Tuesday, January 18, 2011

60. The Chattering Wagtails of Mikuyu Prison by Jack Mapanje, A Review

Title: The Chattering Wagtails of Mikuyu Prison
Author: Jack Mapanje
Genre: Poetry
Publishers: Heinemann (African Writers Series)
Pages: 99
Year of First Publication: 1993
Country: Malawi

Chattering Wagtails of Mikuyu Prison is a collection of forty-five poems grouped under four sections: ANOTHER FOOLS' DAY HOMES IN; OUT OF BOUNDS; CHATTERING WAGTAILS; and THE RELEASE AND OTHER CURIOUS SIGHTS. Together these interwoven poems tell the story of what got the poet arrested, his time in prison and his time out of prison. Jack Mapanje was arrested and detained in Mikuyu Maximum Detention Center for three and half years without charge. This arrest came on the back of the reprinting of his first collection of poems Of Chameleons and Gods.

Right from the beginning, in the Prologue, darkness forebodes as 
Laughters and ceaseless tears shed/In the Chaos of invented autocracies//Now darkly out of bounds beyond [...] (Page 1)
The first set of poems is proved a little difficult to penetrate but reading it twice helped; and we realise that Mapanje not only reports of the corruption of the day but also judges our understanding of life and our appreciation of it. For in Haggling Old Woman at Balaka, Jack - a keen observer - was shocked to see women trading exchanging the best of what they have for the worst the world has to offer. He writes 
You sell chicken eggs for cokes and fantas/To suckle your babies, then you ask me/Why your babies are rickets and ribs? (Page 9)
Yet, we know that Jack could possibly not be referring to the old women but to the country's politburo, who are eagerly exchanging the resources of the country (chicken eggs) for postiches that would eventually cause the nation and its people to suffer (rickets and protruding ribs). And on the pretext of national development they build
Brick houses on old women's dying energies (Page 9)
It is these keen observations and metaphorical writings that caused dissatisfaction among the government, for Jack seems to speak his mind, as any excellent poet would, without fear. In For Another Village Politburo Projected, Jack addresses politicians who sit on committees, stand on daises to bamboozle the populace. He writes:
Hyenas with the gilt of our skulls behind will/Tumble in chicken bones fattened by the meager/Women of this village (Page 11)
He also shows how the people have become unwilling participants, accepting their incapability of making progress and the general lack of vision as the norm: 
We will all tune in to these levities, some/Plodding on to the dais, others shrugging without bitterness (Page 11)
Everything seemed doomed forever
Unless some soldier-bee cracks in on us one day! (Page 11)
 Jack Mapanje's pen does not, however, spare the docile masses who have been cowed into submission and those who are genuflecting or salaaming before the rulers; he abhors those who keep the pain on the periphery of their senses, lest they be hurt. According to him
The crime is how we deliberately keep out of touch,/Pretending it has nothing to do with us, we've bee/Through it all. (When the Shire Valley Dries Up Patiently, Page 14)
And the punished are not always the hoi polloi but includes party people who try to remain credible; who choose truth ahead of lies. Vigil for a Fellow Credulous Captive describes such an incident. This piece marks the general observations of Jack Mapanje and the section on Another Fools' Day Homes In.

In Out of Bounds, Jack writes on issues that he definitely knows would bring him trouble. Here Jack further denudes the problems facing the society; showing them as they are. So that after the husbands have been sent to the mines,
... the wives survive by their wits & sweats:/Shoving dead cassava stalks into rocks, catching/Fish in tired chitenje cloths with kids, picking Baobab fruit & whoring... (Baobab Fruit Picking (or Development in Monkey Bay))
a word (whoring) Jack uses several times to indicate the extent of the suffering. This word, when used in a country where the mere discussion of sexual issues is nearly a taboo, is worth noting. This piece together with the one the follows it Moving into Monkey Bay (Balamanja North), also address governments sale of national property to enrich the politicians.

While writing on thievery with capitalism facade, Jack also decries the negatives that have pervaded society under the flag of civilisation. In doing so, he compares the man who deems himself civilised with the animal. According to him whereas the former changes, putting on the clothes of negativity, the latter remain true to its nature. This and more is the theme of The Farm that Gobbles the Land at Home, which was written after Kofi Awoonor's The Sea eats the Land at Home. In this piece we read how everyone is taking advantage of the other; how locally-made composts are banned so that farmers would be forced to rely on foreign fertilizers that channels all their earnings into another's pocket; how peasant farmers are swallowed up by commercial farmers with the latter becoming wage earners on the plantations or sharecroppers - all these under the guise of capitalism. They could be metaphors for the government but I prefer to see it as a competitive market economy with government interference and heavy individuals with ulterior motives - a system where rent-seeking activities are the norm.
One farmer gathers smaller farmers into WETs/ (Wage-Earning-Tenants) offering them thirty coins/ Per day, stopping their mixed planting: cheap/ Original ashes or compost manures are banned/ (To maximise profits) and fertilizers (only farms/ Can afford) imposed. (Page 26)
In spite of all these, when the old people keep to their tradition; to doing what they know how to do best, they are deemed witches (Burning witches for Rain (The Dark Case)).

The last entry in this section - the poem that gave the section its subtitle - Out of Bounds (or Our Maternity Asylum) is about an overcrowded maternity ward with broken and missing facilities and poorly paid staffs. The imagery in this piece is haunting. Again, in this piece Jack bemoans the masses too eager to please the political elite by altering reality; so that they would prefer to borrow or hire out beds when the president comes visiting than to let him see the realities of the situation.
Sixty inmates of spasming women top & tail/ On thirty beds; ninety others with infants/ /Scramble over the cracked cold cement floor - /A family under each bed, most in between
Chattering Wagtails, which marks the third section, basically deals with the treatment the poet went through during incarceration. The poet talks about how they were made to strip naked like ordinary criminals in The Streak-Tease at Mikuyu Prison, 25 1987. He also talks about the fear a prisoner has for his family from colleagues and neighbours who would begin to treat them as a contagion. The most hurtful treatment are those who pretended to love the prisoner while he was with them and because of the fear that the government would associate them with the prisoner they cut all ties with his family. This was the theme in Fears from Mikuyu Cells for Our Loves. In The Chattering Wagtails of Mikuyu Prison, Jack Mapanje bemoans what has become his fate; he narrates how the prison came to be built, describing the manner of people who came who came to head them and his associations with the wagtails, whose shits he had to clean daily. He as well bemoans how the real criminals are released the very day they are arrested while they - who want to fight for the common good of the country - are arrested and put into bars for years. It was clear that there were a lot of political prisoners in Mikuyu Prison, who would later be all released.

However, Jack was to be released when fellow writers and activists pressured the Malawian government to the extent that on his day of release he was asked who he is. The Release: Who Are You, Imbongi? is the first poem of the final section The Release And Other Curious Sightings. What would a poet do if he is afraid to write what he sees? So Jack continued to write, to question.
Straggling shackscape a chaperon and/ A boy defiantly declare their UNHCR/ Wares beside the highway: tins of butter/ /From European Community mountains,/ Paraffin glass lanterns from Mozambique/ And gallons of American cooking oil/ /(Bantering for the much needed dry fish/ The donors overlooked). (The Straggling Mudhuts of Kirk Range Page 76).
Jack also writes on women whose husbands have gone to fight for a freedom they would not enjoy from; or who have gone to the mines to keep their homes running but may not return to fulfill their dreams or to see them fulfilled. The poet frequently counts himself as part of the victims or the victimised. Aside whoring, another word the author kept referring to was accidentalized, defined by the author as "to kill and pretend it was an accident when everybody knows it was not" (Page 24). It was first used in Smiller's Bar Revisited (1983) in the first section and last used in The Deluge after our Gweru Prison Dreams, the last poem in this anthology. In the latter use, as in the first, it is the seekers of truth who were accidentalized, indicating that nothing has changed.

This is a great collection of poetry; I believe many lovers of the genre would enjoy reading this as most of the poems are not so difficult. The collection reads like a circle, with no beginning or an ending. For the things that took the poet to prison are the things he wrote about in the last section; hence had he not left the country, he would possibly have either been arrested or accidentalized like his other colleagues.
Jack Mapanje
Brief Bio: Malawian poet Jack Mapanje taught in Malawi Secondary Schools before he joined the Department at Chancellor College, University of Malawi, in 1975, first as a lecturer, then as Head of Department of English. He has a BA and Diploma in Education from the University of Malawi, an M.Phil in English and Education from The Institute of Education London, and a Ph.D. in Linguistics from University of College London in 1983. His first collection of poems, Of Chameleons and Gods, was published in the UK in 1981 and withdraw from bookshops, libraries and all institutions of learning in Malawi in June 1985. He was imprisoned without trial or charge by the Malawian government in 1987, and although many writers, linguists and human rights activists including Harold Pinter and Wole Soyinka, Susan Sontag, Noam Chomsky and others campaigned for his release, he was not freed until 1991. The poems in The Chattering Wagtails of Mikuyu Prison (1983) were composed while he was imprisoned, as well as most of his third collection of poetry, Skipping without Ropes (1998).

Jack Mapanje lives in York, and is currently teaching Creative Writing and Literature of Incarceration in the School of English, University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. His book, The Last of the Sweet Bananas: New and Selected Poems was published in 2004, and his latest poetry collection is Beasts of Nalunga (2007). (Source)

ImageNations: 5.0 out of 6.0


  1. I hadly read poetry but this promises to be an interesting read as from your review. I think am interested in the lines quoted from 'Haggling Old Woman at Balaka, Jack'. It clearly explains why as a country or continent or whatever, leaders are constantly depleting our resources in exchange for goodies that brings suffering to the masses. This is only my naive understanding of it and I see you reading Nervous Conditions.

  2. @Geosi, as a reader I would entreat you to, once in a while, read such anthologies. they're that good.

    Yes, I am reading Nervous Conditions for two reasons: 1. It has been on my Top 100 books to be read in 5 years for a long time; 2. I am reading it for the Africa Reading Challenge. I have only read two Zimbabwean writers, one was a short story by Brian Chikwava and the other is a novel by Tendai Huchu. I need to read Tsitsi Dangarembga and Dambudzo too.

  3. Wow what a haunting and hard hitting book of poems. I don't read a lot of poetry but this does sound fantastic. Thank you for the in-depth review.

  4. @Amy, thanks Amy. Poetry (as an anthology) is the most difficult to review book because the individual poems speak volumes for themselves.


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