The nursery school to which I went most mornings between the ages of three and five was a brightly painted building in the lush university town of Zomba, in the southern part of Malawi. It was surrounded by an assortment of climbing frames, sand-pits, colorful shrubs and other garden paraphernalia placed there for the delight of my fellow toddlers and me. Several other important institutions surrounded the nursery school. On one side was a large Presbyterian church built in red brick. Perpendicular to the church stretched the third hole of the colonial-era gymkhana club golf course, and right across the road there was an imposing police station. Lastly, there was our noisiest neighbor, the local headquarters of the Malawi Young Pioneers, a paramilitary group fiercely loyal to the country’s life-president, Hastings Kamuzu Banda.
The Young Pioneers’ favored pursuits ranged from harassing members of the public at random to plunging suspected political dissidents into baths filled with acid. Local golfers had therefore to be very careful indeed when hitting their approach shots on the third. Between a garden full of small children and a church in service it was tough to know which would be the worst landing spot for any wayward shots. But what tended to encourage cautious play most of all was the frequent sight of groups of Young Pioneers idling atop the wall of their compound, legs in combat trousers dangling not far above the bunker protecting the green. This was the Malawi of the early 90s, and in those days most tended to play it safe.
The poet Jack Mapanje was having a beer with a friend in the clubhouse bar one afternoon in 1987 when he was told there was somebody to see him. He found the local police commissioner, perched on a bar stool, hat on, cane tucked under one arm. The commissioner looked him in the eye. “You are Dr. Jack Mapanje, head of the English department, Chancellor College, University of Malawi?”
Mapanje confirmed that he was, and was arrested, handcuffed and driven to his office at the university, where the commissioner’s men rifled through his files. They ransacked his home, and at last delivered him to Mikuyu Maximum Security Detention Centre, a bleak prison set in in the flat and featureless floor of the Rift Valley. Here Mapanje, the great figure of Malawian letters, would spend the next three and a half years of his life.
It has taken two full decades for Mapanje to publish his memoirs of those years. In between he has added four books of poetry to his oeuvre and taught at the University of Leeds and the University of Newcastle. And Crocodiles Are Hungry at Night is the poet’s sweeping reflection on a difficult and painful life, a life defined by its scarring confrontation with tyranny in its most naked style. But his story transcends the personal. Mapanje has taken inspiration from Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s classic Detained (1981), by attempting to make his contribution to the (sadly burgeoning) African literature of incarceration function, first and foremost, as an “alternative history of the nation seen through the lens of my prison.” Just as Ngugi had set down his wrath against Jomo Kenyatta on roll after roll of toilet paper, and Wole Soyinka had scribbled between the lines of the few books allowed him by Yakubu Gowon’s military government, so Mapanje finds his own way of continuing to write in jail, hiding pencil lead in his hair and tucking away notes made on soap wrappers in the cracks and crannies of his dilapidated cell. And just like those two, the catacombed poet turns out to be his country’s most vital and furious historian.
In prison, he finds maggots in the beans, and beds that are merely rectangles daubed in white paint on the concrete floor of the cell he shares with a dozen political prisoners. Like all prison writers he is revolted by the “indelible reek” of the jail, and it is the smell of the place, along with the frequent strip-searches he is subjected to, that he finds most unbearable of the many hardships at Mikuyu. The tedium of prison life is only interrupted by the arrival of notes from his friends and family, slipped to him through a hole in the trouser pocket of a brave guard identified only by his squeaky boots and the moniker “Noriega.” Still, there are some light moments within the misery. He becomes an obsessive observer of the birds that visit the prison, classifying them according to their different gaits. He teaches an illiterate inmate to read and write, using his malarial prophylaxis as chalk on the walls and floor. One of his friends tames a frog. And when news of Nelson Mandela’s release reaches them, the prisoners stand together in the courtyard and sing for joy.
Mapanje spends much of his time trying to figure out why he has been locked up. This allows him to look back on his life prior to his imprisonment, but his attempts to attribute logic to the opaque totalitarian regime and its factions founder every time. His first volume of poetry, Of Chameleons and Gods, had been published in 1981 and had been banned four years later by the Censorship Board, to which all writings had to be submitted for approval ahead of publication. After its banning, Young Pioneers took every copy from the university book shop and threw them down pit latrines, the same fate that had befallen a groundbreaking anthology of oral poetry from around Africa that Mapanje had edited. His early poems made profound criticisms of Banda’s leadership, but did so through dense layers of metaphor that frequently invited misinterpretation as the sort of nativist writing which would have aligned with Banda’s own neo-traditionalist rhetoric. However, it was the acclaim for Mapanje, rather than any perspicacity on the part of the censors, that got the book banned by a regime that came to regard the success of individual citizens as a scurrilous affront to its authority. Thus, while Mapanje had taken the trouble over the course of eleven years painstakingly to dissect through verse of great power and visionary sophistication the unfolding disaster of his new nation’s politics, it may well have been because these lines were so accomplished—and not because the censors had cracked their shifting codes—that they were made to fester in latrines, and the mind that bore them locked away in Mikuyu.
[T]hough the structures and habits of the Banda-era still linger, those years may seem a long time ago for a society whose population is as young as Malawi’s.
He had been too brilliant, too bold. On the second page of his (sadly yet unpublished) masters dissertation, which he completed in London in 1975, he wrote simply: “There is no written literary tradition in Malawi today.” The three men who might have begun such a tradition after independence from the British in 1964—Aubrey Kachingwe, Legson Kayira and David Rubadiri—had been variously exiled and intimidated into silence. The nation had been born, but it had no writers of stature to speak for it. The young Mapanje stepped undaunted into this gap. Like many African writers after decolonization, he was caught up in the project of fusing received literary genres with pre-existing local forms—the dance, drama, myths and performed poems that had come to be known collectively as “orature.” Mapanje set about the formidable task of forging a literary tradition for the new Malawi beneath the menacing gaze of Banda’s censors. What he achieved in this regard has scarcely been appreciated. Here was a man of wide ambition for the emerging national culture in Malawi, and a poet with a just sense of the contribution that he could make to it.
Why then was a life of such promise ruined in this way? Mapanje’s imprisonment is best understood as one of the paradigmatic events in Malawi’s history since independence. It was an outrage that—like Mapanje’s poetry—takes us right to the core of what power after empire has meant for that country, as for many in Africa.
As with Nkrumah’s Convention People’s Party in Ghana, SWAPO in Namibia, KANU in Kenya, and more recently Zanu-PF in Zimbabwe and the African National Congress in South Africa, so in Malawi the Malawi Congress Party (MCP), which had achieved liberation from colonial rule, slipped into what the South African poet Jeremy Cronin recently described as “a problematic habit of identifying themselves as ‘the nation.’” This process of substitutionism, which saw political legitimacy monopolized by a single party, was in turn extended to the MCP’s leader, Hastings Kamuzu Banda. He dubbed himself the father of the nation, yet, in a fashion one might almost think of as curiously trinitarian, his power relied on his embodying the nation even as he announced himself its sole progenitor. The investment of such power in Banda alone conveyed enormous political meaning upon his personal narrative, which was parroted within the Malawian public sphere to the exclusion of all others, inculcating a set of myths about the man which even today retain a powerful hold over how he is remembered and memorialized. For Banda was never merely Kamuzu. His most common praise names included the Ngwazi (Conqueror, or Chief of Chiefs), Mpulumutsi (Savior), Wamuyaya (President for Life) and Nkhoswe(Number One). All state institutions were compelled to refer to him as “His Excellency The Life President Ngwazi Dr H. Kamuzu Band.”
Mapanje is able to write his nation’s history so well through memoir because the signal feature of Malawi right from the start of its existence has been the vicious antagonism of the ruling government towards the country’s most talented people. The scale of the waste this has entailed cannot be reckoned with, but with And Crocodiles there is at last a measure of elegy being set down for the droves of bright lives that have been lost or blighted by exile and imprisonment. In a poem written not long after his release, Mapanje situates this group in bitter terms:
And you brethren in dissent
Are out of bounds, meat for crocodiles
Mere cliché in our country’s anthology
Of martyrs, perhaps even smudges on
The blank page of this nation[.]
When Mapanje, exasperated in his cell, poses the question, “What can anybody be, when everybody must play Mr. Nobody?,” he does so surrounded by the weary victims whose detentions show that Banda’s avowed anti-intellectualism, deep-rooted as it was, was just part of the wider system of aggression toward any Malawian who rose above quiescent anonymity.
And Crocodiles are Hungry at Night is the work of many years of reflection in exile, and though the structures and habits of the Banda-era still linger, those years may seem a long time ago for a society whose population is as young as Malawi’s. Yet the memoir’s publication this summer could scarcely be more timely, offering as it does a history of local tyranny at a time when political violence has escalated to a pitch not seen since Banda’s demise. In the last few months, citizens peacefully protesting government corruption and cronyism, fuel and foreign exchange shortages, abuses of academic freedom and attacks on civil society groups, have repeatedly been met with tear gas and live ammunition. The current Vice-President Joyce Banda, who has long been at loggerheads with President Bingu wa Mutharika, last week described the emergence of a “reign of terror” in the country. In all of this, the university remains as crucial a site of resistance now as it was under Banda. Lecturers have been on strike for almost all of this year after a colleague who included a discussion of the Arab spring in a class was menaced by police. Last month Robert Chasowa, a leader of the student group Youth for Democracy, was murdered on his campus. Other students are missing or have been subjected to threats.
The situation is dire, but Mapanje’s memoir provides invaluable historical context, especially so as President wa Mutharika has imitated the style and character of Banda’s dictatorship as unimaginatively as he has. His attempts to recuperate the substitutionism which concentrates sovereignty in the presidential person alone, to make himself sole “decider” (as the second Bush had it), have necessitated the concomitant cultivation of a cult of personality. He has taken on Banda’s best-known honorific, “Ngwazi,” and even formed a copycat youth militia. Political opponents including clergymen and rights activists have had their homes fire-bombed; others have been publicly hacked by the machete-swinging youths of the Democratic Progressive Party Cadets. Wa Mutharika even has his own Lady Macbeth-Cecilia Kadzamira, his second wife Callista, who recently accused NGOs of spreading homosexuality in the country and told them to “go to hell.”
The Banda-like stylings are obvious, too obvious to convince. While Banda cast himself charismatically as lion and liberator of the nation, the cupboard of sovereign myths available to wa Mutharika is bare. An elderly former World Bank technocrat, he possesses Banda’s egoism and scorn for others, but none of the political gifts that made Banda popular in his time as well as feared. Malawi’s civil society, and much of its population, are in more or less open revolt. Wa Mutharika is in the second and thus final term of his presidency: he is a nuisance with horizons in a way that the immutable Banda could never have been for Mapanje.