Although the world will not recognise his death, the world lost a great man. Boston Mbale (51) passed away yesterday. Boston was an artist who lived next door to my great friend Saulos Jali in the large slum of Ndirande, Malawi. The last time we met, Mbale was suffering from asthma and breathed heavily. Books were piled up around him. Books about Rembrandt, Seurat and the French Impressionists. Obviously, Boston was pleased to receive a visitor from the Netherlands, the land of Vincent van Gogh, the painter he admired most.
Boston Mbale was born in Chitipa, the border triangle of Malawi, Zambia and Tanzania. He attended art training in Lusaka, Zambia and was a teacher in art history at a high school in Malawi for a long time. It was the first and probably only time the poor children in his class heard something about the Renaissance or Surrealism. Boston gave them pencils and asked them to draw large works from the European tradition.
Poor children, yes. Boston refused to work for rich kids. Later he opened a painting school in Ndirande, which he closed down after some time because only students from the rich district of Nyambadwe attended his classes.
Fellow Malawians didn’t understand Boston very well, as he probably would not be understood in The Netherlands. While many Malawians were catching and eating birds during the hot summer months, Boston put buckets of water in his garden to give the birds the opportunity to drink. He was strictly vegetarian. Meat eaters, so he thought, are predators, like the big meat eaters in the wild. Vegetarians are mild and soft as cows and sheep. They do not fight. It is the duty of man to protect the animals, not to eat them. Boston Mbale reminded me of the Holy Francis of Assisi, preaching to the birds.
It is not easy to be an artist in Malawi. There are only two places In the country where art is exhibited and sold. Therefore, Mbale made a living by making calendars and posters for the tourist industry. In the 1980s, he received an assignment from the Government. He travelled throughout Malawi and made an inventory of artistic expressions which he found in remote areas. Travelling around while painting, interviewing ordinary Malawians and taking photographs was the most inspiring thing he had ever done.
The last years he struggled to survive.
Boston lived in Ndirande, an area that he detested because of its noise, its pollution and its insecurity. But he couldn’t leave Ndirande, because he needed to be close to his potential customers. Boston would have loved leave the city and retire to the countryside. Just to sit and paint, like Vincent van Gogh in the Camargue.
Boston already possessed a piece of land, on the shore of the evergreen Shire River. Later, he told us, he would leave Ndirande and live there, among the villagers, with his his easel, brushes and paint. It was not awarded to him. Boston Mbale will be buried today at the cemetery of HHI off Chileka Road.