You may not have known that Tafataona Mahoso is a published poet. His one and only collection of poems published in Harare by Nehanda Publishers in 1989 is entitled ‘Footprints about the Bantustan.’
When you happen to come across Mahoso in an auditorium, he tends to quickly fold up after the greetings and niceties. He appears to listen to the voice inside the voice of whoever is speaking at the podium. But when he wants to respond, he shoots up and speaks his mind. He has dedicated his life to pursuing the project of demystifying myths, especially western myths on Africa and Africans.
His poetry is just like that! The man is his poetry and the poetry reminds you of the man himself in many ways. Although these poems were published in 1989, there are pieces in there from as far back as 1976.
On the plain white cover of ‘Footprints about the Bantustan’ are four naked footprints of what must be a gigantic walker going down a village path. But when you look closely at the footprints on what appears to be a sandy background, you realise that each footprint roughly assumes the map of Africa. The naked footprints must refer to the usually soulful and unassuming African personality.
These footprints on the sand may also stand for the idea of being fully rooted in Africa, a subject that Mahoso can dwell on at length. He will also talk about the all-embracing African concept of the circle.
Mahoso’s poetry, like most of his other writings, is decidedly about the unequal relationship between what he often terms ‘the North and the South.’ Sometimes Mahoso calls it ‘the North America and Europe against the rest of us.’ Reading these poems, one’s knowledge of the man’s voice is very useful for they are meant to be read aloud. They are rhythmic, cascading and cajoling.
In ‘To The Guardian Angel of Consciousness,’ the persona unravels the whole historic western project of the pacification of Africa and the Third World through lies and the glitter of cheap gadgets. Like that moment in ‘Hard Times,’ the persona sets out to find ‘the facts’ about the relations between the North and the South, to prune out the chaff and get to the bare realities:
“I wanted facts, unslanted, but penetrated like beads
with sinews of analysis:
the ability of the mind to thread issues
out of the paralysis
of denominations, the ability to choose
what is seminal
from what is marginal.”
That could be as well be Mahoso’s chosen forte: to undress imperialism and its machinations. Written in 1979 and revised on July 30 1987, the poem taunts western characters against using haze biblical excuses for the West’s exploitation of ‘the other.’ The persona scoffs at those who threaten the so-called non-believer with the Christians’ devil and hell. The persona also insists on the point that only critical thinking and open rebellion, instead of giving the other cheek, gave birth to Zimbabwe in 1980.
In that poem, the persona who has been to a colonial school rises above the colonial propaganda and sees reality for what it is. What comes out is that the colonial school and its syllabus are not education but a whole project of alienation. The project was not to make the pupil understand where he is but to move him from where he is. That was the only method to make him a perfectly unquestioning servant.
The title poem called ‘Footprints about the Bantustan’ is a single monstrous eight page poem. It swallows and embraces various traditions that you find in each of the other Zimbabwean poets of Mahoso’s generation, ranging from the early nationalistic Chenjerai Hove to Musaemura Zimunya’s sweet-sad romances, through to the combative verses of Freedom Nyamubaya and Thomas Bvuma.
To the persona, all colonized space is a Bantustan, as in Apartheid South Africa. In that case the poem insists that the colonized must dutifully rediscover his fighting spirit so that he can create and name a new reality and identity for himself. All because in the international Bantustan in which we live, there is:
drought and dust here.
I cannot count the footprints of
the tick, now all glossy
from sucking the sick dog.”
Fortunately, the victim in the Bantustan is not lying down on ‘our page of history.’ The Bantustan cannot be a decent destination because it is made for ‘us’ by ‘them.’ However, as the poem suggests, there is need for us to use this tiny space that we are trapped in, to write our rebellious signature and retrace our footprints out of the Bantustan, back to positive history. Using our mission-school-taught handwriting, we must, instead, write our very own signature. The persona in the poem does it in front of the other awestricken villagers:
“I go out to scribble my name
over your footmarks in the dirt: Tafataona:
Before we die yet, we shall have seen…
Before we die yet, we shall have realised…
Why would you name a child so?”
That poem reads much like Aime Cesaire’s ‘Notebook of a Return to My Native Land’ where history becomes a filthy emotion that becomes a beautiful emotion, that becomes life, that carries the once upon victim to an eternal hygiene!
For the Mahoso persona, the challenge that people of the South face is how to turn from victimhood to becoming agents of their own lives and destinies.
The third poem called ‘Zimbabwe’ is quite a bold poem. With it Mahoso critiques what happened in Zimbabwe at independence: reconciliation without compensation. Written in July 1980, the poem shows Mahoso’s bitterness with the new nation’s presumptuous theory of reconciliation. Mahoso asks why we chose to reconcile with those who had not even given up that which they had looted:
“Will the nerve reconcile itself
to the naked knife? By what softness
of heart can we turn
swords into ploughshares
when we never had swords?”
But Mahoso is not through with you yet. His persona asks another question:
“On whose terms, dear commander,
shall the lamb feed together
with the fox? Can the worm bask
in amity with the hoe
which only yesterday cut its spine
Indeed, as events would show, two decades down the road the policy of reconciliation in Zimbabwe was proven to have been ‘a strange hope.’ Its basis had been sunk very far from the real ‘goods’ that define life. As soon as the victims started to reclaim the real ‘real economy,’ Zimbabwe went ablaze!
But Mahoso the poet is not just as tough as teak. He also has some very titillating love poems. He describes man’s love for woman in a mouth-watering way and could challenge even the master of romance Musa Zimunya himself. In ‘Professor’s Cards A, B,C,D,’ Mahoso goes:
“Vivian Mavhaire, since you graduated
I ache like a crater relieved
of its last volcano.”
Mahoso’s love poems praise the African woman as the original woman:
“African woman of the South
you know how to provoke passions
sharper than the flame lily of Zimbabwe.
Your nipples are packed
with nodules of firm sweetness,
like the black raspberry
of the Sabi River ripening
in its wildness.”
Beyond his poetry, Mahoso gives speeches and writes newspaper articles. He was born in 1949 in the Eastern Chimanimani District of Zimbabwe. He holds a Doctorate in History.
+ Memory Chirere