I met him over coffee as he thumbed through his text. We shared a political science class and friendship. We lost contact with lost addresses. But I will never forget the best and brightest of Africa, Legson Kayira, as I read the news from Malawi.
Legson was a quiet, contemplative man, a loner, discreet and polite in all matters. After several coffees together, I brought him home for dinner where my late husband and I enjoyed his company and friendship. We became good friends. On my birthday, which is in late March, he gave me a book. I remember Legson as I sit and thumb through the pages. Legson Kayira, a man of great promise to Africa, and lost to it forever it seems.
Legson Kayira was no ordinary young man. I didn't know how famous he was when I met him. To me he was just another foreign student. I had majored in Middle Eastern and African studies along with journalism and English before my transfer to the University of Washington, so I had familiarity with culture and interest in the people. Legson was bright and stood out in class. His goal was to become a politician or leader in his country Malawi and a writer as well. He spoke of his goals with great pride, but never boasted about his background. That I had to find out on my own.
One day I received devastating news from family and had no money to get to Portland 350 miles away. As I came across the campus, having just learned the news by letter, I saw Legson and wept in his arms. “No matter, good friend,” he said. “How much money would you need?” Now Legson was always struggling with funds, so I wondered why he asked. He continued, “Come with me to my bank. Would you like one thousand, two thousand, how many dollars do you want?” I was stunned. Then he told me what had happened.
Book by Legson Kayira that was on the New York Times bestseller list for 16 weeks in 1965. Well-worn and loved book of young man from Africa
The young man from Africa had sold his book and received a check and 10 advance copies. He had received a big check from the publisher and the book was now on the best-seller list. He never told me that before, but now grinned at my amazement. “Yes, “ he said, “It's true. I wanted us to be friends the same way you did, without fame or anything in the way.” It turned out Legson had been in the news before, in a very big way.
A walk across Africa from Malawi in the East to the Sudan with a pot on his head, a Bible and copy of Pilgrim's Progress made an American couple take notice. They had met him in the Sudan and had learned of his walk that had taken him two years to complete. He had made the distance, after losing all of his brothers and sisters to disease and starvation, with the goal of going to school in America. The couple contacted a junior college in Washington State, and eventually with scholarship and special funds, Legson made the journey to America, then with transfer to the University of Washington where I met him in early 1964. By that time his story had been on Huntley-Brinkley news, but that was before I became his friend so I never knew of that fame.
This is the inscription in the book I Will Try written by its author Legson Kayira, given to me on my birthday 44 years ago.
On my birthday in 1965 Legson gave me a copy of his book I Will Try, which ended up on the New York Times best-seller list for 16 weeks. I have it today, and as I look at it I remember Legson. Over the years I tried to find him. I learned he married, moved to Europe, wrote for awhile, then seemed to have disappeared. I asked a young student of mine who went to work at Amnesty International in the early 1990's if she could find him through the United Nations, since it was Legson's goal to work there. But she found no record of him. Later on, in an Internet search, a few years ago, I found mention of Legson in London but could find no phone number or address. He had written several books in the 1970's, then worked as a probation officer, and after that I found no more mention.
Malawai is a desolate country with a starving, helpless population and very little contact with other countries either in Africa or the rest of the world. In many ways it is like Korea, without the awful power of that Asian country, but with the brutality with which it handles opposition. It is considered an oppressive and a struggling country. I remember it as Legson's home, his recollections of its beauty and the thought if he returned there he might not be alive. If he didn't, go home, as the country has been in turmoil for decades, he would long for it, a place he cherished and wrote of so much. Now it is in the news because a charity there opposes Madonna's stated interest in adopting a second child from that country. It also proclaims an election where it requests that journalists present news from a level playing field during an election involving a new progressive party.
Legson Kayira is one life out of Africa. He would be in his mid 60's now, likely not having realized the promise of his youth as intended. His deep faith and gentle heart, his literary skills, his concern and compassion for others and his courage were lost to Africa. But he will never be lost to me for my memories of him remain sharp as I write these words about him.
I think of Legson when I think about Africa, and so it isn't a dark, foreign and terrifying place to me. It is, however, a place where too many souls have likely been lost, like this dear and wonderful man, who never realized his dream to go home and be of service to his people as he had hoped, and as I had hoped for him..
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