Is this where they dump those rebels,
These haggard cells stinking of bucket
Shit and vomit and the acrid urine of
Yesteryears? Who would have thought I
Would be gazing at these dusty, cobweb
Ceilings of Mikuyu Prison, scrubbing
Briny walls and riddling out impetuous
Scratches of another dung-beetle locked
Up before me here? Violent human palms
Wounded these blood-bloated mosquitoes
And bugs (to survive), leaving these vicious
Red marks. Monstrous flying cockroaches
Crashed here. Up there the cobwebs trapped
Dead bumblebees. Where did black wasps
Get clay to build nests in this corner?
But here, scratches, insolent scratches!
I have marvelled at the rock paintings
Of Mphunzl Hills once but these grooves
And notches on the walls of Mikuyu Prison,
How furious, what barbarous squiggles!
How long did this anger languish without
Charge, without trial, without visit here, and
What justice committed? This is the moment
We dreaded: when we’d all descend into
The pit, alone, without a wife or a child —
Without mother; without paper or pencil
— Without a story (just three Bibles for
Ninety men), without charge without trial;
This is the moment I never needed to see.
Shall I scrub these brave squiggles out
Of human memory then or should I perhaps
Superimpose my own, less caustic; dare I
Overwrite this precious scrawl? Who’d
Have known I’d find another prey without
Charge, without trial (without bitterness)
In these otherwise blank walls of Mikuyu
Prison? No, I will throw my water and mop
Elsewhere. We have liquidated too many
Brave names out of the nation’s memory.
I will not rub out another nor inscribe
My own, more ignoble, to consummate this
Moment of truth I have always feared!
Jack Mapanje was imprisoned in 1987 after publishing Of Chameleons and Gods, a collection of poetry critical of the Malawi president, Hastings Banda. Despite international protests, he was incarcerated for more than three years without charge or trial. Upon his release in 1991, Mapanje went into exile in the United Kingdom. Scrubbing the Furious Walls of Mikuyu was his favorite of his prison poems. As he later described: “We were asked to scrub the walls of the prison to clean the place up and we saw on one wall graffiti and several prisoners refused to touch it, to scrub it out, because it was good. It was a rude statement about the country’s politics, hence this poem.”
[Listen to Jack Mapanje read this poem at The Poetry Archive]
[Research Note: Scrubbing the Furious Walls of Mikuyu comes from The Last of the Sweet Bananas: New and Selected Poems (Bloodaxe Books, in association with The Wordsworth Trust, 2004)]