Political Imprisonment

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."