I stood on the balcony and stared down the street. It looked deserted. Soon it would be full of life with everyone wearing identical clothing like the one on television. I looked again and the only thing that grabbed my attention as usual was the digital billboard. It was a goliath that stretched long and wide. During the night, it lit the entire street. As the adverts flashed and rotated, one after another, there were several shades of colours being thrown on the street and chasing each other about. Delton thought of it as a giant Christmas tree but for me that analogy was weak.
I had seen the adverts change too frequently and learned by rote what came next. There are three that I vividly remember today; one that advertised about an HIV/AIDS Treatment Clinic at the far end of the street, the other marketing children’s pillows with pre-recorded bedtime stories in them and, the one whose every detail and nuance of colour I can reproduce today was about dogs. There was a man in it with a Chihuahua beside him. He was sitting in a classy chair and resting his elbows on a mahogany table. In the background was a wall with a beautiful clock on it that seemed to dominate everything but, also, to rob the advert of the attention it deserved. The words below read:
IN THE YEAR 2010 THE WORLD REGISTERED 339 BREEDS OF DOGS. TODAY IN 2519 ONLY 113 REMAIN. SAVE THE REST
Damazio Chirwa, PhD.
The good doctor was plump with a smile stretching to both ends of his mouth. His nose was broad, so were both cheeks. While he looked rough and conversational, in the picture he assumed the composure of a stoic man with a perfectly natured demeanour. His long beard was slightly pushed to one end, as if he was standing in high winds. His eyes were fixated on the balcony, straight on, that I almost thought of them as unsettling.
The man in the advert, Dr Chirwa, was my father.
From “Tiny Dots,” Imagine Africa 500
Tuntufye Simwimba had a clear aim when writing his first science fiction story at the Imagine Africa 500 workshops.
Tuntufye: “For me, I was trying to avoid being too technical about technological advancements. I wanted to portray that while things might be different, the next five hundred years emotions will remain the same, yeah? So that’s why, in a world where global warming has intensified and the ozone layer has depleted you find that there’s still the estranged relationship between a father and his son on which the story is centred, so it’s more of provoking those feelings.”
One of the emotions that some Africans say won’t change is attitudes to homosexuality. Some of the stories in Imagine Africa 500 show that changing, Tuntufye’s in particular.
Tuntufye: “The main character was homosexual. This was one of the things that I explored.
“A lady friend was reacting on how she feels that homosexuality will be not accepted in the far-end, or five hundred years to come.
“She was of the idea that Malawi will remain the same, because she had a point that Malawians will not get to accept homosexuality no matter how many years ahead we go. I think different.
"Malawians have a word for homosexuality and if we feel that it’s such a foreign idea why do they have a word for it in the first place? It is something that has always been around but it has not been spoken about."
For him, part of the problem is the attitude that every story must take a moral and give advice.
Tuntufye: “The Malawi Writers Union advocates that we should have some moral stand and for me I’ve written a science fiction story that doesn’t have anything to do with moral standing. The stories that have won their prizes previously, the past six to seven years, they have some particular thing that somebody wants to teach. If it’s about rape then somebody must be arrested in the end. If we describe a sex scene, somebody should be pregnant or should get HIV/AIDS, which I don’t think is the right way of writing. I think writing is just about bringing out your experience.
“I think science fiction will give room to explore what we don’t find ordinarily morally right. And if I want to make it as a writer it will be because I want to change things. I don’t want to be too accustomed to what other writers are writing. I want to explore my own writing.”
Tuntufye is an example of how Malawian writing careers can start early through competitions. He was sixteen when he won his first writing competition, the 2008 competition for Malawi PEN, with a short story called “Chimwemwe,” which dealt with witchcraft. He came second in the same competition in 2014 with the story “Meet Benedict,”about two roommates, one of whom begins to succumb to schizophrenia.
His story in Imagine Africa 500 is about family, about a plague, about high tech and disaster happening at the same time. To reveal how all three are united in an intensely human story would spoil it.
He was one of the ten Malawian authors in the Imagine Africa 500 workshop, and one of the five whose stories were accepted.
Tuntufye: “In the mentorship program of Imagine 500, Trine Anderson (co-founder of Pan-African Publications) was my mentor. She read my work and commented. She was the first person to be my mentor. She gave me a lot of insight.
“I haven’t been to many workshops, only festival workshops. We don’t have many workshops in Malawi. Writers work in isolation. Another problem with writing in Malawi is that you don’t make much of an income, so you just have to find another career while you’re pursuing your dreams. But eventually you get too busy to write.”
We talked about where his desire to write came from.
“My distant grandfather was a historian and he writes books. He was a model for us in our family.
“My mother was a primary school teacher. She brought a lot of books from school and she purchased many books. She was denying me of some things but she wouldn’t deny me of a book that I wanted. So that was encouraging.
“I read a lot of Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Science fiction came later on in my life. The first time I read it was in secondary school. Robert Cook and Mary Shelley. I read a lot of books by him. I was a librarian in secondary school so I used to read a lot then. I edited the secondary school magazine called The Post. It was a Catholic school where we had to speak English.’
Having parents from two different ethnic groups created problems over which language to speak at home.
“I don’t know how to speak my father’s language, Mambwe. I can understand a basic conversation but early on I realised that it is a language spoken by a few and a large number of those who speak it can’t read it. So writing in Mambwe has never been an option. My mother was Ndali, in which she spoke beautifully. But I can’t ignore that I spent most of my life among the Chichewa-speaking people. And along the road I was exposed to many other languages including Swahili, Nyakyusa, Ngonde, Tumbuka. This confusion of languages made me a master to none. The years I spent in school brought some sanity to this. I intensified my interest in English in which I write in. My characters however are influenced by the several cultural influences that I met along the way.
“In 2010, I had read that George Bush read ninety-eight books in a year and I told my mum that I would beat the record in 2010, she was very supportive of that. I didn’t.
“I have many African authors that I want to read. Jack Mapanje was a poet who was arrested by Banda (a hero of the independence movement who went on to be a long-serving but controversial president). He was in imprisoned for four years. He’s a professor now in the USA. Steve Chimombo and Mapanje grew up in the same era but Chimombo did not get arrested. It was only after many years that we came to see that Steve hid a lot of messages in his poetry.
“A lot of works that I’ve read locally are of people who have opposed the government. I like reading a lot of history and when it comes to Malawian authors. Sam Mpasu was arrested for thirteen years for his book Nobody’s Friend but Nobody’s Enemy because he was speaking about the president being nobody’s friend and nobody’s enemy, so he was everybody’s enemy.
“I read Chinua Achebe very early in my life, when I was like twelve/thirteen. When people started talking about his books I was sixteen years and I had already read all of them. People got excited about them but I had finished them. Personally, I would like Anthills of the Savannah as my favourite.
“I have come to science fiction late but with literary intent and it is not something that I regret. I think most of the areas that appear in other forms of literature also appear in science fiction. I’ve always thought that perhaps it is just a setting that is different. I read a lot of sci-fi now and I can just relate to the setting and I think I would have been discouraged as an author is if I started reading sci-fi earlier in my life. People would have said ‘I don’t understand this, why don’t you write your local.’
“But I’ve come to understand that it’s about what I think I should write, not about what people feel I should write.
“I already submitted a story of vampires to the Malawi Writers Union, and they said ‘But it is not Malawian stuff.’ For me, I have a problem understanding what Malawian stuff is, because a human is someone raised by various interests. If I’m influenced by the West, it will be reflected in my writing somewhat. I don’t think I can limit myself to one experience of my life.
“The story I am currently writing for the Malawi Writers Union is science fiction, and I intend to submit it. it is an understanding of sexuality in the ages to come. I write more on sex precisely because it is considered a taboo, so I want to defy the odds. Things that people are uncomfortable speaking about, that what I want to write about.
“I think that science fiction should somehow be fused with our oral tradition, with the African content, should be filled with our setting. That means science fiction written in Africa shouldn’t be written independent of our culture, but develop a style where fused with oral tradition. I don’t think our science fiction should be an imitation of the West but should be independent.
“We keep trying to write in a way that the West will understand, but it should be written in a way that an African will understand.
“If the Western literature was written in a way that Africa should understand it, it would have been quite different. It wouldn’t have been known for its originality. I think that writing is all about originality and Africans should work toward that.
“Science fiction in a Malawian context, our literature is very small. I think that should be different for our generation, it should be about telling stories about our experiences, things that we have read and have influenced us. Because I think literature is empty when it is not relating directly to you as an individual.”