Academic journal article International Fiction Review

Orality and Subversion in Jack Mapanje's of Chameleons and Gods

Academic journal article International Fiction Review

Orality and Subversion in Jack Mapanje's of Chameleons and Gods

Article excerpt

Jack Mapanje, one of Malawi's leading poets, was arrested and detained without charge from September 1987 to May 1991 by former president for life and dictator Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda and the Malawi Congress Party (MCP). At the time of his arrest, Mapanje was serving as Chair of the English Department at Chancellor College of the University of Malawi. To this day the government has not revealed the actual reasons for his detention. However, Banda gives a hint in a letter he wrote to the faculty of the University of Edinburgh in 1988 in response to their protests over Mapanje's detention. In it, Banda accuses Mapanje of "using the classroom as a forum for subversive politics." (1) How Mapanje used the classroom for subversive politics is not stated. What is obvious, though, is that in Banda's Malawi, any form of criticism, including any complaint against Banda or the party, were considered subversion. It is highly probable that what Banda calls use of the classroom for subversive politics refers to Mapanje's own poetry in Of Chameleons and Gods. (2) The regime heavily censored stories, poems, plays, songs, etc. for critical commentary on the regime even if only suspected. (3) Needless to say, the Ministry of Education withdrew Of Chameleons and Gods from circulation in schools and colleges. (4) Under the censorship atmosphere then, this action was a prelude to the outright banning of the book.

In this article, I argue that some of Mapanje's poems in Of Chameleons and Gods lend themselves to a subversive reading to annoy a dictator such as Banda in that, among other things, the poems demystify Banda and openly undermine his legitimacy. Even as a dictatorship, the regime of Banda and the MCP relied heavily on a hegemonic discourse that both popularized and legitimized it. (5) In so far that Mapanje's poetry constituted a counterhegemonic discourse that threatened to undermine Banda's popularity and challenge the MCP's legitimacy, it was considered subversive. This may explain why the collection was withdrawn from schools, and why Mapanje was later arrested. This article, using a selection of poems from Of Chameleons and Gods, shows the specific elements of Banda's dictatorship that Mapanje sought to undermine and challenge.

During the reign of Banda in Malawi, the dominant political discourse was shaped by what is called Kamuzuism, an ideology that produced a powerful myth of Banda as the "fount of all wisdom" and a leader who "always knew what was best for the nation," (6) that is, an individual who possessed supernatural or divine wisdom. He was called Mpulumutsi, meaning Messiah or Savior. This was derived from the fact that in 1963 Banda led the people of Malawi to independence from British colonial rule. He assumed the stature of a god similar to Jesus. For the same role, Banda was called Ngwazi (Conqueror), which indicated that, apart from the meaning that he was brave and ferocious, he was invincible. No one could harm or defeat Banda. Banda was also Wamuyaya, president for life, in the sense that to some of his supporters his reign was never going to end, thereby suggesting that Banda was immortal. He was also Nkhoswe No. 1, a protector, guardian, and provider for his people. (7) He was called Father and Founder of the nation, which presented him as if he fought colonialism more or less single-handedly to bring about independence in Malawi. This obliterated an entire history of nationalists' efforts before him, including those who fought together with him. Banda in turn regarded Malawi as one big village in which he was the paramount Chief and father, guardian, and protector of all people. He then assumed the position of divine right and absolute authority to rule Malawi unchallenged. Banda and the MCP produced this perception by tacitly acknowledging the praise and worship where Banda was presented as a gift from God to the people of Malawi. These were the dominant ideas of the national political discourses that popularized and legitimized Banda's dictatorship. …

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