Born on 25 March, 1944 in Mangochi, Malawi and educated at Universities of Malawi and London, Jack Mapanje was
imprisoned in 1987 for his poetry collection titled Chameleons and Gods, which the Malawian censorship board claimed was critical of President Hastings Banda. He spent three years, seven months and sixteen days in prison. He teaches Creative Writing and Literature of Incarceration at Newcastle University.
“Warm Thoughts for Ken Saro-Wiwa” celebrates brotherhood of the pen among writers, victims of misuse of power in dictatorships where they are imprisoned, hounded into exile, or murdered for defending and writing about justice and human rights.
Composed of six quatrains, the lyric expresses the poet’s goodwill towards Ken Saro-Wiwa who was eventually hanged along with eight other Ogoni activists by the despotic military regime led by General Sani Abacha for his environmental campaigns to free Ogoni land from pollution caused by operations of international oil companies, especially Shell.
Four Ogoni chiefs were killed by Ogoni youth who saw them as traitors and betrayers of the struggle for a clean and health- giving Ogoni land. Although Ken Saro-Wiwa was not physically present at the scene of murder, he and his comrades in the clean environment campaigns were arrested, tried by a military tribunal and condemned to death by hanging. The poem focuses on the period of Saro-Wiwa’s incarceration.
The poet uses his own painful experience of incarceration at Mikuyu Prison to project what Saro-Wiwa is going through in detention in Nigeria. Similarly, Wole Soyinka uses his own personal experience in solitary confinement during the Nigerian Civil War to depict Mandela’s prison life in Mandela’s Earth and Other Poems.
In the first stanza, Mapanje mentions the “gruesome” effect that the news of Saro-Wiwa’s incarceration, which he calls an abduction in the second stanza, has on him when he receives it. He is in prison and recovering from the cold and eerie touch of a gecko on his knees after it has landed on his “blanket rags,” an image that expresses the idea of hardship and suffering to which prisoners, especially political prisoners, are subjected as punishment for their courage to uphold truth and speak out against societal ills and maladministration.
The idea of torture continues in the second stanza where the military abductors of Saro-Wiwa are imaged as “armed vultures” and the poet’s heart “aches” on hearing the news of a fellow writer’s ordeal at the hands of the military. The metaphor of “armed vultures” is apt because the military are predators. They are trained not to rule but kill.
The stanza also reveals that Saro-Wiwa once extended a hand of fellowship to Mapanje at Potsdam, after the latter’s release from prison, and talked about the function of writing, as psychotherapy, to ease pain. The “lion’s ball” is a metaphor for the untold suffering inflicted on writers by tyrannical regimes, civilian or military, while “freezing breath” is the healing power of imaginative writing that brings hope, relief and succor to those who are tormented. While oppressive regimes stand for captivity and death, writers are on the side of freedom and life. The latter constitute a solution to the problem represented by the former
Mapanje wears his spurs with dignity and pride. He is neither ashamed of the causes he takes on nor the scourge that he receives for them from the powers that be.
He uses metaphors of “fleas and swarms of bats” and “eternal beasts” for oppressors and persecutors who hold reins of governance and abuse their positions and powers. The image of “eternal beasts” implies that tyrants are inhuman (monsters) and constitute an ever-present danger to the ordinary folk in the world.
The oxymoron “wakeful slumbers” adds to prisoners’ discomfort and intensifies their suffering.
Saro-Wiwa’s response to despotism is not by any means different from Mapanje’s. It is to ridicule and laugh derisively at tyrants. His Basi and Company, a Nigerian sitcom, is profoundly illustrative of the author’s robust sense of humour. He lampoons corrupt officials and petty tyrants in the television series. Even his Sozaboy, a novel on the Nigerian Civil War, is replete with comic episodes, its tragic subject-matter notwithstanding.
Mapanje asks Saro-Wiwa to be courageous and use the power of “humour again” to heal or kill the pain of his “handcuff scars.”
He also requests him to watch the cracks on his cell walls, which are imaged as “razors and / Needles” tearing his flesh even before his imprisonment, which suggests that the society is itself another prison.
However hellish human life is, “the rapture of gracious laughter” and “the memory of justice” could bring succor to victims of political oppression. The poet likens joy that inheres in laughter to a “prayer,” wish fulfilment that is soothing, like an anodyne, even when the prayer is not answered.
The last stanza mentions animals – “Scorpions, mosquitoes and cockroaches” – that give prisoners the blues and can even terminate their miserable lives, if not checked. Notice the order in which they are listed, from the most dangerous to the least harmful.
The fact that the animals abound in large numbers in prison is proof of the horrible conditions under which prisoners are kept because their lives do not matter to the state.
The animals keep prisoners company in lieu of loved ones, friends and relations from whom they have been extricated. The signification poses the agonizing problem of loneliness obliquely.
Oftentimes, prisoners who are adjudged state enemies are put in solitary confinement in order to inflict maximum physical and psychological punishment on them and possibly make them lose their sanity.
In the absence of human companions, a prisoner in solitary confinement searches everywhere for things that could help reduce boredom, wear away the tyranny of time and remind them of the meaning of compassion, fellowship, kindness, and love – all of which are replaced in the last stanza of the poem by the “tender / Cloud which forever hovers above” the cold cell.
The last line of the elegy states the reason why the writer is in prison, namely the passionate desire to restore dignity, freedom, humanity, joy, justice, livelihood and rights to hordes of people from whom they have been arrogantly and unscrupulously stolen.
The last word of the lyric “hope!”, is isolated in order to foreground it. It is intended to empower Saro-Wiwa and sustain him, so that he will neither give up the struggle against tyranny nor renounce the quest for the values that ennoble humanity.
The poet asks him to be cheerful and know that he is not alone in the struggle. He has a dependable brother and a suffering ally in Mapanje.
Disclaimer: This analysis is sourced from Professor Segun Adekoya's lectures on African Poetry. Literature PADI lays no proprietary claim to it.