Echoing Silences: Zimbabwean Writing Today

Ranka Primorac, New York University in London

In late March 2005, days before Zimbabwe’s latest parliamentary elections, there was little in the everyday life of Zimbabwe’s capital Harare that seemed out of the ordinary, despite the pre-election tensions that hung over the city like an invisible shroud. Although the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) had, in previous months, protested against violent and unfair treatment at the hands of Robert Mugabe’s government, it had decided not to boycott the parliamentary contest after all, hoping against all odds that the presence of external observers would help to level the playing field during polling. Robert Mugabe’s ruling ZANU (PF) party, on the other hand, wanted both victory and full legitimacy – and was therefore triumphant when international observer delegations declared that the weeks surrounding the election had been free of violence and visible intimidation. By now, the appropriations of white farmland that had attracted so much international attention had been reduced to a trickle, and the controversial operation of ‘cleaning up’ Zimbabwe’s cities by demolishing the informal dwellings of the urban poor, had not yet begun. In government-sponsored media, the relentless stream of anti-western rhetoric and home-grown nativist nationalism increased its pitch: the ZANU (PF) pre-election adverts, for example, insisted on reducing the nation’s entire post-independence history to a stream of glorious opportunities to vote for Robet Mugabe and his party.(1) For most ‘ordinary’ Zimbabweans, however, the everyday struggle for survival continued unabated. Around election-time, petrol was somewhat easier to find than usual; shops were filled with food, but the prices of basic items still ran into five and six figures; and the twin evils of soaring unemployment and the AIDS pandemic remained an unspoken presence in most everyday transactions.

Against such a background, on a short visit, I tried to discern the voices of literary texts and writers in a cultural field undergoing rapid and violent change. What I found was a series of silences and appropriations.

In the past quarter of a century, Zimbabwe has become something of an African literary power-house, producing significant bodies of literature in three languages (English, Shona and Ndebele), and a string of internationally-known literary names and texts. These include the maverick poet and fiction writer Dambudzo Marechera, whose House of Hunger helped to usher Zimbabwean fiction into the postcolonial era; the poet, novelist and political columnist Chenjerai Hove, widely known for his lyrical first novel Bones; the fictional chronicler of Zimbabwean masculinities, Shimmer Chinodya; the internationally-acclaimed author of Nervous Conditions, Tsitsi Dangaremnga; and the taboo-breaking feminist novelist Yvonne Vera. During the third decade of independence (which came to Zimbabwe in 1980), and at a time of Zimbabwe’s stand-off with Tony Blair and the West, strategic references to internationally-acclaimed names such as these have been used by government media to lend credibility to Zimbabwe’s official nationalist ideology of the moment.

In an article which appeared in the government-sponsored Sunday Mail of 27 March 2005, for example, photographs of Dangarembga and Marechera are lined up alongside a picture of the ZANU (PF) politician Aeneas Chigwedere. The article, titled ‘Schools can get all books they need’, celebrates the quarter-century of Zimbabwe’s College Press and extols the (undeniable) advances made in the field of education since Zimbabwe’s independence. The article, however, conforms to the ZANU cultural policy by stressing the officially-proclaimed need for ’75 percent local content in our education system’, and the picture arrangement implies that the nationalist historian Chigwedere is an author of the same rank and kind as Dangarembga and Marechera. The article thus appropriates the two fiction authors’ names as signifiers for ‘Zimbabwe’s national cultural achievement’, while symultaneously failing to mention that Dangarembga’s and Marechera’s anti-colonial texts may also be read as scathing critiques of precisely the kind of masculinist nationalism currently promulgated by Robert Mugabe and his party.

When, weeks after my visit to Zimbabwe, the novelist Yvonne Vera died unexpectedly in Canada, a similar strategy was employed in the obituary published in the Zimbabwean Herald on 13 April. The author (Wonder Guchu) praises Vera’s achievements as a writer and praises in particular her woman-centred last novel, The Stone Virgins – although he takes care to stress, somewhat incongruently, that Vera writes ‘not as a woman but a writer with a conscience’. What he pointedly omits from mention is that this very novel is the first Zimbabwean fictional text openly to describe and condemn the Mugabe government-initiated violence against civilians that took place in the province of Matabeleland in the first decade of independence.

At that time, one of the Mugabe government’s most outspoken literary critics was the novelist and former liberation war fighter Alexander Kanengoni. Kanengoni was a member of ZANU (PF)’s guerrilla army between 1974 and 1980, and his fictional texts are based on his liberation war experiences. His first novel for adults, When the Rainbird Cries (1987), exposes the combination of guerrilla greed, malice and incompetence that threatened to derail the nationalist cause at grassroots level during the armed struggle, even as its national-level leaders remained at a distance from the actual fighting in neighbouring Zambia and Mozambique. His next novel, the 1997 Echoing Silences was even more hard-hitting. The novel relates the experiences of the traumatised former guerrilla Tinashe, and it contains in its closing pages an explicit indictment of the official nationalist version of Zimbabwe’s history:

It all began with silence. We deliberately kept silent about some truths, no matter how small, because some of us felt that we would compromise our power. This was how the lies began because when we came to tell the history of the country and the history of the struggle, our silences distorted the story and made it defective. Then the silence spilled into everyday lives of our people and translated itself into fear which they believe is the only protection that they have against imaginary enemies when [sense?] we have taught them to see standing behind their shoulders. They are no longer able to say what they want.(2)

These are powerful and damning words. By the early 2000s, however, Kanengoni had made a surprising u-turn, and became a key cultural spokesperson of the Mugabe government. The authority of being a former guerrilla has now been put in the service of a narrowly political cause, and thus – in the eyes of many – severely compromised. In 2003, Kanengoni published a newspaper article stating that he had met Mugabe in person during the war, and could bear witness to his strength, consistency and commitment, especially when it came to ‘the land issue’. Kenangoni has recently been awarded a piece of land under the government’s ‘fast track land redistribution scheme’ scheme, and is now a farmer and – it is rumoured – a member of Zimbabwe’s dreaded Central Intelligence Organisation. Intrigued by the cracks and discrepancies in his extraordinary biography, in March 2005 I obtained Kenangoni’s contact telephone number through mutual acquaintances and called him to arrange a meeting: I was eager to have a conversation about literature and culture, and find out what he thought about the new generation of Zimbabwean writers, and about Zimbabwe’s literary future.

Initially, over the phone, Kanengoni was voluble, welcoming and friendly: he joked about the tense pre-election atmosphere in the city, and shrewdly agreed to meet me the day after the poll. On the day of the meeting, however, he phoned to re-schedule the meeting, saying vaguely that he was busy ‘writing about the election’. When he failed to show up for the re-scheduled meeting, I contacted him and found that he was out of town on official business: my attempts to arrange for yet another alternative met with a polite but unyielding silence. At a time when, for many, the disappointment of the opposition’s second defeat at the parliamentary polls was beginning to sink in (MDC lost by a narrow margin mainly due to the polling outcome in the rural constituencies), there appeared, indeed, there was little one could profitably say on any topic – and Kanengoni’s silence seemed to reverberate with traces of missed opportunities and unspoken meanings.

And so, instead of having a conversation about books with a writer, I went for a walk in the city centre and made a tour of some of its bookshops. In the 1980s and 90s, Zimbabwe’s publishing industry was booming. Commenting on Zimbabwe’s reading cultures of that time – and in contrast to the stereotypical image of African ‘bookless societies’ - the novelist Stanley Nyamfukudza has written:

The levels of serious interest, understanding and cultural sophistication that were assumed from the reading public even in magazines and newspapers was much higher than is imaginable at present. Authors could write serious short stories and poems without pandering much to the popular taste and be surprised to have them published without much struggle. International magazines were easily obtainable in the bookshops at affordable prices. Publishers opened up to service the requirements of the newly liberalized society and there was an explosion in the size of the educational book sector. Much Zimbabwean and other fiction and scholarly books was also published.(3)

In 2005, there is no reason to suppose that the cultural sophistication of the Zimbabwean reading public has diminished; the range of available reading matter, on the other hand, is much depleted; and in a crumbling economy, books of all kinds must be beyond the financial reach of most. In Harare’s city centre, I found that several long-established bookshops (including the Book Centre just off First Street) had closed down. Others were still there, but stocked mostly with stationery and textbooks.

This is not to say that the shelves marked ‘African fiction’ are completely empty, though. Selected canonical texts by Vera, Marechera, Nyamfukudza and other Zimbabwean writers in English are still on sale, and part of the school and university syllabi. Popular fiction by local favourites such as the crime writer David Lemon is also still available. But among them on the half-empty bookshelves there is now an increasing number of self-help, self-published volumes with titles such as ‘The Chief’s Guide to Organic Love and Relationships,’ and ‘If God is All Powerful and Omnipotent, Why does Evil Seem to Prosper’. Zimbabwe is a troubled society, and those who can afford the luxury of spending money in a bookshop appear to be in need of what may be termed axiological texts: - books that promise to have an immediate, practical impact on everyday lives. Among those are also the politically correct texts by authors seeking self-promotion by toeing the ruling-party line. In a series of self-published popular novels, Claude Maredza openly promotes the essentialist, nativist view of race-relations that underpins the official ZANU (PF) mythology (‘Dave, like all whites, also did not want to use his own money.’)(4). In a supposedly academic volume entitled Africa Micro, Macro and the Diaspora, Lovermore Kurotwi presents the same kind of thinking in the guise of polemical, quasi-academic discourse. He writes: ‘I don’t know about you but me really thinks that this democracy trash to what keeps Africa in conflict all the time [sic]. Its [sic] not the way we know governance. Its [sic] alien to us. The sooner we realise this the better.’(5)

With Yvonne Vera gone, Kanengoni ‘writing about elections’, government critic Chenjerai Hove in exile in Norway, and other established writers such as Shimmer Chinodya, Tsitsi Dangarembga and Charles Mungoshi either silent (in fictional terms), or slow in producing major new texts, the initial post-independence phase that saw the flowering of Zimbabwean fiction in English has now drawn to a close.(6) The most vibrant and promising new literary voice – Brian Chikwava, winner of the 2004 Caine Prize for a short story entitled ‘Seventh Street Alchemy’ – speaks from the diaspora; and perhaps it is from that direction that a second wave of post-independence Zimbabwean literary creativity is most realistically to be hoped for.

(1) For an exposition of the key features of the currently official version of the Zimbabwean nationalist discourse, see Terence Ranger, ‘Rule by Historiography: the Struggle over the Past in Contemporary Zimbabwe’, in Robert Muponde and Ranka Primorac (eds), Versions of Zimbabwe: New Approaches to Literature and Culture (Harare, Weaver Press, 2005), pp. 217-243.
(2) Alexander Kanengoni, Echoing Silences (Harare, Baobab Books, 1997), pp 87-88.
(3) Stanley Nyamfukudza, ‘To Skin a Skunk: Some Observations on Zimbabwes’ Intellectual Development’, in Mai Palmberg and Ranka Primorac (eds), Skinning the Skunk: Facing Zimbabwean Futures (Uppsala, Nordiska Afrikainstitutet, 2005), p. 17.
(4) Claude Maredza, When God Went on Leave (Harare, Norumedzo Enterprises, 2002), p. 41.
(5) Lovemore Kurotwi, Africa Micro, Macro & the Diaspora (Harare, G. L. Trade International, 2001), p. 50.
(6) On this, see Preben Kaarsholm, ‘Coming to Terms with Violence: Literature and the Development of a Public Sphere in Zimbabwe’, in Robert Muponde and Ranka Primorac (eds), Versions of Zimbabwe: New Approaches to Literature and Culture (Harare, Weaver Press, 2005), pp. 3-23.