Master, you talked with bows, arrows and catapults once/Your hands steaming with hawk blood/To protect your chicken.
Why do you talk with knives now? Your hands teaming with eggshells/And hot blood from your own chicken? Is it to impress your visitors? – Song of Chickens, Jack Mapanje.
The just ended year has been a sad tale for writers, especially those under the Malawi Writers Union (Mawu).
The union is mandated to protect the welfare of writers. But 2017 exposed how Mawu president Mike Sambalikagwa Mvona has used the body for personal gain.
It all started in February. The writers’ block was accused of producing, distributing and selling a book titled Assignment without the author’s consent.
The author, Ananiya Alick Ponje, threatened to sue the body just days after Mawu unveiled the book at the residence of Norway Ambassador to Malawi, Kikkan Haugen.
“I have learnt with shock that the Malawi Writers Union has started selling my book even though I informed the union’s president several times that I’m not interested in any deal with the union. I never signed any contract with Mawu but the union has gone ahead to print books against my will.
“Having the books published by Mawu was supposed to be a choice and after I got the first copy which has silly mistakes, either made by the designer or whoever was ‘adding’ information on sections like the cover, I chose not to engage with the union any further.
“I communicated this to the president on three occasions, but he ignored my view and went ahead to sell the book with the ‘silly’ mistakes. Now, my humble appeal to everyone is not to buy any book bearing my name and being sold by Mawu,” said Ponje.
The Copyright Society of Malawi (Cosoma) intervened by instituting a hearing. The two warring parties agreed to burn the copies.
The case opened up a can of worms for the union. The same month, more writers came in the open to complain that the union was benefiting over their sweat.
The writers alleged that they labour in vain for their contributions to Mawu anthologies as the union was not remitting royalties to authors.
But it appears Mvona did not learn from the two scenarios.
Ten months, afterwards, he has been in the news again for the wrong reasons. A Chichewa Literature textbook he edited was withdrawn from the secondary school curriculum.
The book, titled Kusintha Maganizo ndi Nkhani Zina, contains a short story titled Mdalitso Wabodza which was deemed as immoral in nature and portraying a damaging image of the Roman Catholic Church.
In fact, more allegations cropped up after The Nation newspaper exposed the union for being insensitive to the Catholic Church with a story which discusses hypocrisy, sex scandals and abortions for secondary school learners.
It came to light that some of the short stories anthologised were translated from English to Chichewa without the consent of authors.
The writers alleged that they were never consulted by Mvona when he translated and included their short stories in the book.
They claimed that they only knew about the book when it was out. They alleged further that they have not been paid for the contributions apart from a free copy.
Said one of writers Aubrey Chinguwo: “Mvona did not consult us the writers on what stories to be included in the book. That complicated the issue further. I did not know that my story was in the book until Mvona told me. No one signed a contract. I even told some of my friends whose stories had also been published and they were equally surprised.”
But Mvona has remained mum on the issue, although his lawyer Kuleza Phokoso has filed a case, claiming K320 million compensation for “wrongful decision” to withdraw the book.
He might have the privilege of booking a lawyer to seek for court relief, but the writers whose works were included without consent are helpless although the laws are clear.
The Copyright Act 30 (1) (b) says an author may object to, and seek relief in connection with, any alteration, distortion, mutilation or other modification of the work where: (I) Such act would be or is prejudicial to his honour; or (II) the work is discredited thereby.
So, the question still remains: Who will fight for writers?