Tribute to Legson Kayira: In life and death, no man is an Island

“No man is an island” the poet, John Donne, once wrote; and in the measure of the life of Legson Kayira, the adage is especially true, as I learned of the death of this great man today. For Kayira was not just a young man of yesterday’s moments, but someone whose life touched others in ways that are lifetime memories, as I recall my own experiences with him.

I wrote of Kayira in an online journal 2009, a publication where I spent some time learning how to use the Internet, as that had been my early days of posting online. As a journalist with experience going back more than 50 years, I learned the good and the bad of online journalism in those years from late 2008 and sporadically since. I also received the benefits of finding new friends and getting information about old ones who had either died or had long since simply stayed lodged in the unspoken memories of many years ago.

Kayira gave me a world view that allowed me to move past the provincial way some folks have of looking at others. As a girl from the State of Oregon, when I met him in 1964,  I was 22 years old. My travels had been limited to a quick trip to California two years before and  a long trip directly to the East Coast, then London, for a religious conference, just one year before meeting Kayira.

I met Kayira in the student union building cafeteria at the University of Washington over coffee, where he sat reading a newspaper alone. I sat down and initiated a conversation about what might be going on in the news that day. I recognized him from my political science class, where he seldom volunteered to answer questions and seemed a perennial loner. This was in 1964, when I had returned to college at the University  from two years at Portland State College and a break of two years following an early marriage.

At first Kayira seemed disinterested in conversation, but my eagerness to learn about this young African student soon brought him to answer a few questions that day. From that meeting,  the friendship developed over several years. He came to visit at my home, a small apartment near Volunteer Park in Seattle, where my husband of the time and I lived much of the time we attended the University.  Kayira was clearly struggling, as he dressed simply and seemed particularly excited when we would invite him for a meal.

One day during the early period of my friendship with Kayira, I was walking across campus, weeping when I learned my mother had been hospitalized. I had little money to make the trip to Portland and to stay there for several days, as the family would need during that time. Kayira saw me and asked me why I was crying. In my fret-filled moments, I poured out my grief, of a mother’s mental illness and the confusion and hurt I was experiencing at the time.

He listened intently, this young, sensitive man, to a stream of painful feelings. Then he reached into his pocket and pulled out his check book and said, “How much money do you need to go to Portland? $100? $1000? $10,000?” I thought at the time how insensitive this was, as Kayira wasn’t known to have much money. He smiled and said, “I just got a check from my book publisher. It was a big check.” With that he showed me the entry in the check book, an entry of thousands of dollars.

I accepted $100 and made the journey to Portland, returning a few days later, then some weeks later returned the money. A few weeks afterward, friends gave me a birthday party that included a cross section of University students and others. Kayira was one of those guests. During the celebration, Kayira stood up and with a package in his hand, he said, “I have a gift here for my friend.” Inside the package was his book,  I Will Try that ended up on the New York Times best seller list for 16 weeks.

The book I Will Try related Kayira’s journey across the continent of Africa from Malawai to the Sudan, where he was to meet an American family who was captivated by his story of sacrifice to go to school in the United States.

Legson was bright and stood out in class at the University of Washington, despite the fact he seemed quiet and into himself at the outset. 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.

When I graduated and left the University, within the next two years, sometime in 1967, I lost my address book and consequently contact with Legson Kayira, one of the best and brightest of Africa, but more than that, one of the people who stands above all others in my 71 years of life to date. It is the story of his hardships early in his life, the loss of his siblings, the travel he made across Africa to go to school and his great generosity and kindness at a time in my life that was especially painful.

For Kayira understood loss very well. His compassion was great, and his kindness and understanding I will remember forever. Chet Huntley and David Brinkley had a special on television that related the story of this young man’s life and the journey Kayira had taken from Malawai in the East to Sudan in North with a pot on his head, a Bible and a copy of Pilgrim’s Progress. The journey had taken two years, after he had lost all of his brothers and sisters to disease and starvation. I never knew of these things until I read the book, but some of the publicity about Kayira’s remarkable journey had been available some time before I met him.

Above is the inscription in the book I Will Try writen by Legson Kayira, given to me on my birthday 47 years ago.

After losing contact with Kayira, sporadically I would search for him, until I wrote an article in 2009, which brought the attention of several of his friends. They told me he married twice, moved to Europe, wrote other books. He was unable to realize his dreams of becoming a political leader in Malawai, which is a country with great oppression of its citizens and a severely impoverished population.

I have gone on to live a full life of family and children, became a mental health counselor, teacher, musician and journalist who has written about many events and people. But Kayira remains a part of the memories of a young woman whose life was changed in ways even Kayira would never know. As time and distance, the needs of his immediate family, and memories that fade, brought no real direct contact with him over the years, friends of his wrote me in 2009 and told me how Kayira had touched their lives as well.

One life touches another. No man is an island. Legson Kayira, born in Malawi, but a man whose life influenced the lives of many, a citizen of the world and a man for all seasons of life, and the memory of whom I will cherish forever.

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