It was a little after ten when the four of us arrived at the Chichiri Prison to see Sam Mpasu, one of my most revered Malawian writers. When he wrote Nobody’s Friend, Mpasu was arrested by Dr Banda’s agents. His time in prison led to Prisoner 3/75 of Dr Banda, a grueling recount of his time in the inhuman cells of the one party regime.
This time,Mpasu is in jail for the Fieldyork scandal when he was Minister of Education.The four of us, fellow journalist Jack McBrams, lawyer Noel Misanjo,performance poet and media researcher Chisomo Mdalla aka Nyamalikiti Nthiwatiwa were ushered to the visitors’ bay, after going through a rigorous search at the gates. All cellphones were also kept away.
You could be wondering why we had to visit Mpasu. What other way could we seek the blessing of someone close to us in the writing art? How else could we have the first step of the Writers Block? This is a writers' group that is being formed.
The visitors’ bay is a confined area, with some five benches. This is separated from the cells by a gauzed-wire gate. This is the wire that separates the free world from the mind-numbing life of prison.
On arrival, a prisoner spots and Jack and he rushes to call Mpasu. A warder, Mr Chipofya, tells us to wait for Mpasu on the benches. The benches are donated by several churches. One was donated by the Anglican Church, another by the Bible Believers and one other by the Living Waters Church. We sat on the Bible Believers bench.
The Living Waters bench is quite rickety, and Nyamalikiti jokes about it: “This bench is really Pentecostal, look how it shakes!”We laughed, before Noel chips in: “I think the Catholics will donate a sofa set.” This was met by more chuckling laughter.As we joke, to lighten the mood, Mpasu appears at the gate, clad in a white pair of trousers, black pair of shoes and a short sleeved casual shirt. His hair is trimmed.
We all stand, and walk towards the bench where we are supposed to see him.“No! Not all of you at once. One person will see him at a time.
Fifteen minutes for each of you,” says Chipofya.Jack goes first, as we go back to the Bible Believers bench. They talk for several minutes before Mpasu goes back towards the cells. He comes back with a set of books which Jack has been supplying to him. More minutes, and we are beckoned to go and meet him.
He shakes each of our hands in a jovial mood. Jack does the introductions, and tells Mpasu we are all working to develop our writing art. Mpasu asks what genres we are into. We are into poetry,short stories, journalism and what not.
He is elated: “I am really glad that you young men took time off a Saturday morning to come and see me. Kaya ku Malawi kuli bwanji?” [How is Malawi?]
We ask: “Nanga kuno si ku Malawi?” [Isn't this Malawi?]
“Ayi, kuno n’ku Nyasaland,” he replies, inviting laughter. [No this is Nyasaland]
We talk for close to one hour, for Mpasu convinced the warders that each of us had been given 15 minutes, which added up to one hour. It wasn’t a straight line: he talked of the boredom in prison, the prayers there, world economics, Aids, writing and, of course, politics in parables. A warder is listening intently to our conversation.
We give Mpasu another consignment of books, which the warder checks for some letters or notes on prison break plans. Pointing to a lady with a basket full of food containers at one of the benches, the warder says: “Mr Mpasu, your food will get cold.”
Mpasu looks at the warder, then says: “There is breakfast, lunch and supper in there, how can you say the food will get cold? Put it straight that time for chatting with these young men is over.”
Pointing at a man who peeps through one of the doors near the entrance, Mpasu says: “That is the Officer in Charge. He is a good man.”
Our chat thus comes to an end, and Mpasu walks towards the cells and we head for the gates to go back to Malawi, as Mpasu would have it. We collect the phones and walk out of the gates.
Nowadays, I can’t leave without my camera and recorder. Knowing I couldn’t be allowed to take any photos in the prison, I had left the camera and recorder in the car. On getting out, just at the gates, an idea is born in my mind.
“Guys let’s get a picture of ourselves. This is not a moment to miss,” I said and my friends agreed.
I rush into the car, took the camera and started getting a film of my colleagues. Then, I put the camera into a mode that would allow us get still photos. Nearby, some young men are waiting to go into the prison to visit friends or relatives.
“Can you please take a picture of us?” I tell one of the young men,but before he gets the camera, a warder spots us.
“You are taking photos here!” he shouts and calls us back into the prison.Noel and I walk back into the prison, detained as it were. Nyamalikiti and Jack remain outside, in case Noel’s legal reasoning will not satisfy the Officer-in-Charge that we took the photos not out of malice and we may need other lawyers. The rest, as they say, is history.
All I can say, at the end I agreed with Mpasu: “The Officer in Charge is a good man.”