This book is a powerful contribution to the genre of the prison memoir in Africa. Jack Mapanje presents a moving account of a poet’s imprisonment by the state, his struggle to probe the hidden motives for his arrest, his attempt to provide an unforgettable record of the architecture of imprisonment and the perpetual struggle between the forces of truth and those of naked power.
In 1981, Jack Mapanje was a budding poet and scholar in Malawi. His first collection of poetry Of Chameleons and Gods had just been published in the prestigious Heinemann African Writers Series and his scholarly work in linguistics was also transforming language and literary studies in Central Africa—his work was drawing international attention. But two years later the state ordered the withdrawal of Mapanje’s poetry from all schools, institutions of higher learning and bookstores.
In 1987, Mapanje was arrested by the Malawian secret police and imprisoned without charge until 1991. This book is a recollection of those years in prison. Written in the tradition of the African prison memoir and often echoing the works of other famous prison graduates such as Wole Soyinka (The Man Died) and Ngugi wa Thiong’o (Detained), the memoir presents Mapanje’s retrospective attempt to explain the cause and terms of his imprisonment, to recall in tranquillity the terror of arrest, the process of incarceration and the daily struggle to hold on to some measure of sanity and spiritual freedom.