The poet, playwright, novelist and diplomat David Rubadiri died on September 15.
I published his profile on the social media pages of a project that chronicles the lives of great African men and women, and said he was Malawian.
A Ugandan wrote in to say no, Rubadiri was as Ugandan as a Ugandan can get. He wasn’t the only one claiming him, other Africans too did. And that was what made people like Rubadiri special; they belonged to many.
One of Africa’s most widely anthologised poets, Rubadiri died at the age of 88. Those are enough years to live a life. Though a celebrated poet, perhaps the average readers knows Rubadiri more for his novel No Bride Price, which was first published in 1967.
Rubadiri represented an African species that, tragically, has all but disappeared.
He was born in Liuli, on the Tanzanian side of Lake Malawi in what today is Mbinga district of Ruvuma Province. That he was Malawian tells us how colonial borders have since hardened to shape identity and nationality. His birth happened at a time when the borderlines were still fluid.
He went to King’s College, Budo, in Uganda, then to Makerere University, and on to the UK to do a Masters in Literature at Cambridge. Back in Malawi, he was appointed the country’s first ambassador to the United Nations at Independence in 1964.
It didn’t last. The strangely Anglophile and autocratic Dr Kamuzu Hastings Banda was president in Malawi, and by 1965 Rubadiri had to flee the dictator’s menace.
Eventually, he settled back at Makerere University as a lecturer for seven years, until 1975 when an even scarier tyrant than Banda, Field Marshal Idi Amin, was on the rampage and targeting intellectuals.
By then he had become “Ugandan,” and so left behind a family, not just poetry and prose. In this period he became deeply etched in the popular imagination, hence the feeling that he was Ugandan.
He didn’t travel far. He pitched up at Nairobi University, becoming an influential member of the Kenyan literary and theatre community. Kenya was not a paradise for writers too then, as Ngugi Wa Thiong’o – who was detained in 1977, released a year later, and forced into exile – will testify.
In between his years at Nairobi University, Rubadiri did stints at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria.
Rubadiri left Nairobi, and from 1984 to 1997 he was located at the University of Botswana.
The end of the Cold War imperilled pro-Western dictators like Banda. At the age of, according to some accounts, 100, in 1994 he lost an election, and died despondent three years later.
In 1997, Rubadiri was appointed Malawi’s ambassador to the UN again, and in 2000 became vice-chancellor of the University of Malawi.
Rubadiri’s itinerary was typical of many African literary figures of the time, who through a unique and now diminished openness, combined with flight from murderous despots, traversed the continent recording what would become a uniquely pan-African story. There are virtually no African writers today who travel these lands in the fashion they did.
Rubadiri, then, was really not Malawian, nor Ugandan, nor Kenyan, nor Botswanan, nor Nigerian. He was African. For that reason the works of writers of his generation, are not about the past. They still offer us the best glimpse of what the soul of today’s idealised pan-African future could feel like.
Charles Onyango-Obbo is publisher of data visualiser Africapaedia and Rogue Chiefs. [email protected]