Sunday, June 29, 2014

Remembering the Unsung Hero, Aubrey Kalitera: Victim of Malawi's Second Nature

His stature did not match the nature of a man born as an elevated genius. In fact, his house - purposely situated far away from the glamorous life of Blantyre Central Business District in Manyowe - did not project the scene of an elevated genius when compared to the grandeur of great personalities in other countries.

And yet Aubrey Kalitera, he whose brain churned out more than 20 books - some of which are part of the country’s school curricula - was a great man.

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’.

Of course, as Murray observed, “The province of imagination hath long since been surrendered up to us, and we have been crowned undoubted sovereigns of the regions of fancy”. But the truth is that Kalitera was a man out of the ordinary.

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 Desmond Dudwa Phiri likes 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 ‘approved’ 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 the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology - included his book ‘N’chiyani Mwana Wanga’ on the list of recommended Chichewa Literature books for Malawi School Certificate of Education 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 use 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 spend the whole night at the forsaken artist’s place when they finally give up.

You should have been there to see this happen! On Tuesday, soon after his untimely death on Monday, 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 to his home, he would have appreciated the warm-heartedness of Malawians.

You should have been there to see this happen. On Wednesday, as people escorted him to his final lasting place at Henry Henderson Institute in Blantyre, it was as if the nation had supported his creative works all along.

Those who know him say Kalitera had a genteel personality, replete with an abundance of roving wit - attributes he inherited from the communal spirit of T/A 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,” said Mawu president, Sambalikagwa Mvona, on Tuesday.

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 geniuses 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 Malawians authors, but only the Royal Norwegian Embassy has come to our rescue through the cultural scheme,” lamented Mvona, adding:

“Otherwise, the government seems not to care, the donors seem not to care, and Malawians, too, seem not to care. They only appreciate one’s work when you are gone. We cannot continue living like this.”

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 last year, 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. Our loss is great,” Mvona said.

The Mawu president disclosed that the writers’ body planned to honour him at an event slated for August.

“So sad he will not be there in person to receive the honour,” he said.

Malawians must be as shallow as fountains. They make mockery out of geniuses. And only rise up on dark days like Wednesday 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.

What makes Kalitera’s death harder to deal with is that he was a gem Malawians failed to tame. And, to prove his gem, he trod on in a country that loathes talent, publishing a horde of books in the midst of adversity.

Book Publishers Association of Malawi president Alfred Msadala said despite the challenges faced by Malawian authors, Kalitera showed that it is possible to create works that resonate with international audiences.

“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.

But is it not shameful that 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).

Whatever happened for Malawians to dislike sons and daughters of their soil, the fact is that it does not thwart creativity, as Film Association of Malawi president, Ezaius Mkandawire, observed.

Mkandawire said, by producing a movie from the book ‘To Ndirande Mountain with Love’, Kalitera showed that he was a lid that fitted all pots.

From Ndirande Mountain with Love’ is among the vintage films that Malawi should be proud of. It was made before the boom of this technological advancement where everyone is a film-maker because they have a video recorder,” Mkandawire said this week, adding:

“It (To Ndirande Mountain with Love) is a very professional film and it is in the league of an old great ‘Prodigal Son’, a film that was short by Norman Phiri for the Scripture Union.”

Mkandawire said from Kalitera’s life Malawians can learn that collaboration between authors and film-makers can bring the best out of creative minds.

“There must be collaboration between the two, the reason being that not all directors (film-makers) can be good story merchants,” he said.

However, Mkandawire observed that turning a book script into a film is not as simple as Kalitera made it appear.

“It is worth understanding, also, that it involves transfer of rights. Unless that is put into a proper consideration, that kind of synergy will always be difficult to pursue. (But) it is important for authors to do just that. The source of stories always comes from authors. Film-makers have a role to actualise the stories into film. In that way, both forms of art will have a longer shelf life and create larger audience,” said mkandawire

He said, unlike in the past, when the film industry was small, it is now easy to promote collaboration between authors and film-makers.

What is clear from the life of Kalitera is that, even when new authors saturate the bookshops with their works, it will be difficult to call to mind new publications and film adaptations that will resemble his. Call it the glory of his creative pieces!

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