Prof Jack Mapanje was jailed without trail by one of Africa’s greatest dictators, Kamuzu Banda, for three years and seven months but Mapanje jailed Banda in his poetry forever.
That is always the battle between the poet and the politician; this was the talk at Makerere University when the Malawian Literature globe-trotter took a reading from his blockbusting poetry on March 12.
Mapanje, born in 1944, is a distinguished linguist, an indomitable scholar, a human rights activist and an award winning poet who has taught in the universities of London, York, Leeds, Newcastle and is currently at the University of Botswana.
The hall went thunderous when the poet read from his poems When this carnival closes, a poem which landed him in prison; Of Chameleons and gods (1981); New platform dances; Song of Chicken; and The walls of Mikuyu, a collection from his detainment condition memoirs.
Mapanje is the brains behind Beasts of Nalunga (2011). perhaps you have come across his autobiographical And the crocodiles are still hungry at night and other works like Oral poetry from Africa, Gathering Sea Weed.
Mapanje’s poetry is consciously illusive and is studied across the globe as a contribution to the Literature of Incarceration and is considered a pillar element of the angry poets of the 1980s, falling in the categories of the Nigerian Niyi Osundare, Kenyan Micere Mugo, Ghanaian Kofi Anyidoho, Sierra Leonean Syl Cheney-Coker and others.
His concerns are largely political and he is a mouthpiece of the oppressed vulnerable, like prisoners, skeletal children, political killings and the plight of the common man. Prof Mapanje was invited to the country by Africa Writers Trust, a society directed by Gorret Kyomuhendo, a Ugandan novelist and was hosted by the department of Literature at Makerere University under Dr Susan Kiguli, a poet.
The function was graced by other Literature gurus like Prof Arthur Gakwandi, Prof Abas Kiyimba, Dr Ernest Okello Ogwang, the dean school of Language, Literature and Communication, Makerere staff, students and Members of Femrite. Mapanje has no kind words for the cheeky sassy dictators and blood suckers of the African continent.
“When situations are tough, human beings always find a way out,” Mapanje told The Observer.
Makerere hosted the first African writers’ conference in 1962 when the generations of Wole Soyinka , Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o among others were deliberating new African writers trends.
Mapenje appreciated Makerere’s contribution towards his freedom by a filmed documentary of Mapanje’s life which was filmed on the day of his release from Mikuyu prison. Mapanje said: ”Nobody told me why I was arrested and nobody told me why I was released…but I believe it was a poem.”
He encouraged new breed experiment writing. On his fascinating use of animal imagery, Mapanje said he used it to hide. “We still taught poetry even if Banda had banned it,” he said.
The Vice Chancellor, Prof John Dumba Ssentamu appreciated Jack Mapanje’s contribution to Literature and the continued relationship between Makerere University and African writers.