Thursday, April 17, 2008


Before his recent imprisonment for his part in the Fieldyork scandal, I visited Sam Mpasu to talk about his writing at his BCA home with my colleague Jack McBrams to chat with him anout literature:

....“I will write, I wish to write but when you are always thinking politics, talking politics, you don’t concentrate”....

by Jack McBrams & Kondwani Kamiyala

Sam Mpasu is known to many as a politician at heart. He has served in top political positions. He has been there, done that, as a member of the cabinet and as a speaker of the National Assembly.

That is, not counting the party positions he has served in the United Democratic Front (UDF).

The last position he held in the party was that of spokesman, a position he was recently stripped of by his fellow party cadres.

On paying the man a visit, sitting with him on the veranda of his BCA home, one thing you would realise is that he is a buttonholer, one who can pick minute details of his life as if they happened yesterday.

His narrative, that memory, may be the reason he was a great writer. Shall we say he is still a great writer, since he dreams of a comeback?

Renowned for his work Nobody’s Friend and Political Prisoner 3/75, Mpasu has proven prowess both as a creative writer and also as a non-fiction writer. Yet, it was by sheer luck that he ended up putting pen to paper to express his joys and sorrows, his imagination and, most importantly, his great wish against all forms of oppression.

“My writing, I started as a hobby and it is still a hobby. I did not set out to be a professional writer and because it is a hobby I take it up any time I am free to enjoy it. I started when I felt a little idle.

I was in the diplomatic service in Germany but I was unmarried so weekends were lonely that I had to go and enjoy myself in the social nightclubs and that meant dancing and drinking with total strangers.

“But then I decided, oh no, it’s not a very productive way of spending my weekends, especially when you are a diplomat. That’s how I wrote my first book actually, I thought about it and started writing,” he says of Nobody’s Friend which was published in 1975.

“I thank God that I have got a degree of creativity which makes me feel occupied. I don’t have to feel lonely, I don’t have to get involved in the hassle and bustle of life. As an individual, when I apply my mind to something, I can come up with something that people find enjoyable,” he muses.

Mpasu, who says he does not know what motivated him to write the book, however hints that the storyline could have been inspired by his feeling of homesickness.

“It was little bit of homesickness. I was out in German, surrounded by Germans, strange language and so forth, I was not even married. I was meeting my fellow Malawians only at the office and at staff parties and when I was back home, I was thinking about my childhood, my rural surroundings and so forth and I came up with that story,” he explains.

But was Nobody’s Friend the reason he was incarcerated for two years from January 1975 to February 28, 1977. “I suspect strongly that it was the reason because that is what [Focus] Gwede [Head of Special Branch] asked in one of his questions. I asked Gwede, ‘have you read that book?’ and he said no. I said, look, it’s a simple novel. And the next thing that he said was ‘but there is a story in the book about a president being killed?’ I said ‘yes, as a news item on the radio, but is that treason? is that sedition?’

“The people who got offended by it, got offended by the title, they hadn’t even read it. Because it said nobody’s friend and that time the political situation in this country was such that Dr Banda was reaching out to South Africa when the rest of Africa was condemning Africa and everybody was calling him the odd man out. So when this book came out with that title Nobody’s Friend, those who were ignorant thought it was about Dr Banda because he had no friends in Africa,” he says.

Nobody’s Friend is the story of a character who had acquainted himself to people in the Police Secret Service in order to victimise his own enemies.Mpasu, while acknowledging that the book was political, says it was not intended to ruffle any feathers.

“It was political in the sense that when you write something, you are not writing it in a vacuum, you are writing about a person who lives in a particular country with laws and certain limitations. You worry about a country whose security you are undermining, in other words if a government thinks it is going to be overthrown, undermined or in any way discredited.

“But when you are talking about an imaginary story, where people interacting with government authorities, licensing authorities, roads authorities and so forth, there is no better natural and ordinary situation. And you are writing about security services, you are not writing about the government. The authority in this country was the government, it wasn’t the methods of the security service,” he says.

Mpasu says his experience at the hands of the Police and in prison discouraged him from writing, and it was not until 1995, 20 years later when he was Minister of Education, that he summoned enough courage to pick up his pen to write again.

“I lost the appetite to write because of the nasty experience that I went through in Zomba Prison and Mikuyu Prison and I did not want to go through the same trouble again because of writing,” he says.

“When I came out of prison in 1977, I was blacklisted by the government authorities not to work anywhere in Malawi by any company by any government department so I lost my job in the government. But I suspect that they wanted to drive me out of the country, they wanted me to go and look for a job outside. Then I was going to be a perfect political target, then they were going to say ‘now you see, he is political after all, he is now in exile, he is fighting Dr Banda’.

“So I decided to stay put here. After a whole a year, I had a nasty exchange with the head of the Police at that time, Mr Mac Kamwana. I said if you are going to be blocking me from getting jobs, why don’t you lock me up again. At least in prison you will be feeding me but I have got a son, I have got a wife and i can’t be struggling like this. So he realised and gave me his word of mouth to say look, ‘if you are offered a job again, let me know’.

That time, I had been offered a job by Lonhro, they blocked it. I had been offered a job by IndeBank, I was going to be the first Malawian general manager, they had blocked it and soon after that exchange, I was offered a job by Lever Brothers (now Unilever) and they didn’t block it. That’s how I ended up at Lever Brothers in February 1978,” he explains.

Mpasu served in various capacities at Lever Brothers until 1988 when he was seconded to run the Malawi Confederation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry (MCCCI). It was there that he met UDF founding members Harry Thomson, who was MCCCI chairperson, Bakili Muluzi, who was vice chairperson and MCCCI member Patrick Mbewe.

“My political fire started there but it did not mature there. I was always a man with a view that this country could do better. It didn’t need to have political jails, it didn’t need to have oppression, fear and so forth. When I left MCCCI, I joined Xerographics as sales and marketing manager and I was number two, Khrishna Achutan was number one. Our business at Xerographics was to sell photocopiers, business machines and so forth.

“So one day I caught him photocopying some document entitled United Democratic Party. I asked him ‘what is this’ and he laughed. I then sat down with him and he disclosed that he belonged to a super secret group, an underground group that was trying to build up opposition to Dr Banda. So he is the one who introduced me to the UDF. A few weeks later I met Bakili Muluzi when I realised that he was heading it and we had a chat. That was 1991. And thereafter, Khris and I were fully involved in the movement’s secret meetings,” he says.

When the UDF was voted into government in1994, Mpasu was elected Member of Parliament for Ntcheu Central, appointed Minister of Education and Government Chief Whip in Parliament and immediately got to work to write his second book Prisoner 3/75, which chronicles his prison experience.

“What shocked me was a serious campaign by the Malawi Congress Party trying to discount the stories of atrocities—that they did not happen, that these people were telling lies. And that is what fired me and I thought, look, if I do not record what I experienced, these people will eventually brainwash Malawians into believing that the Malawi Congress Party did not do these things. So, I wrote that book in two weeks from memory. When you go through a very traumatic experience, you don’t forget certain things,” Mpasu recalls.

Mpasu recounts that he wrote the book in longhand and gave it to his secretary to type.

“And then I bumped into a friend of mine who is a publisher and I gave it to him and he was very glad to publish it. Unfortunately, ever since, I haven’t had the time to write again,” he explains.

But does he still feel the passion and desire to write again?

“Oh yes, definitely. I will write, I wish to write but when you are always thinking politics, talking politics, you don’t concentrate. But the passion is still there,” says Mpasu, who cites that his political experience has influenced his writing.

“Politics is a very dynamic field. You can’t be a writer and go into politics without being influenced by politics. You meet all sorts of characters in politics—honest people, dishonest people, cheats, archeologically idealists and they is always a desire to do good, to help your country, to help your community. And the realisation that you can’t do it all alone, you have got serious limitations, financial limitations, capacity limitations and so forth. You do have constant conflicts in the sense that you are all fighting for a limited cake and where will that cake go and for whose benefit, for which people and for which district.

“So you cannot be in politics without being influenced tremendously. But there is also the acute realisation that you have serious limitations. But at the same time, you also have a sense of frustration when you see certain things being done which could be done much better,” he says, believing that the advernt of multi-party politics opened up opportunities for writers.

“The abolishment of the central powers of the Censorship Board helped a lot. There was a lot of interest now among Malawians to write. And whenever I buy the weekend newspapers, I always go to the stories and I am very encouraged that there is a lot of commendable writing in this country—poetry, fiction and so forth.

“But I do realise that there are major problems before we can really boost the industry. One is publishing—it is extremely difficult for a budding writer to publish a book because publishing means that the publisher must foot the bill for printing and promoting the books. And the readership in Malawi is still very small, especially if you write in Chichewa,” he notes.

But Mpasu decries the lack of publishing houses in the country.

“I find it extremely difficult to understand that we have the University of Malawi with five colleges and no printing press. So, even the professors run into problems when they want to publish their thesis and research papers. It could have been much easier if the University had a printing press and have a support unit as a publishing house, it would make money for the University. I am sure they could get one from one of the donors, like the one I got for Parliament when I was Speaker. I got it from Japan for free,” he says, and notes that one of the major hitches for young writers is to get published.

“To link young writers to publishing houses is a major problem and that is why I thought organisations like Mawu [Malawi Writers Union] could come in. Infact, they themselves as Mawu could turn themselves into a publishing house. Publishing in like gambling, you publish a book you make loses and publish another you make profits. You should not become sentimental and run a publishing house with the hardheartedness of a business-person, publishing can be a fantastic business.”

And his last word?“My last word is first of all to commend Weekend Nation. It’s making a valuable contribution to literature in this country by allowing those few pages of fiction. I hop they can continue because that way they give confidence to hesitant young writers. If they continue doing that, they are actually cultivating a large nursery for future writers and I have a feeling that one day, Malawi will get a Nobel Prize in Literature because of efforts like those.”


Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

Sam Mpasu should be delivered, I think he has a spirit of being incarcerated..What do you think?..I like this man..Lets help him in prayers.