We lived in Blantyre, Malawi when I was a boy and while we were there my father wrote weekly to his parents in British Columbia to document the experience. He kept a detailed journal, snapped hundreds of photographs, saved mountains of ephemera–newspaper clippings, notes from students, correspondence with various governmental ministries, even restaurant menus. He hoped that when we returned to Canada he would turn all that material into a book of some sort.
He never did.
A few years ago, I found a title on Amazon called To Africa With Spatula by Jane Baker Lotter, who lived in Blantyre with her family during the very years that we were there. In fact, one of her sons was in my class at St. Andrew’s Preparatory School. Another was a student of my mother’s.
To Africa with Spatula is a compendium of letters Jane wrote from Malawi to her friends and family back in California. The letters are neither better nor worse than my father’s, but they cover much the same ground and record much the same experience. So perhaps it doesn’t matter that my father never wrote his book. Mrs. Lotter wrote it for him.
On a trip to Malawi in 1997, I returned to Blantyre Secondary School where my father taught in the 1960s. I’d developed a strange longing to see our former home on the school estate and revisit fond memories of roaming the surrounding countryside with my school friend Chris Turner. My father’s photographs of the time show well-kept grounds, with neatly trimmed hedges and carefully tended flowerbeds. Our house, too, was well maintained, with frangipani and poinsettia trees in the yard. But upon my return, I found it all very much changed. And not for the better.
Paul Theroux taught at Mount Soche Hill School in Malawi at the same time my father was at Blantyre Secondary. In his 2003 book, Dark Star Safari, he writes of returning to his old school with a sense of anticipation. Of the actual experience he says: “The school was almost unrecognizable. What had been a group of school buildings in a large grove of trees was a compound of battered buildings in a muddy open field. The trees had been cut down, the grass was chest high. At first glance the place was so poorly maintained as to seem abandoned: broken windows, doors ajar, mildewed walls, gashes in the roof, and only a few people standing around, empty-handed, doing nothing but gaping at me.”
When I returned to Canada after my 1997 trip, I never found the heart to write about the sorry state of Blantyre Secondary School, although I’d made the journey with a memoir in mind. I was paid for the travel article I subsequently submitted about the journey, but even that was so tinged with sadness the magazine chose not to run it. No matter. To borrow from James Laughlin: “It has all been written so well by my betters.” Theroux’s account is perfect.
This spring I’ll return to Malawi, not with a memoir in mind, but a novel underpinned by my childhood experiences there. I’ll take photographs, clip newspaper articles, scribble in my notebook, hoping to amass the material I need to finish What We Remember. And who knows perhaps, even now, a man with a background similar to my own is also planning such a book. Perhaps he’s in Blantyre at this very moment, sitting in a room in the Mount Soche Hotel transcribing his notes, arranging his thoughts, drawing up an outline.
If he writes his book, well good for him. But if, for whatever reason, he doesn’t, what will it matter? With luck, I’ll have written it for him.