It was a great Friday afternoon without nurses and rumours. The provinces of his body had not revolted. The squares of his mind were still strong and filled. Our usual noise and chaos was still order in the suburbs.
We went on our daily ways until skies, in a flash, darkened with fury and poet W.H Auden invoked memories of a fallen poet, W.B Yeats, in our hard hearts:
He disappeared in the dead of winter:
The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted,
And snow disfigured the public statues;
The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.
What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.
Indeed, the day Professor Steve Bernard Miles Chimombo died was a dark cold Friday. Like all revered poets, critics, teachers and authors before him, Chimombo kept his death away from his poem. It came as napolo and stirred chords of shock in us all including George, his closest nephew.
His death has been very sudden to us, George told Weekend Nation on Friday last week, adding: “he went there [Mwaiwathu Private Hospital in Blantyre] just to have a medical check-up.”
But death, George, is a necessary end; it shall come when it shall, so challenged the iconic Julius Caesar in that famous eponymous William Shakespeare tragedy.
But for Steve—who is now ‘wholly given over to unfamiliar affections’, seeking ‘his happiness in another kind of wood’—his death, to his family and friends, won’t be a necessary end.
They still wanted their son home, for he was their “pillar, a great figure who flew the Chimombo flag”. Even Mpalivye Msiska—him who was with Steve at the Writers Workshop in their tender intellectual years at Chancellor College during the darker Kamuzu Banda days—is sure “that there might have been things that Steve still wanted to accomplish”.
But Msiska, now a professor of English, is quick to accept ways of death for Steve has “left with a definite sense of self-fulfilment”.
“He was one of the brightest stars in our cultural firmament and his absence will be noticeable for a long, long time, but he will shine on in his magical and incandescent work,” he says.
Definitely, there could never be a better way to describe Steve’s work beyond Professor Msiska’s “magical and incandescent”.
His literary journey, like most of his peers, took off in the terror and darker years of Kamuzu Banda’s paranoid censorship and repressive dictatorship.
This repression deeply affected the free creation of literature and the arts, reasons Mufunanji Magalasi, professor of performing arts at Chancellor College, in an article titled ‘Landscape and national memory in Steve Chimombo’s Napolo Poems’.
“However, often through subtle means, these deep tensions in social and political life crept into the artistic output of this period,” continues Magalasi, adding: “Steve Chimombo’s Napolo Poems, first published in Malawi in 1987, is one such manifestation of artistic effort during a time of repression.”
Nurtured as a writer in Malawi, England, Canada and America, Steve formed part of a Malawian creative writing movement which used literary methods that frequently outwitted Banda and his ever vigilant formal and informal censors.
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.
At times, even Professor Msiska agrees, Steve’s style of writing was ‘Greek’ to thousands.
“Most of us found it difficult to understand what he was attempting to do: the syntax was complex and also there were lots of neologisms that one had great difficulty comprehending. There were words like ‘Chaosis’ which one could decipher, but still feel that one had not quiet nailed down their meanings firmly,” he says.
But it is in understanding his ‘Greek’ where his true genius lied. In fact, those who have risen to professorial apex knew better the giant that was Steve in literal circles.
Professor Felix Mnthali wasn’t in the stars to declare Steve ‘one of Malawi’s most distinguished writers’.
“He was a poet with deep appreciation of the culture of his people; a writer with a unique ability to navigate his talent through our turbulent history by using myths and historical events like the sinking of the MV Viphya in 1946,” he says.
Magalasi, actually, could not hesitate to dub Steve as the “only one who came up with a theory for appreciating Malawian arts where he used the myth of Napolo to depict the suffering of Malawians during the Kamuzu Banda regime”.
But even the younger ones, who have drunk deeper from the well of Steve’s wisdom, remain indebted to their fallen hero.
Journalist Frederick Ndala—who decorates Steve as ‘my teacher, mentor, and hero’—took to Facebook with John Donne’s gun denouncing “Death be not proud, though some have called thee Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so”.
There was, again, an outpouring of grief from the chest of Stanley Onjezani Kenani, a young literal icon, who saw Steve’s death as a ‘loss to the nation’.
But Professor Msiska, in mourning his friend, had a word for young writers itching to soar to Steve’s height.
“The greatest lesson from Chimombo’s work and life for younger writers is that they should read the work of very good writers and learn from them: Chimombo’s early poetry does show his apprenticeship and his admiration for poets such TS Eliot.
“Having done that, however, they should work out seriously what their style should be. What Chimombo has shown in the huge effort he put in developing a distinct aesthetic is that style is not just something that happens while you are writing, but that you have to think about and perhaps practice it too before you begin to get your work in the public domain,” he says.
Now scattered far beyond the blue, there is an agreement, even in grief, that Steve 70-year journey epitomises greatness. Malawi has lost its greatest literal icon and so too has George, his nephew, and Moira, his dear wife, who have lost a pillar of their family.
As his remains descended to his home, thousands that came to witness, the stars said, could not help but admire Naizi Village for, on that Tuesday of his burial, it had received an honoured guest, Professor Steve Chimombo. Today, Malawi’s vessel lies empty of verse, of its Napolo.
In the aftermath of Napolo,
I emerge from the chaosis
and march down … n