In 2001, professor David Rubadiri, who breathed his last on Saturday, was to deliver a lecture to second-year literature students at the University of Malawi’s (Unima) Chancellor College. He was Unima Vice-Chancellor then.
Although not a lecturer in the English Department at Chancellor College, he was granted permission to teach to “serve as an inspiration to the students”.
One such student who was left inspired forever is Dr Ken Lipenga Junior, a literature lecturer and current head of the English Department at the college.
“I clearly remember the day it was announced that professor Rubadiri would teach in place of our regular lecturer. The class, Room B, was fully packed that day, desks crammed with eager students.
“To understand the impact of his presence, you have to imagine that to us, undergraduate literature students, this was like having a god descend from the clouds to address us mere mortals,” recounts Lipenga.
This was a figure whose name the students had only previously encountered in the literature texts.
But Rubadiri himself seemed to be unaware of the awe in which the students held him as he did not put any airs, but simply came in and taught them a poem by John Donne.
“And we all sat enthralled as he humbly decrypted Donne’s metaphysical poetry for our young minds. After the lecture, he packed up his materials, bid us farewell, and departed, back to what in our imagination then was a mystical palace in the clouds—the university office,” says Lipenga.
Lipenga’s experience with Rubadiri was not the first.
It is said that his first lectures at Makerere University in Uganda used to attract many students. He had a class of 200 students and felt overwhelmed by the huge numbers only to realise during examinations time that 170 students only attended his lectures to admire his poetry prowess.
Professor Susan Kiguli from Uganda was once his student and says Rubadiri left his mark not only in Malawi, but in Uganda and the whole of East Africa during his time as a lecturer and poetry champion.
“Many of us in Uganda did not know that he was Malawian. We thought that he was one of our own. But the situation is the same in Kenya, Botswana and various other countries in Africa where he taught,” she recalls.
Sharing Kiguli’s sentiments is Professor Felix Mnthali who says Rubadiri’s mastery of teaching was marvelous as he left an indelible mark everywhere he taught.
“Rubadiri is first and foremost a great teacher. His influence on Dedza Secondary School and Soche Hill Teachers’ College was enormous,” says Mnthali who was Rubadiri’s student in 1958 at Dedza Secondary School.
But in his prime,Rubadiri was not just the best teacher whose tutelage earned praise from his students, but was also a fine poet whose pen exuded wit and humour wrapped in simple language.
In poetry, the fallen academic don stands “taller than the tree of life” quoting his own lines. He is not just one of the pioneer poets from Malawi and Africa, but one of the most widely anthologised poets from Africa who is credited for making poetry, considered to be a hard nut to crack, enjoyable.
Announcing his death on Saturday, September 15 2018, his granddaughter Victoria Rubadiri, tweeted: “This literary giant now rests. Professor Rudabiri breathed his last, but his words continue to inspire so many across this great continent. His legacy is one I could never live up to. The name he gave me is one I will continue to carry with pride. Rest in peace Babu.”
In 2000, he told BBC Focus on Africa radio programme that “without poetry, the Bible would not have been written”. That is how Rubadiri views poetry—the literature genre that prides itself in the employment of the aesthetics of language.
Mnthali explains that Rubadiri’s poetry was bound to be popular, iconic, and influential beyond his own humble expectations.
“His poetry is unique in being condensed summaries of our continental response to the condition of Africa since the advent of colonialism,” he explains.
According to the Daily Nation of Kenya published on April 12 2013, Rubadiri is “one of Africa’s foremost poets, a Malawian double exile and a diplomat, all rolled into one to form an eclectic mix of wit, charisma and measured words”.
The paper quoted Professor Peter Amuke of Moi University who said: “What I like most about his poetry is the accessibility of his style. He is simple yet so complex. He made poetry to be sung and enjoyable.”
Ugandan poet Beverly Nambozo Nsengiyunva says Rubadiri’s works are some of the widely read in Africa.
“We started learning about his works while young. To us, Professor Rubadiri is the epitome of poetry and we cherish his contribution to the literature world,” she explains.
As a pioneer writer, he mentored giants in the poetry world such as Jack Mapanje.
“Wherever Mapanje went he would boast to have graduated from Rubadiri’s African thunderstorm class of poetry,” explains Alfred Msadala, literary critic and a poet himself.
“Indeed, one cannot talk of Malawian literature without mentioning Rubadiri. He is a key figure not only in the Malawian literature canon, but in African literature generally,” explains Lipenga.
Unima’s Registrar Benedicto Wokomaatani Malunga describes Rubadiri as “a consummate literary prima donna, a man of culture and a scholar of distinction”.
He says: “He walked in the scholarly company of his personal friends Chinua Achebe and Ngugi wa Thiong’o whose names he never dropped in conversation with others.”
Msadala says when Rubadiri went to Kings College in Uganda, he was discovered to be a poet and was mentioned to be someone from Nyasaland in the 1960s.
“He survived those earliest years of writing. He was writing in English language at a time his colleagues such as Peter Litete and Josiah Nthara were writing in Chichewa,” he says.
Then Legson Kayira joined him in writing using the foreign language. The world could now recognise Malawi for the three writers—Rubadiri, Kayira and Aubrey Kachingwe.
His poem, An African Thunderstorm, has been widely anthologised and is often quoted as one among the most memorable African poems.
“We use this poem in several ways, one of which is the symbolic function of the force of nature, evocative of the arrival of the colonisers in Malawi,” says Lipenga.
The poem is read in the wider context of the history of colonialism, drawing attention to the impact of the white man’s arrival in Africa.
“This is a good poem if one wants to teach people some of the basic elements of poetic language, being rich with imagery in the form of personification, simile, and metaphor among others,” he explains.
In these lines, Rubadiri creates a terrific imagery of a storm coming from the West which in stanza three, passes through the African village where children scream with delight but women are afraid of it.
“In the village/Screams of delighted children/Toss and turn/In the din of the whirling wind/Women/Babies clinging on their backs/Dart about/In and Out/Madly/The wind whistles by/Whilst trees bend to let it pass,” reads stanza three.
Rubadiri’s awareness of colonial history is more explicitly captured in another famous poem, Stanley Meets Mutesa, again highlighting the encounter between the West and Africa.
“In this poem Rubadiri discusses the entrance of Henry Morton Stanley into King Mutesa’s palace as the closing in of Africa by foreign invaders,” Mnthali explains.
Stanza six lines 9-12 which reads thus: “Mtu Mweupi karibu/white man you are welcome/ The gate of polished reed closes behind them/And the West is let in.”
Adds Lipenga: “It is a poem in which the writer imagines the Western explorer trudging through the harsh unwelcoming African jungle, only to be shown a welcoming hand.”
As someone who was exiled by Hastings Kamuzu Banda’s regime, his experience of exile is captured in a poem titled Yet Another Song.
“In this poem, Rubadiri highlights his experiences with the one party regime and criticises the dictatorship. He makes reference to the joy and excitement that he, like other Malawians, felt following the success of the independence struggle and the end of colonial rule,” explains associate professor Dale Sy Mthatiwa from Chancellor College.
The first stanza of the poem reads: “Yet another song/I have to sing/In the early wake/of a colonial dusk/ I sang a song of fire.”
Thus, his poetry tackled issues ranging from the impact of colonialism to the evils of dictatorship by employing images that are long lasting in a reader’s mind.
Rubadiri also co-edited an anthology with David Cook titled Poems from East Africa. He studied at Makerere between 1952-1956 and taught there between 1965 and 1975 when Idi Amin exiled him to Kenya.
But now, this great god of African poetry has retreated not into exile but the clouds from where he will rest in eternal peace. n