Malawi: a story from the fourth world

 

Malawian artist Samson Kambalu begins his account of his childhood and rise to international recognition with a prologue remembering the day he and his Scottish fiancée notified the High Commission in Malawi of their intention to get married. Asked if he was doing this to get a British passport, Kambalu answered ‘Not really’ to the great indignation of the consul, who informed him crossly: ‘The answer is NO, OK? The answer is NO’.

The following 335 pages illustrate why that ‘Not really’ stands.

One of eight children born into a Christian family in the then-dictatorship of Malawi or ‘the abyss of the fourth world’ as he calls it, Kambalu grew up in the shadow of his intellectually ambitious yet ultimately frustrated clinical officer father, the Jive Talker of the title. Posted to remote locations all over the impoverished sub-Saharan country, the Jive Talker took refuge in alcohol and Nietzsche as his career crumbled and his family and their peers suffered ever greater privations until at last Kambalu’s parents died of AIDs-related illnesses around the turn of the millennium.

Yet this is no self-pitying catalogue of woes. Told with wit and flair, Kambalu’s account paints a picture of a vital place full of creativity and interest. Life there is a precarious business and the world is cruelly indifferent to individuals’ sufferings (‘Anybody who survives Malawi deserves to be called Superman’, he remarks at one point), yet it is a world Kambalu describes with dignity and humour.

This humour often tips over into the deeply touching, as when Kambalu remembers his friend Joe Bugner’s reaction to the news that he had secured a place at the highly competitive, state-funded, English-style boarding school Kamuzu Academy, known as the ‘Eton of Africa’:

‘You are the man. In future all that is wrong with the world you will only see on TV,’ which was a pretty poignant remark considering there was no TV in Malawi at the time.

Far from being a purely personal account though, The Jive Talker is in many ways a history of Malawi too, with much of the political and social development of the country over the last few centuries woven into the narrative. The description of the cultural split caused by the arrival of 19th century missionaries, which saw the country change from a matriarchal society in which family members were known only by their shared clan name into a patriarchal society where everyone had to have his or her own Christian name is fascinating, as are Kambalu’s reflections on the Banda regime.

The most interesting aspects of this episodic (and occasionally rambling) narrative, though, are the powerful insights into Kambalu’s development as a conceptual artist and the creation of the philosophy of Holyballism, which made his name. Described with such intensity that they sometimes take on an almost magical realist quality, these passages reveal the alchemy by which Kambalu was able to assimilate the conflicting cultures he grew up with and broker some sort of peace with his past — no mean feat.

The Jive Talker: Or, How to Get a British Passport by Samson Kambalu. Publisher (Kindle edition): Vintage Digital (2008)

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