Poet Jack Mapanje, The Netherlands, 1998
© Amnesty International/Huig Bartels
“This, in Mikuyu prison, this, in any prison, a postcard of prettiness is a sign of hope”
Poet Jack Mapanje was jailed in 1987 for writing politically subversive verse. His release four years later was thanks in part to the persistence of our members.
Jack Mapanje is one of Malawi’s best known poets. His 1981 poetry collection, Of Chameleons and Gods, was banned from circulation in schools and colleges in Malawi in June 1985. He was arrested by Malawian police on 25 September 1987 in the southern city of Zomba.
At the time, he was 43 years old, married with three children, and head of the Department of Language and Literature at the University of Malawi. Immediately after his arrest, he was taken to his office at the university, where copies of his book were confiscated.
Amnesty International declared him a prisoner of conscience and campaigned for his immediate and unconditional release. It was clear that Jack had been arrested because the authorities disapproved of his poetry which was critical of government policy at the time.
“When I was detained, it took one year and 10 months before I was allowed to see my wife and children and any of my relatives,” Jack recalled, following his release. “In Mikuyu prison where I was, no letters were allowed, no newspapers were allowed, no radio was allowed.”
This changed dramatically once Amnesty International entered the picture. We mobilized our membership to write letters to the Malawian authorities and asked them to send messages of solidarity to Jack in prison.
“For some strange reason somebody in Holland sent me a postcard,” recalled Jack. “And for some strange reason that postcard arrived. And it reached me.” The postcard said in Dutch: “Greetings from Holland”, but the signature was illegible.
“You have no idea what that postcard meant to me and meant to the detainees in Mikuyu prison,” said Jack. “This was the first indication of any link whatsoever with the international community. I did not know that the international community was fighting for me… Within me I said, thank you very much to whoever signed that postcard. This, in Mikuyu prison, this, in any prison, a postcard of prettiness is a sign of hope, this lifted my life, it uplifted the life of the detainees to know that someone out there cares for their life, cares for their freedom.”
Jack Mapanje was finally released in 1991 and exiled to the UK. He resumed a successful career as an academic and poet. He currently lives in York in the UK and for many years taught Creative Writing and Literatures of Incarceration at Durham University. He is now visiting Professor at York University and is writing a memoir of his life.