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A Malawi Poet under Arrest

To the Editors:

I am writing to bring to the attention of your readers the plight of an African poet, Jack Mapanje, Malawi’s best known poet, who has been published internationally. At the time of his arrest in September 1987, he was head of the Department of English Language and Literature of the University of Malawi. In addition, he is a respected theoretical linguist, chairman of the Linguistics Association of SADCC Universities. (SADCC is an organization for southern Africa states.) He has edited two anthologies of African poetry, broadcast for the BBC and acted as judge in BBC and Commonwealth poetry competitions.

Malawi is a rigidly authoritarian country where freedom of expression is virtually non-existent. It has been ruled since independence in 1964 by the autocratic regime of the self-proclaimed President-for-Life, Hastings Kamuzu Banda. Hundreds of opponents, real or imaginary, have been assassinated, detained and tortured, or forced into exile. Political prisoners are held under squalid conditions, often in solitary confinement and denied proper medical attention.

In Malawi, a Censorship Board bans all published material deemed “harmful or offensive to any section of the public.” The law also provides that “any member of the public can complain, anonymously if they wish, about material which has ‘caused offense.’ ” There is an extensive list of proscribed publications; possession of any of them is a criminal offense punishable by imprisonment. Jack Mapanje’s first collection of poems, Of Chameleons and Gods, was banned. Other writers who have failed to win the approval of the Board include James Baldwin, George Orwell, Graham Greene and Wole Soyinka. In a paper he delivered in Stockholm in 1986, Mapanje recalled an occasion when President Banda recommended a book to his Cabinet presented to him by Meharry Medical College, Tennessee, where he had trained as a doctor, only to find that it was on the list of banned books.

Before his detention, Mapanje had evaded the Censorship Board by using metaphors to criticize the government. These were widely understood and found their way into popular usage. The authorities gave no reasons for his arrest. The timing was probably intended to forestall the publication of his second volume of poems, appropriately entitled Out of Bounds, which he was working on at the time. These poems were confiscated by the government, along with manuscripts and a paper entitled “Censoring the African Poem: Personal Reflections.” He was also due to take up a post as writer-in-residence at the University of Zimbabwe. The authorities were presumably nervous that, from the safety of Harare, Mapanje would feel less constrained about openly criticizing the Malawian government.

President Banda’s pro-Western foreign policy and free market economics have made the United States a principal Western ally of Malawi. Britain and West Germany also give aid to Malawi, but none of them has criticized Banda’s brutal methods of suppressing internal dissent. The only two resident foreign correspondents were expelled and a request by Africa Watch to visit the country was denied.

Rakiya Omaar
Executive Director, Africa Watch
New York City

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