About ten years ago I turned down the opportunity to travel with the poet Jack Mapanje on a writers’ trip to Malawi. I’d met Jack when I gave a reading at Warwick University and was struck by his keen joviality: a combination of acute wit and warmth of personality. Foolishly, pleading the need to finish a novel, I missed out on getting to know a remarkable man more closely and on his home ground.
Then, last year, I heard an interview with Jack on the BBC, talking about his memoir of life as a political prisoner in Malawi from 1987 to 1991. Its title, And Crocodiles Are Hungry at Night, refers to one of the methods used to dispose of the bodies of prisoners of the Banda regime – by tipping them into crocodile-infested waters.
A little history. The British colony of Nyasaland became independent Malawi in 1964 and Dr Hastings Banda was appointed as Prime Minister. The nominally democratic republic was soon converted into a one-party state and in 1971 Banda was declared President for Life. Which he very nearly was; he held his position as dictator until 1994. He died in 1997. His regime had regularly imprisoned political enemies, rivals and anyone foolish enough to cross, knowingly or unknowingly, one of his informers or secret policemen.
Jack Mapanje’s account begins on 25 September 1987. He is 43, a professor at the University of Malawi, Head of the Department of Language and Linguistics, and an internationally renowned poet. A man alive to the possibilities of arrest by the regime he has criticized in his poems, but regarding himself as reasonably safe at the moment from its depredations. It is pay-day. He goes to a bar for a drink with a colleague and his world collapses.
The word ‘Kafkaesque’ is over-used but its implied mixture of black comedy and nightmare illogicality suits perfectly the ordeal to which Jack is now subjected. He is arrested in the bar by a high-ranking police officer, handcuffed and, after searches of his
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