A retired professor of English and author Felix Mnthali has released his autobiography A Time To Remember. Our Reporter JOHN CHIRWA engages literary critic Ayami Mkwanda to analyse Mnthali’s writings and his contribution towards literature.
What do you know about Mnthali as a person?
Professor Felix Mnthali is one of the finest academics who belongs to the first generation of Malawi’s academics. He was one of such great lecturers in Literature at the University of Malawi’s Chancellor College in the 1970s and he has taught some great intellectuals like Max Iphani of Malawi Institute of Education, Benedicto Wokomaatani Malunga who is himself an accomplished poet and registrar of the University of Malawi and Alfred Msadala, another renowned writer, poet and critic. Professor Mnthali taught English Literature, African Literature among other courses. Felix Mnthali, just like other academics at the time, left Chancellor College for political reasons and briefly taught at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. However, he spent many years lecturing at the University of Botswana, until his retirement.
Although Felix Mnthali is a professor, he is a sociable and humble man. He reaches out freely to the youth of the younger generation and he does not live a life of pomposity like someone of his status would. Simply put, he is a professor who lives among people and who can easily interact with people.
How about his writings?
Professor Felix Mnthali has written a lot but the most likeable genre he’s mostly written about is poetry. He has written many poems which have been anthologised in different anthologies across Africa. He too has produced anthologies of his own such as When Sunset Comes To Sapitwa. Some poems have been compiled in an anthology titled The Unsung Song. One of his great poems is The Stranglehold of English Literature in which he is satirising the foolhardy of teaching English Literature to Africans. The persona in the poem is asking the rationale of introducing Jane Austen to African scholars. Yet, the professor was a master at articulating the intellectual wit of Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare and other Elizabethan writers. One of his poems titled The Beauty of Dawn celebrates democracy by portraying people dancing for the beauty of dawn (multiparty democracy). He did not just write about political issues in his verse but also about nature, feminism and moral issues.
What is so peculiar about his writings?
Reading his poetry, one discerns wit combined with humour to deliver a point. Take for example a poem titled Remake the World where the persona humorously asks that: “Need we wake up naked/in the sacred hour of a neutral dawn/to dance at the graves of our forefathers and/trample on the shrines/in which gods had spoken to men?” Thus the writings of Felix Mnthali bear the hue of an intellectually enlightened person whose power to weave poetic lines is immensely great. Another thing that’s beautiful about his verse is the aesthetic diction that is used which creates literary imagery that enhances meaning to the poem and evokes further questions from readers. Most importantly, Professor Mnthali writes about human experiences and issues that affect them such as the duty/obligation of man towards another as portrayed in a poem titled My Uncle E.P. Mtungambera Harawa. The use of local names such as Mbulunji and Zomba in this poem and Sapitwa in the anthology When Sunset Comes To Sapitwa makes his writings centred around people. This is important as literature is about people’s day to day experiences.
What do you make of Mnthali’s contribution towards literature?
Professor Mnthali has contributed to Malawian literature and at large, the world through his writings. This is a man who has taught literature itself as a discipline at the University of Malawi, Ibadan and Botswana and through such, he has produced scholars and inspired some who have gone ahead to become lecturers themselves. An example is Max Iphani, senior lecturer in Literature at Domasi College of Education. His anthologies are studied at various universities across Africa. At the University of Malawi, his poems on feminism, nature and social issues are studied at fourth year in a course about Malawian Literature.
Again, some of his poems in the anthology The Unsung Song are studied at Malawi School Certificate of Education level in Malawi’s secondary schools in Literature course. Further, Professor Mnthali’s contribution to literature is that he’s a well of knowledge about the writings of such writers of the first generation such as Professor Steve Chimombo, Tiyambe Zeleza, Frank Chipasula, Lupenga Mphande, Legson Kayira, Palive Msiska, Jack Mapanje, just to mention a few. His knowledge about these great writers has been passed down to the younger generations and through this, the later generations have grasped a picture of the country through the time of independence to multiparty democracy.
As a country, have we done enough to celebrate such writers as Mnthali?
No. We have not done much to celebrate such writers as Felix Mnthali as a country. Writers like Felix Mnthali are the custodians of our culture. Through their writings, our culture is preserved for posterity. Writers can also change public perception of things and as such, they are changers of society’s perception. As a country, we ought to celebrate the contributions of writers in order to inspire others to work hard as well.
Life is better lived when man learns how to appreciate others and their contributions. The Malawi government through the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civic Education should be holding galas to recognise such writers where their works should be acknowledged as treasures of the nation.