Jack Mapanje & Msiska Mpalive

Last year, Kenya was the country of focus at the Hargeisa International Book Fair. This year, Malawi has that honour and was represented by four writers, including academics and poets, Jack Mapanje and Msiska Mpalive. I was meeting Jack properly for the first time, but Msiska I had met several year ago when he hosted me on a panel at his university in London (with Muthare Bakare) to celebrate 50 years of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. More recently, he had chaired my reading in London during the Africa Writes Festival back in July. I returned the favour when I chaired his own panel in Hargeisa and we all had the opportunity of discussing Nigerian and Malawian varieties of dictatorships –  before  I wrapped things up with a practical demonstration, by way of a dictatorial chairing of Msiska’s panel.

Jack is himself, of course, a veteran of dictatorships and I had to get him to retell his feat of memory which saw him composing and retaining dozens of poems mentally and writing them down several years afterwards when he finally became reacquainted with paper and ink. In a generation where we struggle to memorise phone numbers, a memory course to achieve this might be very popular. Of course the first practical step on the programme – an indefinite jail sentence by a mad dictator – might just empty the class.

During our visit we were hosted to lunch by the president of Somaliland. After the meal I was sitting opposite the Malawians, a little too far away to eavesdrop on their clearly engaging conversation…. but that has never stopped me before…

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