Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Jack Mapanje and the Olympic powhiri

I had a great time last night interviewing Jack Mapanje, the Malawian poet, before the performance of Kate Stafford's play and Crocodiles are Hungry at Night, which is based on Jack's book of the same name.  The book is a memoir of his time as a political prisoner under Dr. Hastings Banda, Malawi's dictator in the 80s and beyond.  He's been described as "the most important African poet writing in English today", and he's certainly a big draw for African people in London, who came in their droves to hear the talk.  And he's a great talker.  It was very different from the talk with Peter the other week - when I just had to ask one question and off he went for an hour.  Jack, with a combination of erudition and African modesty, answers the questions in a gentle, contemplative rhythm.  At times, I found myself starting another question before he'd quite finished the answer - I had to learn to wait for the last thought to land.  He doesn't hurry his audience: he wants the idea to be full and properly formulated.  Well, he's a poet.

We talked about the experience of prison, and the experience of writing about it, the way in which this can provide some sort of catharsis, and allow you to move beyond the horror.  Jack has not only written about his own imprisonment, he has also edited an anthology of African prison writing, called Gathering Seaweed, after one of the pointless tasks undertaken by prisoners on Robben Island.  The roll-call of the anthologised reads like a Who's Who of African literature and culture over the last century - Mandela, Ngugi, Nkrumah, Biko, Saro-wiwa, Soyinka....  It's very sad that so many countries in Africa should regard self-expression as a crime - and truly it was the only crime committed by Jack and so many others.  Even now, twenty-one years after his release, and with a genuinely democratic and enlightened President of Malawi, Jack feels it would be too dangerous for him to go back.

Today, I got to be part of Olympic fever, and to pay a long-overdue visit to Hinemihi - the beautiful Maori meeting-house in the grounds of Clandon Park, Surrey.  This place, which was a focus in our recent work on Maori heritage, has become the home of the UK Maori, and today was the site for an indigenous welcome, given to the New Zealand Olympic team.  It well and truly got me in the mood for the next stop - Planet IndigenUs....  

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