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A Poet for Life Against a President-for-Life

<i> Hiltzik is The Times correspondent in Nairobi. </i>

One day late last year, officers of the Malawi security forces arrested Jack Mapanje in a pub in the capital, Lilongwe, escorted him in handcuffs to his office at the University of Malawi’s Chancellor College and ransacked the room.

What they were seeking is unknown, for Mapanje has not been charged with a crime. Nor has he been heard from in more than a year.

So Malawi has been deprived of its best poet--indeed, the only contemporary literary figure known outside the country. Having disappeared almost 15 months ago into Mikuyu Detention Camp, not far from Zomba, where he taught English and linguistics, Mapanje has become the longest-held political prisoner in Malawi’s recent history.

The detention has, if anything, improved the 44-year-old Mapanje’s literary standing. His works, written in English, have been given a public reading by the British playwright Harold Pinter (in front of the Malawi Embassy in London); his case has been the subject of an open letter to the Times of London, signed by such literary figures as Pinter, his wife, Lady Antonia Fraser, and Michael Holroyd. Last June, he received the 1988 Poetry International Prize, a Dutch honor granted to poets in captivity; accepting it on his behalf was Nigerian Nobel literature laureate Wole Soyinka.

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Mapanje’s case underscores the contraction of literary freedom throughout Africa, where democracy is steadily giving way to one-party oligarchy. In their literary and political topography, more and more countries resemble Malawi. This sliver of valley due south of Tanzania is a poverty-stricken country but one with a certain success at making the most--economically--of its meager resources. This success has been built largely along capitalist lines, which typically provokes Western commentators to overlook the threadbare political life permitted by Life President H. Kamuzu Banda, the U.S.- and British-educated physician who has led Malawi since its independence in 1964 and whose successor is yet to be named.

“The most plausible of scenarios links (Mapanje’s) case to the succession dispute,” says Landeg White, a professor at the University of York, England, and an old friend of Mapanje’s.

This succession question, long simmering in the background of Malawi politics as Banda has grown old, burst into sharp relief last September. The issue was Banda’s former medical receptionist, Mama Cecilia Kadzamira, who serves as the country’s “Official Hostess,” accompanying him everywhere. Kadzamira is also the niece of the person widely considered Banda’s most likely successor, a former secret police official named John Tembo.

An outbreak of speculation in the press of neighboring Zambia that Kadzamira was using her chairmanship of Malawi’s official women’s organization to build a political constituency set off a hunt for the source and provoked Banda to assert publicly that the Official Hostess had no political aspirations. Days later came Mapanje’s arrest.

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Although no one can link anything Mapanje wrote or said to the Kadzamira question, her brother is principal of Chancellor College, where the poet was chairman of the English department. Friends reason that he may have run afoul of the Kadzamira-Tembo clique in some way.

Another line of thought has it that Mapanje’s growing reputation itself jeopardized his safety in a land where only one person is permitted to be remarkable.

Mapanje’s renown had been spreading since 1981, when the British firm of Heinemann Books published his collection “Of Chameleons and Gods” as part of its African Writers Series. There he shared shelf space with such future Nobel literature laureates as Nigeria’s Soyinka and Naguib Mahfouz of Egypt, legendary figures such as South African anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko, and Banda’s fellow founders of independent African states, Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia and the late Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya.

Until his arrest in 1987, Mapanje’s book had not been officially banned, although importing it into Malawi was forbidden.

“In a place where intellectuals are quiet and docile and say nothing,” says Leroy Vail, an African historian who taught Mapanje at the University of Malawi, “he made the mistake of gaining an international reputation.”

Yet it might also be that it finally dawned on Banda what Mapanje was driving at. One of the central figures in his verse is that of the chief ignorant of the impending loss of his worldly glory, a particularly apt image for the nonagenarian Banda. He fuses this theme with another favorite motif, the appropriation of traditional culture by Malawi’s modern breed of politician, in a poem called “On His Royal Blindness Paramount Chief Kwangala.” Kwangala is a native Chichewa word meaning “dancing frantically,” a possible allusion to Banda’s habit of dancing in public on ceremonial occasions. One image in the following lines might refer to the Life President’s penchant for haranguing his audiences:

I admire the quixotic display of your paramountcy

How you brandish our ancestral shields and spears

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Among your warriors dazzled by your loftiness

But I fear the way you spend your golden breath

Those impromptu, long-winded tirades of your might

In the heat, do they suit your brittle constitution?

EDITOR’S NOTE: Jack Mapanje’s case is being followed by the Writers in Prison Committee of International PEN, which recommends that appeals for Mapanje’s release be addressed to:

His Excellency the Life President Ngwazi Dr. H. Kamuzu Banda

Office of the President

P/Bag 388

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Capital City

Lilongwe 3, Malawi


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