Mapanje, Jack

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Nationality: Malawian. Born: Kadango Village, Mangochi District, c. March 25, 1944. Education: Zomba Catholic Secondary School; University of Malawi, Zomba, B.A., Dip.Ed.; University of London, M.Phil.; University College, London. Family: Married Mercy Mapanje; two daughters, one son. Career: Since 1975 lecturer in English, then head of department of English, Chancellor College, University of Malawi. In political detention, Mikuyu Prison, near Zomba, 1987–91; research fellow, Exeter College, Oxford, 1992–93; Greater North International Writer in Residence, 1993; visiting professor, University of Leeds, 1993–94. Returned to Malawi July 1995. Chair, Linguistics Association, Southern African Development Coordination Conference. Awards: Poetry International award (The Netherlands), 1988. Address: c/o William Heinemann Ltd., Michelin House, 81 Fulham Road, London SW3 6RB, England.



Of Chameleons and Gods. London, Heinemann, 1981.

The Chattering Wagtails of Mikuyu Prison. Jordan Hill, Oxford, and Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Heinemann, 1993.

Skipping without Ropes. Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, and Chester Springs, Pennsylvania, Dufour, 1998.

Recording: Jack Mapanje of Malawi, Voice of America, 1979(?).


Editor, with Landeg White, Oral Poetry from Africa: An Anthology. London, Longman, 1983.

Editor, with Angus Calder and Cosmo Pieterse, Summer Fires: New Poetry of Africa. London, Heinemann, 1983.

Editor, with James Gibbs, The African Writers' Handbook. Oxford, African Books Collective, 1999.


Critical Studies: "Jack Mapanje, Malawian Poet: Some Personal Reactions" by Angus Calder, in ACLAS Bulletin, 5(3), December 1980; "'Whiskers Alberto' and 'The Township Lambs': Towards an Interpretation of Jack Mapanje's 'We Wondered about the Mellow Peaches,'" in The Journal of Commonwealth Literature (Leeds), 22(1), 1987, and "'Singing in the Dark Rain': Malawian Poets and Censorship," in Index on Censorship (London), 17(2), February 1988, both by James Gibbs; "Of Chameleons and Paramount Chiefs: The Case of the Malawian Poet Jack Mapanje" by Leroy Vail and Landeg White, in Review of African Political Economy, 48, 1990; by the author, in The Word behind Bard and the Paradox of Exile, edited by Kofi Anyidoho, Evanston, Illinois, Northwestern University Press, 1997; "Being Aplace" by Angela Smith, in Yearbook of English Studies, 27, 1997.

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When the poet Jack Mapanje was arrested on 25 September 1987, a protest movement that focused the energies of friends, colleagues, and human rights activists was quickly set in motion. The pressure was substantial and insistent, testimony to the way Mapanje had impressed other people and to the way public opinion could be mobilized in support of an imprisoned poet.

In addition to being a poet, Mapanje has long been an administrator and a scholar, linguist, literary critic, university lecturer, student of folklore, husband, father, and Catholic. More recently he has become an exile. He is best known, however, as a prison poet, and although prison doors actually closed behind him for only a limited period, there are dimensions of his life that indicate that he became a prisoner in 1963 and that he remains one to this day.

Hastings Kamuzu Banda made the whole of Malawi into a prison by the draconian laws his parliament passed from about 1963 onward. In the introduction to his first volume of poems, Of Chameleons and Gods (1981), Mapanje described the struggle he had long been involved in. He referred to verses spanning "some ten turbulent years," in which he had attempted "to find a voice or voices as a way of preserving some sanity." For part of those ten years he was a student at the University of Malawi, where he wrote poems reflecting his engagement with a tradition of poetry that was being distorted by Banda's supporters. He also showed an awareness of developments throughout the continent, and he was determined to provide a literary personality for the new nation. In this he was supported by those who formed the Malawi Writers' Group.

After graduation Mapanje went to London to begin a postgraduate degree with a thesis titled "The Use of Traditional Literary Forms in Modern Malawian Writing in English." At the same time he responded in verse to experiences in England and to news reaching him from Malawi. He developed a conversational, critical, coded, apparently innocuous style that drew strength from the conventions of riddling and from carefully directed questioning.

Some years later the poems written in London were joined with those written during the Soche years in Of Chameleons and Gods, where they were followed by a section entitled "Re-Entering Chingwe's Hole." In this latter section Mapanje charts his experiences on returning to Malawi to take up a lectureship at the University of Malawi, an institution scarred by detentions and deportations. Having convinced the university authorities that he was "sound," Mapanje returned to London and, while doing research for a doctorate in linguistics, began to publish work prompted by Banda's tyrannical rule. Although the poems employed relatively subtle codes and conventions, they were disaffected, critical, and subversive.

Mapanje submitted some forty-seven poems to Heinemann, and in 1981 Of Chameleons of Gods was published in London. Exploiting a loophole in the regulations, it also, to the surprise of many, went on sale in Malawi. Mapanje himself returned home in April 1983 with, as he put it, "a PhD, three books, a baby-boy." He soon discovered that he had returned at a particularly tense time. Out of concern for what was happening around him and anxious to retain links with the international community, Mapanje continued to seek outlets for his work. He may have been encouraged by indications that censorship had been relaxed somewhat and by evidence of local and international esteem. He was still vulnerable, however, as became clear in June 1985 when Of Chameleons and Gods was banned.

Mapanje's response was to try to find out why the Censorship Board had taken action. He bravely wrote up his findings for a conference of writers in April 1986. Versions of the account may have been among the documents taken from his home and office when, in September 1987, he was "picked" from the Zomba Gymkhana Club by security officers. Just why the security forces moved in on Mapanje remains open to speculation. What is not in doubt is the fact that he was held for more than three and a half years in Mikuyu Prison, a time of extreme deprivation spent in appalling conditions. Paradoxically, however, the period was marked by considerable intellectual freedom.

The Chattering Wagtails of Mikuyu Prison, published in 1993, includes reflections on experiences from 1983 onward, along with oblique questionings of the glaring discrepancies in attitude encountered through the early 1980s. The prison poems give the feeling that, because the poet is suffering the extreme sanction of the state, he can write with a new openness. Mapanje has since begun to publish a prose account that provides further glimpses of his experiences in prison, and he has also looked at prison literature in a broad academic context.

Although Chattering Wagtails concludes with a section entitled "The Release and Other Curious Sights," Mapanje returned to prison experiences for the material in the first section of his third volume of poetry, Skipping without Ropes. In the helpful explanatory notes to the collection, he observes, "Skipping without rope was the most harmless form of exercise tolerated." Although the collection contains many poems written since the poet left Mikuyu Prison, there is a sense in which he remains bound by his experiences of Malawi itself as a prison. When he emerged from Mikuyu, Mapanje was anxious to reengage with the world, but images of dependence and detention pursued him. The reluctance of the University of Malawi to take him back led him to move with his family to York to begin a life in exile, which is another kind of detention. The postprison and the exile poems indicate a degree of accommodation to altered circumstances, including the changes that have taken place in Malawi, but the shadow of the detention camp is long.

The poem that closes the collection offers an image of Africa with "weeping scars" caused by silence on important issues. It ends with a statement of commitment to continuing the "struggle." The writing inevitably prompts the recognition that for Mapanje poets, who are the custodians of yesterday, remain trapped in a dialogue with their homelands, with their todays and their tomorrows.

—James Gibbs

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Mapanje, Jack

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