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Writing poetry led to Jack Mapanje's imprisonment in his native Malawi. Nicky Woolf talks to the poet about his latest book, Beasts of Nulanga, and relocating from Africa to North Yorkshire
In the end," says Jack Mapanje, pausing momentarily to look me in the eye, as if seeking to search out my motivations, "I narrow them down to you and me."
I lean forward, eager to understand. The 'them' to which he is referring are the 'Beasts of Nalunga', the subjects of an eponymous poem in his newest collection. They are inspired by reports of mysterious, murderous creatures in Malawi, Mapanje's home. I try to make him clarify his meaning, asking if he believes there is something of these 'Beasts of Nalunga' in all of us. Mapanje beams with delight. "When our temporal spirals have done their final round," he recites solemnly from his book, "we'll find beasts of Nalunga lurking here, lurking there, lurking..." he pauses for effect, "even in you and me." His poem, read aloud, is very moving; all the more so for the obvious rawness of emotion and experience. Mapanje is a poet not just concerned with the mysterious horrors around him - he is writing about the horrors that we conceal within.
Jack Mapanje is no stranger to the horrific. In 1987, as one of Africa's most promising poets and head of the University of Malawi's English department, he was arrested and imprisoned for nearly four years on the orders of Dr. Hastings Banda, the 'Life President' of Malawi. His incarceration, under those Mapanje refers to with a disgusted growl as "despots", was immediate, without trial, and brutal beyond definition - typical of the regime he and so many others lived under.
He takes a very deep breath. "Now, effectively what I am suggesting there is this excitement with where these beasts come from. Is it because of the dictatorial regime that has created it? There's a whole history of these... murders." The word is elongated; filled with disgust, and his lip takes on a contemptuous curl when he utters it. "Strange murders which have happened in my country but have been happening at cyclic levels. They have a cyclic sort of structure to them; a spiralling structure. The cycle starts from here, it goes around, it comes there." This last sentence is punctuated by wild and descriptive hand motions signifying the spiralling nature of time and space, myth and legend. "Life," he concludes, "is in the form of spirals."
These spirals are an integral part of both Mapanje's writing and his philosophy. To him, there will always be the despot and there will always be the poet. His writing is fused with a deeply outraged humanity that feels every murder, the killing of every innocent, deeply personally and wants the reader to feel it too. 'Another Tomb 40 Years On', for example, is a powerful and anguished listing of people Mapanje has seen killed; "shameless, needless, endless martyrs" to a brutal regime.
I ask him about the influences on his writing. "You chose your influences from wherever you liked," Mapanje says, "but, if you could, you tried your home first, before you went outside home. And so African orality defines a lot of the poetry."
Spoken word and the idea of telling or even singing a story to an enraptured audience is very important to Mapanje. His poems have stunning impact when read aloud; and when he reads them to me, they take on a life of their own. His voice, deep and powerful, also displays a touching delicacy. It is easy to see the power of the feeling that lies behind the poetry.
I describe how, when reading his poems to myself, I often find myself reading them aloud and his joy is immediate. "Absolutely!" he says with pride, like a schoolteacher with a favourite pupil. "These are meant to be read aloud. And if you notice, they have a voice. And if you also notice, they are addressing you."
He stops suddenly, and his voice changes to one of patient explanation. Again, I am his pupil. "This is what happened: The Norwegian Embassy in Malawi and the British Embassy in Malawi got together and invited me from the UK to go and run workshops for them three years ago. This was a dream for me! I had never even read from my own poetry in my own country. Now, I arrive, and the first thing is 'No! I don't believe I am here!'"
Mapanje pauses, then continues in more solemn tones. "When I left, it was horror. The British High Commissioner effectively smuggled my family out of Malawi. They sent me protection at the airport to make sure that we left, because there were stories that they were going to bump me off - we used the term 'accidentalised' - they were going to accidentalise me."
The phrase 'accidentalised' brings the terror of life under a dictator home; its obvious bitter sarcasm reminds me of Orwell's 1984 and I make that suggestion to Mapanje. "Absolutely!" He replies, almost triumphantly. "But that's exactly what it is! It's an Orwell world! People would be living in a house, and the next day you open the door..."
Getting into his stride, he has made a house shape with his hands. Then, abruptly, he waves the hands away as if the house has turned suddenly to dust, as he says with a bluntness that shocks me, "and everyone is dead. Somebody has come in with intravenous tubing and sucked all the blood out." Aghast, I ask why. Mapanje shrugs. "There were stories that this blood was being sent to South Africa - apartheid South Africa this was at the time - in exchange for gold. South African gold. During those years, Dr. Banda's rule, you'd find people killed like this; either their blood had been sucked out or their private parts had been removed- and nobody knew who was doing this, or why. And there were stories like 'oh, this is witchcraft.'" He shakes his head. "I don't know."
"It was part of the reign of terror," he continues as I listen on, spellbound. "'If you protest against us, this is what will happen to you; you will disappear.' But not all people who disappeared this way were politically motivated. That's the thing that most frightened us."
As a counterpoint to the horror back home, we talk about his life here in Britain. 'Beasts of Nalunga' is split into three sections, the middle of which is named 'Of Homes Weirdly Sweet'. It is about his life in Yorkshire; the magpies in his garden, the taxi drivers in York and so on; rural romanticisms, highlighted and bittersweet because of the poems of anguish and tyranny that surround them. For a long time, Mapanje served as writer-in-residence at Dove Cottage in Cumbria, William Wordsworth's home and now the headquarters of the Wordsworth Trust.
The time he spent in the Lake District has had a tangible effect on both Mapanje's poetry and his life, and his love for England as a home seems as strong as his love for his native Malawi. One poem, 'Fleeting Child of the 3-Day Week' is a strident answer to racial abuse in absolute terms: "What have you done to dub me economic migrant?" the poet asks. I ask whether the poem comes from direct personal experience and Mapanje's answer is animated. "Well somebody came up to me and said, 'Hey, you bloody whatever-you-are you, you bloody economic migrant, I don't know what the hell you're doing here.' This was not the first time I saw racism. There was racism in London when I was a student, there was racism here when we first arrived, and so on and so forth, but for the first time I got very angry. I never get angry when they call you things. But on this occasion I got so angry with him, I said you... bloody whatever!"
Mapanje at this point bursts out laughing; obviously this sort of bigotry is water off a duck's back to him. "I set out my life there. I said, and I'm saying in the..." he gestures at the words on the page before him, "I said I don't know who you are. This is who I am, now tell me who you are. How can you... how dare you? What do you know of what economics migrants suffer?"
I ask him how it felt to be back again after all the years of prison and exile. "So, I left home August 1991. I'll have been in York 16 years this August; but I didn't believe, my wife did not believe, my three children did not believe that we were ever going to get back home. And we've been home, as a family, once now." He laughs, an exuberant, contagious belly-laugh. "Well! I felt like doing what Pope John Paul used to do; kissing the ground over and over again! But I didn't. But that sense of disbelief, that same sense I'm describing in the first line of the poem 'No, I never thought I'd return to them so early.' Things have improved somewhat; but the hand of the dictator is always there. All his cronies are still hanging around trying to protect themselves and claiming they have not done anything to anybody during Banda's period, but everybody knows it was them. Cronies are dangerous people. They'll do anything they can to protect their good life, so they'll use every trick in the game to shut people from the truth."
He almost spits the last few words, then swiftly regains composure. I am momentarily speechless; completely bowled over by his vigorous manner and captivating storytelling, by the abhorrence of the regime he describes and by his ability to bounce from burning anger to laughter within seconds. Mapanje seems immune to the horror of his tales. He tells them as you would a harmless anecdote, allowing the anguish to wash through him and pass. That's not to say he does not get angry, or sad, but he is never ruled by his pain. A classic poet, he tells a story - whether it be a story of death or hatred, anger or despair - but lets none of them get the better of him for long. With this in mind, I ask whether he believes that some art, for itself, needs something to rail against. He gives a long sigh, and his voice takes on an air of regretful melancholy.
"I'm afraid that is true," he says. "For some of us, perhaps because we started by railing against the world before us, a world that was so structured that it was full of lies. We wanted to create an alternative world with a bit... a bit of truth in it. Now once you establish that, then the next thing you will have is that you will be fighting for the truth. I'm not saying this to be 'big things'- fighting for truth and whatever; no, it is annoying!" He spreads his arms in a wild gesture of appeal, and pleads "I want to write verse! If there is something to rail against, I will rail against it... I will write verse about it." His serious air drops from him as easily as it had come, and he grins mischievously. "Really, I just want to write love poems," he says wistfully, the glint in his eye revealing just a hint of self-deprecating irony. "Maybe I will just write love poems from now on..."
Beasts of Nalunga is published on June 14 by Bloodaxe, priced £7.95.
History of Malawi: shaking off a coloniser and dictator
The famous Dr David Livingstone was the first significant western visitor to the Maravi state, as the area by the shores of Lake Malawi was known. With him he brought trade, Presbytarianism and the attention of the British. In 1891, the British established the British Central Africa Protectorate, which by 1907 had become the Nyasaland Protectorate.
British control, punctuated by a number of unsuccesful uprisings, lasted until well into the 1950s. Nyasaland was joined with Northern and Southern Rhodesia in 1953 to form the Central African Federation, and by then the area's clamour for independence was becoming increasingly difficult for the beleagured British government to ignore.
In July 1958, Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda returned to the country after a long time abroad, having studied medicine in Tennessee and subsequently practised in the UK and Ghana. He quickly assumed leadership of the the Malawi Congress Party (MCP).
In 1961, Banda's MCP won an overwhelming victory in elections for a new Legislative Council. In 1963, following a constitutional summit in London, the British Government granted Malawi self-governance. Banda became Prime Minister and Malawi became a fully independent member of the Commonwealth in July 1964.
Two years later, Malawi became a republic and a one-party state with Banda as its first president, a title which by 1971 had extended to 'President for Life'. The paramilitary wing of Banda's regime, the 'Young Pioneers', kept Malawi under his dictatorial control. Those who opposed the Life President were either killed or driven into exile.
This reign of terror was not limited to political dissenters. All religion required government approval, and members of some religious groups, such as Jehovah's Witnesses, were persecuted. Citizens of Indian heritage were forced to move into designated Indian areas. Movement in and out of Malawi was strictly limited.
The Malawi Censorship Board censored books, newspapers, films and television for moral and political content. Telephone calls were monitored and disconnected if the conversation was politically critical. Speaking out against Banda and his governance was strictly forbidden and carried severe penalties.
It has been estimated that as many as 250,000 people disappeared or were murdered during Banda's 30-year reign.
However, the end of the Cold War in the 1990s brought increasing domestic unrest. Pressure from the international community finally led to Banda's agreeing to a referendum in which the Malawian people were asked to vote for a new form of government.
In 1993 the people of Malawi voted overwhelmingly in favor of multi-party democracy. Free and fair national elections were held the following year, and Bakili Muluzi of the United Democratic Front (UDF) was elected President. Muluzi, a Muslim from the south, immediately freed prisoners, re-established freedom of speech and lifted the unofficial night curfew that had marked the years under the 'Life President'.
Malawi saw its first democratic transition of power in 2004, when the UDF's presidential candidate Bingu wa Mutharika defeated the MCP candidate John Tembo. A majority was successfully secured a majority by forming a "government of national unity" with several opposition parties.
Banda himself was tried in 1995 for murder but was acquitted, later apologising for any suffering he may have 'unknowingly caused'. He died in 1997.