The activist poet who does not stick to the script

Saturday March 16 2013

The activist poet who does not stick to the script


By Dennis D. Muhumuza

When he first came to Uganda in 2005, he advised writers not to constrain themselves by labelling their works. “Do not go out of your way to say this poem is about peace,” he said. “It might not be.”

An intriguing statement considering that a writer is expected to know the subject matter better. But that is Prof Jack Mapanje – ever unpredictably interesting in his sayings as in his writings.

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The celebrated Malawian poet, once jailed by President Hastings Kamuzu Banda for his critical writings, was in the country, courtesy of the African Writers’ Trust (AWT), to deliver a keynote address at the Uganda International Writers Conference, held in Entebbe, from March 7-12.

AWT is a London-based organisation, founded in 2009 by Ugandan writer Goretti Kyomuhendo, to link and coordinate African writers in the Diaspora and on the continent to share skills, resources and experiences.

Mapanje, who has lived in exile in UK for 21 years, jumped at the chance to come to Uganda again.

Not just because his daughter is married to a Ugandan, but also because he “owes” his life to Ugandans who he says played a significant role in his release from prison in 1991.


From prison to exile
Then, members of Makerere University Travelling Theatre staged a play in which they wore costumes that read: “Release Jack Mapanje.” His release was on the day the play premiered, after spending “three years, seven months, 16 days and 12 hours” in the then dreaded Mikuyu prison.

Prior to his arrest in 1987, he was head of Department of English, University of Malawi, who had caught the literary world’s eye with his poetry collection, Of Chameleons and Gods (1981) which won the 1988 Rotterdam International Poetry Award.

After his release, Mapanje went to UK where he continued to write. He also taught literature of incarceration and creative writing at University of Leeds for three years.

Glow and grow
He also edited the acclaimed Gathering Seaweed: African Prison Writing (2002), the same year he won the African Literature Association’s Fonlon-Nichols Award in the US. Meanwhile, University of Stirling, Scotland, awarded him an honorary doctorate for his contribution to poetry and human rights.

He is now a visiting professor at York St John University, North Yorkshire, who is on sabbatical leave working in the Department of English, University of Botswana.

Mapanje’s 2011 memoir, And Crocodiles Are Hungry at Night, proves that his relationship with writing continues to glow and grow.

At the sagely age of 69, he has certainly seen it all; the beauty and the ugliness as a writer in Africa and in the Diaspora. AWT could not have found a better candidate to speak on the theme: “Talking Across Diaspora Across Continents.”

Conscience and memory
“Honorary lovers and supporters of the word; colleagues and friends in writing, let me start with the conclusion of my address,” he said, catching everyone by surprise that they laughed. He thanked AWT for bringing together writers in the Diaspora because they rarely meet to talk about their writings.

“Gatherings like these help us to know each other and keep Africa writing,” he said. “We should not separate ourselves, we should not be discriminatory, and we should continue working for the good of each other.”

He said the best of writers “represent the conscience and memory of their generation”, arguing that there should be no “prescription of what a writer should write about. Let them just write and write well.”

He said African writers living abroad should drop the label of African writer in the Diaspora but simply consider themselves as in their adopted homes.

A spark
On Tuesday, March 12, Mapanje had an interactive session with literature students at Makerere University at which a student, Brenda Kyarisima, recited one of his popular poems, Skipping without Ropes.

The students asked all sorts of questions and professed how much they had been inspired by the poet’s narrative poems. On his part, Mapanje encouraged them to form writing groups and find their own metaphors to represent the new age.

“Don’t be afraid of experimenting,” he advised, adding he was willing and ready to receive and comment on their poems.

Asked if he feels he has achieved his intentions of writing, the poet said, “I feel I’ve not done anything at all. We’ve not even touched some of the issues we ought to touch. That’s why the young generation must come in.”

The AWT-organised dialogue in Kampala brought together writers from Uganda, DR Congo, Liberia, Kenya, Ghana and Malawi; some of whom live abroad.

It is hoped it provided the spark for the participants to strive for the best. The young writers and students who met and interacted with the distinguished Mapanje were particularly motivated to read like never before and pick up their pens to tell their stories as well.

In the words of Goretti Kyomuhendo, “Writers may not have the skill of engineers to build bridges across the Limpopo river but we have pens and words with which we can accomplish much if we come together to learn from one another.”