Jack Mapanje

Jack Mapanje (born 25 March 1944)[1] is a Malawian writer and poet. He was the head of English at the Chancellor College, the main campus of the University of Malawi before being imprisoned in 1987 for his collection Of Chameleons and Gods, which indirectly criticized the administration of President Hastings Banda. He was released in 1991 and emigrated to the UK, where he worked as a teacher.

Jack Mapanje
Born (1944-03-25) 25 March 1944 (age 76)
Kadango Village, Mangochi District, Malawi
Occupationprofessor, author
Known forpoetry, 1987-91 imprisonment
AwardsRotterdam Poetry International Award (1988)
PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award (1990)


The child of Nyanja and Yao parents, John Alfred Clement ("Jack") Mapanje was born in Kadango Village, Mangochi District, Malawi.[1] He received his BA in education from the University of London and worked for a time as a lecturer in Malawi before returning to the UK to study linguistics at University College, London in the early 1980s.[2]

He subsequently became head of the Department of Language and Linguistics at the University of Malawi.[3]


During the rule of President Hastings Banda, Mapanje was jailed without charge in 1987, apparently for publishing his poem collection Of Chameleons and Gods.[4][5] The collection obliquely criticized Banda's government, and the "chameleon" of the title refers to the disguise of personal voice Mapanje deemed necessary in order to mount a criticism of the politics at the time.[6] The book received no official ban, but was "withdrawn from circulation".[5] Amnesty International declared him a prisoner of conscience and campaigned for his release.[7] Its protests included a reading of selections from Of Chameleons and Gods outside the Malawian High Commission in London by UK Nobel laureate Harold Pinter.[8] Mapanje was also awarded the 1990 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award during his imprisonment, which carried a US$3,000 cash award. PEN's president, US novelist Larry McMurtry, stated that "the point [of the award] is to generate enough heat so Mapanje gets out of jail".[3] Nigerian Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka and UK playwright Ronald Harwood also campaigned for his release.[9]

Mapanje was held for three-and-a-half years before being released in 1991.[5] After his release, he was told he needed to reapply for his previous professorship at the University of Malawi. After a lengthy delay in his application, he instead emigrated to the UK.[5] He wrote a memoir about the experience, And Crocodiles Are Hungry At Night,[7] which was also adapted into a play.[9]


After arriving in the UK, Mapanje was awarded a fellowship at The University of York. He later became a visiting professor at Leeds University. He also taught creative writing in prisons.[4]

In 1994, he returned to Malawi with BBC2 to make a documentary.[4]

Chameleon politicsEdit

He is credited for applying the term "chameleon politics" to describe a political environment where politicians switch parties and forge alliances without transparency or notice in rapidly changing political environments where party switching, floor crossing, and coalition formations are rampant.[10][11] The notion is described in his 1981 book, Of Chameleons and Gods.[12]




  1. ^ a b "Mapanje, Jack", ProQuest Learning: Literature.
  2. ^ "2002: Jack Mapanje". Fonlon-Nicholas Award. Retrieved 30 July 2012.
  3. ^ a b Susan Heller Anderson (30 March 1990). "Chronicle". The New York Times. Retrieved 30 July 2012.
  4. ^ a b c Adrian Turpin (7 November 1995). "'I had never come to a Western country before. It is good for my writing'". The Guardian. Retrieved 30 July 2012.
  5. ^ a b c d "Poetic injustice". The Economist. 9 October 1997. Retrieved 30 July 2012.
  6. ^ Mapanje, Jack (1981). Of Chameleons and Gods. Johannesburg: Heinemann. p. vii. ISBN 0-435-91194-5.
  7. ^ a b "And Crocodiles Are Hungry At Night - a memoir by Jack Mapanje". Amnesty International. 2011. Archived from the original on 3 December 2011. Retrieved 30 July 2012.
  8. ^ Vail, Leroy; Landeg White (1991). Power and the Praise Poem: Southern African Voices in History. University of Virginia Press. pp. 278–285.
  9. ^ a b Mark Cook, Lyn Gardner & Judith Mackrell (27 July 2012). "This week's new theatre & dance". The Guardian. Retrieved 30 July 2012.
  10. ^ Christopher J. Lee, "A Democracy of Chameleons: Politics and Culture in the New Malawi" (review), African Studies Review 48:1.
  11. ^ Elaine Windrich, "Malawi: The Old and the New" (review of Harri Englund, ed. Democracy of Chameleons: Politics and Culture in the New Malawi), H-Net Reviews, June 2003.
  12. ^ Englund, Harry, 1995, A Democracy of Chameleons: Politics and Culture in the New Malawi.

Relevant literatureEdit

  • 'Dunmade, 'Femi. 2019. A Phenomenology of Selected Postproverbial Poetry of Jack Mapanje. Matatu 51:417-431.

External linksEdit