It is nearly impossible to talk about the genesis of Nigerian writing without mentioning the liberal University of Ibadan where literary greats, Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka, unsheathed their pens. Similarly, Ghana’s celebrated scribes Ayi Kwei Amar and Albert Kayper-Mensah owe their inspiration to Achimota Secondary School.
For Malawi, the golden generation—Jack Mapanje, Felix Mnthali, Frank Chipasula, Anthony Nazombe and Steve Chimombo—owe their humble beginnings to Chancellor College (Chanco) in Zomba.
Back in the 1970s, a vigorous writers group emerged at the University of Malawi’s liberal arts college to inspire students to try their hand at literary expression.
True to the cause, the brood transcended the torrid political times to relieve themselves in poetry, prose and drama.
Chimombo—a retired professor of literature and education and multi-faceted writer who died on Friday at Mwaiwathu Private Hospital and was buried on Tuesday in Zomba—was a mover and shaker in much of the literary ferment that left an incredible mark in the country’s history.
Born in Zomba on September 4 1945, Chimombo is one of the most accomplished academics on the land.
He received his education through the University in Malawi, graduating with a bachelor’s degree from Chanco before proceeding to the University of Wales to do a post-graduate diploma in literature and teaching English as a second language.
He also held a masters degree in Literature from Leeds University and another masters in education from Columbia University, New York where he also obtained his doctorate.
But it is his writing prowess that earned the widely published writer rare acclaim both locally and internationally—even an honorary fellowship in writing from Iowa.
On August 8 1975, a youthful Chimombo told Voice of America’s Conversation with African Writers that his illustrious literary exploits stemmed from Mtendere Primary School, but he got published while at Zomba Secondary School where an English teacher, a Mrs Poole, used to encourage students to write either verse or short stories. Ironically, the renowned poet was known for the latter.
“My secondary school material didn’t come to anything apart from winning inter-school competition,” the revered writer, who continued writing and switched to poetry when he went to college, told Chill in a June 2011 interview.
Among his early writings, which were published in a Rhodesian magazine called African Parade is a tale of a village terrorised by a school of monkeys that used to descend the mountain to eat the crops.
To solve the problem, an old man brewed beer and called his friends to imbibe right in the field to show the monkeys what to do with the calabashes.
After the party, the people left but the apes came and drunk themselves senseless upon which the villagers returned and butchered them all.
The monkey trap is just a tip of how much the cerebrated writer values traditional material as the face and heart of African writing.
“From what foundation or basis are you going to write if you don’t write about the experiences that formed you and the experiences that are part of your psyche, we may say?” he told VOA.
Chimombo’s Afro-centric inclinations are also evident in The Rainmaker, a historical play in which the python priest Kamundi fails to make rain fall after two performances and a little known young man, Mbona, comes to succeed where he has failed.
The traditional rain caller gets angry and conspires to kill the little one. The village-based play is filled with traditional myths, songs, ululation, drumming and incantations.
Chimombo believed even world celebrated authors such as T.S Eliot had to go back to, not only the Western, but Eastern tradition to tell their story.
“And in West Africa, Soyinka and Achebe have also seen that it is very valuable piece of experience to work within the cultural milieu so that at least one can have a sense of belonging to a certain tradition and living with it,” Chimombo reasoned.
But was he writing for the whole public? Fellow intellectuals? Or Sunday school pupils? Perhaps, none of the above or all of them.
“At a certain time or another, a writer must sit down and do the writing business without having to worry about who is going to understand his work,” he argued in 1975.
Then he claimed he had no specific audience in mind when he sat down to craft his literary works.
“I can’t say whom I am writing for and why I am writing but just the feeling gets me to write something and I put it down,” said Chimombo, adding he did not think he wanted to change the world.
And he added: “I am just trying to get my mind across in the most effective way that I can,” he explained.
But decades later, the celebrated author seems to have departed from that unorthodox path.
“I write to express what I feel and sometimes there is an audience constituted by people going through or experiencing what I have written about,” he indicated in the Chill interview.
But the overriding desire to pour out his heart was manifested in highly cryptic poems based on the metaphor of Napolo—a mythical creature thought to live under the mountain or lake. It is believed that things fell apart if the creature turned underground.
But Chimombo said it was aimed at any system that creates martyrs and heroes. It is, therefore, amazing how he survived Banda’s iron fist.
In his introductory remarks to his more recent poetry collection—Napolo and Other Poems—he admitted there were times he came close to incarceration, death and exile.
For instance, he wrote, his vehicle was one night trailed by a top official of the special branch. Another secret service emissary even put it point blank that “his promotion depends on arresting people like me”.
But it is said that when hunters learn to shoot without missing, the birds learn to fly without landing.
Apparently, Chimombo and contemporaries learnt and perfected the skill of burying his self-expression in condensed images that have seen his critics labelling his writing “privatist”, “personal” and “difficult to understand”.
“My survival was not particularly due to Napolo, but the metaphor helped to some extent,” he conceded.
Writing under the watchful eyes of the Censorship Board (established in 1966), a wrathful regime and a vengeful secret police was difficult for assertive poetry, he reminisces.
“Even love poetry was scrutinized and likely to get the poet incarcerated,” he wrote.
Surprisingly, it is the said restrictive environment that bred the crème de la crème of Malawian writing—for escaping in mythical symbolism or historical imagery was safer than exploding into perilous articulacy. n