Friday, January 29, 2010
Musaemura Zimunya: ever read his prose?
(reflections by Memory Chirere)
Despite its special place in the Zimbabwean short story canon, Musaemura Zimunya’s ‘Night shift and other stories’ will always need a bold footnote.
Appearing in 1993, it is the only creative prose book by a man who has always written and published mainly poetry since the late 1960’s.
Musaemura Zimunya is clearly Zimbabwe’s leading poet. He is, arguably, the most anthologized of all Zimbabwean poets. He writes poetry both in the English and Shona languages and is also a prominent scholar of Zimbabwean literature. His ‘Those years of Drought and Hunger’ (1982) is considered a pathfinder text on Zimbabwean literature in English.
He broke into print gradually in the 1970’s in periodicals like Two-Tone and Chirimo. Later, he appeared more emphatically in group anthologies like Gwenyambira (1979) and Kizito Muchemwa’s Zimbabwean Poetry in English (1978).
Afterwards’ the floodgates opened in such a record breaking way for Zimunya. He published (and sometimes editing) the following books of poetry: And Now The Poets Speak (1981), Thought Tracks (1982), Kingfisher, Jikinya and other Poems (1982), Country Dawns and City Lights (1985), Samora! (co-authored in 1987), Chakarira Chindunduma (co-authored and edited it in 1985), Birthright (1989), The fate of Vultures (1989), Perfect Poise (1994), Selected Poems of Zimunya (published in a Serbian language and in English in 1995).
In an ‘afterword’ to the Serbian/English version of his collected poems in 1995, Zimunya describes his poetry thus: “When you read these poems, it is my cherished hope that you will gain some insight… into the brutality of colonialism, the vagaries of growing up permanently dispossessed in a racially structured society, the tortuous quest for reconciliation of a shattered old culture with a hostile and spiritless new world cultivated to disadvantage the African and… the undying quest for harmony with nature… And then also you may wonder about the chaos artistic rhythms and traditions forever tussling for my creative attention.”
Indeed’ Zimunya’s poems over the past three decades reflect on the physical beauty of his country, his people’s struggles against settler occupation and racism, the meaning of African myths and traditions and the meaning of freedom to the individual.
Maybe his most enduring poems include ‘The Valley of Mawewe’, ‘Zimbabwe (after the ruins)’, ‘Zimbabwe bird’, ‘The Mountain’, ‘To be young’, ‘Kisimiso’ and ‘No songs.’ One of these has been adopted by the curio shop at the Great Zimbabwe monument as a theme poem. It must be to do with the poem’s evocation of the spirit in rock and the seeming silence of traditions that have deep roots.
It is important to remember that Zimunya, like Henry Pote, Kizito Muchemwa and others, emerged at a time when the challenge was to forge a believable black African poetic sensibility in an environment that often persuaded the black poet to imitate wholesomely the poets of empire. Zimunya refers to this in an essay as ‘the jacaranda-piccaniny-musasa-culture’.
So after a compact and long poetic stretch, Zimunya broke into short story in 1993 with ‘Nightshift and Other stories’.
Although this book might never win the war against the books of poetry by the same author, it breathed and still breathes fresh air into the Zimbabwean short story.
Dominated, until very recently, by Stanley Nyamfukudza and Charles Mungoshi, the Zimbabwean short story tends to be an exercise in the use of the technique of understatement. It tends also to be about the underdog against the ‘bigger’ society. The narrative tends to alternate conversation with description of action. There is almost always the use of realism – man in the everyday tangible environment. There is also the twist in/of the tail/tale that recalls the works of foreign masters like Hemingway, Poe and others.
Zimunya’s short stories, especially the more endearing ones, tend to explore reality as it relates with the vast underworld. There is also exploration of the functions and sometimes dysfunctions of myths and traditions. Zimunya goes for what is generally not visible in men and women, their other deep-seated realities much more than any other writer has done with the Zimbabwean short story. Thankfully, he does that to show the link between the spiritual and the physical and not as an exercise in dabbling with empty superstition.
In the ‘Mbira Player’, Hakuna’s relations and conversations with his father and his totem, the monkey/baboon, is real. As he plays the mbira in an auditorium in wintry London, Hakuna sees ‘the moving shadow of a baboon ambling with that superior grace and defiant air which only baboons are capable of. As it did so, it turned and cast one long gaze at him and then suddenly began to run towards Murehwa mountains.’
In ‘The Peach Tree’ a sickly grandmother almost manages, rather unwillingly too, to bring her wrath upon her daughter when a branch of a tree that she is lying under falls onto and injures her daughter. She is shocked by what she can cause to happen through her wishful thinking. In that story reality and religion are one and the same thing. Prayer too is portrayed as not always conscious and positive. The electricity within the being is part of the being’s character.
In ‘Tambu’, a village girl is obsessed with water that she is constantly going down to the well to fetch it even when there is lots of it in the home already! She is in touch with njuzu the underwatwer goddess. She provokes fear and sly whispering in the village and nobody wants to marry her. But when Tambu is rapped by an unknown assailant- some suspect that it is by her demented father- the village well dries. The message here, maybe, is to do with the fall of the African people after the great rape at the moment of conquest. The metaphor is monstrous and far reaching.
The magical powers in central characters in stories like ‘Mother’ and ‘Crocodile Bile’ raise the issue of domestic sacrilege that becomes national sacrilege. The killing of fathers and mothers by their sons and daughters point at a people who strike down all connections with history, and begin to worship at the alter of empty anger and pride. Inversely the story points at the fact that elders need to conduct themselves with care so as to safeguard prosperity. If you see a son picking an axe and chasing his mother in order to hack her down, to injure her or to rape her, there must be something going wrong in the universe. The short story called ‘Mother’ makes good reading but it leaves you with genuine fears of the world and of relations that we have often taken for granted.
Zimunya’s short stories, even those that are based on realism, shift from the technique of ‘description and dialogue’ to one where the narrator seems to know something you need to know now-now, telling the story as if it were happening in a dream inside a dream. Therefore Zimunya allows you to fly away from three dimensional reality and see ‘what was’ or ‘what could be’, more like the effect of folk tale.
As writers reach a high level of maturity as in Zimunya, indeed the tendency is to go for that area that had been put aside as Myth in order to mine classic meanings to life. A reading of Ngugi Wathiongo shows the same development. After having duels with ideology all his career, Ngugi reawakens useful myth with the novel Matigari where the make-believe Matigari is actually standing for that undying desire amongst Kenyans to come to terms with their space. In the case of Zimunya, one hopes that there could be another prose collection before he returns to his beloved poetry.
Musaemura Bonas Zimunya was born in 1949 in Mutare and is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe where he lectures in Literature and Creative Writing.
**You may engage Zimunya: email@example.com
Tuesday, January 26, 2010
And below are recent notes/articles/reviews/analysis on 'Somewhere In This Country':
1. In this article from The Herald linked and highlighted below, Memory Chirere, author of Somewhere in This Country, visits a rural school in Zimbabwe to answer questions about his book:
2. And you may read here another recent piece on 'Somewhere in This Country' by Elliot Ziwira:
3. ‘Portrayal of the family in Memory Chirere’s Somewhere In This Country.’ By Kumbirai Shonhiwa
Memory Chirere was born in Zimbabwe in the 1970's, and has gradually become one of the country’s leading literary voices in the post-independence period. Some of Chirere’s works have been published in No More Plastic Balls (1999), A Roof To Repair (2000), and Writing Still (2003). In addition, he has also published short story books, including Tudikidiki (2007) and Toriro, his Goats and Other Stories (2010). Somewhere in This Country (2006), is a collection of short stories which depict a number of issues affecting the lives of people in a contemporary Zimbabwean setting.
Currently, Chirere teaches English literature at the University of Zimbabwe, and he has won various NAMA awards for his literary achievements. In addition to writing his own short stories and poems, Chirere has edited a number of short story books including Totanga Patsva (2005), a collection of short stories by women on HIV and AIDS, and Children Writing Zimbabwe (2008), which is a collection of short stories written by children from Zimbabwe.
This chapter will look at selected short stories from Somewhere in This Country, and show how Chirere portrays the African family in his works. It is the aim of this study to show how prevailing economic and social conditions may affect the relationships between family members in a negative way, and how a cultural bond exists which makes African people cling on to any traces of family ties in the face of family disintergration. The post-colonial setting under which Chirere writes sees ordinary African people living in a country facing economic hardships, especially for the ordinary members of the community in both rural and urban societies. These conditions, coupled with the threat of extinction through the H.I.V and AIDS pandemic affecting most families, lead to a real possibility of the African family becoming torn apart as individuals either leave their families in order to seek economic fortunes elsewhere, or they succumb to AIDS and die, leaving the surviving family members to face severe hardships.
It will be argued that despite the problems faced by most characters in Chirere’s stories, there seems to exist a strong urge for families to come together in order to avoid further problems. In other words, despite choosing to live apart in order to satisfy the immediate needs of individuals – such as looking for employment outside the country, or engaging in the illicit activities offered by modern city life – the African family eventually seeks a reconnection to its roots after finding the alternative unsatisfying and emotionally taxing.
4.2. Portrayal of the Family in ‘Keresenzia’
‘Keresenzia’ is a story of a young orphaned girl who resides with her elderly grandmother in a contemporary rural society in Zimbabwe. The story depicts how the young girl continually pesters her grandparent for attention as well as for performing tasks which the old woman can barely perform. Ultimately, the girl kills her old grandmother in cold blood, after the old lady has apparently failed to please the whims of the seemingly uncontrollable youngster. Ruby Magosvongwe (2010) asserts that ‘Keresenzia’ has got “several layers of meaning”. On the surface, there is an ungrateful orphan who verbally abuses her sole guardian and grandmother, Matambudziko, leading to her eventual cold-blooded killing at the hands of this ruthless child. However, “at a deeper level, Keresenzia’s constant demands for attention are indicative of her psychic and spiritual yearning to know her roots and to belong.”
From an Afrocentric point-of-view, Keresenzia’s behaviour shows disrespect and contempt towards a person who rightfully deserves the opposite kind of treatment. For example, instead of showing concern for the tired and frail old woman, the young girl demands that she “Fetch the lilies for me!” (p.1). On top of that, she “wants” peanut butter, cries to be told a tale, “wants” some milk, and also “wants” some pumpkin porridge. These demands are all made despite the apparent poverty faced by the single guardian of the child, who says “There is no milk child. I have no cows, you know.” (p. 2). The poor living conditions may be due to the fact that the parents of the girl are deceased, thus their role in taking care of Keresenzia is left to the old woman, whose failing health makes it difficult to provide for the demanding child.
African tradition demands that a young person should always show respect towards his/her elders. The fact that Matambudziko is the young girls’ real grandparent means that Keresenzia should ideally be living in harmony with the only apparent relative she has left, instead of constantly nagging her all the time. Keresenzia’s demands, no matter how inconsiderate or unnecessary, are met by the hapless woman who struggles to pacify her little grandchild. Matambudziko ignores her own physical discomfort to appease Keresenzia, fetching her extra lilies for her head, pounding the peanut butter to suit her tastes, and going out into the night to fetch pumpkins from neighbours to prepare her some porridge.
The old woman’s physical and emotional suffering are depicted in the story, with her “slight stoop and red eyes” adding to her unhappiness. In addition, she faces her emotional distress by herself, leading to her covering up her tears as she tries to put on a brave face for her grandchild. When Matambudziko tries to hold the girl and comfort her, the child roughly pushes her away saying “Go away. Go!” (p.2) to the only living person who cares for her. Ultimately, when the grandmother goes to fetch some pumpkins to meet another of the girls’ demands, she comes back to the house and is fatally struck on the head by the girl, who selfishly says “Where were you? You should have hurried!” (p. 2).
It may be argued that Matambudziko’s death at the hands of her own grandchild may have been averted if she had fostered a relationship based on traditional African values. For example, by being too passive and lenient towards Keresenzia, Matambudziko eventually struggles to control the child when she misbehaves. By giving in too easily to the demands of the small child, Matambudziko shows a weakness which is fully exploited by the emotionally unstable girl, who ends up making requests which her grandmother increasingly finds harder to fulfil.
Matambudziko’s avoidance of the issue of the girls’ parenthood also contributes to the mental and emotional imbalances faced by the little girl. When Keresenzia asks about the whereabouts of her parents, her grandmother avoids the issue by telling her that she would answer her “sometime before you are married” (p. 2). However, the young girl shows that she knows of her orphanhood from other sources, and this leads to the further distress of the old woman, who actually threatens Keresenzia with a beating in order to avoid answering the pertinent question of where the girl’s parents are. In some African traditions, it is morally wrong to deny a person the right to know his/her parentage or origin, and Matambudziko’s avoidance of explaining where Keresenzia’s parents are leads to the young girl acting “abnormally”, with the gruesome killing of the old woman becoming the inevitable consequence of this.
Thus, Keresenzia’s disrespect for her grandparent stems from a deliberate attempt by Matambudziko to stifle the young girl’s quest for a recognition of her roots. The inability to perform her traditional role of being the young child’s mentor, teacher and parent leads to Matambudziko’s brutal death at the hands of the spiritually troubled girl, whose demands for material things (such as porridge, milk or flowers), are a mere reflection of an unspoken demand to know and understand her own history and position in life. This is what Magosvongwe (2010) refers to in her description of Keresenzia’s problem:
“Keresenzia wants to know her real identity, where she hails from, who she really is and how she connects with the present in terms of both time and space. This knowledge will help her psychologically in discovering herself.”
This view, however, is contested by the author Memory Chirere during an interview with this writer quoted below :
“ Question – Do you agree that Matambudziko brings about her fatal encounter with Keresenzia because she evades her traditional duty to inform her grand-daughter of her origins and heritage, leading to Keresenzia’s ‘abnormal’ actions?
Answer – You may not say that. Matambudziko is evading these questions because she thinks that the girl is too young to handle her tragic history and she will tell her later on in life. Matambudziko is doing this hoping it is in the girl’s best interest. In African tradition, you just don’t tell an infant that its parents died, just like that!” (Interview with M. Chirere, May 2013).
In conclusion,’ Keresenzia’ is a story which can be used to symbolise the harsh reality facing many Zimbabweans in the wake of deaths caused by the H.I.V and AIDS scourge in the country. With a number of the deaths being of the economically active generation of the population, poverty ultimately haunts the surviving family members who are mostly elderly members of the family unit as well as young infants. Thus, Chirere may be attempting to highlight how dangerous it is, both economically and socially, to have most adults dying and leaving their young offspring vulnerable in an unforgiving modern world.4.3. Portrayal of the Family in ‘A Game’
The story makes use of a child narrator to describe events in a typical urban setting in Zimbabwe’s high density suburbs. Observing the behaviour of the adult members of his immediate community, the narrator, Biggie, gives a description of parental relationships as seen by innocent spectators such as little children, who seem baffled at the “antics” or “games” of their parents.
Describing the behaviour of Kate’s parents who live next door, the narrator shows how the father and mother seem to live in a relationship without any outward signs of affection. Kate’s mother seems to be only concerned with her garden, to which she devotes her energy “digging, watering, scouting (and) spraying.” (p. 4). In fact, as the child narrator observes, she rarely talks to her husband, who “always has something to say to her but does not know how to begin.” (p. 4). However, Kate’s father seems to get along well with other people in the community, especially the narrator’s mother, and a neighbour called “Doubt’s mother”. In fact, Kate’s father actually receives “gifts” from the neighbour, including a piece of cake which he eats quickly, and when he gets home the narrator observes “it appeared he had already rubbed all traces of the cake from his mouth” so that his wife does not notice.
However, the observant boy notices a change in the behaviour of Kate’s father, who ignores the women in the street whom he usually greets, including Doubt’s mother as well. This leads the narrator to ask “What is wrong?” (p. 5), as the elder people seem to be acting out of character. Surprisingly, Kate’s mother greets her husband and welcomes him in a way which the narrator had not observed before, whilst the narrator’s mother exchanges “knowing glances with Doubt’s mother” over the issue. (p. 5).
Although the narrator concludes that “no child should ever try to understand grown-ups” (p. 5), the story is significant in that it shows how perceptive young people may be in observing the relationships between the adults in their communities. Despite not understanding the apparent tension between Kate’s parents, the young narrator correctly observes that Kate’s father receives attention from other women in the neighbourhood which his wife fails to give him. However, as soon as Kate’s mother shows him affection, Kate’s father ignores the other women and gives his attention to his wife.
‘A Game’ shows how marital strains lead to the possibility of a breakdown in the relationship of those concerned, especially without the concerted efforts of both individuals. Kate’s mother initially shows a reluctance to communicate with her husband, leading him to gain the attentions of other women in the neighbourhood. However, Kate’s father is depicted as a faithful and dutiful husband who greets his wife even if she does not answer, and he seems to patiently bear his wife’s attitude towards him. In the end, Kate’s parents seem to have rekindled a relationship which the narrator sees as a “game”.
When asked if the abnormal actions of the adults become ‘normal’ to the young narrator in the story, Memory Chirere states : “The boy has not accepted anything. He is puzzled by things he does not understand about the adult world. That is why he gives up in the end to seek friends of his age and goes to see a girl elsewhere. The boy sees a lot but does not decode things. The reader is meant to see all that and add one plus one. ” (Interview with M. Chirere, May 2013). Thus, it is the duty of the elder and more mature members of the family to act responsibly in front of the younger members, who might imitate these actions without fully comprehending their full implications as regards the society at large.
4.4. Portrayal of the Family in ‘Beautiful Children’
The story depicts the life of a refugee family and their imminent repatriation back to Mozambique from Zimbabwe. Having fled the then war-torn countryside of Mozambique, the refugee family survive by working for the local communities for a living. Facing poverty, illness and ill-treatment from the local residents, the refugees face many strains towards their family structures as they live in foreign environments.
Initially, young Andrusha feels ashamed at being an “alien” living in a foreign country. He endures the taunts and jeers of the local Korekore children, who call him names such as “Moscan”, in reference to his Mozambican background. This consequently leads the young boy to associate his “home” with negative images such as war, disease, poverty and “children with swollen tummies, women who cannot harvest their maize, men who strip other men of the coins left in the dark corners of their pockets.” (p. 16-17). In addition, the young boy runs away from his mother, fearing the prospect of returning to a country which he associates with bad things.
However, the young boy realizes that only his family are capable of giving him a sense of security in a foreign land. Despite feeling ashamed at speaking his local Chikunda language amongst the Korekore people, Andrusha feels proud of the language when his two sisters join other Mozambicans in singing a song praising the ‘Beautiful Children of Mozambique’. After reassurances that rumours of ‘fighting that will never end” (p. 17) are actually false, and that Mozambique now enjoys peace, Andrusha reluctantly follows his sisters as they lead the way “home”. This is despite that “they were not asking him anymore to come along or remain behind.” (p. 17).
Thus, ‘Beautiful Children’ depicts how there is an in-born sense of wanting to “belong”, which is seen in how young Andrusha initially rejects his own family in favour of wanting to be identified with the more popular Korekore children in the area. However, he finds out that his home in Mozambique is where he really “belongs”, along with his mother, sisters and other fellow countrymen living as refugees in foreign lands. Zimbabweans have also suffered xenophobic attacks in other African nations, such as South Africa and Botswana, thus the author may be appealing to his countrymen to look closer to home, and see how people of other nationalities may feel when facing abuse stemming from their ethnic background. By using an ordinary African family in a refugee situation, Chirere depicts the situation faced by any Zimbabweans in exile, leading the reader to wonder if they would taunt an ‘Andrusha’ in their own lives.
4.5. Portrayal of the Family in ‘Somewhere’
‘Somewhere’ depicts the story of a family riven apart by the emigration of some of its members to foreign lands, whilst those remaining behind gradually lose touch with their cultural links and values. Two brothers are given the task of taking their frail old uncle up to the hills surrounding an area which “their family derived its name from” (p. 32). Having been born there, the old man gets no rest in the city and stays “tied to the bed in the bedroom”, whilst yearning “hotly” for the place of his childhood, which no one of his living relatives apparently knows.
Living in America for a number of years, the old man is forced back home after “his own son and daughter had given up on him” (p. 31). Thus, the old man finds no respite until he finds a re-connection with his past, in the form of the hills and villages where he grew up as a boy. It takes the advice of a “specialist” to seek the missing link which the old man seeks as a way to ease his emotional yearnings, and his two nephews undertake the task of helping their old relative to go to the hills of his “boyhood territory.” (p. 32).
Just as one of the young men begins to register doubts on the possibility of re-connecting with “distant unknown relatives” (p.33), the old man suddenly gains strength and forcefully gains control of their vehicle. Leaving his two nephews behind, the old man speeds away towards the hills of his birth, leaving the boys to marvel at the extraordinary transformation of their uncle as he comes closer to the place of his childhood.
From an Afrocentric point-of-view, the mental and emotional stress faced by the old man can be attributed to his prolonged isolation in America, far from his place of birth. This stress is enough to cause concern in his family circle, leading to them “running around to get advice” (p. 32), and eventually leading the old man back to his roots. From being a frail “bundle” in the back seat of the car, the old man suddenly gains strength and not only overpowers the two young men, but also manages to take their vehicle and goes off in his quest for reconnecting with his childhood.
The question of death is raised several times in the story, with the place a person dies being a cause for concern. For example, the nephews see no reason why the old man cannot just forget about his background and “let him die and be buried in the city.” (p. 32). However, they eventually give in to the old man’s demands, and seek the “hills” in order to pacify the suffering man. In the end, the two brother’s wonder “less and less why a man (would) not only die to see this but actually go to it.” (p. 33). This implies that the boys realize the value of re-connecting to their traditional roots and values, with the sudden and “miraculous” recovery of their uncle testifying to this fact.
The fact that the old man is assisted by the children of his late cousin, whilst his own son and daughter in America reject him, shows how the extended nature of the family unit in Africa leads to the continual cohesion despite alienation of other family members. The old man leaves for America but returns after yearning for the land of his birth. Facing emotional and mental distress, he is assisted by members of his family who had never even met him before, and try to resolve his problems. In fact, the successful resolution of the old man’s troubles is achieved by the coming together of his relatives who help him to seek his “roots”, despite the expense and time consumed by the exercise.
4.6. Portrayal of the Family in ‘Sixteen’
In ‘Sixteen’, Chirere gives a depiction of life through the narrative voice of a young sixteen-year-old girl, Muchaneta. Living with her parents and younger brother and sister, Muchaneta describes how her family is threatened with disintegration due to the wayward ways of her mother, the passivity of her father, and how the young girl struggles to keep the family together by herself. Muchaneta is depicted as an emotionally strong girl, whose father seems weak to save his crumbling marriage in the face of his wife’s infidelity. After apparently discovering that she is HIV positive, Muchaneta’s mother locks herself in her room, and ignores the pleas of her family who are naturally concerned for the anxious woman. The young girl recalls a time when the family used to experience happier times, when her parents showed affection for each other and their children.
However, the family begins to experience problems when the two parents start to “come home late at night, separately” (p. 35), leading to constant fights between them. Alcoholic binges lead to the further isolation of the children from their parents, with the narrator confirming that the kids “were on our own. They were away. They were separate.” (p. 35). These incidents lead the younger siblings to seek Muchaneta as a sort of surrogate parent, feeding them and acting as a mentor to them. For example, thirteen-year-old Janet asks her : “What is wrong with mother, Muchaneta? Will anyone tell me?” (p. 36).
When her mother runs out of the house and into the streets, Muchaneta follows her, vowing to get “mother before she gets crazy” (p. 36). The young girl risks her own life, meeting strange men who want to sexually abuse her at a pub. This leads the girl to wonder why she has been given such a burden at a tender age, thinking that in an ideal situation a young girl should be sitting at home, asking her mother about such things as her future career, not having “men at a drinking place giggling behind you conspiratorially.” (p. 37).
Young Muchaneta voices her concern at being young and not having an “ideal” family life:
“At sixteen, you want your father to talk to you like a confidante, even when you are a girl, a woman... (and) at sixteen you want your mother, of all the people, to be exemplary.” (p. 38).
The above sentiments show an unusual sense of maturity in the young girl, who strives to retain a unified family which faces imminent disintergration caused by the inability of her parents to behave like “real” parents should. In an ideal African home, the father is the authoritative voice in the house, alongside the mother who is supposed to nurture and protect her young children from problems in their lives. Muchaneta begins to take the role of a parent when her own behave unnaturally, and in the end, her level-headedness might actually lead to the rebuilding of a happy family as she seems to grasp issues affecting the family, even more than her own parents can.
When this writer asked Memory Chirere if the young girl gets her maturity from something in-born as her parents seem unable to be good role models, the author answers : “It is not inborn. It is from experience. At sixteen, (African) culture does not say that she is a young girl, (African) culture says she is a woman.” Thus, in the post-colonial setting of materialism and loss of morals in the urban social environment, we find many such young people struggling to keep their families together after having the role of family guardian thrust upon them by circumstances beyond their control.
4.7. Portrayal of the family in ‘Waiting’
‘Waiting’ is another story told from the point-of-view of a young narrator. It depicts the life of Batsirai, who is a young man who runs away from his so-called “family squatter shack” (p. 45) into the streets of an urban settlement in Zimbabwe. An apparently only child, the boy fails to live by himself in the city, and follows his parents to their new “home” at the edge of a village somewhere in the country.
Playing a “game”, the young man silently spies on his parents as they go about their daily business, telling himself that he must “wait” for the right moment to announce himself to them. Questions begin to arise in the mind of the reader as to the nature of these “parents” who abandon their child and seem to have forgotten all about him. For example, Batsirai anxiously asks himself : “Where did they think he was? Or did they think anything about him at all?” (p. 44). He deliberately leaves “clues” to show that he is around, hoping for his parents to discover his footprints on the ground, or the blanket which he sleeps in at night.
Commenting on his father, Batsirai portrays a picture of a man who leads the boy to run away from home in the first place, due to his “constant beating and harangues.” (p. 45). In fact, the boy views his own father without any affection, admitting that he had never associated the word “husband” to his father. Actually, the boy “sympathised with his father for not cutting the picture of a husband in a world where real fathers should be husbands.” (p. 45). The absence of a loving relationship between father and son leads to the near murder of the former by the latter, when he stumbles upon the sleeping and defenceless form of his father in the quiet forest. Declaring that he would be “avenged” by killing his father, the boy is only prevented from carrying out the action by the sudden appearance of his mother who cries out and causes the boy to flee from the scene.
In the end, Batsirai eventually goes back to his family, finishing a process of reunification which actually begins when he “hitch-hikes” and follows his parents from the town to their new settlement in the rural areas. The bond which the boy has with his family leads him to abandon his life in the streets away from home, and seek the embraces of those whom he knows will always love him, especially his mother. Despite the knowledge that he has come close to killing his father with an axe, the parents show a willingness to forgive their son by allowing him to enter their new home at the end of the story.
The above situation can be compared to that of many families disrupted by tough social and economic conditions in post-colonial Zimbabwe. Facing hunger and poverty in the bustling cities, some families become fragmented as individuals leave their homes and seek their fortunes in the city’s underground of illegal activities and the allure of a quick fortune, which is in vain. As some people move to new farming settlements to try and rebuild their lives, those left in the urban areas usually realise the futility of living on the streets as evidenced by the growing number of people who have left Zimbabwe’s urban areas in the aftermath of the demolition of illegal housing structures in 2005.
4.8. Full Interview with M. Chirere on Somewhere in This Country – May 2013
The following is a number of questions put forward to author Memory Chirere (M.C) by this writer, Kumbirayi Shoniwa (K.S), regarding certain characters and their actions in the anthology. The views given by the author may differ from those advanced in the dissertation, but their inclusion is meant to highlight how one work of literature may be interpreted differently by various scholars.
1- (K.S) – Do you agree that Matambudziko brings about her fatal encounter with Keresenzia because she evades her traditional duty to inform her grand-daughter of her origins and heritage, leading to Keresenzia’s “abnormal” actions?
(M.C) – You may not say that. She is evading these questions because she thinks that the girl is too young to handle her tragic history and will tell her later on in life. She is doing this hoping it is in the girl’s best interest. In African traditions you just don’t tell an infant that its parents died, just like that.
2- (K.S) – Is the old man ‘liberated’ by his mere return to his childhood environment?
(M.C) – The old man is not LIBERATED at all. He only feels more secure. The story suggests that he still knows that he is in trouble and that is why he sees ‘an old man’ in the shop mirror. He sees and knows that he has been battered into shape by his troubles!
3- (K.S) – Do you think the young girl in ‘Sixteen’ gets her maturity from something in-born, because her parents seem unable to play their traditional roles of guardians to the children very well?
(M.C) – It is not inborn. It is from experience. At sixteen, culture does not say that she is a young girl, culture says she is a woman.
4- (K.S) – In ‘Watching’, it is the young boy who seeks a reconnection with his parents, and ultimately he takes the first step by going ‘home’. Does this mean young people have an inborn yearning for identity?
(M.C) – Yearning for home comes out of socialisation. In the story, the boy hunts down his parents. They do not give a damn about him and he visits them in order to spite them! More like: ‘maifunga kuti makangwara?’ (you thought you were smart). On several occasions, the boy has contemplated even killing his father. He has begun to see them as the ‘others’. He even thinks he is better than them.
5- (K.S) – In ‘A Game’, the abnormal actions of the adults become ‘normal’ to the young narrator, who panics at the end as Kate’s parents begin to really act ‘normally’ by showing affection towards each other. Does this mean that children can accept abnormal situations as normal as long as they are exposed to them for long?
(M.C) – The boy has not accepted anything. He is puzzled by things he does not understand about the adult world. That is why he gives up in the end to seek friends of his age and goes o see a girl elsewhere. He sees but does not decode things.
Memory Chirere’s Somewhere in This Country is filled with a host of characters who seem predictable at first glance, but who actually possess many intricacies in their complicated psychological beings. Intensions of the characters cannot easily be achieved as members of their immediate family structure seem to act in ways which tend to disrupt family harmony and continuity.
Thus, Chirere depicts how the post-colonial environment in Zimbabwe has affected relationships between and within families. In addition to the suffering of orphans of the AIDS pandemic, the economic crisis afflicting the country has led to a severe strain on the African family structure, with individuals pursuing material benefits on their own or becoming irresponsible and neglecting their own families. Looking at life mostly from a child perspective, the characters in Chirere’s stories mostly show a tendency to be aware of having a special connection with their family which they want to explore. From Keresenzia’s tantrums to Muchaneta’s bid to reconcile her parents, Andrusha’s painful desire to belong to a proud society, and Batsirai’s solo quest to locate his parents, we see how the African family has an invisible bond which connects members together.
+ Taken from Kumbirai Shonhiwa’s chapter 4 of “AN AFROCENTRIC ANALYSIS OF THE PORTRAYAL OF FAMILY RELATIONSHIPS IN SELECTED SHORT STORIES IN DAMBUDZO MARECHERA’S THE HOUSE OF HUNGER (1978) AND MEMORY CHIRERE’S SOMEWHERE IN THIS COUNTRY (2006)”: A DISSERTATION SUBMITTED IN PARTIAL FULFILMENT OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE BACHELOR OF ARTS HONOURS DEGREE IN ENGLISH, UNIVERSITY OF ZIMBABWE MAY 2013.
4. .Book Review
Reviewer: Jerry Zondo
In a recent interview with a local paper Memory Chirere says he has always preferred reading and writing short stories over anything else. A good short story, he reckons, ‘pricks like the doctor’s needle. You read and re-read until you do not know whether you are still just reading or are now recreating without the author’s permission.’
When you read his first collection of short stories called Somewhere In This Country, you experience this fatal prick. Intentions of characters cannot be easily fulfilled and death is such an eternal reality in Chirere’s stories. For example in Keresenzia, a minor called Keresenzia is a whirlwind of a character for she can easily kill. The boy Batsirai in Watching makes you wonder if he will not drop the axe against his father’s neck. Will he strike, or should the reader be positive and see his ‘chasing’ of his parents in the positive - a need to reconcile than to revenge?
The reality in Chirere literature is harsh, thrilling, bloody, bashing the reader’s interest into a deep-seated realisation that all of life is not friendly and sweet. The adze, in Sitting Carelesly, would painfully cut the artist whose visit to the clinic will reveal that he is of no fixed abode, instead of producing a beautiful wood sculpture. A young child – Jazz – wishes she could have a family by locking up a man dating her mother; she has to have somebody to call dad! Chirere would probably have that child winning because she is too young and too hopeful to lose!
But Somewhere In This Country can also be funny and can attack you with the mischievous and the spontaneous. Two men are ‘married’ to one woman in Two Men and a Woman. They do not exactly fight over her because they are not rivals at all. Sometimes they talk long into the night, not keen to decide who goes in to join her in bed tonight. This dreamy story leaves you wondering if there is any sexual contact between each of these two men and the woman that they are tied to. The story happens inside the minds of the three deeply attached characters and very little happens physically. Reading it is like walking in a foggy vlei in the morning, bumping into familiar but long forgotten objects.
In Maize, which is a masterpiece, an obscure land hungry man admires a spinster who is newly resettled. He keeps on turning up at the woman’s ‘acres’ and begins to spread word that he is the woman’s husband. One day he pretends to forget his old suitcase in her hut so that he has an excuse to return next time. He keeps on coming back for this or that item and as this happens, the maize crop in the woman’s field is growing and their love for each other is growing. Finally they are together without even a single -I love you- word!
The typical Chirere story comes from the suburb (location), the local graveyard, the road and roadside, the farmhouse, the rural area, the urban setting, the streets – basically the human being and places where she can be found or was previously located (and Chirere’s human beings move a lot). In all such places the human being and such animals around her, survives and loves, hates, kills, makes love, procreates, succeeds, dies and is buried.
Each of these short stories is extremely brief, maybe the shortest by any Zimbabwean writer, but they take you through very weighty experiences. For Chirere, a short story is a just tumultuous episode in the life of a character. What is short is the narration not the experience being dwelt upon.
Memory Chirere is considered to be one of the leading literary voices to have emerged out of Zimbabwe in the so called decade of crisis (1998-2010). He shares that spot with the likes of Wonder Guchu, Ignatius Mabasa, Noviolet Bulawayo, Petina Gappah, Christopher Mlalazi and others. He has also published two other short story books: Tudikidiki (2007) and Toriro and his Goats and Other Stories (2010) which have both won NAMA awards. Beyond his creative work, Chirere has compiled and edited various other short story books; Totanga Patsva (an all-women short story book), Children Writing Zimbabwe (a book of short stories for children by children).
(this article appeared on: http://www.panorama.co.zw/index.php/perspective/226-book-review-somewhere-in-this-country.html)
5.'MEMORY Chirere’s ‘Somewhere In This Country’ and the psyche of African Memory'
By Ruby Magosvongwe, University of Zimbabwe
Somewhere In This country (2006), Memory Chirere's first short story collection published as part of the Memory and African Cultural Productions Series by UNISA Press, offers refreshing and complex insights into the psyche of African memory, largely from a ‘children's’ perspective.
Set in both the pastoral and cityscapes of Zimbabwe, the collection of 21 short stories in all takes one onto the road to explore and discover the world and challenges of a burning desire for belonging, reconnection and rootedness that a good number of the protagonists show.
KERESENZIA: The grotesque images that ‘Keresenzia’ and ‘Somewhere’ offer about Keresenzia's and the old man's obsession to link and reconnect with the country leaves one in a maze. Why does this become the central theme in the writer's perspective? This is one critical concern that the African Cultural Production Series sets out to explore.
That the short story collection opens with the horrifying story that debunks the whole idea of children's innocence in the manner that it talks about Keresenzia's brutality towards Matambudziko, her grandmother, is deliberate. The story has several layers of meaning. On the surface, one is confronted with an ingrate orphan who is ruthless and cold to the point of violently abusing and brutally killing her sole guardian, Matambudziko, by striking her with the handle of a hoe without any trace of prior provocation. Matambudziko's incessant efforts to pacify Keresenzia's anger, bitterness and ruthlessness by disclosing the source of her psychological wounds, lead to her death. At a deeper level, Keresenzia's constant demands for attention are indicative of her psychic and spiritual yearning to know her roots and to belong. Beneath the seething anger and antics of brutal emotional hurt she directs at Matambudziko is a deep spiritual void and yearning for rootedness and identity that Matambudziko cannot keep pushing into oblivion.
Interestingly, the harder Matambudziko tries to plaster over the cracks about Keresenzia's past, the more depressed Keresenzia becomes. From the moment Keresenzia names the cause of her distress – orphanhood – she assumes subjectivity by naming her grandmother Matambudziko, which is translated to mean ‘Troubles’ in English. She is determined to torment Matambudziko until she relates the tale of her biological parents, thus giving a legitimate claim to her connection with the pastoral environment she finds herself in. Keresenzia wants to know her real identity, where she hails from, who she really is and how she connects with the present in terms of both time and space. This knowledge will help her psychologically in discovering herself.
Her desire to know the history of her current status of marginalization through orphanhood, and to know about her biological lineage, drives her berserk. Her quest is indicative of a burning desire for rootedness and spiritual connectedness. The craving for this knowledge that Matambudziko withholds becomes almost maniacal, laying bare the contradictions and challenges that riddle the young generation's quest to link with its past. Keresenzia ends up killing the only guardian she knows! Should young people have to kill in order to discover themselves? How much about the missing historical narratives and cultural memory should the older generations expose or insist on withholding from them in the process of the younger generation's identity formation and quest for subjectivity in their lives? ‘Keresenzia’ keeps insisting on Toni Morrison's concept of re‐memory that demands that the younger generation's present identity, both in terms of geophysical space and psycho‐spiritual space, be defined in line with their ancestral history. Just as Ali Mazrui argues about the hazards of Africa's short memory and the desire to bury festering wounds about Africa's historical past, similarly, Chirere's Keresenzia is a sordid reminder that there are no shortcuts in dealing with the scars of a people's historical past. It is Matambudziko's blindness in trying to shield Keresenzia from the wounds of her past that drives the young woman to murder – and her loss of childlike innocence.
Without addressing the cause of the anger and bitterness that the protagonist harbours as shown in this short story, without explaining the absence of the lost generation the protagonist wishes to know more about, Africa faces a blighted future. It is as if the story argues that it is important that the missing chips in Africa's historical narratives be accounted for so that the child of Africa may freely discover itself; being bludgeoned into a predetermined mode will only blight the young person's future as well as that of the African continent.
SOMEWHERE: Similarly, the yearning for spiritual reconnection by the old man in his desire to revisit the hills of his childhood pastoral environment in ‘Somewhere’ cannot be quenched: neither by the luxurious life of the Americas nor the pampered existence of the city. The bundle of senility under the quilt suddenly comes to life when the driver and his brother get to the precincts of the hills; this takes his companions, as well as the reader, by surprise. It is as if Chirere is insinuating that the old man has no difficulty in rediscovering himself, to the extent of wrenching authority from the driver and driving the unfamiliar vehicle on the crown of the road without any incident once he reconnects with his childhood terrain and environment. The agility of the old man and the quick reversal of roles is so dramatically captured that it leaves the reader in stitches. Unlike the violence in ‘Keresenzia’, ‘Somewhere’ closes on a hilarious note.
MAIZE: ‘Maize’ focuses on the contentious subject of land contestation and reclamation that saw the liberation struggle galvanizing and mastering the support of the disinherited indigenous black Africans. The story focuses on the joyous privilege of land ownership by a newly‐settled black farmer in Zimbabwe. In the narrator's own words, it ‘speaks about human presence and settlement’ (p. 65) and the bliss of ownership and creativity that comes with the privilege of subjectivity in freed space(s).
Ironically, however, the resettlement of the landless black is fraught with irregularities and contradictions. In an unassuming manner in ‘Sitting Carelessly’, Chirere explores the fate of the former migrant labourer, now displaced by the new farmer, an ‘alien’ with less right to the land than his black sisters/brothers who have some ancestral claim to the ‘vacated’ land! The alien is now viewed as an illegal settler and is evicted together with his former boss/owner to make way for the rightful owners of the land. After displacement he survives by squatting on the roadside and makes a living through sculpture and vending at the country's major exit and entry points. The story thus also explores the contradictions and complexities that need sophisticated and yet pragmatic alternatives so that the country's stability can be maintained. With every opportunity of correcting the anomalies of Africa's colonial past there are challenges that African political leaders must anticipate. This story has a message of serious import; there are the grave challenges of resettlement in Africa. And yet the seriousness is overshadowed by the innocence and simplicity of the title; Memory Chirere's sense of mischief and satiric humour are very apparent here. Who wouldn't want to hear more about someone who sits carelessly?
THE PRESIDENTIAL GOGGLES: ‘The Presidential Goggles’ is yet another short story dealing with a sacred subject – that of succession and ideological continuity in the African political space. It sees Chirere experimenting with style and form in his dramatic and scenic division of the episodes in the development of the ousted president's mimicry of his former hold on power. It is ludicrous that the adage – once a teacher, always a teacher – seemingly applies to this ousted former head of state. He cannot come to terms with his now‐destitute status and his anachronistic and therefore undesirable presence. Having outlived his relevance, even in the lives of his own children, the ousted president is relegated to a mental asylum where the new generation are justified in keeping him. As perceived by many of his critics and opponents, rather than being an asset to his own country and nation, the old man has become a liability. It is ironic that in spite of the allegation that he has long outlived his welcome and is regarded as a political burden to his people, the old president still commands a following.
Whilst the new political leadership and the men in dark suits who claim to be his biological offspring search for him high and low (for he has become a threat to the survival of his nation), the old man is busy addressing a rally somewhere in the city! The repeated dramatizations of these episodes through the curt dialogue between the characters in the story mask the authorial voice, thereby giving collective authorship and ownership of this people's socio‐historical narrative. At the end of the day Chirere shows the subjectivity of the people taking charge of the political direction their country should take. It is risky for them to leave things to chance, yet there is also still a measure of sympathy for the senile president in the playful dramatization of episodes in this narrative.
Could Chirere be casting a spell on the Zimbabwean political leadership, who may be perceived to have conveniently forgotten about the philosophy of their own elders who saw positivity, continuity and enrichment of the communal collective in rotational leadership? In their wisdom, and rightly so, for the good of their own communal existence and survival, the Shona elders had a much revered maxim for those in public office: Ushe madzoro, hunoravanwa (Political headship is rotational and give each other a chance to have a bite of the cherry)! Strict adherence to this maxim kept autocratic leadership in check, pre‐empting civil strife and political leadership feuds. ‘Presidential Goggles’ offers in a refreshing and mischievous way this twist to political leadership on the African mainland. Talk about Amilcar Cabral's Return to the Source and the African academics' insistence on keeping the narratives about the nation alive and invigorating for the young generation!
The collection does not just dwell on the serious themes of historiography in its fictional narratives. Chirere also takes his readers through lighter moments that both the young at heart and the serious‐minded reader can enjoy. There are interesting stories about both country childhood and city childhood that readers will find entertaining and educative. For example ‘Missy’, ‘Three Little Worlds’ and ‘Jazz’ focus on the intricacies of the age‐old theme of love that tickles the young and old alike. ‘Missy’ tells of a country boy's obsession about his lady teacher and the innumerable antics he uses to catch her attention. Laying it all bare here will obviously take away the excitement that the story generates.
THREE LITTLE WORLDS: ‘Three Little Worlds’ also arouses excitement in the way that it explores the mysteries of efficiently and sufficiently minding the three worlds of a woman implicated in concurrent relationships. Just in case the readers of this series may be led to conclude that the writer is obsessed only with issues of the larger public sphere, one can enjoy reading how it is done on the Zimbabwean landscape by fleeting through these love stories! ‘Jazz’ offers the reader a rare opportunity to explore and experience with Emily the hurdles that the economically‐emancipated and culturally‐liberated female single parent faces in the life of Harare's avenues. Instead of listening to or playing jazz music, the reader meets with Jazz, Emily's five‐year‐old girl, who is music to Emily and her lover Joel.
Similarly, like ‘Jazz’, ‘An Old Man’ explores and exposes the challenges and brutality of life in the jungle that Harare's cityscape has become. The heartlessness of the life on the streets of Harare is shown through the demarcated turf that the street children have to religiously observe. For street children like Raji, Sami and Zhuwawo, the city turns out not to be an Eldorado, but a jungle where only the vicious can survive. One feels a chill when Zhuwawo, ‘identity‐less’ with no kin except Sami, with whom he shares the same turf, is run over by a van whilst crossing a busy street to invade Raji's turf in one of his bread‐scavenging escapades. Zhuwawo's death leaves Sami totally exposed and at the mercy of Raji, whose motivation for life seems to be geared to seeking revenge against any person who might have crossed his path. Raji's presence in the story bespeaks of a trail of violence because he is convinced that everyone owes him a living. This challenge of the street‐children legacy in Zimbabwe's history brings a certain embarrassment about Zimbabwe's social delivery system. On the surface, yes, the writer is talking about the predicament confronting the undesirable street urchins; but the same story shows worrisome cracks in Zimbabwe's social history. Will this ever be a desirable chapter in the cultural narratives of Zimbabwe's history?
Chirere's children also get space in ‘Beautiful Children’, where the narrator shows the ugliness of xenophobia in the way the Mozambican refugee child is exploited by a fellow black. One would want to find out for oneself what it is that makes these children strikingly beautiful when Ayi Kwei Armah writes about ‘The beautiful ones who are not yet born’. The story opens a can of worms, so to speak, in terms of civic education about the rights of the child and the general sympathy people must feel for each other as human beings. Chirere's story reflects the same theme of childhood destitution that Tsitsi Dangarembga's film, Everyone's child, shows. The short stories, by and large, take it upon themselves to challenge every reader to be introspective about how they have made their world a better place. Are these short stories only reminiscent of the Zimbabwean experience?
What is the point of engaging in hard politics of collective identity, spatial claims and issues of communal survival, or worse still to be locked up in stories about pitiful childhoods and xenophobia when the bang of life in you gushes out at ‘Sixteen’ and awaits personal exploration? One also can't afford to spoil one's sense of adventure and the suspense that ‘Tafara’ (We are delighted) offers! Both ‘Sixteen’ and ‘Tafara’ are set in Harare's high density suburbs; first hand experience of these will allow the reader to get a real feel of how the ordinary Zimbabwean citizens live on a day‐to‐day basis. Need this reviewer say more? Somewhere in this country offers the reader a spectacular opportunity to explore the highs and lows of Zimbabwe's social and cultural narratives together with the characters the reader meets on each fresh page! Definitely a must‐read.
6.'IDENTITY in Memory Chirere’s Somewhere in this Country'
(By Josephine Muganiwa)
Somewhere in this Country is a collection of short stories in English that capture Zimbabwean experiences. A running theme in all the stories seems to be identity. Chirere’s characters do not deal with colonial ascriptions per se but are well developed in a way that explores clearly all the nuances that shape their identities. This paper will focus on three stories; ‘Suburb’, ‘Sitting Carelessly’ and ‘Presidential Goggles’. These stories encourage a new way of looking at issues contrary to the official position thereby becoming protest literature.
‘Suburb’ is about a squatter camp on the outskirts of a town by a flowing river. The story is told from an insider perspective and hence the title ‘Suburb’is ironic. Chirere plays on situational irony. The residents of the new suburb are considered illegal settlers by the town planners as evidenced by the bulldozers that come to raze the place down. The plans were made by the colonizers without taking into consideration the needs of the indigenous people. That means the influx of people in search of employment after independence was unforeseen. Since the checks and balances put in place by the colonial government to keep blacks out of towns (pass laws) had been removed, accommodation problems increased. The so-called ‘native townships’ could not accommodate everyone. The low density accommodation was too expensive for the unemployed blacks and hence the rise of illegal settlements commonly known as squatter camps.
The contract that binds the settlers in the new ‘suburb’ has no colonial history but is based on utility and local agreement. Chirere captures this well;
"It all began in a small way. A man and his two friends discovered a
Certain old man with shaky hands and red eyes staying on the outskirts
By a slow flowing river. Out there by himself, with neither dream nor pains.
It didn’t take long to fix because the three men had a chat with the old man and the following day they carted their suitcases, primus-stoves, wives, children and other things and settled. They had founded a suburb. They would always remember how more and more people had trickled to this place, slowly but surely. It was a suburb and that is what they called it." (S.I.T.C. p10)
The old man discovered the place and has the right to accept or reject company. He is described in a way that makes his identity mysterious. His eyes are "red and his hands are shaky." The old man is without neither ‘dream nor pain’ because the attractions of city life do not entice him and neither does he have the pain of rentals, transport, and to be more contemporary, power cuts and water cuts. Implicit in the statement is that the old man is better placed than those that stay in the town. He does not like to talk about money and out in the ‘suburb’ there is little use for it enabling the wise to save:
"The old man didn’t like to talk about money either. When he did, it was to ask if you had made much out in town that day. If you happen to make much, look after it, he would insist. It is easy because there is no rent and electric bills out here, he would add." (S.I.T.C p10)
While it is difficult to make money one can live comfortably in the ‘suburb’ and while many in town dream of being home-owners, the settlers in the ‘suburb’ are proud owners of their homes:
"If you had never seen him enter his house, then you missed a fancy example of entering a house- sideways, bowing and sighing because the eaves were low and there was nowhere one could get zinc sheets long enough to build a house with a high door frame and a proper verandah." (p10)
The house is badly built because of poverty but Chirere celebrates this achievement and draws the reader to admire the way the old man is comfortable in his new surroundings. However, the word ‘sighing’ betrays a sense of longing. The old man, obviously, had a better life as exemplified by his “suits… particularly the corduroy one which everyone knew to be expensive.”
Whenever a squatter camp is mentioned, there is a tendency to think of its inhabitants in stereotypical fashion as thieves, prostitutes and thugs. Chirere gives a kaleidoscopic view of the inhabitants as decent people representing the cross section of society; the rich, the poor, the educated, the skilled and unskilled. The characters are not given names, except for Jack, Simon and Zacharia, because they represent anyone in similar circumstances. The characters are thus described as, “a man and his two friends”, a man with groceries, a man knocking to greet the old man, two men disagreeing and then making up, “a man who wore waistcoats and had a job in town”, a man in cyclist helmet, a man and a sullen faced woman, a young man who finds a job after a long search, two women whose father dies. The bulldozers bring workmen and gunmen. The only character who is specific is the old man and even he is shrouded in mystery in the style of magical realism. His response to the question of where he came from is “from all the corners”. The old man is the centre of life and inspiration for members of the ‘suburb’. One is reminded of Matigari in Ngugi wa Thiongo’s Matigari. He comes from everywhere, understands everyone’s pain and inspires them to hope for a better future.
The bulldozers pose a real threat to the inhabitants of the suburb and this is clearly highlighted in the following words:
"Several babies cried but no one bothered because there was the hungry sound of bulldozers to worry about. Soon, the bulldozers will get to the first house and wait till you see zinc tumbling, bricks giving way and the table and bed roll and crumble and someone’s fortunes and sweat come to naught..."(p13)
Ironically, the city fathers only see an unplanned settlement being removed, an eye-sore to the rich. The authorities are thus an impersonal authority that does not care about individual plight which includes lack of shelter and destruction of personal wealth and self-esteem. It is from this threat that the old man rescues the people. While everyone else is frightened, the old man remains calm and in control. Chirere writes;
"The old man advanced as comfortably as he does when going for a bath down to the river.
He came face to face with bulldozers and spread out his arms like a green eagle in flight. He shook his head….
The old man talked. The old man cried out and you agreed that some voices are extracts of thunder. He stamped the ground. He pointed in the direction pf the river, the suburb and at the sky. He hit his chest with a clenched fist and sagged down to the ground.
The suburb thought he had been ordered down but they saw him shoot up and begin to walk back towards them." (p13)
The theatrics described here are similar to a wizard casting a spell. It then raises questions on the identity of the old man. Is he a spirit medium? Is he a magician? Or is he, as hinted earlier, a former freedom fighter? Why do the bulldozers reverse and drive away because they had not known the old man was part of the suburb? Chirere deliberately weaves his story in such a way that these questions are not answered. If the old man has no magical powers then the corruption of the city’s laws is revealed. It shows that crime is only crime depending on who has committed it.
Sitting Carelessly deals with identity in terms of nationality. In this regard it is similar to Signs. Both stem out of the Land Redistribution Programme of 2001. Pempani is of Malawian descent but born second generation in Zimbabwe and hence has never been to the country of origin. The land redistribution programme renders him homeless on the technicality that he is not of Zimbabwean nationality and hence is not legible to be allocated land. Chirere explores the irony of this situation, centering on the need to provide an address at a clinic.
The story shows Pempani struggling to define who he is and his options of survival given his particular circumstances. All his life, Pempani’s identity has been premised on Acton farm which no longer exists. His dilemma is similar to that of the Negro in the United States of America after the abolition of slavery. Hitherto his identity had been premised on the Master. Pempani is distressed and says,
"Where will l go if you take the farm? You will take the farm and baas goes driving in his car, but where will l go? (...) My father’s father and my father came to this country from across the Zambezi. Black man like you. Black, like two combined midnights. See, my father worked here. My mother worked here. They are buried here. Their folks too: Alione, Chintengo, Anusa, Nyanje, Machazi, Mpinga, Zabron, Banda, Musa." (p76)
Having come to Rhodesia from the then Nyasaland to work in the farms, make a fortune and go back home. Pempani’s father fails because of the meager wages. He decides to die in Zimbabwe because he questions himself, “If l cross the Zambezi at this age, what will l show for my years this side of the river?”(p78). Unfortunately for Pempani, having relatives buried on the land does not make it his, because it belongs to the white man who usurped it from the blacks who want their land back. Pempani’s plight is similar to that of Povo’s mother in Mujajati’s The Wretched Ones whose husband is buried on Buffalo’s land But she is evicted. This explains Pempani’s appeal that he is also black, a call to put Pan- African theory into practice.
The term ‘home’ itself is not easy to define. Pempani’s family is split as his wife goes back to her people in Murehwa after the farm is taken. He fails to go with her because;
“I just don’t want’, you retort. You can hear the Murehwa villagers’ laughter. Laughing rudely and provocatively at a son-in-law from the farms who has brought his wife and all these children because he has nowhere to go. A man who can’t go back home across the Zambezi. Because of that, it begins with the jarring sound of an axe grinding. Home. Where is home? Across the Zambezi where grandpa came from? Home cant be where l know no river, valley, hill, stone…Where l haven’t dug the soil to sow a seed… You heard your father, one day, say to Anusa and Alione over a beer, “If l cross the Zambezi at this age, what will l show for my years this side of the river?”
Home explodes into the stitched throbbing thumb as you sit by a road that leads to Kariba." (p78)
In the above quotation home is defined in several ways: as where your spouse and children are, as your father’s house, where you have lived all your life, the physical terrain you know, what you have built with your own wealth and finally, shelter over your head. Each of these definitions is tied to a cultural norm of a particular people.
Pempani fails to join his wife in Murehwa because among the Zezurus it is improper for a real man to live in his father-in-law’s household. It implies that his wife is in control of what happens in the home. For the Malawians, who are matrilineal, that would not be much of an issue as it is common in their homeland. This difference in culture leads to Malawians being labeled stupid and effeminate. Pempani then resists fulfilling this stereotype even though his situation is desperate. The fact that his wife goes back to her father’s house shows that Pempani has failed as a man to provide for his family. His father similarly fails as he has nothing to take back home with him. Another cultural expectation is that one does not come back home empty handed except failures.
However, for Pempani, going across the Zambezi is not a solution. It is only a place where grandpa came from. The home he knows is Acton farm, whose soil he has dug and sown seed, and the physical terrain he has explored. In this sense he is similar to John Hurston in Signs who is worried that the blacks will take away his home and farm which is an inheritance from
"Grandpa [who] came here from the wars and you know very well that they gave him and others this side of the river because you folks here could not work this heavy clay in summer. You get it?" (p74)
As far as Hurston is concerned, the land is his because he has been working it in the same way that Pempani feels the land is his. However Hurston’s situation is not as desperate as Pempani’s. He has money to buy other properties and move on. Hurston’s only desire is to protect family honour and not go down in history as the one who lost it;
"And moments later, he mournfully said, “How l wish Pa Rockie and Grandpa Peters were here with me when it finally happens. Lord, don’t let anything happen to Heinz. Am l the weak spot, God, God?” (p73)
The farm highlights the glory of Hurston (grandpa) having fought in the World War. It was a reward for white people displacing blacks, such as Marimo, who thus participate in the land redistribution cheerfully. Pempani and his people are caught in the crossfire having crossed the Zambezi as economic refugees with the hope to return. The injustice of the whole situation is the ironic twist of life that it never seems to turn out as planned. Both Pempani and John are victims of their grandparents’ adventures leaving them with an identity crisis. Are they really Zimbabweans? Where do they belong: a home they have never seen or the only the only home they have known? What are they to do when the people in the home they know insist that they do not belong? How are they to deal with such rejection?
Pempani ends up homeless, living by the roadside carving animals and selling them to tourists. Absent minded, thinking about his identity, he cuts himself and ends at a clinic where he has to put in words what he has been thinking about. The nurse gets angry at Pempani’s response that his name is Pempani Pempani. She thinks that he is making fun of her because culturally she is not used to such names which are common among the Malawians. Providing an address becomes a problem as noted below:
Place? One must come from a place? People, place, every time! But, how to say it when you are from Acton farm? And you can’t be from there now because everybody knows it was taken. “By the road. I come from a place by the road,” is all you can say. By the road where you carve human heads and kudus from tree trunks for sale to motorists who ride to Kariba.Neither can you say Murehwa because that is only where your wife and children are, at her parents’ place. But you must say something, at least. Earrings is waiting, cant you see?
Selling wood carvings is not easy either as it is dependent on Madame’s mood or how one reacts to her ‘sitting carelessly’. In the end Pempani decides to go back to the land and get allocation. To the question, “Who are you?” by the official:
“That is a long question to ask,” says Pempani, “But l will answer.”
The story ends on this note, Pempani giving a quick response unlike the time at the clinic. In essence he has come to terms with who he is and has found answers to what he wants his future to be like. He has solved his identity puzzle.
The Presidential Goggles presents another dimension of identity where one is identified by the image s/he presents. Like all of Chirere’s stories it has an ironic twist and the joke is on the city audience who are taken in by the old man. To apply the rural/urban dichotomy of the first generation Zimbabwean writers, the rural audience is not fooled by the old man as the city audience does despite its claim to sophistication.
The story is based on the discovery a mentally ill old man makes; that in dark goggles he resembles a former president of the country who was feared for his ‘Brown Belts’ boys that terrorized people. He decides to use this as a ticket to fame and riches but his sons blow his cover and ruin the whole plan. The humour of the story is that the old man asks questions and people respond giving details that are dependent on what they read in the image presented by the old man, both visual and aural. When the old man mentions “his boys” he means his sons but because he has projected the image of President Box people think of the ‘Brown Belts’. However, in all this drama, Chirere explores the game of image making played by politicians on a national scale.
Chirere presents the story in kaleidoscopic fashion capturing the journey of the old man from the rural area to the city. This helps him show the different groups in society and how they react to the image presented as it affects their identity and standing in society. The old man is first presented to the reader as a fine picture of dignity and poverty,
An old man (dressed in a pair of flapping trousers, a dog-eared waist coat and a tie tucked under the disintegrating shirt collar), trudges from a footpath onto a wide dirt road. He stops at the junction and scans the thread of the dirt road, from the horizon to this point, one hand on forehead.
In full view, the old man is of medium height, clean shaven and slightly stooped. A ‘chiefly’ walking stick balances horizontally on one shoulder, a bulging plastic bag. (p80)
The old man is obviously concerned about his looks as he takes good care of himself despite the poverty. One gets the idea that this is his best image. The ‘chiefly’ stick hints at his love of power. However the image of dignity he presents contrasts with how he jumps into the road;
"When the cart gets to his point, the old man drops his bag and walking stick by the roadside and monkey-like jumps and lands in the middle of the road, waving his arms. He wants the vehicle to stop!" (p80)
‘Monkey-like’ emphasizes the idea of a prankster and hence the reader is caught between whether to take the old man seriously or simply as a comedian. The driver of the donkey-cart is obviously not amused and therefore ignores the old man.
The bus conductor is interested in getting more customers and arriving at his destination on schedule. Consequently he is “irritated by the old man’s unnecessary show of grandeur” delaying him. The old man reacts by striking the conductor and declaring his identity as the President. No one takes him seriously and the conductor does not beat him up at the entreaties by the passengers.
Age seems to play a part in how the people react to the old man. The two boys herding cattle fail to respond to the suggestion of “the Boys” and conclude that the old man is mad. The irony is that they are close to the truth and as a result power is on their side as they are able to make the old man “totter down the road, falling, rising, running...” At the roadblock, it is the young officers who have no memory of President Box who refuse to believe.
In the van, the passengers refuse to believe the old man and their arguments against the idea are rational and logical. The driver, too, initially does not believe and is more incensed that the old man is banging his car. It is only at the insistence of the old man that he changes his mind:
"Standing face to face with the driver on the dirt road, the old man quickly puts on his goggles. ‘It is I, the President. Don’t you recognize me?’
The driver clicks his tongue but he gives the old man a serious look. The old man glares intently at the driver from behind his glasses. Suddenly, the driver gives a terrified cry and sags down. ‘President Box.’ He stands up and staggers back. ‘My goodness! It’s you. What?’ He staggers backwards again. When the driver looks again, the old man is standing at attention. Exactly! Exactly!" (p82)
The old man enacts the role of President and the driver of the van allows the image to trigger memories in his mind. At first he clicks his tongue, then is terrified, then is excited and becomes the spokesperson for the old man. Meanwhile, the old man watches his reaction planning his next move, which is, to take over control and order everyone; the other passengers back into the back of the van and the driver to drive on with the old man by his side in the front compartment.
When they reach the roadblock the old man has fully gained his confidence and playing the role of President to the bone. The police officers perceive the driver as drunk ( they presume alcohol but he is drunk on the image of Box represented by the old man) as he violates the law not to mention Box or General Pink Which can lead to his own death. The general comments by the officers are the cue for the old man to present himself, first, in a powerful commanding voice that makes the officers to ‘stiffen’. The visual presentation makes
[a] number of officers gasp. ‘It’s him.’ ‘So he wasn’t killed?’ ‘He is alive after all.’ ‘And his boys, the Brown Belts.’ The old man stands at attention by the door, ‘So you see, it is me, ha? (p84)
The memories of terror in the officers lead them to conclude that it is the president. Again the old man watches them attentively before making his next move. The fight between Rocky and the sergeant is triggered by allegiance based on tribalism. Vharea is Rocky’s homeboy so he stands to benefit from Vharea’s being in power. On the other hand, the sergeant is Box’s homeboy. In this remark is a powerful commentary on African politics that seem not to focus on one’s ability but what benefits one’s support to them will bring. This is the root of corruption. The old man ignores the fighting officers and “beckons at the driver. They drive off at top speed, towards the city.”(p85)
At the Broadcasting station the soldier called Max trembles at the image of Box. The one who is not moved declares,
‘No, Max, This is just some distant resemblance,’ one soldier says. ‘Box died. I read about it at school. Besides, my own uncle saw his corpse!’ The soldier turns to the old man. ‘Old man! Get out now! Out!’ He fumbles with handcuffs. (p85)
The soldier’s conviction comes from having two reference points; the books at school and his uncle. In Zimbabwe, and Africa in general, there is a tendency to respect book education and accounts by close relatives. This is what fortifies the soldier against being moved by the image represented by the old man. The old man moves away reluctantly because he knows the others, like Max, believe him.
The next move by the old man is to mobilize a crowd to help him go past the soldiers into the Broadcasting station. Crowds that gather easily in cities largely comprise of poor loafers, the unemployed hungry, thieves and the curious. The speech made by the old man appeals to this crowd,
The suffering, the crying of this great nation has forced me to come back! I want him to resign peacefully or l will ask my boys, who are all over, to descend on him!
Enough is enough!
Cheers. The old man puts on his goggles and the crowd goes mad, ‘Exactly!’ ‘Exactly!’ ‘The glasses’ ‘It’s him’ ‘Just like in the pictures!’ ‘Viva Box!’ (p )
The crowd in this instance comprises of the marginalized. Their knowledge of the President is from the pictures (newspaper or television) and thus it is just an image. It is ironic how one declares they have recognized someone based on glasses that can be mass produced and bought by anyone. However the speech to end suffering answers a call in the crowd’s heart and they follow him. Of interest is that once the soldiers appear with guns, the crowd is not so willing to follow and flees at gun shots. The old man, left alone, flees.
Finally, in the hall, the old man wears a new suit and the crowd is middle class. Again, the reactions are based on personal interests;
Well said, your Excellency! ‘Just as you used to do during those years.’ ‘I could feel it’ ‘I feel like fighting!’ Another man: ‘Shake my hand, Mdhala! Welcome! Tell the boys to make it quick, we are behind you!
Another man: ‘Box, is this you? Something always told me that you couldn’t be dead, Mdhala! Mdhala is back!’
Another man: ‘A word with you, Box. Forgive this, but, as soon as it happens, l can volunteer to stand in the Finance office. I’m a PhD! But, just tell the boys to hurry. Vharea won’t give in. I’m telling you!’
The crowd is motivated by validating their own thoughts; disbelief that Box had really gone. At times reliving moments of past glory, as well as seeking lucrative ministerial posts.
At this height of glory, the old man’s sons arrive,
"The old man sees them and shakes. He holds his head desperately. He holds his mouth and then his waist. He shakes his head...The old man points desperately at the speakers. ‘My boys,’ he says. He moves in circles. He protests. He shakes his head. He holds his mouth and his waist. He begins to move in circles again." (p87)
The revelation of the truth kills the old man’s dream and the hope of leaving poverty behind. The reaction of the crowd to the new image of the old man as a dangerous madman is interesting,
"Then, the crowd pours out through the stage doors, the normal doors, and the windows…" [STORY ENDS HERE]
The city crowd is gullible and reacts to any words by anyone at any time. The old man walks away, throwing off the new jacket symbolic of discarding his identity as Box. He most probably will search for a new adventure and identity.
Memory Chirere’s stories are hinged on individuals in specific dilemmas, dealing with specific identity questions. These are, however, linked to the larger national, class and racial identities. We are presented with characters that are realistic and easy to identify with ( Pempani and Hurston.) On the other hand, we have characters that are magical in the sense of having the ability to make thing happen and difficult to define (Two old men in ‘Suburb’ and ‘The Presidential Goggles’). They do not have specific names because they are universal and fluid.