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Boeke | Books > Rubrieke | Columns > English > African Library

Annie Gagiano on Legson Kayira’s The Detainee (1974)


Annie Gagiano - 2008-05-05

Legson Kayira was born (either in the late 1930s or early 1940s) to an extremely poor family in Nyasaland (now Malawi), a British Protectorate at that time, federated with North and South Rhodesia (postcolonial Zambia and Zimbabwe). Determined to better himself by getting a first-rate tertiary education, he set off to walk all the way to Egypt (which he eventually reached!) to take ship for the United States, having picked a college he wanted to attend. He made it to the US with the financial assistance of this college, which paid for his passage. This amazing and inspiring story is told in Kayira’s famous autobiography, I Will Try (Doubleday, 1965).

Perhaps because he seems to have stopped writing now, Kayira has been somewhat forgotten among African novelists, despite having written five novels set in Africa, of which The Detainee was the last. The Detainee is Kayira’s most explicitly political text and overtly addresses the years of the Banda dictatorship in independent Malawi. Predictably, his writings were banned in Malawi after Dr Banda became its president-for-life, and Kayira settled in Britain.

The central figure in The Detainee is a dignified middle-aged villager from the Mfinda region in the north of his country. Napolo Changa, a farmer and beekeeper with only a single daughter, suffers from a hernia (a hereditary condition in his family) and decides that he needs to consult a white doctor in the capital (here named Banya), since the condition is painful and incapacitates him for long periods. He takes a bus to a halfway stop and is awaiting the bus in the village of Sengo (sleeping in a rest-house) as the novel opens. Of his appearance and present circumstances, we learn that:

He was tall, broad-shouldered, with a high forehead and little, shrewd eyes. His lips were large and everted. When pursed they imparted to him an aspect of fierce and determined concentration. Otherwise he had a direct, wondering look about him and there was often a note of surprise in his voice.

Napolo sat patiently on a stump, one leg placed over the other. Now and then
he sniffed at his snuffbox while he drew figures on the ground with a piece of wood. He had been away from his village for two weeks and already he had spent nearly a week at Sengo waiting for the bus which was to take him to Banya. He sighed deeply and contentedly and his forehead shone under the blaze of light from the sky. (1)

The carefully balanced details in this description indicate that for all his placidity there is nothing weak about Napolo. As the story proceeds, his calm strength and resilient personality will be severely tested, but he is Kayira’s symbol of the social core of Malawian life, enduring despite of and, as it were, underneath the abuses to which ordinary Malawians are subjected at this time. Safe in his isolated village, he has never yet encountered the harsh edges of repression – of which his understanding will evolve slowly and quite reluctantly in the course of the following weeks. Although Napolo is at least fifty years old, the text is a type of Bildungsroman depicting the protagonist’s political education about the true state of affairs in his country. The dimensions of the Banda tyranny accord unfortunately closely with certain contemporary state systems on our continent, hence this 1974 text has lost none of its relevance.

References to President Banda are ubiquitous in this novel, but are thinly disguised: the Banda figure (who, like the actual leader, has decreed the constant singing of his praises by his subjects and officials) is known as Sir Zaddock. A brash young stranger announces to the group awaiting the next bus that Sir Zaddock is about to begin a tour of the country. It is for this reason, he explains, that the buses are not running – all of them having been commandeered by the Young Brigades. The latter group represents the Young Pioneers, the paramilitary wing of the Malawi Congress Party in Banda’s time, who effectively replaced both older chieftaincy systems of administration and modern bureaucracy. The outspoken newcomer to the small group of would-be bus travellers is a well-dressed young man with a “slightly twisted mouth” (3), to whom Napolo initially takes an instant dislike – partly, one suspects, because what the younger man tells them is beginning to undermine his assumptions about theirs being an efficiently and fairly administered society. When someone objects that the Young Brigades could not confiscate the buses as he has claimed, the newcomer laughs sarcastically, saying: “Is there anything those young bandits cannot do?”, upon which a woman travelling with her two children gently warns him (without disputing the validity of his statement) that “It’s not wise to speak all you know” (3). The newcomer carries a hand-torch, probably a subtly symbolic detail, one which features again at the end of the narrative.

Although Napolo judges the young man to be a superficial braggart akin to the flamboyant youths who return to his village from stints of migrant labour wearing “watches which have never worked” and smoking “scented tobacco in pipes which have designs of unlikely animals on them”, wearing their sunglasses “even at night” (5), he soon hereafter has his own first encounter with the youthful thugs known as the Young Brigades, who now effectively run the country by means of bullying, violence and extortion. Kayira here and throughout the text balances impressions by combining registers – one moment one chuckles inwardly at the humour and shrewdness of the mature villager, while in the next instance the ugly reality of a society under siege manifests itself in the deliberate discourtesies of the paramilitary Brigade members:

"Cards! Show your cards!" one of them cried in a terrifying voice as he strode from one stall to another, puttees wrapped round his legs like black bandages. "Membership cards! Let’s see Sir Zaddock’s flowers!" (7)

The demand for these party membership cards (their design changed on a monthly basis to force citizens to buy expensive new ones) is the arbitrary but viciously effective way in which the Young Brigades assert their own and Sir Zaddock’s authority over every single citizen. Though he owns an “outdated” card, Napolo has never been subjected to this kind of bullying intervention. Because of it, perhaps, he now begins to take more seriously the young man who had earlier described the Young Brigades’ conduct to his distrustful ears. Since they share the same bedroom (with other, sleeping travellers), he can now question this young man (whose name is Hona) about his claims that people are “disappearing” in free Malawi; but gets no satisfactory answer. When he gets up just before dawn the next morning to have a drink and a wash at the village pump, Napolo is challenged by one of the Young Brigades and told that it is illegal to be outside without his party card; unless he is prepared to pay five shillings (the price of another card) he is barred (at gunpoint) from the pump. He returns dejectedly to the rented room, ascribing his encounter to "town ways" and to the social inversion which sets youth in power over elders like himself, something unheard of in his village.

Because Hona sympathises with Napolo about this humiliating encounter, Napolo the “simple, reserved villager” and the “excitable townsman” Hona spend the rest of the day together, sitting and conversing peacefully beside a stream and striking up a sort of friendship as Napolo begins to trust the younger man (19). He learns that Hona used to be a schoolteacher in Banya, is well qualified and was trained in Cape Town, but got himself fired (euphemistically referred to as being “rained on” (20)) for refusing to join the Party, as well as for criticising Sir Zaddock’s ideas. In the course of their discussion one learns that Napolo still maintains a naïve belief in Sir Zaddock’s supposed magical powers, whereas Hona simply calls him insane – but, as Napolo points out, “mad men have great strength” (22). Nevertheless, the two resolve that since no bus is forthcoming, they will continue their journey together, on foot.

Even though the well-educated and politically sophisticated Hona might be considered a more natural focus for Kayira’s interest, he gives the most memorable lines of dialogue to Napolo, who contests Hona’s dismissal of village life as confining and intellectually deprived by saying that the village is “the land of our first awakening” and “the home of our soul”. When Hona scoffs at his use of the term soul as a mission-derived concept, Napolo declares that it is “something which has always been [his own], even before the white man came”. Quite subtly, the author indicates that a politically apparently more heroic (because more overtly resistant) figure like Hona is made of more brittle material than Napolo with his quiet assertion that “When the sun finally goes to sleep I’ll also return to my eyrie, there to rest among my ancestors” (26). In Hona’s gloomy view, “’we, the enlightened people of this country, are a doomed lot … trapped between Sir Zaddock’s madness and the blindness of our village people” (27).

Soon the two travellers encounter the first of numerous roadblocks. The usual bullying and extortion ensue, with the slightly new twist that the traditional protection every older male Malawian carries with him when travelling, his axe, now requires an expensive licence. Wearied after their day-long walk, the two spend the night at the home of a friend of Hona’s, Mazito – a clerk at the Public Works Department office nearby. It emerges that Malawians may listen to state radio broadcasts only (mostly of Sir Zaddock’s speeches) and that it is illegal to listen to foreign broadcasts; also that a man known to the two younger men was " taken away" the previous week merely for being associated with the ruler’s previous government. “The list of missing people is endless,” says Mazito, “and it is still growing” (36). It is known that those who disappear for "not co-operating with' the government or the Young Brigades are usually thrown to the crocodiles; those who have money or connections are leaving the country in droves. Mazito also tells his guests that Sir Zaddock’s murderous instability is the result of a childhood experience, when he had to watch his mother being devoured by a crocodile. In addition, his tyrannical impulses are encouraged by a traditional medicine man whom he appointed as his principal political advisor.

Napolo intones, with sad realism perhaps, that “there’ll always be other Sir Zaddocks” (41) if all that changes in their country is the "removal" of this particular ruler. Yet he is clearly beginning to see their society in a different light.

The next day being Sunday, the two younger men go off to visit nearby villages to flirt with young women and drink beer. As Napolo wanders out of the house in their absence, he encounters a gathering of village elders. Taking up a whole chapter, this gathering and its various participants (particularly the elderly, benign, brave and obese old chief) are evoked with great vividness and charm as we see the old-world courtesies, affectionate bantering and shrewd political insights of these old men. The chief had visited Napolo’s village in his youth and remembers his grandfather and father. In the present, he knows he is under threat because he has no enthusiasm for Sir Zaddock’s rule. He also knows that his nephew was killed by the Young Brigades. Yet he remains calmly steadfast in his ways. They all end up wonderfully drunk, particularly Napolo, who falls asleep under the tree where they gathered, even though the old chief had invited him to spend the night at his house. “The next morning Napolo was still drinking and singing” (52), delighted and reassured by his encounter with old men who are and behave like him, but a bit embarrassed at having slept in the open.

Hona and Mazito are also quite drunk when they get back fairly late that night from their Sunday excursion. They have no idea where Napolo is. Mazito, we learn, had the temerity to quarrel with six Young Brigades, rivals for some young women’s attention. In the middle of the night the same six Brigades (using a young girl to pretend that it is Mazito’s sister calling) arrive at Mazito’s house. Let in, they bully and eventually arrest the two men on trumped-up charges, driving them away in a Jeep – and not even a neighbour suspects that they’ve been taken away. Napolo returns to find them gone and, non-plussed, has no option but to continue on his journey alone.

His own next encounter with the Young Brigades is at the large modern bridge he has to cross on his way to Banya. There is a roadblock at it far end. For no discernible reason (perhaps merely out of boredom) the guards harass and slap him around, accusing him of wanting to sabotage the bridge, which also lies on Sir Zaddock’s route. Napolo feels “like a deer amidst a pack of wild dogs” (73). By far the most vicious of the bullies is their commander, Jancha – probably the son of a man whom the old chief had named as a treacherous and dangerous figure. Jancha appears insane, screaming at Napolo, “You’re a rebel and I want you to confess this instant!” (79), merely because Napolo happens to originate from the north, like a man who had attempted to assassinate Sir Zaddock years earlier. Napolo is brave enough to ask him, “Are we strangers in our own land?” (78).

After they arbitrarily let him go, Napolo continues walking. He is, the narrator tells us, “very pleased with himself” both at having “conducted himself honourably in the face of so much provocation” and at being (as he thinks) by now “well versed in the ways of the Young Brigades” (82).

Resting under a tree, Napolo stops a Jeep coming past in the hope of a lift. The driver is Jancha – suddenly overtly friendly and claiming to have come to apologise for his behaviour at the bridge. He offers to give Napolo a lift to Banya the next day, and to take him to a “rest house” where Napolo may sleep until he comes to pick him up early the next morning. Falling completely for all this mock friendliness, Napolo allows himself to be driven to the “rest house” – soon identifiable to the reader as a prison camp. Napolo’s gradual realisation of the truth of his situation is both funny and terribly sad, even though his spirit is never entirely cowed by the weird injustice and humiliation to which Jancha has subjected him for an indeterminable reason, most likely merely on some cruel whim.

It is at this point that the title allusion and its symbolism become clear to the reader: Malawi under Banda is a society where both socially responsible and politically naïve people are regarded as enemies of the predatory state, effectively run by an occupying army of young thugs and their co-optees. It will take a while before Napolo grasps this. He still believes, on being told that he has been arrested, that “They simply can’t arrest” him because “his hands are clean” and he is no rebel like the political detainees among whom he finds himself (93). The prison orderly later tells Napolo that “the only thing wrong with the men here is that they’re more intelligent than most of us” and “more educated” (a familiar accusation); nevertheless his reassurance to Napolo that “no harm will befall you” if you’re “a fool” [ie uneducated] (99) is disproved by the Napolo’s incarceration.

After a couple of days Napolo discovers that Hona is in the prison with him, having been separated from Mazito after their secret arrest. It is Hona who warns Napolo not to count on getting out within (at most, as Napolo imagines) a couple of weeks. “Save a miracle you should think of your stay here in terms of years,” Hona cautions him – “otherwise you’ll become like the man crying under the flag-pole” (109).

Despite being denied even the small favour of getting his snuff tin refilled (to Napolo, an essential comfort), the villager retains his sense of his own dignity, and “as he looked at the nervous Paka [the camp commander who refuses his request], he thought how petty, how stupid and conceited the man was” (116). But when he hears from Hona (who heard it from a newcomer to the camp) that Mazito was shot dead at the very same Young Brigade camp where he himself first encountered Jancha, Napolo begins to grasp the murderous nature of the regime that has incarcerated him and the others in Snake Camp. So “shattering” is the news that “he could hardly stand up when he got to his room”; and at this point he feels a “profound hatred towards the Young Brigades in general and Jancha in particular”, regarding them as “all liars, and murderers” (119) and making no secret of his contempt.

In this frame of mind Napolo refuses to be the tool Paka (the camp commander) had imagined he’d be, having summoned Napolo for a confidential "chat" in his office with the blackmailing gift of a full box of snuff and the offer of immediate release if he will silence Hona – since it has been reported to Paka that the latter is not only aware of, but also broadcasting, the news of his friend Mazito’s murder throughout the camp. How he is to silence Hona is left up to Napolo, but murder is clearly hinted at as a last resort. When Napolo repeats his refusal to do anything of the kind, Paka threatens him with the detention of his wife and little daughter and with the news that Jancha is on his way to the camp, but Napolo remains steadfast and walks out on Paka.

Napolo goes immediately to warn Hona, but the latter’s somewhat jauntily defiant response baffles and irritates him. He finds relief in observing an impending weather change. (One of the most convincing touches in Kayira’s depiction of Napolo is his close communion with the ever-changing drama of the natural world, with which he remains connected even behind the fences of the prison camp.)

The attempt to use Napolo as a tool to silence Hona is soon resumed when Jancha shows up at the camp. The reason for their anxiety, we learn, is that a delegation from the World Council of Churches has been granted permission to visit this hitherto quite secret detention centre and that the delegation members will, no doubt, take seriously the things the detainees tell them. Summoned to the office, Jancha attempts to intimidate Napolo into submissive co-operation, but Napolo stands his ground and inverts the situation by asking Jancha straight and challenging questions. Asked whether Malawians defined as unpatriotic are killed, Jancha replies:

"We kill no one. We only detain them or, in a few instances, chase them out of the country. Traitors have no right to nationality and we certainly have no room here for them. … They’re like vicious insects which must be destroyed quickly and without mercy. They’re like ticks which will drain you of your blood if you give them a chance. We don’t want them here." (141)

Thus will his imagery betray the murderous tyrant. The threat that they will detain (or have detained) Napolo's wife and child is repeated, along with the promise of his release if he "helps" to silence Hona; but, as he tells Jancha, he is not likely to forget the latter’s deception and broken promise about giving him a lift to Banya.

Again he walks out, but this time he adds a threat of his own (of future, retributive, exile from Malawi) to the presently powerful Jancha. Hona, too, soon hereafter tells Jancha that he is “the real enemy of the people and should be locked up indefinitely” (152). No wonder, then, that their increasingly bold voices lead to the decision to silence both Hona and Napolo in the only way Jancha considers effective. Late one night, both of them are roused and taken to a waiting Jeep, supposedly to be set free. Napolo does have a feeling that there is something suspicious afoot, but the prospect of liberty is, of course, irresistible. Some time later their Jeep stops and they are ordered to get out to stretch their legs before the drive resumes:

An immense stillness pervaded the night. Nothing moved or stirred and one could clearly hear one’s own heart-beat. A strange and incomprehensible fear gripped Napolo and his legs began to shake. … In the forbidding silence the only real thing seemed to be the powerful smell of petrol from the jeep. … The silence was suddenly broken by something, probably a frog, leaping into the water and, turning around almost simultaneously, both Napolo and Hona discovered with throbbing hearts that they were standing on the bank of a river which was as still as death. (163-64)

Napolo is hit heavily over the head as he attempts to run away; Hona begs for mercy and promises co-operation with the regime. Hona is killed on the spot and, dreadfully beaten, Napolo is also left for dead. Fortunately the body sacks had not been brought along and both bodies are thrown into the river as they are. Soon realising, from the shock of the cold water, that he is still alive, Napolo, swimming powerfully, crosses the river underwater. Jancha calls for a hand-torch when someone hears Napolo emerging from the water. The first torch, we are told, is the same one that Hona had bought at Sengo. Significantly, it does not work; while by the time a second torch is brought, Napolo has made good his escape. All the Young Brigades nevertheless confidently assure Jancha that both men are safely dead.

Having fought his way through the underbrush, Napolo collapses from hunger, stress and exhaustion within view of a settlement before dawn of the next day. Again he is mistaken for a corpse, this time by a village woman, and is placed alongside several corpses in the local morgue.

Recovering consciousness later in the day, Napolo is terrified to discover himself among dead bodies. The local doctor, tipsy even this early, is terrified when he spots the “filthy figure trembling in the doorway” (172). This is, of course, another symbolic moment of rebirth for Napolo – Kayira presumably wants the reader to recognise that it is, implicitly, a promise concerning all of Malawi’s ordinary people when the drunken doctor starts screaming “They have arisen!” (172), believing that all the corpses in the morgue have been revived (as he joked earlier).

In its strangely powerful combination of slapstick comedy and poignant symbolism, this final moment both caps and encapsulates Kayira’s fine novel. Napolo, too, is running in wild terror, unaware that he has crossed an international border and is now truly a free, though an involuntarily exiled man. “However, in his present state of mind, he would not have been surprised if someone had told him that he too had crossed the threshold" and, fully the survivor of the most terrible rite of passage, “was now in a new world” (172). As a promise of hope to the Malawians, whom the author left behind but never abandoned, this phrase appropriately ends the text.