I’m going to make an entry of a comment by the Queen Bee, whose wide knowledge of things African is always a welcome contribution to this site, on an earlier post, because it’s so interesting it deserves the spotlight:

Another example [of poetry based on a technique of double meaning] is the Malawian poet Jack Mapanje. It was only when the second edition of his book of poems Of Chameleons and Gods appeared that he was arrested. It is thought that it took that long for the authorities to unpick the layers of meaning for which his poems were so popular in Malawi, but which were hidden beneath a relatively innocuous facade. There is an interesting discussion of it here.

I was particularly struck by this case because Mapanje is not only a poet but a linguist:

He was co-founder of the Linguistics Association for SADC Universities (LASU), a forum for sharing and exchanging knowledge and research in linguistics amongst the staff and students in the ten universities of Africa south of the Sahara. He was imprisoned for three and a half years by dictator Hastings Kamuzu Banda of Malawi, essentially for his poetry, and now lives in the city of York, England, with his family.

Jack has published three books of poetry: Of Chameleons and Gods (H.E.B, 1981), The Chattering Wagtails of Mikuyu Prison (H.E.B, 1993) and Skipping Without Ropes (Bloodaxe Books, 1998). He has co-edited Oral Poetry from Africa: an anthology (Longmans, 1983), Summer Fires: New Poetry of Modern Africa (H.E.B, 1983), The African Writers’ Handbook (African Book Collective, 1999). He has recently edited Gathering Seaweed: African Prison Writing (H.E.B, 2002). The Last of the Sweet Bananas: New & Selected Poems, is to be published by Bloodaxe Books by Spring 2004. His prison memoir tentatively titled ‘The Whispers We Shared’ will appear by 2005.

I would like to read his poetry, not least because I love his book titles; how can you resist The Chattering Wagtails of Mikuyu Prison or The Last of the Sweet Bananas?


  1. Expressions such as “leopards of Dedza” and “Chingwe’s Hole,” which recur in Mapanje’s poems, are widely understood and have found their way into popular usage…
    It’s a pity the FileRoom article doesn’t explain what’s linguistically of interest about them.

  2. This warranted a longish comment, so I decided to go ahead and turn it into a post, which is here (http://anglais.blogspot.com/2004/05/serti-sa-malawi-jack-mapanje-malawian.html).

  3. Excellent! Here’s the direct link.

  4. A Google search finds that Chingwe’s Hole is a geographical feature in Malawi.
    “Chaputula, E., “Chingwe’s Hole”, Society of Malawi Journal, Vol. 35/2 (1982), pp. 53-55. A summary of how Chingwe’s hole (found on the western edge of Zomba plateau) acquired its name and the past religious purposes of the hole, e.g. sacrificial offerings in times of drought.”
    “Chingwe’s Hole … There is a local legend that says that the hole is bottomless and it was once used as a burial chamber.”
    “Chingwe’s Hole — a pit of unfathomable depth, used in earlier days for funerals”.
    “Chingwe means rope. The story behind this hole is that it was used as a prison and in the days of LEPRA used to throw people with LEPRA into it. One day they threw a man with lepra in the hole. When they visited the hole the next day, the man was still alive and he shouted for a rope! Nobody gave him a rope so he eventually died. So that’s the reason why it’s called Chingwe’s Hole”.
    Given the political context explained in Rethabile’s link, I think it’d be a reasonable guess that Mapanje used it to allude to Mikuyu Maximum Detention Centre, where the then dictator of Malawi, Hastings Banda, ‘disappeared’ his critics. More about Mapanje here.

  5. Liness Chikankheni says

    I am a Malawian, and therefore personally understood the connotations that Chingwe’s Hole had for Malawians. The physicality of it, is a hole that was rumoured to be bottomless, and therefore seems a bit beyond the comprehension fo the average individual, however as a child in Malawi in the times of Mapanje, one was taught to fear this place…almost an equivalent to the British Bogeyman, but far more fearsome in that one was capable of seeing it or hearing about who had recently been thrown down it from the underground.

  6. can you send me some poems on lizards. please and thank you

  7. I hope dominic found some lizard poems…

  8. David Eddyshaw says

    He now works for one. A lizard, that is.
    I wouldn’t have taken him for the poetic type. Just goes to show. People change …

Speak Your Mind