The memoir And Crocodiles are Hungry at Night is a powerful and compelling account of poet and academic Jack Mapanje’s experiences of Malawian prison and the effect this incarceration had on him and his family. In 1987, Mapanje was imprisoned for over three years by the authoritarian regime of Malawian President Hastings Banda, never once being informed of the details of his ‘crimes’ against the state. The memoir is Mapanje’s attempt to come to terms with his ordeal and to uncover the truth about his arrest. This, however, is not simply a prison memoir. Throughout the narrative, Mapanje skilfully conjures a vivid insight into life under Malawi’s dictatorship in the late 1980s. Through myriad observations and experiences, including those of his fellow prisoners, the memoir is a devastating critique of Banda and his ruling circle.
A central theme is that Mapanje was never told why he had been incarcerated and thus the memoir is a personal journey in search of answers to that question. Mapanje conveys his difficultly in coming to terms with his sudden arrest, and simply not knowing the reason why; he describes this as a form of torture as he minutely dissects his past for clues. There are frequent ‘flashbacks’ where Mapanje sets about reflecting upon events, such as attendance at conferences or securing resources for his university department, which may have contributed to his arrest. This is a powerful tool, as it illustrates neatly the pervasive fear, suspicion and repression prevalent in Malawian society. Mpanje also employs some of his poems during his account to convey specific events or experiences. This works well because the reader discovers the context or meaning behind them and it adds another dimension to his experiences, his defiance, and ultimately his hope of release.
The memoir details prison life meticulously, offering an insight into the daily realities of ‘political’ prisoners, such as the humiliating strip searches, the squalid conditions and the struggle simply to survive. Despite these trying circumstances, many positive aspects shine through. The memoir demonstrates humanity, kindness, creativity and defiance. Mapanje reveals that initially he had lost hope, but through the help of his fellow inmates, his attitude changed to one of defiance and, later, even optimism. Mapanje argues that “everyone believes that survival is the most effective way of fighting dictators… if you survive, you will live to tell your story”. The book is testament to that spirit.
Mapanje also recounts the kindness and efforts of a multitude of people who helped to ensure his freedom. Immediately after his arrest, an international campaign was started by friends, academic colleagues, and human rights campaigners across the world to pressurise the Banda regime into releasing him. Mapanje only has an inkling of the events outside the prison walls (of which he only learns fully on his release), and he depicts the unfolding campaign through his own eyes: snippets of information, illicit notes from outside, and conversations with guards. Furthermore, it is heartening to discover that some of the prison guards risked their lives to assist the inmates, especially in the international campaign, illustrating human kindness and compassion.
And Crocodiles are Hungry at Night is an engaging read and you cannot help be moved by Mapanje’s experiences. The writing style is incisive and crisp, and although the memoir is predominantly set within the confines of prison, it unfolds at a quick pace. Mapanje’s powerful description offers the reader a glimpse of Malawian society, the leadership of Banda, and Mapanje’s own life experiences. The memoir also poignantly reflects on the effects his imprisonment had upon his life, family, and academic career. Yet, despite depicting such hardships, the underlying message of hope and defiance in the face of repression is uplifting.