Thursday, August 30, 2012

Written Shona poetry in crisis

It is my subjective view that considered against work from yester-year, some recent poetry anthologies in Shona leave a lot to be desired. The craft and message have drastically gone down. These contemporary group anthologies tend to carry poems that are contrived. Few of these poems have capacity to remain on one’s mind long after reading. I think written Shona poetry has drastically regressed that it can never be compared to Mordekai Hamutyinei’s Kana Uchinge Wamutanga Musikana and Ndiye Mwana Wandaireva or W. B. Chivaura’s Dongo RaMandidzimba and Mumukonombwe.

On the contrary, performing poetry in Shona has grown tremendously in recent years and you do not need to understand Shona to follow the performances. It is not surprising that the few performing poets who have also decided to write and publish are doing extremely well.

There is one anthology purporting to be carrying poems about HIV/AIDS. You approach it with great expectations because HIV/AIDS has shaken our society to its foundation in recent years. When you get to sampling the AIDS/HIV poems which are in the majority in this anthology, you find that these poems are lagging behind latest trends in dealing and talking about this subject!

These mournful poems merely focus on the period of time before the advent of Anti Retro Viral Therapy use in the management of the Acquired Immuno-Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), when being diagnosed as having the infection was an automatic death sentence. These poems are characteristic of denial, stigmatization and rejection. As a result, you find alarmist and mundane lines like:

Ndini Aids, ndauya
Hapana anopona
Ndinokutakurai mese
Ukaona ndabata baba kana mai vako
chitotanga zvako kuchema...
(I am Aids, I have come and will eat you up. And when I get hold of your father or mother, you better start to mourn)

This means that our poets just pick their pens and go like clerks! They do not research. They are not inspired. They do not brood. They are raw technicians that are being unleashed on an unsuspecting world. The mere fact that the editor and compiler are looking for an AIDS poem does not mean that one should not reflect and use words as if they cost money. This crop of anthologies has dangerous poets who only react out of fear. They are confused and confusing. They do not even assume that their readership is complex.

In some such anthologies you find melodramatic pieces on especially the overtraded subjects of Love and Death. This does not mean that these subjects should not be written about but if you write about love, remember that you are carrying a heavy responsibility and must surely want to say something unique. You want to tackle these subjects differently from the likes of Mordekai Hamutyinei and JC Kumbirai. You do not come into this game just to play second fiddle! No one will forgive your sloppiness simply because you are a new poet.

You also wonder why in this day and age, one aims to sell a poem that insists on Ndini rufu, muchandiona (I am death, and we will be even)? As if that is not enough, you find the next poet in the same anthology saying the same things about death. Where is the editor, you yawn. A good poem should be able to lift the reader out of the ordinary and give glimpses of a more illuminating reality.

Then there are the many long-winded poems. They go on and on, well after they have scored their point. They flog dead horses. You sit there and yawn and ask, are these poets (and the editors) taking the readership for granted?

We face a danger of failing to develop or consolidate a clear tradition of written Shona poetry because it appears that the current crop of Shona poets does not read one another. It also does not read from the older poets in order to raise the bar. In writers’ workshops across the country, you come across people with sheaves of poems. On asking them if they have read Gwenyambira or Soko Risina Musoro or Mutinhimira Wenhetembo, they ask you, “Sorry, what did you say?” Imagine a poet who does not read and may never want to read! Imagine a Hamutyinei who simply writes on and on, with no indications that he has read a Paul Chidyausiku or a WB Chivaura in order to pitch!

There is nothing as frightening as a writer who does not read. That is why Marechera once asked: How can you write as if you have never read? The current Shona poets do not even follow poetry beyond the Shona language itself. Yet, If you read the more successful contemporary poets in Shona like Chirikure Chirikure, Sam Chimsoro and Ignatius Mabasa, you notice that they have benefitted immensely from reading poems from other traditions. They are a blessing to the Shona language!

However, there are few poets in these contemporary anthologies who have to be celebrated. Two good examples are Trust Mutekwa (aka Ticha Muzavazi) and Tinashe Muchuri from “Mudengu Munei?: Muunganidzwa Wenhetembo Volume One.” Both are performing poets. They have learnt and grown through testing their work constantly on live audiences. They come to the written word via the stage.

Trust Mutekwa is even a mbira player. His poems are good for the ear and the mind. Here is a poet used to the power of words. He is the most gifted voice in “Mudengu Munei”. Mutekwa states what he is not stating and he has the language typical of the Shona seer:

Sendinoziva, sendisingazive
Sendinofunga, sendisingafunge
Sendinoona, sendisingaoni zvangu…
Chinono chakamba, mashunge arwaivhi
Mashunge arwaivhi, chinono chakamba...

(picture: Ticha Muzavazi)
Mutekwa is also aware of the infectious force of the Shona verb more keenly than any other Shona poet that I have read to date. In the poem Ndiwe, the verb is very active and he deals with the rapist without saying rapist:

Ndiwe wakatevera mwana nekumupata wemazizi
Ndiwe wakamunyangira nokumusana asingaone
Ndiwe wakamukwakukira pafudzi sembada…
Hausiwe here wakamukatanura chipika?
Hausiwe here wakamunombora-nombora?
Ukagokashura kanguwo kake keuvanzarikwa
Uchivavarira kupaza rusambo zvisina mombe?

When you read Mutekwa’s poems, you are reminded that the Shona poet is master of the public mantra. The poem Nzvengende, for example, becomes goat and non-goat:

Nzvengende rumbudzi rusingachadi zvemafuro
Rwakanzwa kunaka kwenyimo semhembwe
Ukaridza muridzo rwopumhukira
Kano kamuswe minini minini kasina neshumo
Nzvengende rumbudzi runokarodya nyama...

(picture: Muchuri)
Tinashe Muchuri writes with both his heart and mind. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he thinks deeply about both his message and method. His poem Wadiwa Mukoma Tichafa from “Mudengu Munei” is one of the more subtle AIDS poems in this anthology. Muchuri reminds one of poet Steve Chimombo’s idea of ‘substituting surface with subterranean vision’ in Four Ways of Dying. Muchuri hits you with an iron bar while massaging you with a wad of wool in that AIDS poem. His other poem Mwanasikana, goes to the heart of the theory of womanism, considered more relevant to African conditions than feminism. Mwanasikana could be the most persuasive poem in this whole anthology:

Akati uri wokuombera ndiani?
Inga kare waiomberwa wani!
Washuzhira mhuri mugore renzara nokuruka seme,
Vazukuru vaguta nenzungu nemutakura wenyimo
Zvakabva mutseu yako
Waunza mukuwasha aiumba ukama nesu

It is a fact that in the past decade, the power of Shona poetry has manifested itself more in music and performing poetry than in the written form. One has in mind performing poet Biko Mutsaurwa (aka Godobori) whose Shona lines on stage are material from which genius is made. He is not capable of a boring sentence. He should be encouraged to break into print. I have never recovered from his chorus: “Toi-toi! Huya mweya uri mberi, toi!”

Godobori benefits from the supremacy of the Shona language and wisdom. When you listen to him, you detect the vigorous and punitive rehearsals that he goes through before he faces the audience. His Shona poems have all that we do not find in the terribly written poetry anthologies of today.

(picture: Flowchild)There is also one Cynthia Marangwanda (aka Flowchild) who is grand-daughter to the novelist John Marangwanda of Kumazivandadzoka fame. She erupts into frenzy when on stage and one hopes that she will be encouraged by her mentors to go beyond writing in English and for the stage.

The dearth of good written Shona poetry becomes more evident as one reads from the late Julius Chingono whose guest appearance in “Mudengu Munei” dwarfs nearly all the youngster poets in that anthology. Chingono’s satiric poem called MuShona Arwara is a must read. MuShona arwara, vanhuwe (the Shona person is ailing, dear colleagues), he insists, from foreign influences that have left him with no specific language and culture. The Shona speaks through the nose; sadza (his staple dish) is now too thick for his tummy which is now only good enough for the soft ‘pizza’:

Dzimwe nguva (muShona) anotaurira mumhuno,
Kunge ane chidzihwa
Achitodadirira kunge zvinoshamisira...

In the poem Pachiteshi, Chingono’s keen eye turns on the current transport woes, dwelling on the tussling for seats that go on at the bus stations. As one struggles to get onto the bus, one is in a war zone:

Tsunhura mudzipanyota
Kana kutobvisa
Nokuti ungadzipwa nawo
Pakukurwira kukwira mubhazi.
Katanura mabhatani ose…
Nokuti angapera kudambuka
Orashika pahondo yokukwira bhazi…
Sunga zvakasimba bhande rebhurukwa
Nokuti ungangokururwa bhurukwa
Pakudhonzwa nekusundidzirwa
Panguva iyo unenge wopinda mubhazi…
Rega kuteerera zvakanyanya
Kuchema nokuungudza
Nokuti ukateerera unosara!
(As you fight to get onto the bus first, take off your tie because you maybe strangled to death in the process. Undo your buttons because they may be ripped off in the melee. Tie your belt tightly because your pants may fall off during the tussle. Do not listen do the desperate calls around you because you may not get onto the bus.)

Poets, publishers, compilers, editors, teachers of the beloved Shona language and especially those who prescribe poetry anthologies onto our school syllabi, must come together and say: Enough! Yes, this is only my subjective view.
+ By Memory Chirere


  1. I agree this really had to be said. Thanks for the courage and the faith...

    1. Cant agree with you more, dear brother. With so-called civilisation in the form of modern technology taking centre stage, pride in our language especially using poetry as a vehicle for communication has been thrown out of the window. Use of colloquial language and street lingo is becoming more fashionable, much to the detriment of our rich vernacular, our culture and our heritage. In short, we cant just watch and mourn as our culture gets corrupted and distorted, and is on the verge of extinction! Cry the beloved Shona language. Iwe neni tine basa mukoma.