Hoffman Aipira: From non-fiction to fiction
Granted. There is always one candle that kindles other candles, each with the same intensity as the first, yet the first retains its originality.
To poet Hoffman Aipira, that original candle is his father, Cheliza Leonard Aipira who, despite staying in Zimbabwe, still pulled the family strings in Malawi.
“I cannot deny: The love of words, writing, started way back after my father, Leonard Aipira sent me a dictionary from Zimbabwe. I was in Standard 4 at Mvundula Primary School in Mangochi at the time,” recollects Aipira.
“However, when I went through the book, I discovered that it had no pictures. I rushed to my mum, Adisi Aipira, and asked her: ‘What does dad want me to do with a book that has no pictures?’ I then took it to my Primary School teacher, who advised me to take care of the picture-less book, saying it would help build the foundation for my vocabulary later,” says Aipira, who comes from Mvumba Village, Traditional Authority Nankumba, in Mangochi.
In the world of the children of yester-years, according to Aipira, a book was not judged by its cover alone. Pictures were worth more than the cover.
“I then developed interest in flipping the pages. I must say that the sound of the clicking pages fascinated me and I am sure that my love for words sprouted from there. Later, I graduated from marveling at the sound of the flipping pages to ‘building’ my vocabulary. The vocabulary gave me a footing in writing,” he says.
Aipira adds that, whereas his father inspired him, his mother played the disciplinarian by, among other things, not giving him the leeway to go swimming or fishing— as is the norm with children born along the lake. Ironically, his mum was self-taught and knew how to read and write,” says Aipira, the last-born in a family of three boys and two girls.
Unlike other people who find it difficult to cope with life when one of their parents decides to leave their homeland and seek greener pastures in a foreign land, Aipira has kind words for his father, who used to be a city council worker before embarking on a trip to Zimbabwe where he could only communicate with his family back home through the Post Office.
“My father went to Zimbabwe in a bid to secure a job and be able to pay school fees for his sons. You see, my father had tailoring and fishing enterprises. He registered little success in tailoring and, as regards fishing, someone stole his fishing gear. He also tried tobacco cultivation, with no success. Thus, angry, he left for Zimbabwe.
“My parents had interest in education. In those days, in the 1950s, they sent the first-born in our family to Khola, a boarding school in Ntcheu—away from Mangochi, away from the hustle and bustle of fishing and swimming,” Aipira explains.
Foray into poetry
However, with the help of the picture-less book, Aipira built the foundation for his writing career and, today, he can proudly look at ‘Reflections and Sunsets’, a collection of over 50 poems published by Kachere Series, with pride.
About 500 copies of ‘Reflections and Sunsets’ were published and, to put an
icing to the cake, rights of book were sold to the United Kingdom through African Books Collective [ABC] by the publisher.
“I composed the poems in ‘Reflections and Sunsets’ collection when I was in the United Kingdom. Some of the poems were even featured in American and Irish literary magazines,” says Aipira.
One can see traces of his father’s influence in the collection, as evidenced in one of the poems ‘Dad’.
Take the hoe my son
Carefully tie the seed-bag
At the end of the hole-handle
At first light
Before the dew is dry
Mark a patch of soil
To carry this seed
And give life
The persona in the poem is waxing lyric about agriculture and the emphasis is, clearly, on working. It is common knowledge that if one toils, their life is given the impetus of hope. The one who works neither suffers nor depends on others.
Maybe Malawi, our dad, can learn from this. For 51 years, Malawi has failed to “take the hoe” and “Mark a patch of soil”, “To carry this life seed/And give life/Hope”. Not surprisingly, donor dependence has become Dad Malawi’s way of post-independence life. Dad Malawi is, therefore, a bad ‘dad’.
There are three sections in ‘Reflections and Sunsets’. The first one, titled ‘Reflections and Sunsets’ see the personae reflecting on life back home. We can only assume that the persona is Malawian. The section has such poems as ‘The first rains’, ‘Dad’, ‘At Wenela Bus Station’, ‘Sunset at Lake Malawi’.
Section two, under the title ‘Another Winter’, could as well be described as a reflection of new experiences of a persona whose body has been trapped in a foreign land— on, say, academic, religious, tourism grounds—but the mind is stationed at home.
The foreign destination must, surely, be Europe, where the shadow of winter defines the sequence of life. Poems such as ‘Crossing continents’, ‘Waiting for Pelicans at St James Park’ and ‘An evening on the city’ offer hints that the setting is another continent and ably support the theme.
But, then, what goes around comes around. So, section three, titled ‘Distant drums’ is about anticipation, which defines the mood when time to go back home approaches. So, it is not a surprise that ‘Two halves’, ‘Grandfather’s footsteps’, ‘Telling tales’ are some of the dominant poems in the section.
The last section, titled ‘Telling tales’, is a reflection of the African spirit that prioritises story telling. Ironically, instead of telling tales of the personae’s experiences in the foreign land and knowledge acquired abroad— in much the same way grandmothers gathered their grandchildren around a fire and told stories that had been told, retold, retold, and retold by, and from, one generation to another, before the winds of modernity blew the communal spirit away— the stories shared are about the native country.
This is reflected in ‘Chichiri 3 pm’, ‘The granaries at Kanengo’, among others.
However, ‘Reflections and Sunsets’ is not the only work associated with Aipira. He has also co-edited the anthology ‘The Time Traveller of Malavi: New Poetry from Malawi’. The anthology, which features creative writers such as Yamaha Ali, Sylvester Chabuka, David Lubadiri, Temwani Mgunda, Zondiwe Mbano, Ken Lipenga, Matilda Kampezeni was co-edited by Malawi Writers Union president, Sambalikagwa Mvona and Hoffman Aipira.
Aipira continues his journey of reflections in the anthology through such pieces as ‘Visiting Maone’, ‘Malawi’, ‘The delights of Nankumba Peninsula’.
Says Aipira: “The poem I love the most in ‘The Time Traveller of Malavi: New Poetry from Malawi’ is ‘The delights of Nankumba Peninsula’ because I talk about home, Mangochi.”
He has also contributed poems to the anthology ‘Operations and Tears’, edited by Anthony Nazombe. Aipira’s poems include ‘A letter from home’, ‘Mix and match’, ‘Water fall’.
But Aipira is not the only writer in the family.
“The third-born in our family, Okomaatani Steven Aipira, is an established author. He authored ‘Business Studies for Developing Countries’ which is being used by students. The book was published by Dzuka Publishing Company,” he says.
Wokomaatani has also authored ‘Malawi takes off’, a book published by Kachere Series. The book focuses on the late Bingu wa Mutharika’s first term in office [2004 to 2009].
That time, Malawians were running high on both hope and economic prospects, as evidenced by the fact that, according to the Economist Magazine, the country registered the second-fastest growing economy in the world after oil-rich Qatar.
Zangaphee Chizeze and Edson Mpina may have grown up believing that they were nothing more than human beings. To Aipira, however, they also served as his sources of inspiration.
“As I grew up, I looked up to Chizeze and Mpina. In the case of Chizeze, I came across his poem ‘If ifs were ifs’ while I was at Bunda College of Agriculture and I said: ‘There is beautiful writing here’. As for Mpina, I was left speechless by his poem ‘Summer fires of Mulanje Mountain’, which won a BBC award in Commonwealth. It’s a very short poem, but it is well written,” says Aipira.
Outside Malawi, he is a fan of William Wordsworth and Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet who won the Nobel Prize of Literature.
Aipira, who studies General Agriculture at Bunda College of Agriculture from 1976 to 1979, started off as a humble civil servant when he joined Ministry of Works and Supplies in 1980.
He was one of the pioneers of the Landscaping section, a development that meant Malawi had joined two other African countries— South Africa and Kenya— that had landscaping sections. For this reason, International Federation Architects president, ZVI Miller, visited Malawi in 1982.
His expertise in landscaping saw him writing for non-fiction magazines.
“As I did landscaping, I was a member of the Association of Advancement of Science of Malawi [AASOM], whose chairperson was architect Dr Bernard Zingano. AASOM had a magazine and he asked workers, especially new graduates, to contribute articles to the magazine. You can imagine how happy I was to see my article published,” says Aipira.
In 1985, he got a scholarship to study at the University of Bath in England, where he studied horticulture between 1985 and 1989 and received an award in ‘Outstanding Performance in Horticulture’ along with a white girl called Alice Forbes. Thereafter, he pursued a post-graduate degree at the University of Iowa, Northern England, United Kingdom.
While there, he made a u-turn and shifted his interest from Horticulture to urbanisation. He even published the article ‘Urban farming: Making Africa’s cities sustainable’ in ‘ECODECISION: Environment and Policy Magazine’ published in Montreal, Canada in 1995.
He also had his articles featured in the United Nations magazine ‘Nature and Resources’ Volume 32 Number 2, 1996. The title of his article was ‘Urban Food Production’ published under UNICEF in Paris, France.
“This was the beginning of my interest in the role of cities. We even coined the term ‘The bush of the rural areas and the pull of the cities’. The United Nations, through United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) took interest in putting the issue on top of the global agenda,” he says.
Aipira also worked on a UNEP report titled ‘Urban farming in low income cities: Report prepared in connection with the first workshop on urban farming: strategy for food and environmental health in low income cities’. It was published by the Institute of Advanced Architectural Studies, University of York, in One World Studies, on November 24, 1993.
He then worked on the report ‘Urban and Rural Change in the Developing World: procedures of the International Workshop on Urban Farming and Rural Tourism: Priorities for Action in the 21 Century’, which he edited with Noorizan Mohamed and Charles Cockburn.
“Actually, at [University of] York, they wanted me to establish a department but I said: ‘I have to go back home’. I came back home in 2009,” he says.
Maybe, as he continues writing, he may become another candle that kindles other candles without losing its vigour— like his father did.
A vibrant writer who gives a great insight on hot topics and issues