A couple of years before I started work in the University of Malawi Library in 1983, there had been a full time person whose job it was to censor material coming into that library. You have to keep in mind that Malawi, in those days, was quite strict, and run with an iron hand by His Excellency The Life President Ngwazi Dr H Kamuzu Banda (H.E. for short), who was more or less a dictator. It was not possible to openly discuss politics – if you did, you might be PI’d (declared a Prohibited Immigrant and given 24 hours to leave the country); there were secret police who could arrest you for very little reason (I was once threatened with arrest for taking an innocent photo in a bar); and a number of books and other material were banned.
The mail was regularly opened. You could tell when this happened, because they stuck the envelopes back down with lumpy glue. Newspapers which happened to include articles which mentioned Malawi in an unfavourable light never appeared on the newsstands. Even Africa on a Shoestring was banned.
In those days, women were not allowed to wear trousers. Lindsey wore trousers when riding our Suzuki 125 trail bike, but she always wrapped a chitenje (the Malawi equivalent of a sarong) over them. It was only polite to do so, as women in villages would become very embarrassed if they saw another woman wearing trousers.
I never really discussed politics at any depth with any Malawian, apart from one time when my Senior Library Assistant Aubrey Dolozi came into my office and for some reason really opened up and told me about his life.
He’d previously been an art teacher in a school north of Zomba, and H.E. had been due to visit. The school was very excited about this, and bunting and flags were arranged on the route to the school.
Aubrey, being an artist, thought that a good way to celebrate the visit would be to display some art, so he painted a picture of the President and stuck that up outside the school.
The secret police visited the school the day before the visit, saw the picture, and promptly arrested Mr Dolozi. He was put in prison, where he remained for two years, never having been formally charged or put on trial. Eventually, someone told him his ‘crime’ had been to paint a picture of the President with too many grey hairs. The inference being that the President was getting old.
As an amusing aside, I’d point out that one of the things someone could be PI’d for was discussing the age of H.E. Officially, he was ageless, and you’ll notice that Wikipedia doesn’t give his birth date. Well, one day we saw a BBC videotape of H.E. meeting Queen Elizabeth II at some Commonwealth conference, somewhere. The Queen shook H.E.’s hand and by way of smalltalk, said “You must be about the same age as my mother, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon.”
Anyway, Mr Dolozi told me that being in prison was the reason he’d lost all his front teeth. In prison, they gave the prisoners low quality food, such as millet. The millet they had was the dregs of the supply, and had lots of little stones in it. Mr Dolozi had cracked his teeth on the stones.
So, things were quite strict, and we accepted all of that before we arrived in the country. And, as I said, there had been a full-time censor who worked in the library. I think that, by the time I arrived there, some things had relaxed a bit, but I would occasionally come across books and other material that had been censored. Malawi was, then, statistically the third poorest country in the world, but such stats had been blacked out of reference books. ‘Officially’, Malawi was thriving very well indeed, thanks to H.E.
I’d occasionally find picture books which had been censored. There were some lovely coffee-table picture books about Africa in the library, but any which featured ‘natives’ in states of undress had been censored in black felt-tip pen. I understood the reasoning behind this – the Malawians saw it as an insult – they saw it in terms of Europeans trying to make out that Africans were uncivilised and couldn’t even dress themselves properly.
However, there was a sort of amusing side to this. This was the sort of thing you’d find, in these very expensive, well-photographed books:
And then, one day I was checking some shelving, and came across the book What the censor saw by John Trevelyan. It’s not the sort of book you’d expect to find in a university library in a country with strict censorship. And anyway, it’s an intriguing title for a book. It’s a catchy title. What, on earth, did the censor see, and if we open the book up, can we read about, and see, what the censor saw? Will it reveal tales of political censorship? Will it show titillating images. Will it show gruesome horrors?
Well…I’ll never know. The Malawian library censor had got to the book before it was placed on the shelves. Many pages were missing. Passages had been deleted. The photographs had black felt-tip all over them. What the censor saw was not revealed.
A couple of months after this, I found myself as the most senior person in charge of the library. The University Librarian was on leave, and the College Librarian was at a conference in Zambia, so as next in line I was in charge. I was working in my wee office when I vaguely became aware of a bit of a commotion somewhere in the library. Then there was a knock on my door, and a delegation of not one, but three, library assistants entered. They looked extremely worried.
“Sir, you must come immediately” [they always called me ‘Sir’ – I didn’t want them to, but they didn’t understand why, so they continued to call me ‘Sir’ and I left it at whatever they wanted].
“What is it?” I asked.
“Sir, please come now!”
So I followed them over to the newspaper section of the library, where there was a highly excited and fairly large group of young students gathered together, reading a newspaper, talking, shouting and wildly gesticulating.
“Sir,” the library assistants continued “These students are reading a newspaper from the United Kingdom which we put on display, and it has information about this country in it, and we may all get into a lot of trouble about it, Sir.”
“Shit!” I thought. “What the freak do I do, here?”
Before I tell you what I did, maybe you can think what you would do in the same circumstances. You’re in charge. You live in a locked-down society in which you are a paid guest. There’s a commotion. People are reading stuff that might cause you, and/or your assistants, serious trouble. Strewth, your library assistants are so worried they think this might be the start of the revolution, or something.
At the same time, you also believe in the power of information. That’s why you went into the libray profession. With information, one can do anything! Without information, what can anyone do? Being an information professional is a noble cause. etc, etc. You consider yourself a lefty, naturally.
[pause]. Don’t read anymore. Tell me what you’d do, in a Comment to this blog post, first.
Really – comment before you read more.
OK, so what did I do?
What did I do? I jumped up and down on the spot, once, and clapped my hands to get everyone’s attention. I asked what the commotion was about, and suggested that everyone remained calm. The students said, words to the effect of, “Sir, this newspaper tells the truth about Malawi. It is not like what we hear every day on Radio Malawi. Did you know that?”
Then, I asked them for the newspaper, which they handed to me, and I glanced at the headline and the article they were reading, which was full of stuff about dictatorship in the Warm Heart of Africa, secret police, murders of ministers, and suchlike…and made a decision. My decision was that I would not make a decision about all of this. I decided I would pass the buck. I told the students, “I will let the University Librarian read this article when he returns from leave, and if he, who is Malawian, decides it’s OK for you to read it some more, I will return it to the newspaper section.”
Then I walked off with the newspaper, to the sound of ‘boos’ from the students.
Would you have done that? What else would you have done?
Anyway, the newspaper in question was left for the librarian. I never saw it again, and it wasn’t ever discussed.
All of this comes to mind because of some censorship I came across recently, on a blog. It made me wonder how I’d deal with possibly objectionable Comments on this blog. So far, I’ve never deleted any Comments on this blog, despite some of them being, well, weird, to say the least.
But I definitely deleted some comments on the spineless? blog I used to write for Heriot-Watt Library. I deleted any porno Comments. I deleted them because it wouldn’t do to have a Heriot-Watt connected website that lead to porno links.
And, I’ll also delete any porno Comments to this blog, if they ever appear. Because such Comments are nothing to do with this blog, and anyone should be able to follow a link from this blog, at work or elsewhere, without fear.
So, twice over, and despite believing that information should be free, I’m a censor too.
Sadly, Aubrey Dolozi passed away several years ago.