Jack Mapanje

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Date:1944 - Present

Region: Africa

Subject: Political/Economic/Social Opinion

Medium: Literature


Dates of Action: 1981, 1987

Description of Artist: "In addition to being a published poet of international reputation, Jack Mapanje is a respected theoretical linguist. He is chairman of the Linguistics Association of SADCC Universities....has edited two anthologies of African poetry, broadcast for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), and acted as judge in BBC and commonwealth poetry competitions.....Sadly, Mapanje's reputation has not saved him from three years of arbitrary and unjustifiable imprisonment, but it has ensured that his case has not been forgotten. In June 1988 he was the winner of the Poetry International Award in Rotterdam. This was accepted on his behalf by the Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature... " ...For many years Mapanje had exercise skill in evading the blue pencil. He was a member of the Malawi Writer's Group and played an important part in developing the distinctive language and metaphors whereby the group exercised its views. Expressions such as 'leopards of Dedza' and 'Chingwe's Hole,' which recur in Mapanje's poems, are widely understood and have found their way into popular usage... " (Human Rights Watch/Africa Watch)


Incident(s):

1981:When Of Chameleons and Gods was published in 1981 it was neither officially proscribed nor cleared for sale. Thus bookshops were not allowed to display it, but no one could be prosecuted for possessing a copy. In 1985 the Ministry of Education and Culture issued a circular banning its use in schools and colleges.


1987: Jack Mapanje was arrested by police at the Gymkhana Club in Zomba on September 25, 1987. Since then he has been detained without charge--and without any public explanation--at Mikuyu Prison. For the first twenty months of his incarceration, Mapanje was not allowed visits from his family or friends (he is married to a mid-wife, Mercy Mapanje, and they have three children). Nor has he been allowed to see a present--Mapanje is a practicing Roman Catholic. In the absence of any statement from the government the precise reasons for his detention are a matter of speculation, although clearly it was Mapanje's writing which upset the authorities. After his arrest, Mapanje was first taken in handcuffs to the University of Malawi, where he is head of the Department of English Language and Literature. The police searched his office and seized various manuscripts, including poems and the paper delivered at a Conference in Stockholm in 1986, entitled Censoring the African Poem: Personal Reflections. This includes an account of his problems with the Malawi Censorship Board. It is likely that the authorities were also concerned about Mapanje's plans to bring out a second volume of poems, provisionally entitled Out of Bounds, and about an invitation for him to take up the post of writer-in-residence at the University of Zimbabwe.

Author's Views on Censorship:In his 1986 paper Mapanje quotes the polish novelist Tadeusz Konwicki to the effect that censorship "forces the writer to employ metaphors which raise the piece of writing to a higher level." He is amused that the Malawi Censorship board may have actually improved his poems.

Results of Incident(s): With his use of metaphor and traditional forms Mapanje was able to out wit the censors. But finally he could do so no longer: his book was banned and he was imprisoned. Partly, of course, this simply reflects the effectiveness of Mapanje's criticism and the frustration of the authorities at his wit and skill... " ...His poetry began to deal more overtly with political themes.... He now regards himself as 'Out of Bounds'...."

No further information is available as to Mapanje's imprisonment.

Source: Human Rights Watch/Africa Watch, "Where Silence Rules, The Suppression of Dissent in Malawi," October 1990, Pg. 75-79

Recordings of the poet reading his work