Early this year, Ugandan poet Beverly Nambozo Nsengiyunva called on writers in the country to write stories of legends as part of raising Malawi’s flag.
The poet said this during a reception of Professor David Rubadiri at Ryalls Hotel in Blantyre.
She came into the country alongside Susan Kiguli, who is an Associate Professor in the Department of Literature at Makerere University and a student of Rubadiri.
During the event, which Pen Malawi organised, Rubadiri was, in absentia, decorated with a Sisters Award for his work in promoting the country’s literature.
“I asked a few people in this room if any biography has been written about Professor David Rubadiri and the answer is no. How many years do you think the professor has lived on earth?” Nsengiyunva asked.
Today, Rubadiri is no more. He died last Saturday at Mzuzu Central Hospital at the age of 88.
“He was a great man and did a lot to the family. He told me a lot and, to be where I am today, it is all because of him. All the books I have written and all the works I have in the world of writing; he is the one who taught me,” veteran writer Willie Zingani said Thursday.
Rubadiri was an uncle to Zingani.
And as the late Rubadiri, a great and amazing poet, will be laid to rest today in Mzuzu, the words of the Ugandan poet still speak to writers— and the country as a whole— as to whether there is a biography to show for Rubadiri.
As, Saturday, the funeral service takes place at St Mark Anglican Church before burial at the Heroes Acre in Mzuzu, nobody can stand tall to claim that they have authored a book specifically about Rubadiri.
There is surely no biography to inform the nation of the great works of Rubadiri.
“We need to document these legends and this is one way of raising the flag high,” she said then.
Kiguli, a student of Professor Rubadiri, hailed Pen Malawi then for honouring her lecturer.
And upon receiving the sad news of Rubadiri’s death last Saturday, Kiguli said she was numbed because “what does one say when a great light goes out?”
“I know we should be grateful for the time we saw this shooting star blazing in our sky but it is hard not to feel like the literary fraternity, in Africa especially, has lost a right arm. Professor Rubadiri was an icon on both the poetic and political landscape of Africa,” she said.
Kiguli described Rubadiri as a distinguished diplomat of a calibre rarely seen but, most of all, a poet in the sense of Robert Frost’s remark that the word poet is a praise word.
“If there is ever a poet who appealed to rank and file, Rubadiri did. His poems were seemingly simple but most profound. You know how we, Ugandans, think we own him and will not hear of the Malawians’ boast that they lent him to us,” she said.
Kiguli said Rubairi was as “I have always said a global figure, so he was in life and so he is in his death seeing from the outpouring of grief across continents”.
“He taught us that greatness is making the best of your gifts. I, as one of his former students, like so many like me , think that if Muhammad Ali was the greatest in boxing, Rubadiri equalled him in poetry on the African continent. I believe his legacy will live on in exceptional ways because he was a poet and teacher of extraordinary talent,” she said.
She said the African continent and world as a whole is simultaneously morning and celebrating a man whose life was a poem in its own right.
“We are so proud he was ours and will forever walk tall in the knowledge that Rubadiri is part of our history,” she said.
Kiguli then sent a copy of a lecture Rubadiri delivered in the David Cook Memorial Lecture at Makerere University in Uganda on May 7 2009.
This was a keynote memorial lecture in fond memory of Professor Cook.
He says he was a school boy at Kings College Budo in what was then referred to as Bud Family.
The arrangement, according to Rubadiri, was that one started primary one and ended in senior six.
Rubadiri says Makerere became their target – but the most important thing is that Makerere College became the elder brother!
“Often I would be united by the Mulyanti family during the school holidays – and was referred to as their Muswahili. 1940–1950, the school Budo had become my home and Makerere had become my elder brother,” he says in the lecture.
He adds that his first love of drama and Shakespeare were awakened by the wife of the then Dean of students – Ian Macpherson.
Rubadiri says his wife, Margaret, was a Shakespeare fanatic and that from her began annual Shakespeare productions in which a number of students took major parts.
“Most of these students ended as independent heads of new independent states. To name a few, Julius Nyerere and Milton Obote,” he says in the lecture.
He adds that Margaret Macpherson had seen him in action at Budo during the headship of Timothy Cobb – and that he became the annual “trumpeter” for all productions that had become a tradition of Makerere.
“I remember how I was once fetched by Mr Macpherson from Budo holding tightly to my trumpet as he was a “fast” driver. My dreams, as they were of the schoolboys of the period were to make it to Makerere by hook or crook,” he says.
Rubairi further says he never made it in the first selection – but two determined teachers Cobb and Margaret made it possible for him to be admitted a year after.
“I mention these occasions as they are very much basic to the growth and the development of the Department of Literature – then known as the Department of English,” he says in his lecture.
Professor Rubadiri further says in his lecturer that when eventually he came up to Makerere it was after his release from political prison in then Nyasaland.
Rubadiri says this happened in a most unusual manner – my Budo housemaster Y.K. Lule had now become principal of the University College and M.K. Sozi MA Secretary of the College Council. Like a dream at my release from prison and Independence of Malawi Dr. H. Banda had made me Malawi’s 1st Ambassador to the UN in Washington.
He says in the lecture that Professor David Cook, then also acting as Dean Faculty of Arts at Makerere, kept on alerting them to the importance of creative involvement in the arts, hence the birth of creative writings and new programmes.
Poetry Association of Malawi President, Nyamalikiti Nthiwatiwa, adds to the several voices mourning Rubadiri, saying his death is not just a death of a towering man but rather a whole institution is gone.
“And these are not just words to add colour to the expected many eulogies for a man of his stature, this was a genuinely Malawian literati who represented us well. We celebrate him, but also mourn him because we feel outside of those who were priviledged to sit under his tutelage as a university don,” Nyamalikiti said.
He said the now poets would have benefited more had “had we had the wherewithal of meeting him and sitting down to gulp from his deep calabash of intellect and industry.
Pen Malawi President, Alfred Msadala, says he shall never forget his company.
“A great loss. We communed as his agemate and he was my mentor and encouraged me to move on with poetry,” Msadala said.
Born on July 9 1930, he was a diplomat, academic and poet, playwright and novelist.
He is ranked as one of Africa’s most widely anthologised and celebrated poets to emerge after independence.
Rubadiri’s poetry has been praised as being among the richest of contemporary Africa and his work was published in the 1963 anthology Modern Poetry of Africa (East African Publishers, 1996), and appeared in international publications including Transition, Black Orpheus and Présence Africaine.
His only novel, No Bride Price, was published in 1967.
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