Friday, August 10, 2012

A tale of one of Zimbabwe’s war poets

It is the impending 2012 Heroes Holiday in Zimbabwe that reminds one of the 1970s liberation war fighter, Thomas Bvuma. He is, like Alexander Kanengoni and Freedom Nyamubaya, a liberation war poet of remarkable talent and vision. He wrote poems at the war front in between battles either as a pastime or a means to reflect on the war he was participating in. He is still writing and publishing poetry long after the war of liberation and some of his key pieces constantly jog one’s mind.

Using the pen-name Carlos Chombo, Thomas Bvuma wrote the poem “Real Poetry” at the height of the war in the late 1970’s. It eventually got more “visible” publication in the Zimunya-Kadhani edited collection called And NOW the Poets Speak (1981). Musaemura Zimunya and Mudereri Kadhani set out to bring together poems which reflect on the Zimbabwe revolution then.

Bvuma’s “Real Poetry” defines struggle as people’s real poetry. Very reminiscent in content and form to Jorge Rebelo’s poem called “Poem,” “Real Poetry” quickly became a classic of sorts. Zimunya and Kadhani could not “resist using (the poem) as a choric prelude to this selection.” They also “found (in this poem) the power of the intellect, control of rhythm and style well combined and married to idea, action and reaction” and that through it, one recalls the more prominent Angolan war poet, Agostinho Neto himself. Zimunya nad Kadhani also used a section of the poem on the blurb of the cream coloured And Now The poets. “Real Poetry” reads as follows:

The Real Poetry
Was carved by centuries
Of Chains and whips.
It was written in the red streams
Resisting the violence of
“Effective Occupation.”
It was engraved in killings in Katanga,
In the betrayals of Mau-Mau,
In the countless anti-people coups
Its beat was the bones in Bissau
Its metaphors massacres in Mozambique
Its alliterations agony in Angola
Its form and zenith
Fighting in Zimbabwe.
The Real Poetry
Is sweat scouring
The baked valley of the peasant’s back
Down to the starved gorge of his buttocks
It bubbles and boils
In the blisters of the farm labourer
It glides in the greased hands
Of the factory worker
Not a private paradise
Nor an individual inferno
But the pain and pleasure
Of People in Struggle.

Viva O Povo!

This is a fighting poem which insists, through both content and form, that poetry should be revolutionary and popular. Poetry must spring from life’s struggles and not from back-sitting imagination and fantasies. Life is a struggle and as you fight upwards, you come across your reality (which needs working on) and that is your indisputable poem!

More of Thomas Bvuma’s poems were later published in Every Stone That Turns (1999) almost two decades later! They are arranged in a way that sets out to capture the changing times from war to Independence.

Of course you still find the emotion of the founding poem “Real Poetry.” Brought together under one cover, these are Bvuma’s poems of his life. They have benefited from writing and rewriting and one cannot easily single out the core poems of this collection which were written between 1979 and 1981.

The first section “The Snake Never Stirs” explains especially what it meant physically and spiritually to be in the war of liberation. The guerilla war had both its serious and light sides which however dovetail.

In the poem “Private affair” the shell shocked guerillas huddle together to relieve themselves, finding comfort in a performance that is supposed to be very private:
Remember the moment of mirth
We snatched and shared in gloom

We squatted there at dusk
A metre among the bushes
Emptying our bowels…

Bvuma’s is an ability to dwell on the light side of the serious, making you want to laugh and cry at the same time. As “Private affair” ends, the persona expresses a wish – “the revolution would not socialize shitting”. That is a wholly well packed idiom. The hope is that independence would give citizens the decency and freedom to pursue individual ambitions. Self-rule wouldn’t end up with people collectively making their social environment foul and uninhabitable.

In poem “Mafaiti” the rigors of war turn man into beast fed on by “plumb lice”. Important here is the manner in which Mafaiti remains as humane as possible. He is a man who realistically understands what he has lost by joining the struggle. When one laughs as one reads that poem, one is laughing in celebration of the ability of the human spirit to dig deep to unknown resources in order to hold on.

If the first section is a sweet-painful celebration of guerrilla-hood, section “Stub in the backyard” is as bitter with betrayal of certain post independence betrayals. The most painful part of the sectional title poem reads:

At times life
Pains like a part smoked
Stub tossed into the backyard

However, Bvuma has an overpowering ability to clutch to something (idiom or reality) useful in any seemingly hopeless situation. In one such poem, he employs the image of the shell of a snail -especially its ability to weather the hard times and remain the sole stubborn remnant of a life that was:

The shell lives on
Long after the life
It sheltered is gone

The shell lives on
Brightening a shelf
In some vain room

When you get to section “Neither Fruit Nor Shelter”, especially the poem “Marrow”, Bvuma attempts a subtle but well driven analysis of the relationship between Africa and the Western World in the neo-colonial era. Pursuing a faint Fanonian analysis of post-colonial Africa, Bvuma shows how the ideological mental remnants of colonialism hamper Africa from developing a viable local vision. Western post-modern and humanist vision denies Africa a meaningful connection with history and shatters opportunity for Africans to reclaim what they lost through slavery and colonialism. And so the persona goes to the “marrow” of the issue:

Lies obscene on her back
One leg pegged to Europe
The other to America
One handcuffed to Japan
The other clutching
At straws and fireflies

Thus Bvuma champions a genre of nationalist poetry, rigorous, questioning and always confirming the basic truth that humanity is always in motion and there is no tradition that should imagine itself as “the end of history.” More exciting is his ability to see the challenge to open up the economy to the formally marginalized as a stage in the whole ‘war’ of liberation, sweet but full of contradictions as well. As the title Every Stone That Turn suggests, every nation has its own challenges because under every stone that one may overturn, there are new and different scorpions to be dealt with.

By Memory Chirere