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.

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