And Crocodiles Are Hungry At Night

Patrick Wilmot

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

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JACK Mapanje, author of And Crocodiles Are Hungry At Night, tells the tale of his imprisonment in Kamazu Banda's Malawi, without charge, trial, or sentence. Like Kafka's Joseph K in The Trial, Mapanje must have thought that an error had been made, that this was mistaken identity, that it would not last, that the error would be discovered, and his freedom restored. While Kafka could distinguish his country and profession from his fiction, however, Mapanje's alienation was indivisible, the essence of the country he inhabited.


While the experiences of The Trial were symbolic and allegorical, Mapanje's were prosaically brutal. That Banda could make his country into a realistic and horrific embodiment of allegory was an achievement of sorts, though a reversal of creativity, of imagination operating in reverse. For non-Africans unfamiliar with the continent in the 1960s to 80s, it will be difficult to distinguish Mapanje's world of facts from Kafka's world of fiction. Or maybe the horrific worlds of Mary Shelley or Stephen King.


When he was taken away from his family, friends and colleagues, he must have thought he was having a nightmare from which he would soon wake, or that some incompetent member of the security forces had picked him up as a result of misinterpreted orders. The thoughts which went through his head mirrored those of the fictional Joseph K, until they entered the prison and discovered others just as bewildered as himself, victims of the bogeyman, Banda.


Living alienation was different from writing about it, and the horror was multiplied when you found out that your nation could have served as a film set for Lord of the Flies, The Trial, or Dracula, without props or costumes. Banda's Malawi was almost the platonic form of the one-party state, or military dictatorship, which deformed the social fabric of Africa for more than two decades. In their persons Kamazu Banda, Joseph Mobutu, Idi Amin and Ibrahim Babangida embodied absolute monarch, military dictator, tribal lord, masquerade and clown.


Until this day Mapanje does not know why he was detained for almost four years, why he was cut off from his family and friends, kept in conditions worse than criminals in most prisons, subjected to constant humiliation, and exposed to a filthy starvation diet. He still has to speculate, as he and his colleagues did those years in prison, because nothing was written down, nothing was arrived at as a result of discussion, subject to law or obligation of government. For the "Leader" like Banda, actions need not be guided by reason and rumour; fantasy and whim had the same weight as facts.


Perhaps a colleague was jealous of Mapanje's reputation as an internationally recognised linguist and poet; perhaps a student made advances and was rejected; perhaps a fellow academic misinterpreted one of his poems or lectures. In a system like Banda's Malawi the process by which Mapanje would be condemned is well known: the rumour would be passed up a chain that led to Banda's inner circle, and then to the "Great Bull Elephant" himself.


Once a lowly subject came to the attention of his Eminence, his or her fate was sealed. Mapanje mentioned the Kadzamira family, which wrapped itself around the Life President like a shroud. His grotesque mistress, Cecilia, was alleged to have banned the song Cecilia from being played on the radio, because it offended her. For a man with such power and pettiness to be subjected to influences of utter triviality meant that no one in the country was safe.


It should not be assumed, however, that human beings reduced to inessentiality by such corrupt power succumbed, submitted, or allowed themselves to be crushed. Many "civilised" people, accustomed to the luxuries of modern existence, would not last a week in a prison with no change of clothing, running water, electricity, prepared food, exercise, beds, chairs, desks, computers, papers, pens, or books. They would not survive the mosquitoes, roaches, filth, stench, and weather.


But Mapanje and his friends survived. Banda, who expected them to die in prison, did not. The author found inmates who were courageous and resourceful, who found the means to resist. They found ways to contact people outside, who brought their fate to Amnesty, the universities, and churches, and hence to the Western public, which put pressure on their governments, otherwise well disposed to Banda and his primitive anti-communism.


This book is a lesson to those who might find themselves in similar circumstances, to know that no situation is hopeless, that no Great Man is immune to resistance. In their minds Banda and his inner circle were omniscient, omnipotent and untouchable. In their psychosis, men like Mapanje and his comrades were cockroaches, insects who should be eradicated. Since they were subhuman, it was not necessary to think about their families and friends suffering at home.


While we applaud these brave men and women who survived unbearable suffering, we should never forget those "Unique Miracles of the Twentieth Century", those "Great Bull Elephants", those "Cocks who Leave no Hen Unf*#*^d", who gloried in their grotesque fantasies of omnipotence, and were paranoid about the "insects" they despised. We should not forget the brave men and women who responded to the victims' cries and gave them hope. And we should not forget the panderers of "human rights" who gave comfort to the tyrants and condemned their victims, with complicity or indifference.




Patrick Wilmot, who is based in London, is a writer and commentator on African affairs for the BBC, Sky News, Al-Jazeera and CNN.


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