Manyowe, that location purposely situated far away from the glamorous life of Blantyre Central Business District, may be diminutive in stature but the influence of its people is global.
At least in the case of Aubrey Kalitera, he whose brain churned out more than 20 books – some of which became part of the country’s school curricula – before death robbed Malawi of his wisdom.
We can as well say Kalitera is the answer writer Judith Sargent Murray (1751-1820) sought – but failed to get – during her life-time, when she queried: “Is it upon mature consideration we adopt the idea that nature is thus partial in her distributions? Is it a fact that she (nature) has yielded to one-half of the human species so unquestionable a mental superiority?”
The answer, gauging by the creativity levels in Kalitera’s ‘Why?’ series or his film To Ndirande Mountain with Love, is an irrevocable ‘Yes’.
Born on February 8 1948 in Maselema Village in the area of Traditional Authority Mlumbe, Zomba, Kalitera was unfortunately afflicted by the curse of being an artist in Malawi— rich minds, empty pockets.
Like many creative writers and artists before him, Kalitera bore the blunt of Malawians’ blatant disdain for anything that has a semblance of literature. As renowned author and historian the late Desmond Dudwa Phiri used to say, Malawians are blind to any letters typed in a book.
Phiri’s unflattering observation, to the effect that “If you want to hide something from a Malawian, put it in a book”, has been corroborated by the nation through its unwillingness to promote local writers and artists by buying their works.
Take, for instance, Kalitera himself. The only time government supported his works was when it – through Malawi Institute of Management—included his book ‘N’chiyani Mwana Wanga’ in the list of recommended Chichewa Literature books for Malawi School Certificate of Education Examinations candidates.
Otherwise, the multi-talented author suffered under the barbarous ‘phobia’ towards any artistic work Malawian. This strange behaviour has the inevitable effect of persuading authors and artists that, somehow, they are not good enough.
But that is not the problem.
The problem is that, after making authors and artists buy the idea that they are not good enough, Malawians – including government officials and private sector players – will abuse the authors and artists accordingly, paying them peanuts for work that costs a leg until they are turned into nobodies.
As proof of it, Malawians spent the whole night at the forsaken artist’s place in early June 2014.
And, for once, his Manyowe home was not as deserted as buyers of Why Father Why? Why Daughter Why? Why Son Why? on the market. If the cash did flow as effortlessly as the sad faces of people that thronged his home, he would have appreciated the warm-heartedness of Malawians.
You should have been there to see this happen. As people escorted him to his final resting place at Henry Henderson Institute in Blantyre, it was as if the nation had supported his creative works all along.
Those who knew him say Kalitera had a genteel personality, replete with an abundance of roving wit – attributes he inherited from the communal spirit of Traditional Authority Mlumbe’s subjects.
Growing up among the ever-smiling people of Zomba, so his admirers say, he bred himself into a likeable personality. It was a bent that could not be straightened even by such influences as town-mongering, civilisation, globalisation and whatever makes this generation a careless lot.
“He was one of the best writers in the country, a man who did not hesitate to share his knowledge with others. In fact, he was one of the Malawi Writers Union (Mawu)’s reliable trainers,” former Mawu president, Sambalikagwa Mvona, attests.
What a shame that his books are not commonplace on local book shelves. Who introduced this custom of ignoring our own geniuses? Whatever the case, Murray was right when she suggested that custom, if allowed to take a hold on our lives, becomes our second nature. Thus, the custom of ignoring the works of renowned authors such as Kalitera has become our second nature!
“It is a shame that we treat our authors as nobodies. Look, we have been talking to the government on the issue of supporting us, to no avail. We have been talking to donors so that they can support Malawian authors, but only the Royal Norwegian Embassy used to come to our rescue through the cultural scheme,” Mvona lamented.
Greatness in humility
Born in a typical Malawian village in Zomba, Kalitera rose from a humble background and trod the creative corridors that led to international acclaim. Members of the international community, and the small portion of Malawians that cared, found that, suddenly, his every note was a novel, a film script or a non-fiction write-up on how to become a good writer.
“He was a spring of creativity. For instance, at the Peer Gynt awards in 2013, he submitted two books, namely The Input Substitute and Why Poverty? He was the only author to submit two books and that tells you a story about how creative he was,” he said.
Then, in August 2014, Mawu posthumously honoured him.
But that is it. No public or private sector official ever mentions his name.
Malawians must be as shallow as fountains. They make mockery out of geniuses. And only rise up on dark days when the mood is tinted black and the cheeks are wet with tears of regret, a shameless nation laid low with crushing fatigue and depression.
But, then, there are lessons to be drawn from the departed author’s life.
Malawi Pen President Alfred Msadala knows better.
“He was unique, knew what he wanted, wrote widely and many publishers got interested. He was, really, creative and talented, hence catching the interest of international publishers,” he said.
No wonder, Kalitera’s works were admired by foreigners such as author, composer, blogger and music historian S.K. Waller. Waller took Kalitera so seriously that she quotes him on her blog, ‘Incurable Insomniac’, as saying about a good writer:
“You know what, it is so funny. A good writer will always find it very hard to fill a single page. A bad writer will always find it easy,” Waller quotes Kalitera as saying (Why Father Why, 1983).
But book-writing was not his only pastime. He was a filmmaker, too.
To Ndirande Mountain with Love, one of his films, was described as “a very professional film and it is in the league of an old great” by Film Association of Malawi President Ezaius Mkandawire.
There was another one, Prodigal Son, a film that was shot by Norman Phiri for the Scripture Union.
More would, definitely, have come, had death not been so jealous as to take him from our midst. But at least he continues to breathe inspiration in us through his books and films.