A day in the life of an ex-writer

 (For Harry, 28/12/13)

Two, three, four…actually five story ideas race through his mind as his day starts.

Today is actually a good day, he says to himself.

And the sky agrees with him: the sun is shy, the clouds not so pursuing and they are as if they are some October clouds – the modern October, not the old one which vomited out rains en masse.

Today is the day for writing, he assures himself.

Out of the five stories he had, one remains in his mind. The others, in some miraculous way, have taken out a graceful exit. The story flows with a rare and admirable vividness. Who can stop it?

He is happy, for the first time in weeks. Finally, he will get back to his trade. Once again, he will sit behind his laptop and not just watch it but write. It is writing he previously enjoyed, it is writing that held his sanity, it is writing he stopped, it is writing he is getting back to. And now, he is confident, he will write with maturity and expertise. Time has altered him, it then as well must have altered his writings – in a positive way.

But, a good writer does not just get a story idea and then bang! Work on it. No! He takes time. He gets an idea, wait on it for days – even weeks, and then let it flow out of him slowly. Even Hemingway, in A moveable feast, said the same thing. And, does an aspiring good writer dare contradict Hemingway, for what benefit?

So, he gets the advice of Hemingway: he will not rush his story. But, he will not wait for days, not even weeks, just hours are enough. He has not written for days, pardon! Months, and to write just after hours of that story in his head is not necessarily a bad idea. After all, he will be getting back to it for some days before publishing it anywhere. What more? He will have a second eye, a third, a fourth, on it before publishing.

And, for a moment he gets thinking on how best to start the story. The entrance, the beginning, into a story matters. It can throw away a reader. It can capture a reader. Now, he has to get it right. After months, his writing should be powerful – not just any common writing.

The thought weighs heavily on him. It troubles him almost. How will he make his entry into the story?

He thinks a walk will do him good. Yes, writing is that laborious. It makes people embark on journeys they thought they would never embark on. It is a demon, especially when one has a story to pour out but the conditions are restrictive. One has to act.

So, he calls a friend. They agree to meet. In 30 minutes.

Well, to cut a long story short, they meet in 30 minutes. Two strange friends whose paths diverged and reconciled in a manner only fate can explain.

They laugh, share moments, stories, experiences and everything but they talk not writing. This friend is not a writer. This friend is just a plain human being. This friend does not know that this meeting was a way for the ex-writer to get back to himself. This friend does not know that the ex-writer set up this meeting after being haunted. This friend is just concerned with the things of this world – laughter and its sorrows, the experiences.

And, merry is made. It is often interrupted by moments of a deep seated sadness, a repressed and depressed depression. But life, and time, go on – smoothly and slowly until it comes to the point for the two friends to part. And, parting they do.

Then, the haunting again.

The entrance into the story has not yet been found. What is worse? The story appears to be blinking in and out of the mind of the ex-writer. It is no longer clear. At times, the writer remembers that he wanted to write about erm erm a man in erm erm…he has forgotten what it was about actually.

Now, he does not even have the story. The laughter, the chat, have drained the story away. He is back to stage one. His mind, an empty slate of nothing, is as good as that of the friend he was with.

As he sits in the minibus home, he curses – inaudible yes, but bad enough for the religious person he is recently claiming to be. He wishes he had, at the least, jotted down some ideas of the story. He could have rushed back to them. But now, right now, it is impossible.

He just has to wait for another day like today and then hope that he will find an entry point – a single sentence perhaps, even a single word – into the story.

For today, like most other days, the chapter is closed. He has failed to write.

He just curses. Yawns. Feels the rosary around his neck.

Maybe he should write a story about the rosary, how he got it, and why he finds a comfort in putting it around his neck and holding on to it when the anxiety and panic attacks hit him or when the violent tremors of the hands hit him in a public place.


Blantyre School of Crime

There is no bold proclamation announcing its existence. The press carries no adverts announcing its aptitude test yet, silently, the school exists and producing graduates day in and day out with varying qualifications. For The Big Issue Magazine (Malawi), I wrote this article and I hereby publish it.

The streets are near deserted. It is a Sunday and this is not least expected. The sun, almost as if it intends not to do what it is doing, is gently sliding into oblivion for the day to pave way for darkness and some stars.

In the opposite direction are coming some little boys. Their ages hover around seven and ten – nobody is even entering the teens, at least roughly judging by the looks on their faces. Their clothes are dirty, their feet naked and their faces unbathed. It is not strange. The boys have dressed according to their trade: begging.

The woman walking towards them has a MK 5 coin ready to disperse it to these boys and then proceed with her journey to the bus terminal. She always helps such children and, of course, with a heart that wishes she had a lot to give out or even just some magical powers to get the children out of the street.

The streets are no safer place, at least for children.

To her amazement, none of the children asks for anything. They just silently pass by each other. Have they gotten a lot for the day? Maybe yes, maybe no. They might even be just tired of being at the receiving end of insults from people who do not know their story and who think begging for them is a hobby. Those of the general populace who do not know that for some of these children being in the streets is as a result of death of their parents and the hypocrisy of their relatives, others it is even because of the failing of the institution of marriage.

The woman walks on, hurrying to the bus terminal, trying to push the image of the children out of her mind.

However, she does not walk for long. From behind her, somebody tugs at her handbag that was hanging loosely on her shoulder. It is tugged with a force and, in succumbing to pain, the handbag is let loose from her safety.

Turning around, she sees the children – they are three in number – running away with her handbag. There is her everything in that handbag: a purse that has a passport, an ATM card, the only cash she was left with, an Identity card and every other valuable.

The children take a turn, their dirty heels still mocking her as they run in a goodbye waving fashion, and they run into some incomplete building. Gone for good.

Seems like a scene taken out of a movie – maybe a Hollywood blockbuster aimed at negatively portraying Africa and her children but it is real.

For that woman, Marianne Chikakuda, it is something she saw with her eyes.

“I could not believe it that it was those children who had done that to me, leaving me stranded in Limbe for even my phone was there,” she says in taking back the steps down memory lane when in daylight she was robbed.

“And, there were people coming just behind me. I just wonder where such children, as young as they were, plucked such courage and never were afraid of being caught. What if they had been caught?”

It is a good question she asks, a question the majority can ask yet research says such children can never ask themselves such a question.

According to a study conducted in Cairo, Egypt, in 2010, many children that live in the streets are exposed to various ills and dangers among them sexual violence. To escape this, most of the children resort to drug abuse with the end result that their personality is altered. Thus, they live with few ounces of humanity and compassion exists in little drops in their blood, if it does at all.

The research might have been conducted in a place miles and miles away from Malawi yet the findings resonate well in the local setting. Street kids, the sight of them in daylight and a better place, might not be unnerving but the moment one meets them in an awkward place, everything changes: their outstretched hands that endlessly clamor for some cash suddenly tighten into fists and the ‘God bless yous’ their lips pour out when you drop a little something into their open palms are replaced by curses when they tighten the grip on your neck in demand of money and your personal effects – cell phones being chief of them.

It is a sad reality, somehow fictitious yet when one encounters it all the fiction associated with it shrinks to pave way for a real, naked and uncensored shock.

And, it is in the streets that the children are robbed of their conscience and humanity or rather it is there where the collision of their conscience and humanity happens; and, in that collision the two things that make us develop sympathy – conscience and humanity – are victimized; they die at the spot.

Possibly well meaning, the government of Malawi started removing the children from the streets. They, however, never went any further. It is an exercise that starts as if it is a dream and, like most other dreams, ends midway before anyone makes sense of it.

The children themselves, some of them in their postgraduate classes of crime in the city, declare blatantly that they will never leave the streets. They claim it is their source of money. One can easily buy their argument but not when that one is, or met a similar experience to, Chikakuda.

“Government must remove those kids and even by force, I say,” Chikakuda says as a solution to the problem. “Otherwise, our cities will remain jungles in which we will be afraid to venture in.”

For now, it appears the cities are already the jungles where the marauding beasts are not men with muscular arms or trotting with guns but young kids whom, time and again, have been said to be the tomorrow of not only this nation but this world.

One wonders then what kind of tomorrow we will have with such as its guardians: little boys who instead of being in class learning how to develop the nation are in some nameless and faceless college learning survival which, to them, is losing control of all humanity and relegating the conscience to some dustbin of inexistence.

The government, on the other hand, operates on the dream, perhaps a hallucination, where they wake up one day to remove all the street children and then, midway to that, stop it. And, when they are busy shutting down some substandard education institutions, they forget closing down this school that trains our youths in unexpected and strange programmes.

But, who can blame them?

If they only knew where this school is; perhaps, they could have done something. How can they but when in passing through the city their cars fly at a strange speed while being guarded by gun-trotting officers in military regalia.

They do not even know of the existence of this school, you can bet.


In the same row with Jack Mapanje

We are in the third row. The three of us.

We have marched in while there are spaces, gaping and wide, but have opted for the third one. There is the first one, vacant. The second one, vacant. The fourth one, sparsely populated. But it is the third one we have chosen.

Before us the stage is set. The inaugural edition of The Land of Poets Festival is in progress. We have come in late. We have found the programme already underway. However, I am sure, we have not missed a lot.

Two men are called on stage after we have settled properly. Only one has a label attached to him. They call him Mr. Malawi. The other one is just Mr. Malawi’s friend. They have an act to perform. Theirs is not poetry. Just some strands of art.

Mr. Malawi is the short one. The one who has high heeled shoes to obviously compensate for the gift God did not trust him with: height. He is the one who speaks in a replica of the former head of state, late Bingu wa Mutharika.

The way his voice pours out, it is Mutharika incarnate. If not for lack of evidence, one could accuse him of having been behind those sound clips of the voice of the late head of state produced when he was alive, and even after gone.

He says he wants to see to it that Malawi develops through poetry. A few comprehend the message. Many are lost in the wilderness of laughter. His imitation is a skill, it is art – art that solicits laughter.

Later, of course, he recites one common and old poem, Mlesi, in the same voice of late Mutharika. But, that is after his friend has already talked.

The friend of Mr. Malawi is the one who talks in an imitation of Muluzi. I presume he is nervous, unlike Mr. Malawi. The way he imitates Muluzi is not perfect. There are gaps. He cannot be compared to the expert on mimicking late Mutharika that is Mr. Malawi.

Then, moments later, they exit the stage. Poets have to troop in.

It is poets that are expected to be on stage but in the course of the event I learn that anybody and everybody, as long as they have resemblances of poetry, can appear on stage and parade their art and, for the others, their shame.

Somehow, boredom creeps in. This is a sad reality. I had thought the event would be all rosy. The way the publicity had hit had made me believe that the poets had been auditioned before being allowed to showcase their skill, or lack thereof, to the audience. With the magnitude of the event, I had thought that those who were yet to develop had been told:

“Hey! Hold your patience. Go, do a little growing, and then join us next year. You have a way to go. You’ve the skill, the zeal and everything to take you there. All you need is the patience.”

But no! I was mistaken.

Everyone, with everything, can parade on stage.

I suddenly start getting all nervous and restless. I wish to stretch my legs maybe. Save myself from being subjected to this: the likes of poetry, not the actual poetry. I wish a lot.

Then, I catch her from the corner of my left eye. She is sitting in some distance on the left. You can see the same detachment on her face. She is as if wandering in some space. She is light in complexion. A lady in, from the judgment of my eyes, her thirties.

She is the fourth person in row three.

The programme rolls on and when Benedicto Wokomaatani Malunga, the board chair for the Poetry Association of Malawi is called to make a small address, I discover row three is having new members. The lady has company now.

Not that I have any special interest in the lady, I have interest in the company of the lady. I have caught that face next to her in a blink and, from the archives of my brain, I think I have seen it elsewhere.

I try my best to recall but I fail. All that is on my mind is that I have seen that face.

I have seen those glasses of course covering the same shape of face. I have seen that greyness of hair on the same shape of head. But where? I cannot recall.

I scratch through my mind. I think I remember.

I have seen that face. On the internet, not in flesh.

“We’re in the same row with Jack Mapanje,” I say to the two I have come with.

At once, we turn in the same direction. The lady that was blocking him from us has had her head tilted a little as though she has heard my secret and internal request. The sight is not clear though. Still, we are in the same row with Jack Mapanje.

It is the same Jack Mapanje of the books we are in the same row with.

It is that Mapanje who, earlier in the years, stayed behind bars for writing poetry that stung the buttocks of the dictator Hastings Kamuzu Banda that he had to stand from his seat of power and see to it that the young man was silenced – at least not through some sinister ways of getting rid of him. And the same Mapanje was used, years later, as some sort of a distant and distinct symbol in the fight for academic freedom.

We are in the same row with Mapanje who has let age catch up with him such that he not only has hair defiled by the hands of time but also has to walk with the aid of a walking stick yet when he is on stage to recite, he does so with the fire of a teenager. A poet searching for an audience. Not one who already has it.

And, in this same row is the Zambian writer, Ellen Banda-Aaku. The light complexioned lady who is sitting next to Mapanje.


Now, this for Alex

Alex was not the boy who lived next door, no!

At first, he used to live across the small street that separated our households. Then, he was the boy, actually the best friend, who lived a plot away – after some years.

Alex was the one whom I played with. He was the one whom when he joined me at Zingwangwa Secondary School, a year below me, made me excited as I introduced him to the snippets of Secondary school life.

We were close the very first days in Secondary School, the time he was just getting acquainted to the environment of putting on a pair of trousers at school and not some grey shorts of Chimwankhunda Primary School.

People lied about me and Alex. They said we were brothers.

The truth, however, started emerging as we went on with our educational path that we were not brothers, not only by divine providence but also choices. As Alex polarized himself to the sciences, I found my solace in the humanities.

There, our paths diverged and we put to rest all those speculations that we were brothers even when the school chose to parade its cream we both managed to traverse on the same floor as prodded by the other creams.

The only difference was that Alex would be the finest of his entire cluster of forms while I was the third, or even fourth, best in our entire cluster of forms. Remember, I was a year ahead of him and thus my meager achievement made his look like child play anyway.

Alex was the one who, one time, called me to ask if it was true that I was going out with a certain lady. I was almost 70 kilometers away by then.

“Which lady is that?” I asked Alex, shock escorted my voice out of the throat. It actually held it by the hand.

He mentioned the name. I could not remember it. He tried all the descriptions he could of the lady under discussion but it was in vain. I never knew the lady and just how on earth do you go out with somebody whom you do not know?

Anyway, for me it is the principle of what I do not know exists not. So, that lady was non-existent.

But Alex must have been a prophet. A year, or was it two, I fell in lust with that same lady he had been talking about. The rest, as they like to indicate, is history for it is Alex I am writing about and not anybody else. Not even his prophecies.

It is the same Alex who is only months away from being a medical doctor. The boy I saw grow, the one who witnessed me maturing, becoming a medical doctor. I can hardly wait to see the miracle.

And Alex, this afternoon, sent me a message.

“Leticia…good one bro.”

End of text.

I checked the number. It was Alex. The medical doctor in the making. I searched for the words with which to respond to the text but it was not easy. After minutes, I responded back. There was a gladness in my heart. It hardly comes out of the heart, that gladness.

“Alex,” I said to myself. “The medical doctor in the making visited my blog and read the story I posted. Not only that, he appreciated it. I must be special,” I pampered myself.

I later texted back telling him that I never thought he read.

He said he read; he reads sometimes but he hates reading stories with difficult vocabulary.

What more?

He texted me saying that his belief is that a person does not have to use big words to make a story great.

Do I disagree? No! Not with Alex, my best friend for ages, my secret audience, the medical doctor to be in a short-time. Most of all, I do not disagree with him for he gave the best advice every writer needs to get from a well-meaning audience.