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Poetry at a price

OUTSPOKEN: Jack Mapanje was jailed after criticizing Malawi’s regime

IMAGINE if writing a poem could put you in prison for years without charge or trial; if voicing your opinion meant putting your life and the lives of your family in danger; or if writing an article meant you had to flee your home and move to another continent because a bounty has been placed on your head.

This was a reality for Malawi-born poet Jack Mapanje after he published poems criticizing the Malawian government and the country’s then-leader Hasting Kamuzu Banda.

Entitled Of Chameleons and Gods, the poem was withdrawn from circulation in Malawi shortly after its 1984 publication because it reproached the political leaders and their supporters. By 1987, Mapanje, a little-known academic was imprisoned for three years, seven months and 16 days, but never given a reason.

During his captivity, the poet wrote his memoir, And Crocodiles Are Hungry At Night, documenting his time in prison. This poem has been adapted into a play of the same name by Bilimankhwe Arts. Titled after a speech given by President Banda, the play tells the story of Malawi in the 1980s. Speaking about the play, Mapanje admitted that he had a special place in his heart for The Voice and the black British community, who helped in his fight for freedom.

“The black African and Caribbean community in the UK fought for me when I was in prison,” said the 68-year-old. “They gathered together and they started campaigning for me and my freedom. Even MP Dianne Abbott wrote a letter to my president to have me released; they were the people that fought for me.”

It was also this link to the UK that saved the poet’s life and enabled him to flee the repression of a brutal government.

“When I was released from prison, I was with my wife and half of my family was threatened. I remember the British high commissioner warning me, he said: ‘People are trying to get rid of you, so you better do something quick.’ And he helped me make contact with some of the people I knew in the UK and then I came here.”


POWERFUL PLAY: a scene from And Crocodiles Are Hungry At Night, which opens in London next week

But what makes a person risk their life and publish literature that they know could put them in danger? According to Mapanje, it was never about putting his life in jeopardy – he puts it down to stupidity.

“I didn’t publish the first poem until10 years after its composition. I’m a man that fears and I was afraid to publish the stories, but I decided it was better to have some courage and tell the truth rather than continue living on lies.

“I wasn’t really being a hero but there were plenty of heroes from all over Africa. I had my own little stupidity, or courage, to want to tell my story no matter what happened to me. In the end, the truth will come out and that was really the point.”

But the truth sometimes comes at a price – one being the exodus of many of Africa’s bravest and brightest people who dared to speak out about oppression in their homelands.

“In the 1960s,‘70s and 80s, there were a lot of countries throughout Africa who didn’t like anyone who was a radical thinker. They wanted everybody to fall in line; you either accepted that or left the country.

“Some of my friends couldn’t bear it, while some of us stayed on because someone had to stay around to watch what the government was doing and write about it. Even I eventually gave up and said no. There were times I wondered if I should have gone into exile like everybody else. That’s how quite a lot of African countries lost their brightest fellows, due to exile.”

Now, Mapanje, the senior lecturer in creative writing at The University of Newcastle, is aching to return to Africa to write about a different aspect of the continent’s past.

“I want to re-write folk talk and turn them into poems. My mother was responsible for my life and my education. She used to tell us folk tales and that is one of the things that influenced my poetry.”

And Crocodiles Are Hungry At Night is at The Africa Centre, London from July 31-August 18. For more information visit www.bilimankhwe-arts.org

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