Saturday, February 20, 2016

Hoffman Aipira's metamorphosis

There is, as Indians say, always one candle that kindles unlimited numbers of other candles, each with the same intensity as the first, there yet remains the original.

To poet Hoffman Aipira, that original candle is his father, Cheliza Leonard Aipira who, although resident in Zimbabwe at the time, still pulled the strings back home.

“I cannot deny: The love of words, writing, started way back after my father, Leonard Aipira-- I fondly call him Cheliza because I am proud of my Yao heritage-- sent me a dictionary from Zimbabwe while I was in Standard 4 at Mvundula Primary School in Mangochi,” recollects Aipira.

“I went through the book; there was no picture. I then went to my mum, Adisi Aipira, and asked: 'What does dad want me to do with a book that has no pictures?' I took it to my Primary School teacher at Mvundula to seek guidance and the teacher told me that I would understand later. He advised me to keep the picture-less book, saying it would help build the foundation for my vocabulary later,” says Aipira, who comes from Mvumba Village, Traditional Authority Nankumba, in Mangochi.

In the world of the children of yester-years, according to Aipira, a book was not judged by its cover alone. Pictures were worth more than the cover.

But the lack of pictures did not discourage Aipira from flipping the pages and enjoying the artificial breeze created by the purposeless turning of the pages.

“Still, I took interest in flipping the pages. I must say that the sound of the clicking pages fascinated me and I am sure that my love of words sprouted from there [the page-turning]. Later, I graduated from marveling at the sound of the flipping pages to 'building' my vocabulary. The vocabulary gave me a footing in writing,” he says.

Aipira adds that, whereas his father inspired, his mother played the disciplinarian by, among other things, not giving him the leeway to go swimming or fishing-- as is the norm with children born along the lake.

“By the way, I was born at a mission hospital and my father used to ask the missionaries: 'What should I do so that my kids become as educated as you are?' Actually, I heard my father mention the word 'university' several times and I knew that would be my destination some day. The discipline came from my mother, who was self-taught and knew how to read and write,” says Aipira, the last-born in a family of three boys and two girls.

Unlike other people who find it difficult to cope with life when one of their parents decides to leave their homeland and seek greener pastures in a foreign land, Aipira has kind words for his father, who used to be a city council worker before embarking on a trip to Zimbabwe where he could communicate with his family back home through the Post Office.

“My father went to Zimbabwe so that he could secure a job and be able to pay school fees for his sons. You see, my father had a tailoring and fishing business. He registered little success in tailoring and, as regards fishing, some people stole his fishing gear. He also tried tobacco cultivation, with no success. Thus, angry, he left for Zimbabwe.

“My parents had interest in education. In those days, in the 1950s, they sent the first-born in our family to Khola, a boarding school in Ntcheu--away from Mangochi, away from the hustle and bustle of fishing and swimming,” Aipira explains.

Foray in poetry

With the help of the picture-less book, Aipira built the foundation for his writing career and, today, he can proudly look at 'Reflections and Sunsets', a collection of over 50 poems published by Kachere Series, with pride and claim that words, too, have the enduring power to create images-- just like pictures can simply a million words.

About 500 copies of 'Reflections and Sunsets' were printed and, to put an icing to the cake, rights of book were sold to the United Kingdom through African Books Collective [ABC] by the publisher. This means the collection can be found in the United Kingdom and Europe in general.

“I composed the poems in 'Reflections and Sunsets' collection when I was in the United Kingdom. Some of the poems were even featured in American and Irish literary magazines,” says Aipira.

One can see traces of his father's influence in the collection, as evidenced in one of the poems 'Dad'.

Take the hoe my son

Carefully tie the seed-bas

At the end of the hole-handle

At first light

Before the dew is dry

Mark a patch of soil

To carry this life seed

And give life


The persona in the poem is waxing lyric about agriculture and the emphasis is, clearly, on working. It is common knowledge that if one toils, their life is given the impetus of hope. The one who works neither suffers nor depends on others.

Maybe Malawi, our dad, can learn from this. For 51 years, Malawi has failed to “take the hoe” and “Mark a patch of soil”, “To carry this life seed/And give life/Hope”. Not surprisingly, donor dependence has become Dad Malawi's way of post-independence life. Malawi is, therefore, a bad 'dad'.

There are three sections in 'Reflections and Sunsets'. The first one, titled 'Reflections and Sunsets' see the personae reflecting on life back home. We can only assume that the persona is Malawian. The section has such poems as 'The first rains', 'Dad', 'At Wenela Bus Station', 'Sunset at Lake Malawi'.

Section two, under the title 'Another Winter', could as well be described as a reflection of new experiences of a persona whose body has been trapped in a foreign land-- on, say, academic, religious, tourism grounds--but the mind is stationed at home.

The foreign destination must, surely, be Europe, where the shadow of winter defines the cycle of life. Poems such as 'Crossing continents', 'Waiting for Pelicans at St James Park' and 'An evening on the city' furnish the theme.

But, then, what goes around comes around. So, section three, titled 'Distant drums' is about anticipation, which defines the mood when time to go back to one's native home approaches. So, it is not a surprise that 'Two halves', 'Grandfather's footsteps', 'Telling tales' are some of the dominant poems in the section.

The last section, titled 'Telling tales', is a reflection of the African spirit that prioritises story telling. Finally, the personae are back home and have to tell their stories, share their recollections of life to those they left behind. Ironically, instead of telling tales of the personae's experiences in the foreign land and knowledge acquired abroad-- in much the same way grandmothers gathered their grandchildren around a fire and told stories that had been told, retold, retold, and retold by, and from, one generation to another, before the winds of modernity blew the communal spirit away-- the stories shared are about the native country.

This is reflected in 'Chichiri 3 pm', 'The granaries at Kanengo', among others.

Other grounds

However, 'Reflections and Sunsets' is not the only work associated with Aipira. He has also co-edited the anthology 'The Time Traveller of Malavi: New Poetry from Malawi'. The anthology, which features creative writers such as Yamaha Ali, Sylvester Chabuka, David Lubadiri, Temwani Mgunda, Zondiwe Mbano, Ken Lipenga, Matilda Kampezeni was co-edited by Malawi Writers Union president, Sambalikagwa Mvona and Hoffman Aipira.

Aipira continues his journey of reflections in the anthology through such pieces as 'Visiting Maone', 'Malawi', 'The delights of Nankumba Peninsula'.

Says Aipira: “The poem I love the most in 'The Time Traveller of Malavi: New Poetry from Malawi' is 'The delights of Nankumba Peninsula' because I talk about home, Mangochi.”

He has also contributed poems to the anthology 'Operations and Tears', edited by Anthony Nazombe. Aipira's poems include 'A letter from home', 'Mix and match', 'Water fall'.

Family business

But Aipira is not the only writer in the family.

“I am not the only one interested in writing in our family. The third-born in our family, Okomaatani Steven Aipira, has interest in writing. He has written 'Business Studies for Developing Countries' now being used by students. The book was published by Dzuka Publishing Company,” he says.

Wokomaatani has also authored 'Malawi takes off', a book published by Kachere Series. The book focuses on the late Bingu wa Mutharika's first term in office.

That time, Malawians were running high on both hope and economic prospects, as evidenced by the fact that, according to the Economist Magazine, the country registered the second-fastest growing economy in the world after oil-rich Qatar.

The way things have turn out today is a story for another day. But Okomaatani could not be blamed for his optimism.


Maybe Zangaphee Chizeze and Edson Mpina grew up believing that they were nothing more than human beings. To Aipira, however, they also served as his sources of inspiration.

“As I grew up, I looked up to Chizeze and Mpina. In the case of Chizeze, I came across his poem 'If ifs were ifs' while I was at Bunda College of Agriculture and I said: 'There is beautiful writing here'. As for Mpina, I was left speechless by his poem 'Summer fires of Mulanje Mountain', which won a BBC award in Commonwealth. It's a very short poem, but it is well written,” says Aipira.

Outside Malawi, he is a fan of William Wordsworth and Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet who won the Nobel Prize of Literature.


Aipira, who studies General Agriculture at Bunda College of Agriculture from 1976 to 1979, started off as a humble civil servant when he joined Ministry of Works and Supplies in 1980.

In the ministry, he worked for the landscaping section in the Buildings Department. His work saw him landscaping Sanjika and Kamuzu palaces.

He was one of the pioneers of the Landscaping section, a development that meant Malawi had joined two other African countries-- South Africa and Kenya-- that had landscaping sections. For this reason, International Federation Architects president, ZVI Miller, visited Malawi in 1982.

His expertise in landscaping saw him writing for non-fiction magazines.

“As I did landscaping, I was a member of the Association of Advancement of Science of Malawi [AASOM], whose chairperson was architect Dr Bernard Zingano. AASOM had a magazine and he asked workers, especially new graduates, to contribute articles to the magazine. I wrote an article on the environment in 1981 and he said “Your article is very good. You are a very good writer.”

'You can imagine how happy I was to see my article. One of my friends was Richard Maganga, a graduate from the Polytechnic who was aspiring to become a quantity surveyor. He wrote a very good article, too,” says Aipira.

After working for the Ministry of Works between 1980 and 1985, he received a scholarship to study at the University of Bath in England, where he studied horticulture between 1985 and 1989 and I received an award in 'Outstanding Performance in Horticulture' along with a white girl called Alice Forbes. He was the first foreign student to win the award.

He then worked for a private firm of landscape architects in Bristol, United Kingdom, before pursuing a post-graduate course at the University of Iowa, Northern England, United Kingdom.

“While there, I made a u-turn from Horticulture to look into urbanization. We were looking at the growth of cities and how we could manage them [cities]. It was realised that the majority of people in 2050 would be living in cities. So, it was about how to manage people. Just imagine, as I am speaking Tokyo has a population of 38 million while Delhi and Shanghai in China have populations of over 20 million people.

“I even published an article in 'ECODECISION: Environment and Policy Magazine' published in Montreal, Canada in winter [Between November and February] of 1995. The title of my article was 'Urban farming: Making Africa's cities sustainable'.

“This was the beginning of my interest in the role of cities. There was, indeed, a term coined; 'The bush of the rural areas and the pull of the cities' which was being used by people with interest in this area. The United Nations, through United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) took interest to make the issue global,” he says.

Aipira also worked on a UNEP report titled 'Urban farming in low income cities: Report prepared in connection with the first workshop on urban farming: strategy for food and environmental health in low low income cities'. He co-edited the report along with Charles Cockburn and the findings were published by the Institute of Advanced Architectural Studies, University of York, in One World Studies 24 November 1993.

That was not all. He continued his work in another report 'Urban and Rural Change in the Developing World: procedures of the International Workshop on Urban Farming and Rural Tourism: Priorities for Action in the 21 Century. The editors were Hoffman Aipira, Noorizan Mohamed and Charles Cockburn.

He also had his articles featured in the United Nations magazine 'Nature and Resources' Volume 32 Number 2, 1996. The title of his article was 'Urban Food Production' published under UNICEF in Paris, France.

“Actually, at [University of] York, they wanted me to start department but I said: 'I have to go back home'. I came back home in 2009,” he says.

Maybe, as he write, he may become another candle that kindles unlimited numbers of other candles but remain the original candle-- like his father did.

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