The power of books here in Malawi

Burton Chirwa leaned forward, eyes ablaze. “You have to read, read a lot, before you can write.”

He sat back a little. “I read a lot, and I write. So far, I have written five short stories. So that is my advice to anyone who wants to be a writer. Read a lot.”

Burton is a librarian, a rare occupation in a country where, according to my more cynical Malawian friends, “if you want to hide anything, put it in a book.”

His job is even more unusual in that he and his assistant, Vitu, run a community library in a village, not a city.

Some secondary schools have libraries, usually stocked with a few battered novels from well-meaning well-wishers from the UK or America, and some well-thumbed Malawi text books.

The National Library of Malawi has several branches, all in the main cities, but an average charity shop in Scotland will boast more contemporary novels.

Universities have better facilities, while the Society of Malawi, on the first floor of Mandala House, the oldest building in the country, has a small, but excellent collection of books about Malawi and the region.

Whithorn library

But this is different. A village library like the one in Whithorn, where, as a child, I used to stand in silent contemplation in front of the carefully catalogued shelves, hoping that, this time, the librarian would let me take out a book that had no pictures in it.

A library stocked with thousands of books, up-to-date newspapers and an impressive back catalogue of the National Geographic.

No, Burton’s library in Mwaya was the first such one I had seen in fifteen years of travel to Malawi.

“We actually have 4,588 books,” said Burton, consulting his notebook. “And this one is our most popular,” he says pushing forward a rather dog-eared copy of a ‘Year to Success’ by a Bo Bennett.

book

Trump testimonial

“When it comes to success, there are no shortcuts,” asserted the tagline, and there on the top right-hand corner was a puff from one Donald Trump. “I recommend [this book] to anyone who aspires to success, no matter what their field.” Perhaps Joe Biden should get his hands on a copy.

“Do you have a copy of ‘Man of Africa’ by Samuel Ntara?” I ask, almost certain I know the answer. “Let me think,” answers Burton, “No we don’t have, I don’t know it.”

‘Man of Africa’ is, in my amateur opinion, the most important book in Malawi, if not southern Africa, because it is one of the first published novels by an African writer. It tells the story of Nthondo, a man of Malawi.

Samuel Yosia Ntara was born in 1905, and at 23 years old he qualified as one of the few Malawian teachers in the country. In 1932, he responded to an advert for a literary competition, sponsored by the Institute of African Languages and Cultures in London.

His “beautifully written manuscript” ‘Man of Africa’ won first prize in the biography section, and with the prize money he bought a cow for his mother, a bicycle for himself, gave one-tenth to the church, and carried on teaching.

He also wrote several more books, including a history of the Chewa people. In 1949, his final novel ‘Headman’s Enterprise: An Unexpected Page in Central African History’, was published.

This recounts the tale of a Tonga chief and his reaction to the coming of colonialism, Christianity and commerce. It is a startling – and important – insight into how Malawians felt about the invasion by white people during the late 1800s. An incursion that was to change their traditional way of life for ever, and which still reverberates through every aspect of society today.

I don’t have a copy of the ‘Headman’s Enterprise’ I can give to Barton and his library – built by UK charity Ripple Africa – but I do have a spare ‘Man of Africa’ for him.

While he depends on the generosity of strangers to stock his library, I found three copies of this rare book with one swipe of my iPhone. I bought all of them.

One I gave to my friend, Frank Johnston, who is Malawi’s leading publisher and a collector of books. I am hoping to persuade him that ‘Man of Africa’ should be re-printed.

One I am keeping for myself, and the third – well, I hope Barton and his fellow readers will enjoy it for many years to come.

Malawi gin empties

We are coming close to the end of our six months in Malawi. Tomorrow we will load our much-loved Toyota with the detritus of our stay, which includes far too many cotton chitenjes and (empty) bottles of Malawi gin, and head back to the capital Lilongwe for our final farewells.

But before we leave the lakeshore, there is still time for lunch with Maxwell Banda and his wife Liz. Maxwell was one of the first Malawians to get a degree in theology, and even though he is retired, continues to campaign tirelessly for economic and social justice for all Malawians.

We will have a coke with Ronex, a young man who had to cut his university studies short because his father could no longer afford to fund his studies. He and my husband share a love of spreadsheets, and I am typing up his CV in the desperate hope that, one day soon, he will get a job.

And I will give Alexander, the former Mayor of Mzuzu and now our good friend, an update on our campaign to restore the jacaranda trees in the city centre. We are half way to reaching our target, thanks to the generosity of, among others, Tilhill Forestry.

As I was leaving the library on Thursday, Vitu, Barton’s assistant, thrust a sheaf of foolscap into my hand. “I have written a book,” he said quickly. “It is about aid and how it is not helping us. I have researched it for three years. Can you read it, and bring it back?”

In every village, in every township and every city slum here in Malawi there are writers, musicians, engineers, coders, doctors, yes, even politicians – people whose talents will never be unleashed because they were born into one of the world’s poorest economies.

Samuel Ntara used an ancient Chewa proverb in the foreword to his second novel: “It is people who make the world; the bush has wounds and scars”.

Malawi’s economy is riddled with wounds and scars, many caused by us. But why should its people continue to suffer because of the mistakes we made?

Find out how you can help restore Mzuzu’s trees here.

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