When writers meet, Blantyre becomes 'Smongolia'

THE posters screamed the same message. The message traversed and settled rather peacefully in the minds of the literature enthusiasts that compose the body, Chanco writers’ Workshop. The message was not anything strange; it was announcing the coming of the poet, the essayist, the critic, the columnist, the literature giant and the Malawi PEN president, Mr. Alfred Msadala.

As the time struck 18:30 the usual meeting place at the College campus, Room B since 1972, was not yet filled but the guest had already arrived. Somehow shameful but not really at the workshop where, meetings scheduled for 6:30 pm, always start minutes later. That really is the way people regard the few surviving meetings of writers – trivial.
Slowly, people started oozing into the room. And in only a few minutes, the session began. Poetry recitals are what characterized the take-off. The new writers that the workshop has managed to produce sneezed and coughed their poetry to the delectation of many that filled the room.

Then, gradually the room started becoming full. The patron, Emmanuel Ngwira, who also is a lecturer in the English department stormed in together with another lecturer in the same department, Ken Lipenga Jnr. – themselves, writers also and members of the workshop. They added the population of staff members now to three since Mr. Kingsley Jika, himself a renowned short story writer, textbook writer and editor, had already arrived with the guest.

Later, another writer and lecturer in the African Languages and Linguistics, Winfred Mkochi, stormed in also. He, in the course of the session, offered two poems: one in English and the other in Chichewa which was authored by Benedicto Wokomaatani Malunga, himself a product of the workshop.

Then, after a few minutes, Mr. Msadala owned the floor. This time, it was a presentation. Gently, he started. A few trivial jokes on this and that – literature and life. Then, he ventured into the real business as the hungry souls sat quiet, so quiet that if an ant could dare travel on the floor, its footstep could have been heard. He titled the presentation: ‘Who are you?’
Minutes later, after the presentation and questions, the mood went back to the same one that colonized it in the beginning: the recitals once again. This time it was Ken Lipenga Jnr. who started by reciting vigorously Steve Chimombo’s poem, ‘The Writers’ Workshop Revisited’.

And then, the poetry calabash was thrown back to the guest to let the thirsty souls savor from his wisdom and art. ‘It rumbled’ did the job. He recited it slowly, energetically, rhythmically and beautifully. He taught and lectured the budding poets and writers how poetry ought to flow. They drank really from his calabash and some were even inebriated.

But, they were not yet drunk – not before he recited a Chichewa piece. It was that short piece that now invited the vernacular poet who can arguably be said to be Chanco’s vernacular poet of the moment, Hardson Chamasowa. He offered ‘Magalagada’, ignoring the audience’s demand of ‘Zochitika ku Smongolia’ which he still more recited later on forcing Jika to ask, ‘what really goes on in your mind when composing your poems?’

A smile answered the question partially. Then, he stormed: ‘I just do not know. All I know is that I write these things to fascinate people.’ Sounding like the knowledge of the Nigerian author, Chinua Achebe, in Anthills of the Savannah, when he writes: ‘writers don’t give prescriptions to people, they give headaches.’ And, Hardson is no exception, especially with his poems.

Then, came the moment of revelation: People in Blantyre have ceased thinking aloud, said Msadala seriously. If you happen to be thinking aloud, he proceeded, you might end up being arrested and taken to the mental hospital in this district, no! City. We have even stopped talking in the minibuses, he exaggerated.

And the audience could not really discover that the Smongolia that Hardson was referring to might be their own commercial city. It was Jika now who unveiled the reality. Just as Hardson says that in ‘Smongolia’ there happen strange and unbelievable things, almost claimed his ‘poem’ which he preferred to call a collection of sentences, so do they happen in Blantyre.

Then, he went on a journey round Blantyre, unmasking the ‘Smongolian’ tales terrorizing the city: the man that jumped from a tower in Chilobwe township, the man who ‘locked’ his wife in Chileka, the dead man who was said to have been resurrected in Lunzu and the sliced lemons and dead chickens in Bangwe that cause accidents.

Deliberately, it seemed, he ignored the mysterious ‘man-beast’ who used to attack people in Ndirande. And more than deliberately, he pretended to not have noted that Blantyre has ably diffused her strange nature to one of her not close neighbors, Mulanje – the stone-baby is an example and not to mention about the missing tourists.

In the end, one only had to claim that he never saw Smongolia in Blantyre and everyone had to know that the person was possibly a liar or had not been in the session really – only the body was in attendance but not the person.

The poems flooded and colonized the workshop, feeding all the starved souls. Then the Malawi PEN president got back the floor as a small piece of paper circulated so that a joint poem be authored by anybody who felt guided by the muse, only a line was enough. This time, he recited ‘The muse haunts me.’

Quickly, came the time for parting. As Shakespeare noted in Romeo and Juliet, parting is such sweet sorrow, so was it sad to call it a day. However, Msadala could not just leave without re-reciting ‘It rumbled’ as the public demanded. He recited and later claimed:

‘It is beautiful and good for writers to meet. Many organizations ceased meeting but it’s good that you are still meeting and let us hope you will never stop meeting. As you can see,’ pointing at the board, ‘this group started meeting in the ‘70s and it really is encouraging that up to date you are still meeting.’

And the patron, about to recite the jointly authored poem, could not just help it but to unmask his happiness: ‘I think this has been a very good week. A few days ago we met another giant writer, Sambalikagwa Mvona (the Malawi Writers’ Union president) and today we were also with yet another literary giant.’ And Lipenga added, ‘two days ago also we met another giant writer, James Ng’ombe.’

At the very end, the joint poem was recited. It was titled ‘A night like any other’. All its four stanzas began with the same line: ‘A night like any other, but still different’. Of course, to others it had just been a night like any other but to the literary gluttons of Chancellor College it was a different night for it was a night when Blantyre had been converted into Smongolia by a congregation in Zomba. A night when writers, of different generations, had interacted.

A visit to Blantyre Newspapers Limited

When most literary groups in Malawi are on the death bed if not dead altogether, some groups are still in existence and one such group is the Chancellor College Writers’ Workshop which is based at the Chancellor College campus of the University of Malawi, on 26th September 2009 the members visited one of the newspaper publishing houses in Malawi, The Blantyre Newspapers Limited (BNL) which is also the oldest news publishing house in Malawi. I traveled with them and now writes:

“PLEASE be certain on the time, come at two exactly because weekends are usually tricky,” the voice of Arnold boomed into Innocent Chipofya’s ears after he had informed him that we had changed from the scheduled 13:30 to 14:00 hours after we had discovered that we were not to leave Zingwangwa Secondary School the time we had expected and then settle for our lunch at the Polytechnic.

Fine, we agreed, we were going to make it at two and there would be no change of mind. And, as we were disembarking for the lunch at the Polytechnic we agreed that we were to meet again at the same place, in the same Coaster at 13:45 so that we leave for the BNL. We all agreed.

Leaving for BNL
At 13:45, only two people had arrived. It was decided that we add some more five minutes to wait for those who never had any respect for time, after all we could not only go two people to BNL. Ten minutes was added such that we left at 13:55 with many faces than not showing up. We had agreed that we were to leave at 13:45 and yet ten minutes later some souls were not yet at the place. Only one thing was clear: the others possibly had vowed that they were not to go and therefore we just had to leave. So, we left with a good number left behind.

Arriving at BNL
We took a longer route but that never made us late. At two we were at BNL. We had arrived at last only waiting to be welcomed by Arnold. The chair dialled Arnold's number and told him that the crew had arrived but before he could respond, the phone switched itself off – the battery was low. A few souls started suggesting that we take the road to the Daily Times offices but they were told that we had to wait.

After a few touches on the phone, Arnold was rung again and told the same message but again before anything could be obtained from him, the phone was off. Then, Arnold called back and delivered the message that he was not around, we had to wait. And before he was to say something more, the phone was off again – the battery! The phone was simply switched off.

And Arnold communicated with somebody whom we were never introduced to and he is the one who took us to the Daily Times offices where we were told to wait for him as he was reportedly out but would be back shortly. And whilst waiting for him, it was when we were greeted by some lady who had been busy watching the burial of Inkosi Gomani IV. Later, Arnold introduced her as the journalist who had worked in the media industry in all the three regimes. She is Agness Mizere, said Arnold forcing some few of us who were far away to stand on our toes and steal a glance at her.

Arnold’s arrival
After fifteen minutes or so, Arnold arrived. ‘Well, where should we start from?’ that was the first question that escaped from his lips after a greeting. Some few minutes of debate ensued, this was between Arnold and the Chair, on who was to say where he was to start from. Well, it seemed like Agness (I guess in journalism, there is no need of calling each other Mr. This or Mrs. So) was the one who offered the starting point for Arnold said:

‘This is the Sunday Times section. The lady working over there is Agness Mizere...” and then he went on narrating how they work in the section. Then he took us to the small library where there is also the Daily Times section and also where designing of the papers is done. That was the beginning of the tour.

The tour
We marched to the library half silent. In the corridors, we met various and different people. One of them, Francisco Mkumba whispered to me, was Pilirani Kachinziri who has his sports column in the Malawi News. He was clad in a Golf Shirt printed: the Daily Times; that was in total contrast to Arnold for his was printed: The Sunday Times. But then, all the shirts were of the same colour (or colours).

Briefly, we were told how production of the news is done: how the news moves from their respective desks, to the designers and then to the publishing ‘factory’ (is it really factory?). Then, somebody asked a question. And, it was that question that prompted other more questions: questions and questions on the politics of newspapers publishing, some questions that have just been terrorising the mind on newspapers were finally asked.

But, possibly, it was Richard Chongo who asked the most burning question as regards to Fiction writing in the papers:

‘Most of the times,’ his question possibly went like that, ‘we see that people writing in the Papers are the same ones, don’t you have a provision for budding writers?’

And Arnold provided the same answer he provided last semester when he, together with James Mphande, visited their former ‘home’, the Writers’ Workshop, that Thursday night. He said that they used to have a provision when they were just introducing the Arts page in the Sunday times. He even revealed that the Arts page was originally meant for budding writers. Then, he said, he could receive a story and work on it so that it becomes ‘palatable’ and then send it back to the author and then ask him if he/she wanted the story to be thus but then...

‘There were two cases that made me stop that. After I had done that to some story and had sent it back to the author so that he looks at his story, it never got back to me; the next thing I remember is that I just saw it in another paper.

‘And it was not only that but after I had worked on another story that was really badly written, that is in bad English, but had a good plot and had sent it back to the author to show him how I had improved it, I received the same “thank you” for the job I did for two weeks: the story appeared in another paper. That was the end of it all.’

Then, after a very long session of questions and responses we marched over to the ‘factory’ (which I have really forgotten its name, that is if we were told) that now produces the newspapers so that they be in readable content from the Designer’s desk.

In the ‘factory’
Amazed? Possibly yes. We were amazed with what greeted our naked eyes and ears. Amazed at how the papers we scramble for in the library are produced for us to read, how someone works hard to have them appear as they are, how some machines work to cut the papers so that they be in the form in which they are, amazed at the processes we cannot really explain but a very young boy who is not afraid of being laughed at when he sees something not really fascinating but perhaps unexpected.

In the main library
We stayed for some minutes in the ‘factory’ before being moved to the main library which was said to have been an office of the Sunday Times (and Daily Times?) just some months before our arrival. It is a library that keeps all the photos, not the digital ones. A library that awarded us the opportunity to look at Kamuzu Banda during his early days when he used to give his hair a ‘seda’ (an old style indeed, wonder if someone still does that to his hair!); that was when he had the hair. Looking at him together with Haille Sellasie at the Emperors’ view on the Zomba plateau. Looking at him being sworn in as the Prime Minister of this country.
And somewhere in the library we came across an illustration that went together with a Short Story, I think I remembered the story: it was by one Ralph Kinn Tenthani entitled The Lawyer. And it has to be the hands of Haswel Kunyenje that worked on that illustration. How beautiful!

Winding up the tour
The main library was the last place to be visited and then we were leaving for our home, Chirunga, with Arnold escorting us when Sheena Kapachika started asking the common questions, the ‘leisure’ ones:

Who writes the Zebedee’s column?
‘Zebedee’s column is written by Zebedee,’ responded Arnold gently.
A murmur. Then another, and another, and another went around. Possibly, it was a sign of disapproval. No wonder Sheena argued further:

‘I heard that it is . . . (name withheld) who authors that.’ Most people shook their heads in, perhaps, agreement.

‘I also used to hear that before I came here,’ Arnold said, ‘but when I came here I discovered that it all was a lie. I discovered that Zebedee is the one who writes Zebedee’s column.’

Lonjezo Sithole could not agree with him: ‘during his fifteenth anniversary, Zebedee himself (yes, he also said Zebedee) said that the name is a pen-name...’

And I picked it up to claim how Zebedee himself (I also said Zebedee) said how he had come to harvest the name Zebedee. But, Arnold was not just going to bulge in; maybe, even he himself does not know Zebedee or he knows him as he said later: ‘even if I am to tell you, you won’t know him. He works here but you can’t know him.’

And now, who writes the drycleaner?
That was Lusayo Kanyika who whispered the question before I projected it for Arnold's ears and the entire group’s. But, it was not Arnold who picked up the question. It was Hardson Chamasowa, the man from Smongolia: ‘I heard that it is George or is it John er er er John I think. He used to have a column in the Sunday Times but he no longer does have it. I have just forgotten the name but it is John...’

‘Isn’t it... (Name withheld)?’ I asked and that seemed to have curtailed the debate before Hardson was reminded that the Sunday Times had never had anybody responding to the name John or George writing a column since its inception five years ago.

And that question went unanswered as it had gone, only speculations remained as to who is the Drycleaner, the man in the laundry who never gets tired of washing linen – dirty linen.

What does it take to work in the Print Media?
It was Ruth Kawonga who asked the question. Arnold was responding to the question when grumbles were heard, somebody was complaining that we had to be mindful of time. He claimed the Coaster had already arrived and was waiting for us. But then, nobody was to leave with a question for we never knew when we were to be in Blantyre again and BNL to be specific. So, the questions went on:

What does it take for an article to be a feature?
That was Tendai Munemo, the Workshop’s secretary. And Arnold explained the differences that exist between a feature, opinion and even analysis. Never bother to know how the so-called tired ones looked; after all, they had already been told that for those who wished to leave could do so and wait in the Coaster.

Leaving BNL

Then after all the questions had been exhausted, we left. But before leaving I told Arnold: ‘you greet Sellina (meaning Sellina Nkowani) on behalf of the workshop.’

And Arnold Chachacha Munthali, who had been our guide (or host!), had said: ‘I will.’ And then I had left together with Lusayo for the Coaster to start the journey back to Chancellor College through the Polytechnic with each one of us carrying a Newspaper (some pages of Malawi News) in our hands.

In the Coaster

We left BNL as the time registered 15:50 when we were scheduled to leave at 15:00. That was what made the hottest issue in the Coaster. No need to go into detail; we left BNL and embarked on the journey to Zomba through the Polytechnic and what happened in the Coaster is another story surely for another day. It can make a good novel indisputably, the best selling!