Poetry literature
Poetry literature

by Regina Maere

Jack Mapanje is a Malawian writer and poet. The child of Nyanja and Yao parents, John Alfred Clement (Jack) Mapanje was born in Kadango Village, Mangochi District, Malawi. He was the head of English at the Chancellor College, the main campus of the University of Malawi before being imprisoned in 1987 for his collection Of Chameleons and Gods, which indirectly criticized the administration of President Hastings Kamuzu Banda. He was released in 1991 and immigrated to the UK, where he worked as a teacher.

He received his BA in Education from the University of London and worked for a time as a lecturer in Malawi before returning to the UK to study Linguistics at University College, London in the early 1980s. He subsequently became head of the Department of Language and Linguistics at the University of Malawi.

In 1987, Mapanje imprisonment was for apparently publishing his poem collection Of Chameleons and Gods. The poem obliquely criticised Banda’s government and the ‘chameleon’ of the title refers to the disguise of personal voice Mapanje deemed necessary in order to mount a criticism of the politics at that time. The book received no official ban but was withdrawn from circulation.

Amnesty International declared him a prisoner of conscience and campaigned for his release. Its protests included a reading of selections from Of Chameleons and Gods outside the Malawian High Commission in London by UK Nobel Laureate Harold Pinter. Mapanje was held for three-and-a-half years before being released in 1991.

Jack Mapanje was a writer of many stories and poems. Some of these include ‘Of Chameleons and Gods’ which was published in 1981, ‘The Chattering Wagtails of Mikuyu Prison’ published in 1993, ‘The Beasts of Nalunga’ published in 2007, ‘On the Interpretation of Aspect and Tense in Chiyao, Chichewa, and English. University College London PhD thesis’ published in 1983, ‘The Last of the Sweet Bananas: New and Selected Poems’ published in 2004 and ‘And Crocodiles are Hungry at Night- a memoir. Ayebia Clarke’ publishing which was lastly published in 2011.

In 1988, he first won his award of Rotterdam Poetry International then the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award was given to him in 1990. He also won an award in 2002 of African Literature Association (USA) Fonlon-Nichols.

Regina Maere

I was born in Mangochi and educated in Dedza at Umbwi Secondary School, Following Secondary School I attended The Institute of Journalism, Lilongwe. Inspired by great writers, with a passion for writing it is my ambition to inspire others too through writing.

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