In this wide-ranging interview, multiple award-winning Zimbabwean journalist, editor, musician and scholar, Moses Magadza (MM), talks to celebrated Zimbabwean writer, Ignatius Mabasa (IM), about many issues, including: Mabasa's iconic PhD; promoting the vernacular; some of his books; religion and creative writing; the power of storytelling; the infamous tiff between the late Les Enfant Terrible of literature, Dambudzo Marechera and Aaron Chiundura Moyo, the current state of writing and publishing in Zimbabwe; and being a musician.
MM: You are the first Zimbabwean to write a PhD thesis on a subject studied in English in your vernacular Shona at Rhodes University, South Africa. What inspired this?
IM: There must be a first of something, right? The Shona PhD thesis had to be a first. It had to be done. Zimbabwe got its independence in 1980. We are now a 40-year-old country but we still don’t value our languages. I think it’s a scandal and a shame!
By looking down upon our languages, we are perpetuating the cognitive domination that existed during colonialism where the colonised depended on the coloniser’s concepts and categories to think about his own reality. Then what is the value of political independence if we are looking at the world through borrowed paradigms? At what point will we tell our own stories - if we ever get to tell them - because we are forgetting them and forgetting ourselves? Chinua Achebe says the story is our escort and without it we are blind. There is a mental battle going on, unfortunately in this ideological battle, most Africans are like the wolf that ate its own tail thinking it had caught a very fat squirrel.
MM: This matter about your iconic PhD has gone viral on social media across the world. How do you respond to people’s reaction to you – almost like Ngugi WA Thiongo – doing a major work in your vernacular?
IM: My PhD written in Shona has shown me that there are a lot of Africans out there who identify with the problem of being mentally colonised. There is a strong desire to decolonise the mind. The challenge is that most key institutions - like schools and universities, government departments in charge of arts and culture, and the media - are unwilling to decolonise because the decolonisation agenda is not appealing to the cocacolonised mind. We still think wisdom speaks in English. We are proud when our children are articulate in English yet look at us blankly when we talk to them in indigenous languages. Our governments must understand the nexus between language and development. Borrowing is not sowing.
MM: Your thesis is titled “Chave Chemutengure Vhiri Rengoro: Husarungano Nerwendo Rwengano Dzevashona". In English, the title equates to "The folktale in confrontation with a changing world”. Please say more about your topic and your thrust.
IM: Chemutengure is a deceptively simple indigenous folksong composed when the whites came into Zimbabwe with their many wagons. The song effectively serves as art, media, theory, as well as a critique of capitalism and colonialism. Unfortunately, as part of Africa’s heritage and indigenous knowledge system, Chemutengure has not been carefully studied in African schools and tertiary institutions alongside other national narratives and symbols.
Chemutengure is “pedagogy of the oppressed,” and critiques the need for Africans to pry, as Last Moyo (2020) puts it, “the grip of Eurocentric, Western-centric, and monocultural universalism to a more progressive cultural politics of a multicultural, inclusive, emancipatory theory and pedagogy.”
If Chemutengure is an indigenous folksong that was created to critique, to analyse, to document, to generate communal and national dialogue – it means the so-called “primitive” indigenous people without the aid of European education and knowledge could make sense of an observed reality and guide the collection and evaluation of evidence.
Chemutengure is a knowledge product that fights against what Walter Mignolo described as the “inscribing conceptualization of knowledge to a geopolitical space (Western Europe) and erase(d) the possibility of even thinking about a conceptualization and distribution of knowledge ‘‘emanating’’ from other local histories.”
MM: What did you learn from writing your thesis?
IM: I learnt that it is okay to practice epistemic disobedience. I discovered that our fear of the gatekeeping in academia is also a design in the colonial system that stands in the way of intellectualising and theorising in African languages. I thank open-minded academics like Professor Russell Kaschula, one of my supervisors for the trailblazing work he is doing to intellectualise African languages. But here in Zimbabwe we need an academic revolution and even learn from our Chinese friends on how much they value and use their languages for development.
MM: Did you do your thesis as a writer or a scholar and how does the writer in you relate with the scholar in you - which is stronger?
IM: Initially I wanted to do a PhD in creative writing, because I am a writer and a storyteller. When I applied to one of the universities in South Africa that offers PhD studies in creative writing, they didn’t seem interested in indigenous language creative writing. A Professor friend of mine, Flora Veit-Wild, told me about auto ethnography. This is a way of doing research about one’s culture, not as an outsider (the way anthropologists from Europe used to study our cultures), but as an insider and active participant of that culture.
Auto ethnography as a methodology is also a product that demands very high levels of creative writing. I read a few articles on auto ethnography and just loved it. I think it is what most of arts and culture practitioners in former colonies should be doing in big numbers – because it allows us to build our knowledge systems as well as to reflect and think critically about processes that we consider ordinary. So, my thesis is a great conversation between the writer and the scholar in me.
MM: You burst on the literary scene in 1994 with Shona poems in Tipeiwo Dariro. Could you reflect a little on that first writing project?
IM: Tipeiwo Dariro is actually one of my many poems that I wrote after being frustrated by lack of publishing opportunities and being denied a voice as an aspiring young writer. It is a plea for a space in a sphere that is dominated by established voices. I had been writing poems and being published in magazines and literary journals – and those poems published in the different publications were some type of validation that I had what it takes to be considered a formally published writer.
It was after meeting with Chirikure Chirikure on a radio show that I read some of my poems. I can’t remember who else was there among budding writers, but after the radio show, Chirikure, who besides being a poet himself was also working for College Press Publishers as an editor, asked us to submit some poems to be considered for publishing. Tipeiwo Dariro was published in 1993.
MM: You then published Mapenzi, a novel. How did this book impact the landscape in Shona literature?
IM: Mapenzi was my first novel. It was published in 1999. It was a result of a wonderful opportunity I got to be taught the history of the Shona novel by the late Professor Emmanuael Chiwome. Having been raised by my grandmother’s folktales, and then discovering Shona novels when I was about eight years old – I got the opportunity to see the trends of the development of the Shona novel including how the early writers were influenced by oral literature. So, during the lectures by Professor Chiwome, my colleagues were writing notes to pass the exam, but for me as a budding writer, I had found a very rare opportunity to get guidance on how to write a novel that avoided the many weaknesses found in the Shona novel.
So, you find that from the title “Mapenzi” you are confronted by an almost surreal world that at the same time allows the reader to be tossed in a vortex of psychological debris. The style is almost unlike anything one had seen in a Shona novel – it is a fragmented story that is so sincere in how it critiques society in post-independence Zimbabwe. The storyline is so many things bedevilling an independent state. In a way the moral, political, economic and social decadence in Mapenzi stinks to the core.
So, I think Mapenzi was a success because it ditched the narrative style that had become associated with the Shona novel. The use of madness as a device to drive the story allows for so many possibilities and even allows readers to feel safe in their own madness.
MM: Some people have described your other novel, Ndafa Here? as a feminist project? How do you respond to this characterisation of the novel?
IM: It is very true. Actually, when I wrote Ndafa Here? I was very worried that I was going to be attacked for trying to speak for women, yet I had to because I was witnessing the cruellest and dehumanising things that were happening to two women that I knew – and these things were being done by other women. Again, like Mapenzi – I think the success of Ndafa Here? comes from the way it does not gloss over things that make other writers feel are too sensitive to write.
Literature must speak the truth or shut up – especially when it chooses to be advocacy literature like Ndafa Here? I met a woman in Harare who approached me and asked if I was Ignatius Mabasa. I said yes – and she sighed and said something like: “Thank you for writing the Ndafa Here? story. It’s my story – you were writing about me.”
She went on to tell me about how her mother-in-law and sisters-in-law ganged up against her and caused her divorce. She ended up in tears.
MM: You also wrote the novel Imbwa yemunhu. Now that title! What was going on?
IM: Imbwa yemunhu is a very spiritual and experimental novel. It is the only Shona novel I know that takes place in locations and settings that are spiritual. When you read the book, you will realise that when we judge people we have no time to love them, but if we sincerely love people, we give them medicine to heal. Musa, the protagonist is a “failure” in life because he is running away from an old man with a pack of dogs who is only visible to him. Musa gets labelled “a dog” because he is considered such a huge failure who at 40 is failing to get married and settle down. When Musa finds love, it is a married woman who is desperate to escape her marriage to a homosexual husband. The novel seems to be asking, “Who is without sin? Let him be the first to throw a stone!”
MM: Imbwa yemunhu is often called an antinovel. Talk a little about that.
IM: These are perceptions of critics and other learned people. I am not sure why they would call it an antinovel. I know that the style is different – the setting is crazy and the storyline very experimental. It brings together visions, dreams, talking cockroaches, songs, poems and still allows the reader moments to laugh. All I know is that of my four novels – Imbwa yemunhu is very special to me.
MM: Your other works, including the latest novel Ziso Rezongororo, have often been called extended Christian sermons. How do you respond to that?
IM: I guess I have always wanted to be a preacher. I am a lay preacher, and I love the word of God. As you know, we carry ideologies of who we are, where we live, what we love and read as well as the education we will have received. I guess this is why my works have such a strong aroma of Christ. I consider creative writing as a gift to influence society and in line with the biblical command that each one of us must use their gifts for the benefit of others.
As you might know, the experiences of an artist have a way of following him in his writings whether consciously or unconsciously. My grandfather was a preacher and from when I was eight years old I used to read the Bible to him because his sight was failing. So besides being a child of my grandmother’s folktales, I loved the stories that I encountered in the Bible.
MM: You are a pious man. How do you juggle creative writing and your religious life as a Christian?
IM: I am not sure why you are asking this question, but I guess it could be to do with the belief that most people associate with artists – that they are an unpredictable and weird lot who talk to themselves or argue with their characters. Here I am thinking of Charles Mungoshi’s Garabha in Waiting for the Rain. As for me, I write and create because God has given me the spirit to create, to teach, to challenge, to disturb, to nudge and even be silly and cause comic relief.
I identify a lot with Exodus 31. I guess this is why you can sense the aroma of Christ in what I write and in my worldview.
MM: You are also a story teller on stage and radio. What does that achieve that the written book cannot?
IM: Storytelling in front of an audience is the real deal! In the beginning was the word. Of course, when the Bible says this it is talking about Jesus, but for us as a people, before the written word, God spoke and we spoke too.
I started telling stories before I could read or write. My grandmother told me stories that she heard from her mother and her grandmother. All those were not written, but stored in their heads. Now here is the power of the spoken story – it is alive and flexible. It is not fixed but it responds to situations and circumstances. It changes as society changes and that can make it very rich and relevant to the people of any given period of history.
I love live storytelling because I get to see the responses from my listeners. It energises me as a storyteller and allows the spirit of the story to envelope the teller and the audience. This is why stories traditionally were told in a dimly lit hut after supper. They were a performance that relied so much on tone and pitch of voice as well as body movements. The atmosphere would just become alive.
I remember how after a story session we would be so afraid to go to our sleeping quarters because the rustling leaves outside would make us think that the rogue hyena had escaped from the story world into our real world! Stories are better when told than when written.
MM: How does your work as a Shona novelist and a fabulist relate with your work at the University of Zimbabwe where you teach in Media studies?
IM: I teach digital storytelling, filmmaking, photojournalism, global media industries among other courses. All these are ways of storytelling. The only difference is that they are visual. So, I am very much at home and I am even challenged to explore new ways of storytelling – especially transmedia storytelling.
MM: How do you think your philosophy of life has been captured in your work so far?
IM: This is a difficult question. It has not been much about my philosophy as an individual, but about who we are as a people because none of us is as good as all of us. We need to see how our God-given values as Africans have been captured by capitalism such that we have become shallow in our relationships, in our languages and our thinking. But that is not who we are. Munhu haasi muzvinhu, asi ari muvanhu nehunhu. No matter how well we speak English or bleach our skins, we will never become white people. And if you look at it, you will see that the West is now sick and tired of itself and they want us to be like them.
MM: More recently, you wrote an essay about the tiff between writers the late Dambudzo Marechera and Aaron Chiundura Moyo in the early 1980s as regards the place of Shona language in literature. What is the major thrust of your argument on the issue between Chiundura and Marechera?
IM: As a Shona language author and advocate I didn’t take lightly the contempt expressed by Dambudzo Marechera for the Shona language and its writers. Marechera is alleged to have dismissed Shona author Aaron Chiundura Moyo on two separate occasions, saying, “Aaron munyori, he is not a writer.” Like I pointed out in my essay published by Brittle Paper, through the statement, Marechera was condescending and promoting the philosophy of imperialists who took English to be superior to the “native,” his being, language and culture.
Marechera scholars have argued that his statement was banter. I argue that treating Marechera’s utterances as banter demonstrates how effective Marechera is in exploiting cultural practices such as jokes, drunkenness, “eccentric antics” and postmodern deniability as platforms for distinguishing himself from the “village” other.
In Marechera’s fight for recognition and relevance, the local is inferior and the global superior. Marechera used the English language as a hegemonic tool to shut out narratives by the muted subaltern and remove their dignity and confidence, while also expecting cultural affirmation from them. There is no doubt that Marechera was a genius, but he mobilized the same qualities to become an agent for the exclusion of the Shona language and its knowledge systems.
MM: What have been the turning points in your life as an artist?
IM: Having my novel Mapenzi selected by the Zimbabwe International Book Fair as one of Zimbabwe’s best 75 books of the century. Being awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to teach in the USA in 1999. Being invited by the San Francisco International Poetry Festival to go to America to read my Shona poems in 2009. Being appointed by the University of Manitoba as writer and storyteller in residence in 2010. Sharing a NAMA award with Charles Mungoshi for the best creative work for my novel Imbwa yemunhu in 2014. Having my fourth novel Ziso rezongororo published by Oxford University Press who coincidentally published the very first Shona novel by Solomon Mutswairo titled Feso.
MM: What is the current state of writing and publishing in Zimbabwe?
IM: The writing is getting better and going international – see the likes of Tsitsi Dangarembga, Petina Gapah, Tendai Huchu, Novuyo RosaTshuma, NoViolet Bulawayo and others. However, domestically the publishing is getting weaker and weaker. We have lost the ground gained after independence.
We have seen local publishing houses close or scale down operations. Zimbabwe Publishing House, Baobab Books, The Literature Bureau are dead. While Mambo Press is still there, it is no longer as vibrant as it used to be. The Zimbabwe International Book Fair too is on its knees. The Budding Writers Association of Zimbabwe which played a key role in mentoring and developing writers also died.
We have efforts to support budding writers by the Writers International Network, but it needs organised support from those ministries charged with arts and culture. A nation that does not invest in telling its own stories will soon become colonised because cultural productions are not just a type of ideology, but hegemony as well. Besides de-colonisation, we need to have a de-westernisation project at a national level.
MM: You are also a musician. What inspires you and what have you achieved in this regard?
IM: I am a poet who loves to blend poetry with music. I have named my poetry with music – gospoetry because it is gospel poetry with music. I have done three albums – the first two were with Ngaavongwe Records and the third one I did independently. I see poetry served with music as a beautiful and enjoyable way of communicating. I have received good airplay on radio and I have people who still treasure the poems up to today – especially the song “Yadhakwa nyika” that I did with my friend Albert Nyathi.