Legson Kayira, the first Malawian novelist, has died

Malawi had three first novelists: David Rubadiri, Aubrey Kachingwe, and Legson Kayira, who has died this week in London aged 70. In the 1960s and 1970s Kayira wrote a number of works of fiction, but he will be remembered most of all for his 1965 memoir, I Will Try, an account of the astonishing journey he made after setting out on foot from his home village in the northern part of Malawi. He went first to Kampala, then to Khartoum, and finally to the United States, where he had won a scholarship to study at Skagit Valley College, Washington State.

All three of Malawi’s first novelists were exiled in short order following independence. President Kamuzu Banda based his popular legitimacy on reiterating ad nauseam a set of personal myths that sought to subsume the history of the new nation within his own biography, and there was simply no room for anyone who could write their own stories on a national level. Kayira’s memoir was especially problematic for the symmetries it contained with Banda’s own life. Both had been educated by Scottish missionaries at the prestigious Livingstonia Mission school and won scholarships to undertake further studies in the United States. Banda loved to recount how as a youth he had walked to the mines at Johannesburg (he had, but so had generations of other young men from the region). Kayira walked north rather than south, but he walked thousands of miles further, and at the end of his journey he wrote an autobiography that remained on the New York Times bestseller list for sixteen weeks.

The only surprise is that Kayira’s story, which imagines with great charm the Malawian subject’s coming-of-age/decolonisation as a single epic journey towards America, was never made into a Hollywood film.

Kayira sets off on his “walk to America” with copies of two books, the Bible and Pilgrim’s Progress, and a badge on his shirt which reads simply “I Will Try”. He understands his journey as a direct successor to those made by missionaries over the previous one hundred years:

Equipped with nothing better than sheer faith, faith in one’s self and one’s Creator, David Livingstone had tried and succeeded. Equipped with no greater tool than this same faith, Dr Robert Laws, the author of our motto, had tried amid unknown hazards and had succeeded […]

The following excerpt is the opening to Chapter 7, “Legson’s Progress”, in which Kayira describes his first hours in Kampala.

On January 19 in the year of our Lord one thousand nine hundred and sixty, I arrived in Kampala, a vast and impressive commercial city in the Protectorate of Uganda.

It was a fine morning. The sun had been in the sky for two or three hours, and the thermometers were rising. As soon as I had awakened that morning I had freed myself of the heat-infested cabin down in the basement of the steamer where we were sleeping and hurried up on the deck, where I had the pleasure of admiring the scene on the not far-off shore and enjoying the cool breeze of nature’s pure breath. The steamer anchored at Port Bell, only five miles away from downtown Kampala. My heart was throbbing with anxiety now, wondering whether or not I would be able to get into the city without any traveling documents. I stepped out, and slowly walked on what I thought to be the only pier, leading to the Customs Office. “Passes, passes,” I could hear men calling, as the mass of people in front of me slowly shuffled along the same pier. On the left side of the pier, two men were calling out: “Schoolboys, this way please.” This was my chance, really the only chance I had. I quietly joined a small group of boys and girls called “schoolboys”.

“Schoolboy,” one of the men would ask as each one came to pass through the line, and each one of us would nod in agreement.

I thus arrived in Uganda, my temporary destination, but America, my goal, was still far away, far away across land and ocean. I had told my friends at home that when I got to Uganda I would know what to do next, but now I did not know. I pulled out my map as soon as I was beyond sight of the suspecting Customs men. With my fingers I compared the distance I had covered and the distance still to be covered. I had come that far and there was no point in turning back now, I tried to console myself. At the same time I pitied myself for having plunged into such a journey. The motto on my shirt still said “I Will Try”, and I repeated the words as I had done now times without number: I Will Try. My shirt, however, was dirty, my shorts were dirty, and I was dirty. I would have to stay in Kampala longer than I had expected. I would try to get a job.

“Matoke (bananas) for sale here”, a young boy was calling a short distance away. Another one, standing not far from the other, was calling out, “Sugar canes for sale here.” I folded my map and after putting it back into the pocket went to the boy and bought a few bananas. Sitting down to eat my bananas, I pulled out my Pilgrim’s Progress and opened to my favorite page. “… and if you will go along with me, you shall fare as I myself, for there, where I go, is enough and to spare.”

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