- ‘Legson Kayira made me proud’
Reading Jack McBrams article, ‘Remembering Legson Kayira again’ reignited memories of my school days and the day I came across the late Kayira’s autobiography, I Will Try.
That was many, many years ago when I was at secondary school in neighbouring Zambia.
Kayira was an academic and accomplished Malawian novelist who settled in England where he died in London on October 14 2012, after suffering a brain heamorrhage, according to media reports.
As a student at Kabompo Boys Secondary School in North Western Zambia, I did not hide the fact that I was a Malawian, and neither did my late father who was a police officer in the then Zambia Police Force.
My father joined the police force during the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, and was proud of his being Malawian when many foreigners hid their nationalities to secure jobs in Zambia.
One afternoon after classes while in form two, aged 14, I was in the school library looking for a novel authored by any African, when I stumbled across the now acclaimed I Will Try.
I was pleasantly surprised that the book’s author was a Malawian named Legson Didimu Kayira, whom I had never heard of until that day. The fact that he came from Malawi, excited me even more.
I started reading I Will Try on a Saturday and found it so thrilling that I finished reading it the same day. I read the novel again and again without my enthusiasm for it diminishing.
Tears welled up in my eyes each time I read the book, told candidly of how Kayira left his impoverished home in Chitipa in the late 1950s, to set out on a long journey in search of an education in the USA.
A determined Kayira literally walked hundreds of kilometres armed with an English Bible and a copy of the classic Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan, the 16th century English Christian writer and preacher.
He walked through four countries before he reached Sudan, where American officials helped him to fly to the USA. There, he took up a scholarship at Skagit Valley College in the State of Washington.
Our school library had a number of copies of I Will Try and before long, there was a scramble for the inspirational book because of how the author brought his ambition to fruition against all odds.
The whole school spoke highly of I Will Try and some students said it was on a par with Things Fall Apart by the late Nigerian author, Chinua Achebe. Suddenly, I was being flooded with questions about Kayira.
Did I know him? Did he and I come from the same region? I had left Malawi at a tender age and as such, I knew very little about my country.
I truthfully told my school mates that I did not know Kayira, but we certainly came from the same country and region. But suffice to say I felt a glow of pride that the author was from Malawi.
As in many institutions of learning, my school had students from different backgrounds. I Will Try did a lot to inspire many students who came from poor families.
We later learnt that Kayira had also written other books, besides I Will Try—The Detainee, The Civil Servant, Jingala, and The Looming Shadow.
All the books were available in the school library and again, there was a rush for them. I read all of them with the same zeal as I had with I Will Try.
What pleased me most about Kayira was that although he had been away from home for years, almost all his novels were set in Malawi. As I read each novel, I would make a mental picture of the places in it.
By the time I completed my secondary education, I had bought all of Kayira’s five novels from book stores. I treasured the books, and the last thing I wanted was to lose any of them.
Sadly, I was forced to leave all Kayira’s novels behind when I left for home one July morning to join my parents and siblings, just as Malawi was about to observe its independence celebrations.
My father had retired prematurely of his own volition when I was in Form Three and had left me behind to complete the remaining two years of my secondary education.
A year after I had sat my Cambridge Examinations, I decided it was time to leave for home.
A day before I was to start off for Malawi, a relation came to give me some tips about what I should not carry home, lest I incurred the wrath of authorities.
When he heard I had with me Legson Kayira’s books and did not want to part with them, he strongly advised me to leave them behind as, in his own words “they will land you in serious trouble”.
It pained me when I learnt from my relation that Kayira, a person whom I greatly admired and had inspired me to become a writer, was among Malawians who had been blacklisted by the government.
That night, I could not sleep. I either had to leave my prized books and go home to reunite with my family, or keep them and stay in Zambia. Such was my dilemma. Reluctantly, I opted to leave the novels.
When I crossed into Malawi from Nakonde on the Zambia side, I was instructed to report at Chitipa Police Station without fail. For what reason, I did not know and I began to fear the worst.
At the police station, I was led to the Special Branch section where an officer with a stern face first rummaged through my travel bag. Finding nothing of interest, he then started asking me questions.
The officer went on to mention names of people who I later learnt had rebelled against Kamuzu Banda during the Cabinet crisis. He wanted to know if I had met some of them during my stay in Zambia.
I told him I was at school and that I had neither heard nor ever met any of them.
“Do you know Legson Kayira? Have you read some of his books?” he went on, looking me in the face.
The question jolted me and I could feel a knot of fear in my throat. I managed to compose myself before I answered him.
“I am afraid, I have never heard of him, Sir,” I said.
“Don’t be afraid. Nothing will happen to you,” he said, sitting upright. It was obvious he did not know that the expression ‘I am afraid’ simply meant that I was sorry I could not help him.
“I mean I am sorry I don’t know him, Sir,” I said.
After nearly an hour in his office, he let me go, but said I would first have to report again at Karonga Police Station before proceeding to my village. Tears gathered in my eyes as I walked out.
As I rode in a crammed lorry on my way to my home district of Karonga, I regretted coming home. The dusty and bumpy Chitipa-Karonga Road at the time also did not help matters during the five-hour ride.
At Karonga Police Station, I was again grilled by the Special Branch who posed the same questions I had been asked by their colleagues in Chitipa. But eventually, they also cleared me.
I received a hearty welcome from my family and relatives when I finally set foot in my village in central Karonga, the area now politically referred to as Benghazi.
But my response to the reception was lukewarm. Although I was happy to reunite with my family, I was mourning inwardly. I was mourning for the loss of Kayira’s novels.
And I am still grieving over the loss of the books, 38 years after I left them in Zambia. n