My Century Home Page

Broadcast on Wednesday 11th August 1999


My name is Jack Mapanje. I come from Malawi. I live in England, in exile. I'm a poet and a linguist. In 1987, Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda, life-President of Malawi, put me in prison. He did not charge me. He did not try me. But I stayed in prison for three years, seven months and sixteen days. It was a horrid thing. The cell was stinking. It had a bucket for night ablution. There were mosquitoes in the little cell. I had two or three rugs or blankets. And I slept on the floor. And the floor was dirty and dusty. The cement was cold.

As a writer, I just developed strategies for writing poems and short stories or little discussions in my head - little lectures to remind myself of what I was once upon a time. The idea was that we were not allowed to read anything. There was no library in the prison, no radio and no newspapers were allowed. You woke up every day looking at the walls and looking at your friends and telling the same stories again and again, and sometimes twisting the stories. A certain sense of solidarity developed - where you know that"the story he is telling me he has told me before", but you're polite enough to let him tell it, because he needs the audience and you need something else (ie something other than your own thoughts). But more importantly we developed laughter, as a way of surviving. You laugh at yourself, whatever you've done, you laugh at humanity, you laugh at Dr Banda, at all his cronies, who have put you in prison. And you wonder what it is they are doing now. They must be happy that you are in prison now.

One of the things that we were not allowed to do was exercise. But we had to have a bath. In order to have a shower or bath, you needed to sweat or give an indication that you were stinking, and then they would take us to the next set of cells, where there were communal showers. Occasionally,one of the things we used to do was to start skipping on one spot - without a rope, because a rope was not allowed. And so "Skipping Without Ropes" was one of the earliest poems that I wrote. And I actually kept it in my head.


I will.
I will skip without your rope, since you say I should not.
I cannot borrow your son's skipping rope to exercise my limbs.
Watch. Watch me skip without your rope.
Watch me skip with my hope.
I will.
A seven. I do - will skip - a ten;
eleven. I'll skip without, skip within,
And skip I do, without your rope,
But with my hope. I'll fight your rope,
your rules, your hope,
As your sparrow does under your supervision.
Guards, take us for the shower!

The food was horrible. And the porridge came with maggots on top. I remember Alex Matarka, a Mozambiquan friend. When I first arrived I was unable (to eat). I just puked. I was unable to eat the porridge. But Alex Matarka told me: "Doc" - he used to call me Doc - "Doc, I tell you the rules for survival in this prison. For taking this porridge: first, you close your eyes; then close your nose; and just sip the thing. Don't chew, just swallow. And you need to survive. The thing is horrid. But you must eat. Because, if you don't eat, you'll get ill. And if you get ill, you'll die. Your death here is victory for them."