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.


My first love, Leticia

There was something about Marianne that human things do not have in real life.

In books and creative writing sessions, people with the gracious smile of her exist as created by fanciful writers and wild poets. Within the blankets of a poetry book, you can find a sensual cheerfulness in personas of her nature. Beyond that, the only place you find them in real life is nowhere but Marianne.

Marianne was not Leticia, the girl next door.

Unlike the girl who had let me feel what lips tasted like, Marianne was full of honour and grace such that in her laughter all that one felt was a gentle censure. It was not loud. It was meek. One could hear the bleating of a lamb about to be sacrificed in it. Leticia was loud, not on anything but laughter. Her laughter was what attracted me to her in the early days.

I surely know little of what I found interesting in it. Today, hearing it again, I would close my ears. However, she is dead and I will never hear it again. Not in this life.

And, in the other life if she ever decides to use that laughter of hers again then I will choose a side that has no her. Most probably, that side will be a hell for I had heard that in her last days she had just joined the Pentecostal movement and had become one devout follower of it. She was a born again Christian and had abandoned our traditional Presbyterian calling.

But then, I had heard a lot after her death. I had even heard that she had confessed a lie on her death bed. She had said, so they said, that I had made her pregnant and had forced her to abort. Not once, but twice.

Now, that was never true by any sense of imagination.

I was young the time I was going out with Leticia. Not only that, I was innocent also. I had fondled with her breasts of course, had tasted the sour sweetness on her lips in more instances than once but that act of making love to her I had failed with a clear distinction. Not that the thought never crossed my mind. It did. More times than I can sit down to count. I could not, however, slit my mouth open to ask for her from it.

There were moments, in the heat of our passion, when I could feel her melting in my hands – her eyes dilating, her kisses more passionate and violent, her hands all over me threatening to tear the buttons off my shirt, her legs wrapping me but when I tried to reciprocate the gesture, the holy spirit suddenly got hold of her.

“Oh no,” she would moan, “it is not good.”

I was young then. Her moan silenced me. It battered me into submission. I would free her from my embrace. Then, moments of a deliberate shame would come in. Silence. Nobody would say a thing. Each would face her way. I did not know what she would be thinking. I do not remember what I would be thinking by that time.

Darkness would set in. We would then leave, unsatisfied and unexplored, the foot of Mulanje Mountain where the tea estates were to our respective homes. We would chatter on our way home and none of us would raise up the subject or make mention of what we had just done or had just failed to do.

On Sunday, we would again sing in the same church choir. Me, the choir master giving out vocal directions and – like a traffic officer – swinging out my arms in this and that direction to the group of young musicians who all let the soprano voice of Leticia lead them on before they followed with their disjointed voices that had nothing in common but the message put across.

In the afternoon, we would get back to the same foot of the mountain, in the tea estates, and the same routine would replay itself: chatting (usually about the sermon of the day), accidental kissing, accidental fondling, passionate madness and then – bang! Consciousness.

“It’s a sin,” she would moan. “Sex outside marriage is a sin.”

That was Leticia. My first love. The lady with no sensual tingle in her laughter. The lady with a flat and long face. The one who died a month ago. At least, she died with grace unlike Marianne.

Leticia did not hang herself. Terminal cancer terminated her life. There was nothing she could do.

But Marianne.


Let Chimamanda rest, there’s Chibundu

Blasphemy is comparing the two. Fairness is contrasting the two.

For starters, Chimamanda has three books to her name. The latest being Americanah. Two of them, one of which has been made into a movie, I know are part of the syllabus in the University of Malawi. And, one can guess, the third one will soon make it there as well. Actually, for an avid reader to not have read Chimamanda seems like an offence. You actually do not have any right to call yourself a reader – let alone of African literature.

Men have even moved from loving Chimamanda, the author and her works, to loving the person they might never meet in flesh.

Add to that, I just got to learn of her few controversies – or rather reservations – on the Caine Prize for African literature not long ago. So, she is an entity.

Chimamanda is an authority in contemporary African literature. I do not even need to mention all her names. Once I write Chimamanda, it is clear that it is the same author of Half of a Yellow Sun that I am writing about.

Her name, to some, are like Obama and Mandela – you do not ask which one!

For Chibundu Onuzo, well, one has to start with the introductions. The very basics. Nigerian names can be guessed by their syllables of course and the question of her nationality is put to a rest here. Chibundu Onuzo is Nigerian.

But, that name is not of a football player otherwise it could have been fairly known. It is not even of a movie personality in their Nollywood for it could have as well not raised many questions.

It is of a writer. The author of my modern day Scarlet Song: The Spider King’s Daughter.

I have read her book once. I want to re-read it and were it not for the fact that I have recommended it to a various number of people who have ended up borrowing from me then you can be sure that by now I could have tucked myself in some silent place reading that book instead of writing about her book here. 

Sadly, it is in the hands of a borrower for no shop here (in Malawi) has that book on offer. It even had to take me some divine intervention for me to know of the existence of the book and some brotherly love for me to finally have the book.

Chibundu Onuzo is a good writer. Good when regarded in her own regard. She is not a good writer because she had her first novel published at 21, no! She is good simply because she is good. 

It is her masterly of language that makes her good. It is her ability to create images where none are existent that make her good. It is her witty in creating a motion picture before you with words that places her in a league of adorable and skilful writers.

It is her ability to write a romance perfected by imprints of romance and yet have it remain distinct from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet that makes her good.

Yes, the print space might have been dominated by Chimamanda but for all African book lovers, or just plain book lovers, Chibundu Onuzo is another writer you ought to try and find the new voice coming from Africa. Of course, it is a voice that ends with a frustration in its writing yet a worthwhile voice still.

I tried her once and I do not regret it. You, too, must try her.