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.