Last week’s death of Prof David Rubadiri has robbed Africa and indeed the world of a truly phenomenal literary figure.
According to his son, Kwame, Prof Rubadiri broke his hip two months ago. He was recovering at home, “but died very suddenly from what appears to be the impact of a blood clot in his lungs.”
Born in 1930, Rubadiri had celebrated his 88th birthday on July 19.
For me, his death evoked many memories, including that of how, more than two decades ago, in October 1997, I had a lengthy chat with the diplomat, intellectual, university don and man of letters in his room at the Grand Regency Hotel.
At the time he was already past the mid-60s, but was looking hale and healthy, and I recall his characteristic wit and the trademark penetrating though ever-friendly gaze.
He had come to Nairobi for the launch of a new edition of Poems from East Africa, the famous anthology he had put together with long-term colleague David Cook.
With his poem 'An African Thunderstorm,' Rubadiri was the sole Malawian contributor to Modern Poetry of Africa, the 1963 Penguin anthology edited by Gerald Moore and Ulli Beier.
Rubadiri also represented his country with another poem, 'Thoughts after Work,' which was published in You Better Believe It: Black Verse in English from Africa, the West Indies and the United States, yet another Penguin publication.
Other anthologies that also carried Rubadiri’s poetry included A Book of African Verse published by Heinemann in 1964; Poetry from Africa, published by Pergamon Press in 1969 and Drum Beat, published by East African Publishing House in 1967.
Although the floodgate of Rubadiri’s fecund creativity would later burst open, as one commentator puts it, he had made his entry into the literary world much earlier, in the late 50s, when his poetry was published in Penpoint, the Makerere college magazine.
In consequent years other Rubadiri poems would be showcased in such prestigious international publications as Transition, Black Orpheus and Présence Africaine.
In 1989 Heinemann published Growing Up with Poetry, a school text which Rubadiri edited, and in 2004 East African Educational Publishers issued his collection, An African Thunderstorm and Other Poems.
Rubadiri also ventured into drama and prose early on, with his play, "Come to Tea", published in 1965 and his sole novel, No Bride Price, published in 1967.
Poetry was, however, Prof Rubadiri’s forte, and he was fittingly honoured at a ceremony in Malawi on March 18 this very year with an award for his contribution towards the promotion of poetry in Africa.
Back to the 1997 meeting at the Grand Regency, Rubadiri, who had just flown in from New York, had the mien of the top diplomat he was at the time, but still retained his trademark avuncular personality.
“It’s great to come back to a country which gave you status!” he remarked as we chatted.
Recalling the salad days of creativity in Kenya and Uganda, where he had lived and worked in the mid-60s and early 70s, the veteran poet waxed nostalgic and added: “This region is a great store for art and literature.”
Speaking about his connection with Kenya and Uganda, the author, known for such memorable poems as "Stanley Meets Mutesa", said he would be in the latter country during the following year to marry off one of his daughters.
“When I come to East Africa, and especially Kenya and Uganda, where some of my people still live, I feel as if I am at home again,” he explained.
The remark reminded me of an episode years earlier when I was idling the time away at La Belle Inn, a favourite haunt in Naivasha. I was suddenly accosted by almost the entire Rubadiri clan, including son Kwame.
As it turned out, the family was headed west, deep in the Rift Valley, where Kwame had identified a bride. On the card were negotiations for planned nuptials with the beautiful Kalenjin lady who would later become TV personality Victoria Rubadiri’s mother.
The poet attended King’s College, Budo, in Uganda from 1941 to 1950. It was while there that the creative bug first bit the young Rubadiri after his African and British teachers planted the seed of love for literature.
After Budo Rubadiri joined Makerere University College, where he was between 1952 and 1956, studying for a BA in Literature, History and Geography, and graduating with a first class honours degree in 1955.
“With me at Makerere was Kenya’s future president Mwai Kibaki, who was studying economics,” Rubadiri said. “He was a year-mate of mine, and we were great buddies.”
After leaving Makerere, Rubadiri joined Bristol University in England, where he studied from 1956, earning a post-graduate diploma in Education and winning the poetry prize.
Soon afterwards he headed back home to Malawi and began work at Dedza Secondary School, a new institution south of Lilongwe, where he was to remain for several years teaching Literature, History and Geography, his majors at Makerere.
Later, between 1960 and 1962, he was at King’s College, Cambridge, where he earned an MA in English Literature.
It was while at Makerere that the budding poet married Gertrude, his first wife. In later years Rubadiri, the quintessential African, was to take a second wife, Janet. A Ugandan nurse of Rwandese origin, she was working at the famous Mulago Hospital, and still lives in Kampala.
A TEACHER AND DIPLOMAT
During the 2013 interview, Rubadiri remarked that too many writers of his generation had died, among them his old buddy John Ruganda, Chinua Achebe and Cyprian Ekwensi. Also gone was the Cameroonian Ferdinand Oyono, another writer-diplomat who had been his colleague at the United Nations.
Ironically, Rubadiri had himself been ailing for some years, and was not in the best of shapes. In fact, he had come to Nairobi for treatment, in addition to touching base with his progeny.
At Malawi’s independence in 1964 Rubadiri was appointed his country’s first ambassador to the United States and the United Nations.
However, in 1965 he left the Malawian government and broke ranks with President Kamuzu Banda. He was reappointed to the position soon after Banda’s death in 1997.
On completing his diplomatic tenure, Rubadiri was named vice-chancellor of the University of Malawi in 2000.
Years earlier he went through a life of exile, teaching first in Uganda, then Kenya and Nigeria.
During his stint at the University of Nairobi between 1976 and 1984, Rubadiri was a regular at the Kenya National Theatre. He served on the Executive Committee of the theatre for five years.
Before his death, Rubadiri was living in quiet retirement on a two-acre plot located five hours by bus from Lilongwe, not far from his ancestral home of Likoma Island, on the northern extremes of Lake Malawi.
BEGGING AID, BY DAVID RUBADIRI
Whilst our children
Become smaller than guns,
Elders become big
Away from home.
Whilst the manes age
In the Zoos
That now our homelands
Markets of leftovers,
Guns are taller
Than our children.
In the beggarhood
Of a Circus
That now is home,
The whip of the Ringmaster
Cracks with a snap
That eats through
The backs of our being.
In a prayer
In a beggarhood
Of Elders delicately
Performing the tightrope
To amuse the Gate
That will bring home
Toys of death.
— David Rubadiri