As Malawian writer and human rights activist Jack Mapanje shuffled to the front of Main arts Lecture theatre to read from his body of work on March 10th, I was struck by his age and frailty. Such thoughts were swept away when he began to speak, his strong and imposing voice barely needing the microphone attached to his front.
It is not just Mapanje’s voice that is imposing. During Bangor lecturer Kachi Ozumba’s introduction, I was awed by Mapanje’s achievements and life experiences. Not only is an accomplished poet and writer – having published 5 poetry collections and a memoir – he has also edited several collections of African writing, been the head of English and Linguistics at the University of Malawi, and been imprisoned, without charge, for nearly 4 years.
The topic of his imprisonment was a recurring topic during Mapanje’s talk. His awareness of the exact length of his imprisonment – exactly 3 years, 7 months, 16 days, and 12 hours – served as a reminder that the recollection of his incarceration is still fresh in his mind.
His imprisonment began in 1987 and ended in 1991. He was never charged with any crime, nor were his alleged “offences” investigated at any point. Upon being taken in for questioning, Mapanje was told that he was not a subject of any filings or investigations, and the police themselves were unaware of the reasons for his imprisonment. This information was relayed by Mapanje as he read from his prison memoir And Crocodiles Are Hungry At Night, published in 2011. These revelations made the audience startlingly aware of the injustice of Mapanje’s imprisonment, and of the dictatorship which endorsed it.
That is not to say that Mapanje is self-pitying. On the contrary, his optimism and idealistic nature were obvious. At one point, while speaking to a hushed room of the “horrible” conditions of the Malawian prison which was his home for nearly 4 years, he observed that “the spirit of man cannot easily be contained.” Simply, he added, “I wanted to survive.” And survive he did.
While discussions of Mapanje’s imprisonment made up a large portion of the talk, they did not dominate it. Peppered in the talk, amongst the talk of injustice and wrongful imprisonment, were thoughtful references to his wife and family. There were laughs in the room too – most notably when Mapanje, upon being asked two questions by Ozumba, answered “I’ll take the first one – cause it’s easier,” and when describing his prison memoir to the audience at the beginning of the talk: “It’s a big book…but you must buy it.”
To say that I enjoyed the talk would be an understatement. This was not simply a reading; it was an insight into the life and mind of one of the most truly fascinating people I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. Despite having the attention span of a hyperactive toddler, I was alert throughout Mapanje’s talk. That’s how engaging it was. I can say with certainty that I will be buying Mapanje’s memoir, even if it is a “big book.”