The year must have been 1996 or 1997. I am not sure. But I am certain that I was a secondary school student when I fell in love with Sam Mpasu not necessarily the politician, but the writer.
In those days, I always made it a point to renew my membership with the National Library Service. Those were the days the libraries were heavily stocked with books of all kinds, not the reading-for-exams-only shelters they have become over the years.
That time, I chanced on Mpasu’s Political Prisoner 3/75. I could not put the book away for a moment. The writing was so crispy. Literary, I was aesthetically transported to Mikuyu Maximum Security Prison, where Mpasu had been incarcerated between 1975 and 1977. He was the third political prisoner in 1975; hence, the title of the book.
He employed wit and humour to discuss the harsh and very inhumane conditions of Hastings Kamuzu Banda’s Mikuyu Prison. Like most political prisoners, Mpasu was simply detained under the third regulation of the Public Security Regulations of 1965. His detention order simply said Kamuzu ordered the arrest because it was ‘necessary for the preservation of order’. What pitted Mpasu to that dungeon was that the authorities read between the lines of his book Nobody’s Friend, and saw traits of a man trying to open Malawians’ eyes on Banda’s dictatorship.
I was only a teenager when Bakili Muluzi and the United Democratic Front (UDF) wrestled Banda and his Malawi Congress Party (MCP) from power in 1993. We grew up believing that Banda and his mighty party were invincible. We grew up in an era where we believed if you talked ill of Banda, he would hear you and you would die. Indeed, an era where we believed tearing the infamous party cards would result in your head ripping in two, like a piece of paper.
So deep was the propaganda machinery that at times, learning would be brought to a halt for students to go and ‘escort’ Banda on his foreign or crop inspection trips. The only picture we had on our minds at school and during youth rallies was the praises for the Ngwazi from his birth, education under a tree in Kasungu, the 1925 trek to America, the journey back home to break the ‘stupid federation’ and win his people freedom, as well as help them ‘have good clothes, food on the table and sleep in houses that did not leak when it rained’.
It is books like Political Prisoner 3/75 that helped some of us came to terms with the sad reality that we had been fed propaganda far too long. For one, Mpasu used his poignant writing skills to bring out the harshness of the one-party rule. That is why memoirs, autobiographies and biographies by people in high places are important in documenting the history of any civilised nation.
On February 15 2018, the 72 year-old Mpasu was found dead at his home in Blantyre. For me, there is a deeper coincidence since on February 14 1975, Mpasu entered Mikuyu Prison. He was found dead Thursday morning, exactly 43 years after he entered the walls of Mikuyu. That is, 72 years after his birth in Khuzi Village, Traditional Authority Kwataine in Ntcheu in a family of six born to John and Silaba Mpasu.
At the time of his death, he was vice-president of the New Labour Party (NLP), on whose ticket he was planning to contest in the 2019 elections. Apart from serving as an executive member of the UDF, he held several cabinet positions, Government Chief Whip and Speaker of the National Assembly. That is apart from several professional positions in the public and private sectors.
In his words, he found himself into mainstream politics by chance in 1991 when he was approached by Krishna Achuthan that Muluzi wanted him in an underground movement to oust Dr Banda. Apparently, it was his skills in literature and the liberal arts that may have made Mpasu an asset in the pressure group.
In the early 60s as a student at Dedza Secondary School, he was on the board of the school’s magazine Sapere Aude—dare search wisdom—while holding positions in various arts-based clubs like the Current Affairs Society, the Debating Society, the Photographic Society and the Geographical Society.
In 1965, he became one of the first 100 students selected to the University of Malawi, Chancellor College, where he majored in English Literature and Economics for his bachelor of arts degree in 1969. It is here that traits of his political activism became evident between 1967 and 1969 when he was chairperson of the students’ union for two terms.
It is no wonder that later he became influential in the establishment of the UDF News, which was primarily a secret bulletin thrown around town for free opening the eyes of Malawians on the evils of the Banda rule. Among his ministerial positions was one at information.
Mpasu ‘the prisoner’
One interesting aspect in Mpasu’s life is how he seemed to find himself in prison some of the time. Even during his student days, prison was his other home.
In 1967, he was asked by the chairperson of the debating society to be the main speaker of a debate they were preparing between students and some of Banda’s ministers on the Single Party State System. The debate never took place and all students of the debate committee and the catering committee were expelled. To make it worse, an MCP committee passed a resolution that sent Mpasu and seven other ‘troublesome and ungrateful’ students to Dzaleka Detention Camp ‘to be cured of their ingratitude’.
Reading his prison story, you find a man whose bones were not broken by a jail term. With wit, he recalls of a time when on entering the prison for the first time, he told the prison warder that his uniform was too tight, to which the warder replied that he would fit in it soon. In a few months, Mpasu had to tie the prison short tighter at the waist having lost so much weight.
That prison term was embroiled in dramatic ironies. After he was incarcerated, he was called to the office of Focus Gwede, who was then head of the Special Branch. Gwede had told Mpasu they were arresting him for what he had written in his book.
“Have you read the book,” Mpasu asked Gwede.
“No. I have not. But there is something about the President being killed in there,” Gwede replied.
“Yes there is. It is just an announcement of the radio in the work. Is that treason?” Mpasu replied.
That was no reason to arrest him. As fate would have it, Gwede and others ignited works for the construction of a ‘VIP Section’ at Mikuyu Prison. Life was expected to be harsher for the political prisoners. As fate would have it, Gwede and others were the first occupants of the section.
I first met Mpasu personally in 2008, on a Weekend Nation assignment. It was at the height of the Fieldyork Scandal, in which he was being accused of corruption and abuse of office. As Minister of Education, he was under pressure to get pencils and notebooks for the free primary school education the UDF government had introduced. The task, with my colleague Jack McBrams when we visited him at his home, BCA Hills was to talk with him about his life as a writer.
It was before the courts sentenced him to six years in prison with hard labour. We talked at length about his writing the book that got him into trouble.
What struck me most during the interview was that he was so relaxed and was in high spirits. He never seemed to be shaken at all with the eminent incarceration. In fact, he told us he was concentrating on reading more and more on economics.
A year into his prison term, with McBrams and lawyer Noel Misanjo and poet Nyamalikiti Nthiwatiwa (Chisomo Mdala), I decided to visit Mpasu at Blantyre (Chichiri) Prison to talk about writing and literature. I knew I was going into the prison as a visitor, so phones, cameras and notepads were left outside the gates.
Mpasu was in his usual high spirits. The prison warder said each one of us would talk to him only for 15 minutes. Mpasu would have none of it. He said since each of us had 15 minutes, then a collective talk would take an hour.
We talked and talked. Then, the station officer announced that time was up and we had to go after giving him some books and newspapers. Outside, we wanted to get a few photos outside the prison gates. For that a warder caught us, and we were sent back into the ‘prison’. We were only ‘released’ after Mpasu begged the officer for our ‘clemency’.
After his release in August 2010, I visited him at his Mudi home. Here as well, he was jovial as usual. Wherever I met Mpasu, whether his home, in the street, in the office and, yes, even in prison, he was always in high spirits.
With Mpasu gone, a few lessons come to mind. The first one is that too much propaganda is bad for the nation. It had to take some writersw to erase the pictures of a demigod the one party system had created of Dr Banda. That is followed by the fact that men and women in high places must write books that will in turn enlighten the younger generations.
The other thing one can learn from Mpasu is that prison should not be a place of torture and punishment. Improving a prison is not doing ‘criminals’ a favour. You just don’t know who will be there next. The Gwede story is an example.