Publish & be damned! by John Lwanda

(Lessons from mixing writing and activism or reflections on activism as literature) (first published in Scottish Malawi Update)

In 1990, in the manuscript of my novel The Second Harvest, submitted to Heinemann, I had it that the political impasse in Dzikonyika was sorted by an Army mutiny and a National Consultative Council. If I did not still have the (dated) writer Biyi Bandele Thomas’ review of the manuscript for Heinemann, which described this solution as ‘far-fetched’ I would doubt my own sanity. By 1990, many of us knew that change was coming to Malawi although the exact nature of the change was not clear. However, we, as writers, took a stab at the solutions, most remain unpublished – and mine would have remained thus had a mad patient not stabbed me. The realization that I nearly died a coward resurrected my long suppressed writing career. This is always a dilemma which writers face at the best of times, particularly in constrained polities. It is also especially acute at times of national choice-making; especially if you follow Jean-Paul Sartre’s ‘the duty of the [writer] is to denounce injustice wherever it occurs’.
Kamuzu Banda published in 1993 was popular with the UDF and AFORD and hated by MCP; yet when Promises, Power Politics & Poverty came out in 1996 the situation was virtually reversed!! I still recall former ‘comrades’ in the UDF claiming Promises was a betrayal, ‘doing in the UDF and AFORD’ it was said. But what were the UDF and AFORD then ‘doing to the people of Malawi?’
But to go back to 1992 – 93, in real life, Malawi’s President for Life Dr Banda was ‘sorted’ by Operation Bwezani and then PAC and NCC activities, precisely Bandele (here read Heinemann’s, the publishers) so called ‘far fetched’ solution. An interesting, in view of the recent debates about the origins of some of these initiatives, aspect is the way many of Banda’s civil servants and henchmen subsequently embedded themselves into the new ruling party, miraculously becoming its ‘founders, ideologues and staunch defenders’. The same phenomenon happened after the founding of the DPP. Recalling this explains the problem Muluzi later found himself in: boxed by selfish hangers on, who only had their short-term interests at heart. As we hurtled headlong towards 2004 without a definite conclusion to the Third Term debate, it was also interesting to see many writers hedging their bets. And the irony was that Muluzi himself, who had become a writer, publishing his autobiographical Mau Anga just before the third term debate, perhaps appreciated the imperatives writers feel to get into print. Self-expression, getting it out of one’s chest, voice of the people and all that. Indeed, justifications for writing abound in Malawi: famine, poor schools, HIV/AIDS, failing economy, regressing standards of living, closing factories, social, economic and political injustices et cetera and et cetera; unless one is obsessed with forever seeing positives where negatives dominate. As they say in Nigeria (I think) ‘Does one praise the new road carrying expensive items that passes by your hut where you sit and starve or does one complain about the starvation?.
Only those interested in deceiving a popular president can justify muzzling journalists and writers and spending huge fortunes on pampering people who have previously betrayed Malawi while millions starve. And, in any case, attempts at muzzling people’s voices inevitably lead to new harvests as each insensitive regime is replaced. A friend told me recently that ‘it is not about repression or any of that stuff, though it may well be applicable, but it is about insensitivity (to people’s needs, feelings and opinions – and that applies to governments in the UK as well as in Africa’.
As of now, given NEPAD (New Partnership for African Development), the human rights movement, donors, and examples elsewhere, it is highly unlikely that (a) the majority of Malawians (b) the donors who, literally, fund Malawi (c) the all crucial business sector (d) the considerations of security/governance and culture/religion dynamics will favour a further life presidency or political repression on the scale of Dr Banda’s era. But then politics is the art of achieving the impossible. Who knows, Muluzi may have succeed in 2004. And Malawi may yet embrace another life president.
In the (Ndirande CCAP) Mount Sinai Choir song Go konko! the dilemma of a busload of passengers who clearly see the driver driving them into the ditch is painted. Tikupitaku kuli dzenje, tingaonongeke! We are heading for a ditch, we may be injured!
If I was ready to publish my Third Harvest, my ‘novel’ solution would be the simple suggestions of: Enabling the Senate; Effecting modalities for removing chameleon patrimonial veteran politicians with no new ideas but who have slid from party to party for reasons of money; Incorporating elements of Truth and Reconciliation functions to bring people involved in current and previous political violence to some account; The additions [not amendments] to the Malawi Constitution to ensure that the political process becomes less dependent on informal funding; The facilitation of a dignified presidential retirement and the establishment a tradition of presidential retirement; The minimization of politically inspired trials which drain resources from education, health, and other social sectors but serve the accumulative interests of those in power; The introduction of new developmental rather than patrimonial ideas into Malawi politics; The introduction of a stronger traditional [not reactionary!] authority role (senate again) in Malawi politics. Contrary to elite discourse traditional authority has provided rural Malawi with continuity and stability in the face of severe social, economic and political shocks. And at least they have some ‘traditional’ legitimacy, whatever that is.