Remembering Professor James David Rubadiri

By John Chirwa

September 15 passed silently without a national remembrance of Malawi’s hero, Professor David Rubadiri, who died on the same day last year.

However, in this silence reigned a loud whisper at Chancellor College in Zomba as scholars hatched an idea to celebrate his heroics through publication of the Journal of Humanities as a special issue.

This idea is now a reality.

The college, through its English Department, has released the journal Celebrating Professor David Rubadiri which features eight papers and poems written by scholars from both within and outside Malawi.

The journal’s editor Emmanuel Ngwira says the publication follows a call for papers the department made earlier to honour the fallen hero.

“On September 15 2018, the academic community woke up to the shocking news of the passing of Professor David Rubadiri, a day after celebrating his 61st anniversary in marriage.

“Prof Rubadiri was a celebrated poet, playwright, novelist, critic, diplomat and one-time Vice Chancellor of the University of Malawi. He also taught at universities of Makerere in Uganda, Nairobi in Kenya, and Botswana. His biography and work anticipate the figure and the preoccupations of a transnational and trans-cultural artist, and visionary leader,” says Ngwira.

But how has the academy remembered this celebrated artist in the journal?

Fragments of Rubadiri

Associate professor of Literature at Makerere University, Susan Kiguli, explores the intersections of Rubadiri’s roles as a student, poet and teacher.

In the article Fragments of Rubadiri: Student, Teacher and Poet, Kiguli says she seeks to address silences and gaps the apparent absence of Rubadiri’s full auto/biographical work creates.

The University of Leeds trained academic says she relied on the archive to trace three stages in Rubadiri’s life: his days as a student at Makerere, his time as a teacher at the same university and his career as a poet.

“I observe that his remarkable abilities and personality as attested to by his teachers during his student days allowed him to transition into a celebrated teacher and an intuitive poet later in his life.

“I also observe that as a student, teacher and poet, his strengths were anchored in his ability to understand the importance of being human and the shifting boundaries of human experience.

“Further, I touch on notions of home and exile in Rubadiri’s life and poetry, particularly in the context of Makerere University and Uganda, his adopted home,” writes Kiguli.

Trauma, drama in Rubadiri’s poetry

Rubadiri was “one of Africa’s most widely anthologised poets,” with some of his poetry appearing in respectable anthologies such as Poems from East Africa, co-edited with David Cook, and Growing up with Poetry that he curated.

Rubadiri is not only widely anthologised, but he is also one of the most read African poets because his poetry “has been prescribed reading in many African education systems than his single novel No Bride Price.

No wonder, in his entry Melancholy and Trauma in David Rubadiri’s Poetry, Makerere University lecturer of literature Edgar Nabutanyi delves into the literary life of Rubadiri and lays bare his traumatic experiences of postcolonial Africa.

Nabutanyi, a holder of a doctorate degree in English, argues that it is inevitable for Rubadiri’s poetry to embody undertones of trauma because “of the colonial epistemic violence committed against Africans during and after colonialism”.

“This is perhaps why his works interrogate the dual collective traumatic memory of Africa’s colonial and post-independence disillusionment. It is unsurprising that the poetic works of Rubadiri generally, and those explored in this article simultaneously betray nostalgic melancholy of the continent’s squandered opportunities and promise at independence,” he says.

University of Malawi English lecturer Syned Mthatiwa agrees with Nabutanyi that Rubadiri’s popularity rests in poetry. But the former is quick to point out that “his poetic harvest is rather minimal—his only collection, An African Thunderstorm and Other Poems, boasts only twenty-three poems”.

“What the poems lack in numbers, they more than compensate for in the energy and beauty that they radiate, beauty that has seen most of them translated and anthologised around the world over the years.

“It is also this energy, the beauty of composition, and their tackling of relevant themes, which have made his poems the staple of many poetry classes in Africa and beyond,” says Mthatiwa.

Mthatiwa, therefore, argues that the success of Rubadiri’s poems is based on how the poet uses drama, which is “in turn reliant on his economic use of language, his descriptive skills, and his use of vivid and evocative images”.

Kenya Citizen TV anchor Victoria Rubadiri , granddaughter of the late professor

“These aspects do not only render the poetry enduring and memorable, but they also make the poems and the action in them spring to life, cementing the legacy of the poet as one of the accomplished poets of his generation in Africa,” he writes.

Lessons learnt

The journal then takes a soft touch to issues as Mzati Nkolokosa and Asante Lucy Mtenje wrap up with the lessons and the legacy that Rubadiri left behind through his poetry and his lived life which is described as “a classroom for all of us even after his death”.

“Through various recollections of my interations with the late professor, I reflect on Rubadiri’s positive influence on my academic and literary journeys,” says Mtenje

She adds: “The article reads the impact that Rubadri’s life had on my life through the evocation of powerful quotations from other writers, which aptly sum up Rubadiri’s legacy as a writer, freedom fighter, humanitarian and mentor who touched many people’s lives in profound ways.”

In her entry Rubadiri, Ugandan poet Moureen Aol brings in a message of hope for such a loss in Rubadiri, envisioning his rebirth through the work of numerous poets that he influenced, including herself.

She writes: “… His heart of gold is preserved 

where decay has no power.

His footprints are still visible to us

We, who had no encounter, no second glance at him

will wear his shoes

The Rubadiri mask sits gently on every poet’s face

His mind holds our pens

His heart fuels ours

The ancestors claim his body

But in every poet, he is reborn

“A Grain Of Wheat”

Ngugi Wa Thiong’o might have said

In September.”

(original posting Nation Malawi)