Mapanje's Political Voice And Rhythm

This piece titled 'Poetry of Our Times: The Chattering Wagtails of Mikuyu Prison' is a review of Jack Mapanje's work and was origninally written by the late Anthony Nazombe. The full piece was published in 1995 by the Journal of Humanities, Vol. 8-9 (1), pp.87-113. Image: Olivia Pendergast.


In this paper, late professor and scholar, Nazombe meticulously reviews Jack Mapanje’s collections(s) of poems, and showcases the way in which the poet chronicles key events in his life and his country. The author also comparatively explores the role Mapanje’s poetry - from his earlier work ‘Of Chameleons and Gods’ to ‘The Chattering Wagtails of Mikuyu Prison’ - played in the face of an oppressive military regime in Malawi.

"The Chattering Wagtails of Mikuyu Prison spans another decade, this time that between 1983 and 1993. The earliest poem in it dates back to March/April 1983 when, after obtaining his doctorate from University College, London, the poet decided to return to Malawi and take up his teaching post at the University. The latest piece, taking the form of a prologue to the whole collection, was written at Heworth in England in February 1993, six months before the whole collection was published. By then the Malawian poet was already living in exile with his family after being released two years before from Mikuyu Prison of the book's title. Thus the decade covered in this volume is also unstable, arguably more so at a personal level than the one spanned in Of Chameleons and Gods. The prologue with which Mapanje's second book of poems opens serves, among other thing~. to establish a connection between the two volumes through the reference to Chingwe's Hole on Zomba Plateau.

According to local belief, this is the hole into which wrongdoers were in the distant past dropped as their punishment. In the prologue, however, the hole is closely identified with the detention which the poet and other victims like him have experienced. Another link with Of Chameleons and Gods is the use of a variety of voices in the poems. The chattering wagtails of the second book's title are not just the birds that frequently visited the prison yard but also the inmates themselves and, by extension, all Malawians forced by President Banda's autocratic rule to flee into exile. Also introduced in the prologue is a strong committed stance on Jack Mapanje's part. Here is a writer who by now has clearly taken sides in the continuing political struggle in Malawi. He is firmly on the side of the oppressed, who now actively seek 'Justice!'"


Divided into four sections, The Chattering Wagtails Of Mikuyu Prison covers the different phases in the poet’s walk pre- and post-political imprisonment. Mapanje gives voice to other inmates and against crucial events of Malawi’s then-Head Of State — Hashings Banda. In line with the format of the book, Nazombe analyses the collection in four sections: 'Another Fools' Day Homes In,' 'Out of Bounds,' 'Chattering Wagtails' and 'The Release and Other Curious Sights.’

"If there is anything new in Jack Mapanje's style as it is reflected in The Chattering Wagtails of Mikuyu's Prison, it is the shedding of the cryptic manner of the earlier volume and the adoption of a frank and direct approach to his subject matter. This is the result of at least two liberating experiences: detention and exile. It is as if after personally going through one of the worst ordeals imaginable in Malawian life, Mapanje now feels more justified than ever before in exposing and denouncing the evils of the Malawi Congress Party regime. Similarly, exile confers upon him an immunity from persecution not easily taken for granted by fellow writers back in Malawi. Given this advantage, it is not surprising that the poet gives free rein to his considerable descriptive powers in his new poetry. To read the poems about prison life especially is to fall under the spell of the poet's eye and ear for detail, a quality all the more remarkable considering that most of the pieces were 'composed in the head' in a world without pen or paper."


Nigeria's Military Dictatorship Through Habila and Achebe

This review titled 'Military Dictatorship In Nigerian Novels: A Study Of Helon Habila’s Waiting For An Angel and Chinua Achebe’s 'Anthills Of The Savannah' was originally written by Ikechukwu Asika. The full paper was published in the African Research Review, Vol. 5 (3), 2011: pp. 275-289.


Injustice, oppression and corruption — these are the three words that bind the bodies of work comparatively studied by Asika. Both novels, though written just over a decade apart, highlight the socioeconomic realities of people under Nigeria’s military eras. Achebe uses a fictitious country, Kanga, to paint a picture of a repressive iron-hand ‘khaki’ leadership in Anthills of the Savannah. In Waiting For An Angel, Habila similarly illustrates years of “hardship, killing, violence, brutality and imprisonment” during Abacha’s regime. Asika, through his paper, looks at both books as "social documents" from which people can learn about such a time as the military rule.


Anthills Of The Savannah

"His Excellency gets whatever he wants and suppresses the people under his tyrannical leadership...His Excellency, the military leader, wanted to be a life president..” “His government is like a den, [and] no one leaves his den unhurt...He hates anything that portrays the truth.” “[...][When] Chris wants to resign as the Commissioner for Information, he wouldn’t be allowed to do so; [instead, he would] ...be jailed for refusing to carry out his evil instructions. Chris laments thus:

So I will stay put and do you know something else; it may not be easy to leave even if I wanted, do you remember what he said, during that terrifying debate over his life presidency? I told you, didn’t I? For one brief moment he shed his pretended calmness and threatened me; if anyone thinks he can leave the cabinet on this issue he will be making a sad mistake. Anyone walking out of that door will not go home but head straight into detention.

Anthills Of The Savannah, p. 119

"His Excellency is hell bent on silencing anyone who says the truth about his government...Ikem Osodi, the Editor of the “National Gazette,” [takes] it upon himself to write about nothing but the truth; to expose and satirize the corruption and dictatorial nature of the military rulers. This [is seen as] ...a great threat to the government of His Excellency, and Ikem must be stopped by all means. Thus, Ikem be[comes] a victim of the truth he writes about.

"Achebe also highlights on the plight of the people who are against the dictatorial government. They are neglected and abandoned.” “Those that [stand] in defense [sic] of the truth are denied basic social amenities and economic dividends. The people of Abazon [are] abandoned to poverty and hardship, under the wreckage of erosion. They have no boreholes [nor] other amenities because they refused to support the military ruler… As a result of [the] marginalization and neglect, the people of Abazon have no [choice but]...to bow under the powers of oppression and dictatorship thus [saying]:

… so we came to Bassa to say our own yes and perhaps the work on our boreholes will start again and we will not all perish from the anger of the sun. We did not know before but we know now that yes does not cause trouble.

Anthills Of The Savannah, p. 127

"The kidnapping of His Excellency is [however] a medium through which Achebe demands a total eradication of military incursion in Kangan - an imaginary country that can be likened to any African state. [Through]...the characters of Elewa, Bertrice, Adamma, Emmanuel and Abdul, ...we see the despair, weariness and agony but [also] a sense of pride and cheerfulness for having survived the military era to witness a new nation – a dictator free nation. [We witness] ...a lesson they learnt, and it is a message to entire humanity.


Waiting For An Angel

"Habila delve[s] into the psychological disposition of many individuals, to expose the traumatic effects of military government [of General Abacha] on them.” “It was obvious that the military rulers never had democracy at heart, and so, they kept postponing the date...Students, to show their resentments [sic], organized a peaceful demonstration. Few were killed; many wounded. The military men invaded their hostels to loot and rape the girls.

"Fundamental human right[s were] ...blown into the wind. "People and things [fell] apart.""...The hopes and aspirations of the characters [were continuously] shattered due to the unending tension mounted by the army boys.”“Bola [gets] home to learn of the accident involving his mother, father and two sisters." He takes to the street to shout, and is "...arrested by the agents of the Khaki boys...beaten to coma and later dumped in a psychiatrist hospital. That [would be] the end of Bola.

...They hold us cowed with guns so that they will steal our money. This is capitalism at its most militant and aggressive. They don’t have to produce any superior goods to establish monopoly. They do it by holding guns to our heads. Let me tell you why they hanged Saro Wiwa…where is Abiola? In prison! They will continue subjugating us, killing all dissenters, one by one, sending them into exile, till there is no competition left to oppose them.

Waiting For An Angel, p. 158

"Lomba, the main character in the novel, [is] detained in the prison simply because he is a journalist who writes about the truth. The government [had] erected more prisons..[in which] innocent citizens were littered as political detainees without trial - a technique to put them away from challenging the government forever. Thus the prison superintendent tells Lomba in his archaic English:"

Do you complain? Look twenty years I have worked in prisons all over this country. Nigeria …sometimes it is better this way. How can you win a case against government? Wait, Hope’ …Now he lowered his voice, like a conspirator. ‘Maybe there, there’ll be another coup, eh? Maybe the leader will collapse and die. He is mortal, after all. Maybe a civilian government will come. Then, there will be amnesty for all political prisoners.

Waiting For An Angel, p. 14, 15

General Abacha later dies and the angel of hope, one of liberty, rescues " many citizens under the bondage of military dictatorship.” Habila remarks in closing: “In politics of Nigeria, nothing that would be said of Abacha’s and other[’s] military regime in the politics of Nigeria will be an overstatement. It is a nightmare we pray never to experience again.”


The permission to feature this paper was obtained by The Book Banque directly from the author Ikechukwu Asika. The excerpts shown on this page may have been line edited for the purposes of consistency and quality management.

All views and thoughts expressed on the military dictatorship in Nigeria in the featured article are that of the author, Ikechukwu Asika, and in no way reflect the opinion nor position of The Book Banque. Assumptions, interpretations or analyses made in the paper are neither reflective of the authors - Achebe and Habila - of the works cited, nor entirely of their position.