from the fact that Mikuyu Prison, where he was detained, did not allow any physical exercise and, as a result, the only exercise the prisoners could do was skipping without ropes!
My favourite verse from this book comes from the poem entitled When The Watery Monsters Argued :
But do not ask us to forget the past, and how
Could poetry forget the past when Africa still
Bleeds from forgetting the past; empower others
To forget your past- my struggle continues