Orality and the Memory of Justice – Jack Mapanje

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 60 (1995), pp. 10-22]

Jack Mapanje

[The First Annual African Studies Lecture given at the University of Leeds on the 13th March 1995]

  1. Preliminary Remark

It is unusual to find writers speculating on what they intend to write about before they actually do so.  Writers just write what they want to write without justification.  But justification is precisely what I want to do right now.  I want to write my prison memoirs in prose with a sprinkling of verse throughout.  So, since I have not written prose before, I thought that I should think aloud with you, as it were, about what I think I will be doing.  I have also taken the strange step of reading several prison memoirs first before I begin writing my own.  I have already thrown one or two away before I reached the end.  Not because they are boring, but because I want to get on with mine.  Some of the verse that I hope to include was written up recently when I was in the Netherlands.  Whether or not what I want to write will actually happen, as I am going to tell you now, is another story.

  1. Why Africa Sometimes Feels Betrayed

First, however, let me begin with a brief note on the politics of our times, if only tangentially, as creative writing and politics are so interlocked that their relationship often does not need defending.  It is a paradox of our African times that, as European ideological walls crumble and the European Union entrenches itself, as African dictators fall and new African governments – established on the principle of free expression, free association, multipartyism, good governance and accountability – are expected to repair the political, social and economic turmoil left by departing autocracies, it is alarming that, precisely when genuine human relationships were expected to blossom between what was once the coloniser and the colonised, Europe should decide to define in inflexible Eurocentric market terms the pluralism and multiculturalism which they have persuaded the African continent to adopt.  It is disheartening that Europe should decide to abandon Africa to its own predicament when Africa probably needs Europe most.

It is further puzzling that the birth of new democratically elected African governments should coincide with more stubborn interventions of Structural Adjustments from the IMF, supported by widespread closures or threatened closures, particularly in European universities, of Centres for African and Third World Studies.  The Centre for Southern African Studies at the University of York has already closed; this University’s African Studies Unit is nervous about its future!  In addition, it is disturbing that this policy should be pursued by the West when some African dictators are still at large and the burden of having them democratically removed has only just begun.  Sometimes I trust that Africa has the right to feel betrayed.  Our ancestral saying, “It is more cruel to show a hungry man the crumbs of food he cannot get than to withhold them from his sight altogether” rings true.

It is a further paradox of our times that as one part of the African continent gets liberated, albeit unsatisfactorily, from decades of political, social and economic injustices, another part of the continent should fall victim to the most excruciating form of human indignity, invented largely by Africans and suffered by fellow Africans but whose roots lie partly in Africa’s chaotic colonial legacy.  For instance, the liberation of South Africa from decades of apartheid and the emancipation of Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia and one or two other African countries from more than thirty years of one-party despotism, have been largely diminished by the horror of pointless conflicts and carnage in Rwanda, Somalia, Zaire, Nigeria and Kenya.  The brutality of military regimes, political panders and religious fanatics has burgeoned where we had expected freedom to flourish.  And sadly, the role of the Organisation of African Unity and of the United Nations in the settlement of these tenacious circumstances is woefully ambiguous.

The African writer who has occupied a central place in the struggle against protracted slavery, colonialism, apartheid and dictatorship, playing a principal role in illuminating the movement of historical, cultural and social events particularly in the creation and development of African national consciousness, stands confounded.  Unlike his or her traditional predecessor, the oral singer, the imbongi or the griot, the writer today is forced to assume the role of mere observer in the unravelling history of his or her nation, uncomfortably side-tracked by the ferocious currents of events sweeping across the African continent.  The writer is unable to define in precise terms the origins and expected direction of movement of the historical, economic and social events on the African continent or in his or her own country.  I am not suggesting that the writer ever claimed to provide tangible solutions to the immense social, economic or cultural problems of Africa or the world at large.  Most writers would probably distance themselves from my presumptions on this issue.  Most of them would probably want to be associated exclusively with matters aesthetic.  The disclaimers would probably insist that the role of writers is to write, write and write well.

An immediate instance is in order.  The massacre in Somalia and the recent catastrophe in Rwanda have brought so much anguish, especially to the African writer, that the symbols and metaphors for the description of such abomination and the reclamation of human dignity and the implied assertion of African identity must founder.[1]                                                     

  1. Cycles of Repression and Denials of Truth Continue

Today the infringement of the rights of the writer in some parts of Africa is frightening.  As I speak two demonstrations of writers, academics and human rights activists in Britain have already taken place in Edinburgh and London on behalf of the Nigerian writer Ken Saro-Wiwa who has been imprisoned for his writings and his beliefs by the Nigerian military government.  Wole Soyinka, the recipient of the 1986 Nobel Prize for Literature, former student of this University and Ken Saro-Wiwa’s countryman, is in virtual hiding.  Having effectively smuggled himself out of Nigeria where the military dictatorship had confiscated first his Nigerian passport then his United Nations passport without proper explanation whatsoever, Soyinka is being hunted and followed wherever he sets foot by the agents of the military command in Nigeria.  Why Abacha would not provide Soyinka the right space to put down his head as a free Nigerian is incomprehensible.  Ngugi wa Thiong’o, another student of this University, still lives in exile in America unable to return to Kenya, his homeland.  And the present speaker is grateful to be alive after the horrors of three years and seven months of Mikuyu Prison in Malawi.

Unfortunately, the intolerance of political systems throughout the world today does not show any signs of abating.  Stories of writers whose lives are threatened by various tyrannical regimes abound.  Recently Taslima Nasrin has had to flee Bangladesh, her home, to live in exile in Sweden.  Other writers remain persecuted for their writings and their beliefs in Bangladesh and other parts of the globe.  Meanwhile in Britain, Salman Rushdie’s death-threats have yet to be lifted.  The cases of global intolerance could be multiplied.  What is hard to understand is the world’s ambivalent response to the stories of writers whose lives are threatened by death or imprisonment for their writings and their beliefs.  The world’s response ranges from total cynicism to sceptical concern.  Sometimes we justify our place by assuming that whatever action we may take to support the incarcerated writer would have limited effect on his or her life and the situation prevailing in the country concerned.  “It’s the writer’s fault,” is another excuse which we sometimes shamelessly make.  But, as you know, I am living proof that fighting for the incarcerated writer works.  And many thanks for your fight.

So, let us not give up the fight for incarcerated writers.  Let us not adopt the heartless view against people who are imprisoned for their beliefs merely because we cannot imagine what Ken Saro-Wiwa, what Wole Soyinka, what Taslima Nasrin, what Salman Rushdie and others are going through in their various confinements.  Let us not refuse to imagine what happens to writers behind bars or how they survive under threats even after their testimonies or memoirs are told or written up.  Having known how much cheer an unknown signature or verbal solidarity might have on a writer in prison, I would like to assure you without reservation that even such lines as the following, which I dedicate to Ken Saro-Wiwa, would have the requisite therapy and bring the much needed cheer for Ken to want to survive if only he had the chance to read them.[2]

Warm Thoughts for Ken Saro-Wiwa

I was beginning to recover from the grisly
Gecko that burst on the blanket rags on my
Knees, after severing from the cobweb rafters
Of my Mikuyu Prison recess, when I heard

The armed vultures have snatched you again:
My heart aches. I remember your gentle embrace
At Potsdam to salute my release from another
Choking cell; you recalled the freezing breath

That writers globally sprayed on my lion’s balls
To loosen its flesh-clutching jaws; I bragged about
Fleas and swarms of bats pouring stinking shit
Into our mouths as we battled the eternal monsters

Of our wakeful slumbers; you laughed. Today,
You must invoke that humour again, my brother;
And as you marvel at those handcuff scars darkly
Glistening, courage! Watch the cracks on your

Prison walls; let them hold nimbly the needles and
Razors of the life we once endured; let the rapture
Of gracious laughter shared, the memory of justice,
Succour you like a prayer; then as the countless

Scorpions, mosquitoes and cockroaches fuss about
Your walls, remember to reach out for that tender
Cloud which forever hovers above your solitary
Sanctum with our wishes to restore, cheer, hope!

  1. The Decision to Write Prison Memoirs

One objective of this presentation is to outline some thoughts on how I survived my incarceration largely by appealing to specific aspects of orality and recalling certain features of my memory of justice.  Let me set out my agenda:  I recently visited Malawi for only one and a half weeks after some seven years of imprisonment and exile.[3] After talking to several relatives, friends, colleagues, students and sometimes unknown people in Malawi, I have now decided to write up my prison experience much against my original decision to the contrary.  I have persuaded myself to write my prison memoirs for two reasons.  First, I want to encourage my students taking the Creative Writing Module which I teach this year in the School of English of this University.  Secondly and more seriously, on my brief visit to Malawi, I discovered an insidious notion of reconciliation which cannot be left unchallenged.  I discovered that some people deliberately exploited the new democratic situation in order to ignore and forget what injury the previous political party and government had done to the psyches of its innocent people.

There are now three political parties which govern Malawi.  The coalition government of United Democratic Front (UDF) and Alliance for Democracy (AFORD) excludes, for good reason, the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) which ruled for thirty years with the stern hand of its life despot Hastings Banda.  Imagining the MCP on the opposition side of government was a novelty; actually seeing them in that position was the most wonderful innovation I have had to encounter.  When I was there I noticed that political discussions by most Malawians pirouetted around the notion of “reconciliation without malice”.  This is a situation I resolutely support.  But I was perturbed by some MCP supporters who seemed to expect reconciliation at all costs, that is, reconciliation regardless of the political persecutions, physical and psychological brutalities that some Malawians had suffered under the MCP government of the last thirty years.  These appeared to want to quickly bury and forget the crimes that the MCP government had perpetrated against the many innocent people in the villages and towns throughout Malawi.  Some even had the temerity to behave as if the MCP had not done anyone any wrong and to maintain that it was only Banda and his handful of henchpersons who had destroyed the country economically and tormented the people.  These were swift to argue that reconciliation must not be vengeful, cunningly excluding from their agenda any indication that they might not invoke the inhuman practices of the previous MCP government if they came to power in the new democratic Malawi.

I accept that reconciliation will have to be the central part of any serious process of democratisation and de-autocratisation of Malawi.  But it is clear to me that in order to establish genuine reconciliation, Malawi needs people who can reconstruct the stories of thirty years of Banda’s autocratic rule without fear, in the hope that the atrocities committed would not be repeated.  My programme is meant to be forward-looking rather than backward-looking.  It is meant for the good of Malawi’s future.  I also detected acrimonious rifts developing particularly amongst some academics (local as well as expatriate) who used MCP tactics to continue to marginalise other Malawians and other well-meaning expatriates.  The newly marginalised group consisted largely of those men and women who had helped the various political parties in their fight against Banda within Malawi but who had not been offered a proper job by the new government in return.  I found those who had been on Banda’s side taunting those who had fought Banda, by declaring insolently that those who had been on Banda’s side were still in their jobs under the new government.

I was especially alarmed to see some Malawians and expatriates dismissing those Malawians in the Diaspora and those expatriates who genuinely wanted to offer their expertise to the new Malawi.  There are many exiled Malawians who were pushed out of the country by Banda’s punitive policies.  Some of these exiles have fought for the new dispensation more relentlessly than those who have fought from within Malawi.  All they want is to return home and put their expertise and energy at the disposal of the new government without necessarily taking over anybody’s jobs.  What we want is to help develop Malawi together.  But animosity against such exiles began to be detected.  It was distressing to note that some Malawians and expatriates living in Malawi appeared to readily assume that all exiles lived in luxury.  Some people did not appreciate the problems that exiles had lived through in order to get what their countrymen now cynically called “their colour TV lives”.  I feel that such personal vendettas and jealousies must be avoided.  They belong to the barbaric world of Banda from which we had hoped to have been abundantly liberated.

I believe firmly that it is the duty of Malawian writers and artists particularly, to extend the bounds of their imagination in order to reconstruct the chaos of the past thirty years through their different forms of art.  The indignity and humiliation perpetrated by Banda’s oppressive regime must be repaired at all levels, in the hope that future generations do not repeat the destruction of human life, resources and energies as in the last three decades of Banda’s tyrannical rule.  Now that tyranny is gone, let aesthetics take over; let memory take over to artistically reconstruct the injustices we have suffered these three decades.  I believe that we should not seek to avenge ourselves.  Rather we should hope to lay bare the barbarity that human beings are capable of inflicting on others without accountable cause.

But strangely, as I thought about these matters, the first question which I grappled with and still remains unresolved is what stories of my imprisonment I should tell and how to tell them; above all, whether it is worth telling them now that I have been released and the dictator who imprisoned me is under house arrest and his henchpersons are imprisoned, soon to face trial for complicity in crimes against the Malawi people?  Why should I inflict my readers with the weeping blisters of my imprisonment?  But then I also thought: although the sudden change in the politics of Malawi is bound to colour the text I will produce, it will not erase the irrationality, the indignity and the humiliation we suffered.  It will not obliterate the bleak laughter we sometimes enjoyed in prison in order to survive.  Perhaps that might be worth talking about.

Besides, I was aware that some memories will be indistinct; their reconstruction slippery.  But perhaps it is not common knowledge that in Mikuyu Prison the line between fact and fiction, reality and fantasy, reason and irrationality, sanity and madness, truth and falsehood, was often so thin that it seemed non-existent.  Perhaps my pointing out this fact through my story may be worth talking about, in my own words and on my own terms.  Perhaps you might even want to hear or read the testimony when it is told.  I will tell the story of incarceration not because it will not be questioned or that it will be perfectly narrated, I will tell it for fear of forgetfulness.  The truth of my story will have to be found in the totality of the symbol or the proposition expressed despite the glaring gaps, slips and silences of memory.  And as is always the case with these matters, I discovered that there was nothing new about my ruminations.  Russia’s Irina Ratushinskaya[4] had already mused about the subject when she said in her prison memoirs, Grey is the Colour of Hope, “I will tell them everything, I think, not knowing yet how difficult that is, to tell everything: how you want to leave out all that was so terrible, and only dwell on the funny moments!  Even now, as I sit down to write this book, a small voice whispers at the back of my mind: leave it, forget it, enough is enough!  But I will remember: I know what must be done.”

Clearly, prison literature springs from the type of confinement under which the writer lives.  There is confinement where one lives in isolation, where sometimes no visitors and no reading materials are allowed; there is confinement where one has access to books because the prison has a library, however inadequate; there is imprisonment with hard labour; imprisonment where no work is allowed; and then there is confinement or exclusion from society where the writer has limited access to the wider world as in the case of Salman Rushdie; the varieties are countless.  What is important is that each confinement generates writings with texture which reflects its own kind of environment and context.  Obviously the decision which a writer makes as to how he or she is going to write is contingent upon the form of imprisonment he or she has experienced.

  1. Literature of Incarceration and its Strange Critics

In deciding that I begin to gather my prison experiences, I am not only mindful of those who have written their memoirs before, whose strategies for survival I adopted and exploited to the full in my prison, but I am also reminded that I should take cognisance of the commentary and criticism of prison writing in general.  The most dangerous commentators are the torturers themselves who would discourage any intending writer with their arrogance.  Primo Levi quotes one from Nazi annihilation camps where the torturer derides his culprits in order to frustrate any attempts they might make in future to tell the truth about Nazi massacres.  The SS militiamen cynically enjoyed scaring their culprits into submission, hoping to demoralise them against taking their revenge or telling their true story:

“However this war may end, we have won the war against you; none of you will be left to bear witness, but even if someone were to survive, the world would not believe him.  There will perhaps be suspicions, discussions, research by historians, but there will be no certainties, because we will destroy the evidence together with you.  And even if some proof should remain and some of you survive, people will say that the events you describe are too monstrous to be believed: they will say that they are the exaggerations of Allied propaganda and will believe us, who will deny everything, and not you.  We will be the ones to dictate the history of the Lagers”[5]

Indeed today, we are familiar with the denial of the truth embedded in the literature of the holocaust and the assault on memory that these denials imply.  Deborah Lipstadt warns us in a book appropriately called Denying the Holocaust, “All those who value truth, particularly truths that are subject to attack by the plague of hatred, must remain ever vigilant.  The bacillus of prejudice is exceedingly tenacious and truth and memory exceedingly fragile”[6]  In Malawi the situation is just as exciting.  The recently established weekly newspaper, The Inquirer, produced statistics of the number of prisoners who were hanged in Zomba Central Prison during thirty years of Banda’s punitive rule.  The figures were immediately disputed largely by Banda’s supporters throughout the country.  This could not have been possible it was argued.  But nobody denied the fact that lots of prisoners were hanged in Banda’s time.  Torturers disguised as human rights activists or even as literary critics will be quick to demonstrate how our prison writings may be fraught with imperfections, how we might have exaggerated what we describe because our memory of events is unreliable.  They will fuss about why writers choose to include some episodes and exclude others.  Furthermore, the reconstruction of the prison memories at a geographical and temporal dislocation, for example, in exile and after years of release, genuinely renders the result fuzzy, even disjunctive.

Take another African instance.  Peter Enahoro reviewing Soyinka’s prison notes, The Man Died[7], complains about the authenticity of the events which Soyinka describes, “Soyinka has produced a work of such excellent poetic prose that doubts are sure to arise whether this really was total recall or whether the inventiveness of the dramatist had taken the better of him, for truthfully some of it is suspiciously too good to be true: too polished”.  Another critic Tighe (Gibbs; p.187), reviewing Soyinka’s prison poems, A Shuttle in the Crypt, makes a similar point, albeit obliquely.  Quoting Alvarez’s essay on “Totalitarian Literature” Tighe contends, “Police terror and the concentration camps have proved to be more or less impossible subjects for the artist”.  And Tighe continues, “Soyinka continually finds it easier to talk of ideas, to chase words and images and create fine sound than he does to talk of his situation … both The Man Died and A Shuttle in the Crypt show an inability to write about himself without becoming too concerned with his own image of himself and retreating behind a thicket of explanations, none of which explains very much … but A Shuttle in the Crypt is a fascinating and more honest sketch for The Man Died”.  I wonder whose reality this type of appreciation was meant to illuminate or distort, the writer’s or the critic’s?

I find that accusing writers of over-polishing their prison experiences or of papering over the truth-gaps in their propositions, as it were, does not annul my determination to write.  Soyinka’s literary critics cited above do not seem to take the illumination of the text as their agenda.  The result is probably not literary criticism at all.  This kind of erroneous commentary presupposes that the critic shares the truth from which the writer operates when it is patent that this is not the case.  The reality of the situation appears to be that any form of reconstruction of memories, especially after the release of the prisoner or the hostage, is bound to be flawed.

There are so many spatial, temporal and other gaps, there are so many silent texts and sub-texts in the reconstruction of our memories that it is impossible to account for them all.  Most writers of the literature of incarceration are not daunted by the silences, gaps and imperfections of the texts they produce.  They merely assume their existence.  In any case, either the world from which writers depict their prison characters presupposes these imperfections or the context of their production does not easily divide into black and white.  That is, in prison, fantasy and reason, fact and fiction, truth and falsehood are often too tightly interlocked to easily extricate.[8]

The writers themselves, however, have a thing or two to say, if only the critics took the trouble to listen.  For instance, Soyinka himself concedes the point when he says in The Man Died, “At some point the games which I played with mathematics must have gone too far.  I moved into greater and greater absurdities and plunged at some point over the brink of rational principles into clearly unhealthy regions.  My recollections of this phase remain hazy and a little frightening” (my emphasis) (quoted by Enahoro, Gibbs; p.240).  And about A Shuttle in the Crypt, Soyinka says the poetry “is a map of the course trodden by the mind, not a record of the actual struggle against a vegetable existence …” (ibid. p.vii)

But the critics choose to ignore these words or the fact that Soyinka deliberately describes the mathematical games, the cyclic silences and temporal gaps in his incarceration sometimes in abstract terms to show how he occupied his monotonous time.  It is obvious that the games symbolise his struggle for mental survival, the struggle to retain his sanity and, above all, his determination not to be frightened by the injustice, humiliation and irrationality of the kind of incarceration that was imposed on him.  Brian Keenan in his preface to An Evil Cradling says, “I try to illustrate not only what happens to the mind during prolonged periods in tiny cells without light or any other form of stimulation, but also, when a man seeks desperately to unite vision and will by whatever power is within him, how adversity is overcome.  The process is long and awful”.[9]  Ngugi wa Thiong’o has a different programme for writing Detained: A Writer’s Prison Diary.  He says, “I have … tried to discuss detention not as a personal affair between me and a few individuals, but as a social, political and historical phenomenon”.[10] 

  1. The Paradox of Oral vs Written Prison Cultures

Since some of the prison writings are reconstructed from an oral/aural perspective, I believe that whatever critical theory purports to edify this work must, by and large, emanate from the work itself and not necessarily imposed from outside it.  For someone who has examined literature at the auditory as well as at the oral level, this comes as no surprise.  After years of research in African orature at the University of Malawi, we came to the conclusion that useful as the models suggested by Parry, Lord, Ong and others for the analysis of the oral/aural text might have been, they were defective in other ways.  Their practitioners tended to assume the adequacy of the analytic tools which they brought to bear in the description of the song.  These scholars may naturally therefore have been led to those approaches for the description of the artefact where the author or the creator of the text was at worst excluded and at best marginalised.

But recent work by Vail & White, Karin Barber and others appears to challenge these approaches.  These scholars are bringing into the field a fresh vibrant and dynamic performance based appreciation of the text which emphasises the liveliness and centrality of the performer, in certain cases, reducing some modern critics’ vainglorious formulae to naught.[11]  In our research there were times when we felt that some songs had an embedded structure which was waiting for analysts to extricate and extrapolate.  We were on the point of making several general statements about these when I was unluckily sent to prison.  Happily, in prison, the features of the orature that I had internalised in childhood and I had taught from and had been doing research in at the University of Malawi, sustained my life in ways I hope to demonstrate in my intended testimonies.

The folk tales that my mother used to tell us at the fireside; the childhood stories we used to tell each other as we rolled on the beaches of Lake Malawi; even the lies about men and women growing up; all these became our tools for survival in prison.  In prison we told one another stories which were true; stories which were neither true nor false; stories which everybody knew were downright lies but were a useful form of psychological sustenance.  Characteristic of oral traditions, I adopted voices which addressed someone with my idea or topic.  When the mode of expression was not poetic, I sometimes argued with my audiences.  Often my torturer became the audience.  And because I had not been charged, I found it necessary to invent mechanisms by which I could defend myself.  Sometimes I created imaginary courts where I always insisted on my being acquitted.  Sometimes I would stand Banda and his henchpersons in the opposite corner of my cell and start talking to them, often mocking and taunting them until I wore them out or they were too exhausted to talk back!  Talk was one of the most useful tools for surviving particularly solitary confinement.  Where reliance on memory and orality was the norm, where no book save the Bible was allowed, it is easy to understand why talk and storytelling became the adopted culture in Mikuyu Prison, particularly before I was moved from the isolation cell.

I wrote poems in my head and kept them there until the opportunity to transfer them availed itself.  To ensure that I could remember them easily, I unconsciously chose the narrative mode of verse writing.  I built my poems around persons or ideas and strung these together.  Let me demonstrate.  The Yoruba have a folk-tale whose title in print is usually given as “You Can Fool Others But Can You Fool Yourself?[12]  And the following extended simile is typical of how I attempted to construct the ideas and lines of my poems.  “For years they lived very happily together, but their happiness was built on a lie like the road that is constructed on swampy ground.  And lies are like bats.  As long as they are kept in the dark they elude everybody silently and swiftly.  But when exposed to the light of day they hang stupid and defenceless, for anybody to see and pick up, and they appear the ugliest creatures on earth.”  I found the beading together of words like “Happiness”, “lie”, “road”, “bats” and “ugliest” naturally summoned familiar structures which were particularly prone to easy storage in the memory.  The overall symbol was cumulative in effect and seemed easy to hoard in the mind.

  1. The Ordinariness of Prison Writing

Ioan Davies has disputed cogently[13] that prison writing is essentially no different from non-prison writing.  The writer is a rebel in every sense of the word.  His/her very imprisonment has come about because of his/her struggle against the repressive mores of society.  For the writer the world is one huge prison where humanity’s dignity has been usurped and needs to be restored.  Both prison and non-prison writing take the world at the metaphorical level where the characters waste their lives away in order to reclaim some dignity.  Perhaps the major difference is that characters in prison writing are full-blooded and may be alive in the real world whereas in non-prison writing characters tend to live in “possible worlds”.  In the brief time that I have read and thought about prison writing I have noticed that both prison writing and non-prison writing complement each other.  They are both fixed in and depend on memory.  Prison as space is the quintessence of physical brutality, obscenity, irrationality and madness that human beings can inflict on others.

Take the instance of some Commonwealth and post-colonial non-prison writing in English.  It is obvious that the memory of the justice of the African pre-colonial mind and pre-colonial society informs Chinua Achebe’s celebrated novels, Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God, Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s, A Grain of Wheat and Petals of Blood, and the work of many other African writers.  The memory of justice imagined and hoped for and of injustice experienced through the long history of slavery and beyond informs Toni Morrison’s, The Beloved or David Dabydeen’s, Turner.  These writers are clearly engaged in the exercise of aesthetic amelioration of the African identity and dignity long lost and perhaps forgotten.  The memory of the fantastic spirit-child reconstructed by Ben Okri in The Famished Road and Songs of Enchantment; the interlocking within one text of madness and irrationality on the one hand and sanity and reason on the other, depicted in these and other modern works, is surely the writers’ remodelling and restoration of their memories imagined or experienced at some point in their history.  Any other aesthetic attempts at the reparation of the glory of lost Empires of the world would belong to this type of writing whether it declared itself thus or not.  I am thinking particularly of what might be called the “metropolitan writing within the Commonwealth”, which for some inexplicable reason tends to exclude itself from the rest of Commonwealth writing.

Today, as we celebrate Commonwealth Day, questions about the relevance of the very notion of “Commonwealth” are frequently asked.  I wonder if we should not also begin to ask whether the various colonial and post-colonial layers of discourse and representation, whether some extrapolation of the text by modern critics may not sometimes sound too remote from the reality of the creator; whether our various analyses may not be too far removed from the forms of madness, irrationality and incarceration found throughout Commonwealth “prisons” today.  I wonder whether these models might not be too inappropriate to handle the orality of the perpetual prison we live under and the injustice which writers throughout the Commonwealth attempt to repair at the aesthetic level.  I wonder whether we might not have invented another esoteric monster of discourse which is, perhaps unconsciously, intended to exclude the true reality of Commonwealth instead of illuminating it.  Perhaps being engaged in thinking and writing about incarceration in this manner is the key to understanding some of our awkward questions about the definition of the Commonwealth today.

In my search I also did something writers do not normally bother about.  I looked very causally at some disciplines that deal with orality, memory, terror and incarceration.  Cognitive psychologists have propounded theories about how memories of childhood enter and are stored in our autobiographies.  Historians have exploited orality and the memory of the past mirrored in the stories and songs in order to explain how the present resonates into the future.  The literature also contains extended studies of the psychological consequences of living under extreme conditions of fear and terror.  I have in mind particularly Bruno Bettelheim’s, The Informed Heart[14], which is relevant to prison writing.

From all this rich and diversified work on the literature of incarceration I culled two central issues: what the tyrant, torturer or prison warder wants to happen to the prisoner on the one hand; and what strategies the prisoner adopts in order to survive and to beat the dictator and the prison regime and, indirectly, the outer autocratic dominion, on the other.  Prison guards employ threats, torture, beatings, mockery, the withholding of freedom, food and privileges and other means, to humiliate and brainwash prisoners into submission.  Other unthinkable indignities are at their disposal.  And in order to beat restrictive prison rules, prisoners rely on their wit, occasionally on brute force, and their internalised childhood memories to survive.  Prison writing then is, literally and figuratively, about prisoners jumping over prison fences in order to be free.  While some prisoners are aggressive in attaining this goal, others are subtly submissive.  As I hope to demonstrate, the strategies adopted by prisoners for their survival are countless and varied.

8.Concluding Remark

In conclusion, surviving any form of incarceration, whether under extreme conditions of terror or not, depends largely on the prisoner’s decision to want to live and to want to challenge the system, however invincible it might appear.  One does not need physical torture, illness, hunger strikes or suicides to die in prison.  Being totally excluded from everyone and everything by invoking the punitive rules of prison, brings such lethal meaninglessness to one’s life that death becomes inevitable.  Yet willingly accepting exclusion, that is, choosing not to invent meaning in the glaring blank walls, choosing not to see obvious symbols in the prison’s dry silences and yawning gaps, is enough to kill one.  In Mikuyu Prison nothing killed more brutally than the nothingness of our lives.  The guards dumped us in isolation cells specially for this.

I concede; often the heroic lives of Jesus and his disciples in the Bible, often tall tales from inmates or rumours from outside prison, influenced our decisions to want to survive or to want to die, but the final choice either way was made by the prisoner.  I remember in my deadly silences arrogantly praying, “Lord, too many, too many nobler than I, have already perished unkindly in this little nation; too many have offered their deaths; let me offer survival not death as the greatest gift from you and to you; let me offer survival as the major statement of protest to my torturers; here where the thumping boots and jangling keys forever want to erase even our gentlest of memories”.

And when I heard and knew that my wife and children, my relatives, friends and colleagues in Malawi, in Africa and throughout the world were spending sleepless nights fighting for my release, my will to survive was hardened.  That my family and my relatives were not allowed to visit me until after twenty-two months; that I was not allowed to read or write anything; that I was neither charged nor tried and therefore did not know when I was going to come out, if at all; these and many other factors did not matter.  What mattered was my determination to want to prove my torturers wrong.  My prayer continued, “Lord even if I came out alive and then died in the arms of my wife and children, I know I would have triumphed”.  And hanging on to the memory of humanity’s justice, hoped for, however illusive, however ineffable, was an even more urgent matter.  Today I note with awe that Irina Ratushinskaya has summed up more forcefully her Russian experience on this matter.  Her poem which is appropriately called, I Will Live and Survive[15] starts:

I will live and survive and be asked:
How they slammed my head against a trestle,
How I had to freeze at nights,
How my hair started to turn grey …
But I’ll smile. And will crack some joke
And brush away the encroaching shadow.
And I will render homage to the dry September
That became my second birth ..


Professor Jack Mapanje is a Malawian writer and poet and an honorary member of the School of English, University of Leeds.


[1] Take for instance the novels of Nuruddin Farah.  I see these dealing, among other things, with Somalia’s dictatorship and the effects of its despotic laws in stifling the lives of ordinary innocent Somalis.  Farah aesthetically reclaims Somalia’s lost dignity and identity in the face of imposing repressive structures.  Similarly, Ben Okri and others have made aesthetic cries for Nigeria, Somalia and Rwanda through their prose & verse.  I myself tried to capture my discomfiture with the Rwandan tragedy in the following rather romantic lines.  I see the attempts of these writers as one of reconstructing the memory that might easily be smothered in the confusion of our daily fight for survival..


                                Nyarwanda Among the Bones of Butare


Why have I come to watch this carnage of matchets

Slashing each other’s banana fronds to death in this

Eternal drought? How do I hope to find a lost friend


Among these godless shrines of Rwanda? Isabela,

Those milky teeth you showed me when you said

Farewell at our language seminar in Butare exactly


Eleven years today are stained in blood. I feel hollow

& cheated. I sat under the canopy of your banana

Leaves as the chicks pecked at their morning grain;


You promised to teach me real KiNyarwanda when

I could not join the others climbing your mountain

Ranges & as the village children gathered, laughing


& keen to share my first lesson, they were bemused

By the words I used: why did they sound like theirs?

I jotted down fifty words in KiNyarwanda from my


Corpus of limited ChiYao from home two thousand

Miles away; the children thought I was lying, I spoke

Their tongue, how did we communicate so easily?


I inquired about your banana beer: what did you

Blend to produce the delicate flavour so congenial,

How many days did it need to brew, did you sell


It from those tattooed melon-shaped calabashes,

I bargained for driving between Kigali & Butare?

& that pristine ‘marimba’ orchestra which toured


France all summer, you boasted & which we loved

So much at Butare – has all that come to this, now?

Why didn’t you warn the Hutu & Tutsi mementoes


I so arrogantly secured would soon rend each other to

Death, human flesh floating in rivers like dead leaves?

Where are the gentle children who giggled at my first


Syllables of KiNyarwanda; where in this desecrated

Dust of exodus, this stench of human meat, amongst

These arid bones, Nyarwanda, where are you now?

[2]This claim is now vindicated by Ken Saro-Wiwa’s recent response to this poem when International PEN Writers in Prison Committee in London managed to send it to him.  See extracts published in the German International PEN Writers in Prison Committee newsletter, Literatur Nachrichten, No. 46, Juli-Sept.., 1995

[3] I am grateful to the management of Diverse Productions, London, for taking me to Malawi as part of their Africa ‘95 contribution to “African Footsteps, (BBC2 TV programme).

[4] Irina Ratushinskaya, Grey is the Colour of Hope, Hodder & Stoughton, 1988, p.14

[5] Quoted in Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, Abacus, 1989, p.1

[6] Deborah Lipstadt, Denying the Holocaust: the growing assault on truth and memory, Penguin, 1994, p.xvii

[7] James Gibbs, (ed.), Critical Perspectives on Wole Soyinka, The Three Continents Press, 1980, p.240

[8] Without being pedantic about the matter, it is the case that even the most rigid semantic theory must attempt to explain how propositions can be at once true and false (perhaps depending on the context of their utterance) and in spite of the temporal or other gaps that the proposition might suppose.  I do not want to indulge in empty abstractions but the proposition expressed by the utterance, “Jack is teaching Creative Writing in the School of English at the University of Leeds in the 1994-1995 academic year” will have a truth value even if the actual teaching is expected to happen in the second semester of the 1994-1995 academic year.

[9] Brian Keenan, An Evil Cradling, Hutchinson, 1992, p.xii

[10] Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Detained: A Writer’s Prison Diary, Oxford, Heinemann, 1988, p.xi

[11] Vail L. & White L., Power and the Praise Poem: Southern African Voices in History, University of Virginia Press/James Currey, 1991; Karin Barber, Oriki: I Could Speak Until Tomorrow, Edinburgh University Press, 1991; Isabel Hofmeyer, “We Spend Our Years As a Tale That is Told”, Witwatersrand University Press/James Currey, 1993; David B. Coplan, In the Time of Cannibals, University of Chicago Press, 1994

[12] Bakare Gbadamosi & Ulli Beier (eds.), Not Even God is Ripe Enough, Oxford, Heinemann. 1968, p.15

[13] Ioan Davies, Writers in Prison, Basil Blackwell, 1990, p.219-240

[14] Bruno Bettelheim, The Informed Heart, Penguin Books, 1960

[15] Irina Ratushinskaya, Pencil Letter, Bloodaxe Books, 1988, p. 27