By Watuwa Timbiti
POETRY is not only the oldest genre of literature, but perhaps the shortest in text. Despite its easily consumable length and intensity of appeal to feelings, it is often considered boring. This is worse because most of the writers of the current poems are already dead.
However, reading a living poet’s work is a tasty experience and listening to that poetry in a sing-song voice read out, is such a yummy taste that left Makerere University students in an apparent desire for more. This was when Prof. Jack Mapanje, a legendary Malawian poet, read out some of his poetry to the enthusiastic audience at Makerere, recently. Mapanje is not only a prominent African poet, but also a graduate of the infamous Mikuyu Prison in Malawi.
Serving as the head of the department of English studies at the University of Malawi, he was detained in 1987 for about three years, for publishing Chameleons and Gods, a collection of poems that allegorically criticised President Kamuzu Banda’s dictatorial regime and its policies with no charge and trial. He was later released in 1991.
The starter to the day’s literally sumptuousness was manifested in Brenda Kyalisima’s (student of literature) recital of Mapanje’s poem Skipping Without Ropes - a poem which depicts the limiting conditions in prison.
The attendant gestures, facial expression and enthusiasm that accompanied the artfulness with which she read the poem, manifested a reader, inevitably drawn to the depth of the message in the poem.
Justifiably, the end of Kyalisima’s reading invited from her peers and lecturers alike, a lengthy applause that rudely shoved aside the silence that had descended on the hall upon the start of her performance. Everyone seemed to nod in agreement that she had done the poem irrefutable justice.
When Mapanje got up to speak, it was evident he, too, had been moved by the reading.“Makerere University, if you do not know, is one of the best universities in Africa. Even when I was young, we considered coming to Makerere - everyone who mattered came here. David Rubadiri and Ngungi Wa” Thiongo,” he recalled. Commenting on Skipping without Ropes, Prof. Mapanje said he wrote it in remembrance of his life in prison, when the guards denied them access to bathrooms.
“So we decided that we jump like we are skipping and then sweat, so that we can stink and force them to allow us bathe,” he explained. Acknowledging that he had fans in Makerere, he began reading some of his poems and started with one that supposedly caused his arrest entitled When this Carnival Finally Closes.
The poem projects the humiliating fall of powerful politicians and how the very sycophants keep praising, singing and protecting their interests, will be the first to destroy these politicians.
“Politicians do not like writers because the two compete for the same audience. Therefore, politicians think writers will influence the audience with the truth against them (politicians),” he observed.
Mapanje noted that writing moves with the times, their generation spent much time thinking and writing about politics and perhaps less about romance.
“We were preoccupied with knocking out colonialists and dictators – now that they are gone, the young generation can now write about romance, love, among others,” he advised.
“As writers, we have not touched everything we ought to have. There are poems I cannot write because I am not young anymore. So, young people should come in.” he added.
The head of the department of literature, Dr. Suzan Kiguli, described Mapanje as a poet with a variety of competencies. “Prof. Mapanje is also a distinguished linguist, editor and scholar. But I think Mapanje’s best accolade is his passion for poetry and his ability to craft it so well.”
“Unfortunately, it drew the dictator Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda’s rude attention and earned him detention without charge and trial at the infamous Mikuyu Maximum Prison,” she said. Moving a vote of thanks, Prof. Abasi Kiyimba of the department of literature, commended Mapanje for crafting poetry that is not only understandable, but relevant to the learners experiences.
“Your poetry has experiences you and I can identify with.” He observed. Mapanje, a recipient of several international awards and a fellow of various universities in the United Kingdom, is currently on a sabbatical leave for a year at the University of Botswana.
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