Chirambo (2009: p1) highlights that the government of former president for life Dr. H.K. Banda and the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) in Malawi was a dictatorship that relied on coercion as well as mobilization of grassroots popular support and consent to maintain itself in power for 30 years (1964–1994). It was this governance that gave birth to different self camouflaging writing styles, a point which Kerr (1987) agrees to by saying that writers formed a Malawian creative writing movement which used literary methods that frequently outwitted Banda and his ever vigilant formal and informal censors. Jack Mapanje, James Gibbs, Leroy Vail and Landeg White all give accounts of how writers managed to beat censorship. Using oral forms, new metaphors from Malawi's indigenous languages, suggestive words, puns, and certain popular phrases, they managed to camouflage some of the critical literature for circulation without reprisal. Depicting such a writing style some of the writers emerged as messengers. These messengers in African literature are termed as “Imbongis”. This essay intends to bring to the fore how Jack Mapanje fulfills the role of an imbongi through his writings basing its discussion on a three stanza poem “On His Royal Blindness Paramount Chief Kwangwala”.
Mapanje is one of Malawi’s renowned poets who suffered the hand of Kamuzu's readership as he was detained without charge for almost four years between September 1987 and May 1991. At the time of his arrest, Mapanje was serving as Chair of the English Department at Chancellor College of the University of Malawi. To this day the government has not given the actual reasons for his detention (Chirambo: 2009, p4). Writing in the time s of “Kamuzuism” a term assigned to symbolize Kamuzu's oppressive acts, Mapanje secured the role of an imbongi as his writings circulated against Kamuzu's leadership with criticism, disagreement and at the same time praise.
Whereby these are some of the roles of a praise poet (an Imbongi). Mafeje(1967: p193) defines an imbongi as someone who lived in close proximity to the Chief’s Great Place and who accompanied the Chief on important occasions . His performances would be directed at the Chief, decrying what was unworthy, praising what was worthy and even forecasting what was going to happen. Clearly, the Imbongi's role was one that allowed for criticism .
With reference to Mafeje's definition then taking a closer look at Mapanje's title “ On His Royal Blindness Paramount Chief Kwangwala” it can easily be assumed that the poet was describing the leadership of a chief whom the poet himself served as an imbongi. The title on the other hand is brandished with sarcasm as the poet has used the term “blindness” which represents the lost in direction of the leadership in discussion. This leadership can be equated to that of Kamuzu this is so as Banda regarded Malawi as one big village in which he was the paramount Chief, father, guardian, and protector of all people and went so far as to call Malawi, “my tribe . . . the whole nation, the tribe of Malawi” (Chirambo: 2001, p 226). This prompts us to earmark Kamuzu as the chief who's leadership the poet is trying to describe with sarcasm.
In the opening stanza the...