By Guest writer: Shadreck Chikoti ( Malawi)
The first piece I ever wrote in my life, which never saw the corridors of any publishing house, and whose whereabouts I can’t track, was a poem. So I started off on my writing voyage as a poet and my secret mentor at that time was Jack Mapanje; that country man of mine who was arrested and detained without trial by Kamuzu Banda’s dictatorial government.
For me, Mapanje’s poetry used to read like it had climbed down ladders from heaven. I read every piece of poetry that spewed out from the hands of this poetry maestro. I devoured his “Of Chameleon and Gods,” a rare commodity at that time because one had to carry it around under his underwear for fear of reprisals from the long arms of the government of Kamuzu Banda.
For a long time, Jack Mapanje only existed in books for me, and I didn’t imagine I would ever meet him personally and physically, or cross paths with him at any point in my life, until we met 10 years ago at a poetry reading. He had been flown from the Queen’s land to Malawi by the British Council to read his poetry to a jam- packed garden full of diplomats, expatriates and politicians. I was part of the audience, yes, but since I was no diplomat or politician; and simply a writer, I sat at the very back of the garden gulping every word from his mesmerizing poetry. I did not get the opportunity to interact with Jack Mapanje.
On that day, I had believed an opportunity had presented itself for me to talk to ‘Uncle Jack’, as we fondly called him; to tell him how I had admired his poetry from my childhood. But he was whisked away soon after the reading, and was seen talking to some people so much greater than myself. I was not even worthy to stoop down and untie the straps of their sandals. So I showed myself to an exit door and continued to chew the straw of his poetry on my way home.
So, after almost 20 years of reading Uncle Jack, I was thrilled when I learnt that I would be sharing ideas with him at the Uganda International Writers conference that had been organized by the African Writers Trust, (God bless their soul), in Uganda in March 2013. I would actually be sitting next to Jack Mapanje and talk to him for hours on end! He was one of the facilitators at the conference and I would be staying together with him at the same hotel!
But as it turned out, the conference was not only about me meeting Uncle Jack; the picture became even bigger than I had imagined. The conference became a confluence where African writers of notable levels living in Africa and in diaspora converged to form one lasting network that will yield results for a life time. I met Billy Kahora, the chief editor of the world acclaimed Kwani? Literary Magazine from Kenya. I reconnected with the Ugandan Caine Prize nominee, Beatrice Lamwaka, who I had met in Cameroon at the Caine Prize workshop in 2011, and Hilda Twongyeirwe, the coordinator of FEMRITE – the Uganda Women Writers Association, who I met at the Ethiopian African writers’ conference in Addis Ababa. I met another Caine Prize nominee, Doreen Baingana, whose book, “Tropical Fish, Stories out of Entebbe”, won the Commonwealth Book Prize for First Best Book, Africa Region, in 2006,” and which has now become my text book on short stories; and Goretti Kyomuhendo, the director of the African Writers Trust and this year’s (2013) Commonwealth Book Prize judge. She took care of all of us.
It was at this conference, where I met, for the first time, and I wondered why it had taken so long, Nii Parkes, the world acclaimed Ghanaian-British poet of my generation. Nii was very helpful in exposing us to the electronic world of book publishing, book marketing and making oneself visible by using the social media. Personally, Nii offered me a lot of technical advice on how I can go about publishing my book, “Azotus the Kingdom,” which is a book set in African 500 years from now.
Billy Kahora opened my eyes when he talked about how easy and convenient it is to print books in India and how Kwani? May help my publishing house, Pan African Publishers Ltd, get such contacts to start printing overseas and increase the quality of our books.
The conference theme was, “Dialogue across the continent, across the Diaspora,” and it was a befitting title. It was a time to share experiences, to connect writers in diaspora and those from within the continent; a time of mutual learning, experience and resources sharing.
It was also a time of flexing our literary muscles when some of us attended and participated in public readings. I particularly remember the time when the whole of Makerere University met in one of their halls, with many people standing for lack of space, to listen to Jack Mapanje recite his poetry; and when we gathered at Alfredos, for a reading that was hosted by Nii Parkes, listening to writers reading until darkness chased us away.
I also had time to meet this year’s (2013) BBC World Service, prize-winning playwright, Angella Emurwon at the African Writers Trust mentees graduation ceremony at Sheraton Hotel, in Kampala.
This conference was a life changer, an eye opener, a time of connections and reconnections. One can only wish we had these opportunities presenting themselves to us more often in Africa.