Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Dambudzo Marechera's 'dissertation' on language

The past six months belonged to the late Dambudzo Marechera. First there was the publication of a book on his life and work which was compiled and edited by Dobrota Pucherova and Julie Cairnie. It is called  ‘Moving Spirit: The Legacy of Dambudzo Marechera in The 21st Century’. I have a chapter in there about the influence of Marechera on both the young writers and students of Marechera literature in Zimbabwe. (I may not be able to review this book as a result).

Now there is another new book on Marechera, entitled ‘Reading Marechera’. It was compiled and edited by Grant Hamilton of the Department of English, Chinese University of Hong Kong and published by James Currey in the UK. I have another chapter in there about Marechera’s one and only piece in the Shona language. (I may not be able to review this book as a result).

In these two books, people go to and fro the Marechera oeuvre, agreeing and disagreeing; what did he mean by this and that? Why did he write this? How did he come up with that? If he were around today, what would he have said about contemporary Zimbabwe?

But the last chapter in ‘Reading Marechera’ by one Eddie Tay of the Chinese University of Hong Kong is most intriguing. Tay declares that he is ‘suspicious of a literary establishment (including himself!) that seeks to contain Marechera within academic criticism.’ We limit Marechera by continuing to discuss him in seemingly clever ways, Tay argues!

That brings me to the passage taken from Marechera's ‘The Black Insider.’ A colleague of mine calls it ‘Marechera’s dissertation on Language.’ In that passage Marechera  appears to have been aware of the fact that he would not escape being subject for discussion in life and death. He understood both the power and mystery of man through language. Below here is Marechera’s ‘dissertation.’ Enjoy:

 Language is like water. You can drink it. You can swim in it. You can drown in it. You can wear a snorkel in it. You can flow to the sea in it. You can evaporate and become invisible with it. You can remain standing in a bucket for hours.

The Japanese invented a way of torturing people with drops of water.The Portuguese in Angola and Mozambique also used water to torture people. The dead friend Owen, who painted the mural on my wall, used to dream about putting LSD into South Africa’s drinking water. It seems inconceivable to think of humans who have no language. They may have invented gelignite but they cannot do without water. Some take it neat from rivers and wells. Some have it clinically treated and reservoired. Others drink nothing but beer and Bloody Marys and wine but this too is a way of taking your water.

The way you take your water is supposed to say a lot about you. It is supposed to reflect your history, your culture, your breeding, etc. It is supposed to show the extent to which you and your nation have developed or degenerated. The word ‘primitive’ is applied to all those who take their alphabet neat from rivers, sewers and natural scenery – sometimes this may be described as the romantic imagination. The height of sophistication is actually to channel your water through a system of pipes right into your very own lavatory where you shake the hand of a machine and your shit and filthy manners disappear in a roaring of water. Being water you can spread diseases like bilharzias and thought. Thought is more fatal than bilharzia. And if you want to write a book you cannot think unless your thoughts are contagious. ‘Do you still think and dream in your first language?’ someone asked me in London. Words are worlds massively shrunk:

"In yonder raindrop should its heart disclose,
Behold therein a hundred seas displayed."

When thought becomes wisdom, the scholar can say:

"I came like water, and like wind I go."

And the believer can only sing:

"Celestial sweetness unalloy’d
Who eat thee hunger still;
Who drink of thee still feel a void
Which only thou canst fill."

The languages of Europe (except Basque, Hungarian, Finnish, Turkish) are descended from one parent language which was spoken about 2500 to 2000 BC. This indo-European group of languages – in their modern form has been carried (by colonization, trade, conquest) to the far corners of the earth. Thus the Indo-European river has quite neatly overflowed its banks like the flood in the Bible has flooded Africa, Asia, America and all the islands. In this case there does not seem to have been any Noah about who built an ark to save even just two words of all the languages and speech, which were drowned.

Literacy today is just the beginning of the story. Words are the waters which power the hydro-electricity of nations. Words are the chemicals that H2O human intercourse. Words are the rain of votes which made the harvest possible. Words are the thunderstorm when a nation is divided. Words are the water in a shattering glass when friends break into argument. Words are the acronym of a nuclear test site. Every single minute the world is deluged by boulders of words crushing down upon us over the cliff of the TV, the telephone, the telex, the post, the satellite, the radio, the advertisement, the billposter, the traffic sign, graffiti, etc. Everywhere you go, some shit word will collide with you on the wrong side of the road. You can’t even hide in yourself because your thoughts think of themselves in the words you have been taught to read and write.

Even if you flee home and country, sanity and feeling, the priest and mourners, if any, will be muttering words over your coffin; the people you leave behind will be imagining you in their minds with words and signs. And there will be no silence in the cemetery because always there are burials and more burials of people asphyxiated by words. No wonder it is said:

"In the beginning was the Word,
And the Word was with God.
And the Word was God,
All things were made by him;
And without him was not any thing made
That was made."

No wonder too it was said:

"Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend,
Before we too into dust descend;
Dust to dust, and under dust, to lie
Sans wine, sans song, sans singer, and-
sans end!"

Suddenly the other side of the world is only an alphabet away. Existence itself becomes a description, our lives a mere pattern in the massive universal web of words. Fictions become more documentary than actual documentaries. The only certain thing about these world descriptions is the damage they do, the devastation they bring to the minds of men and children. You do not become a man by studying the species but his language. The winds of change have cooled our porridge and now we can take up our spoons and eat it. Go, good countrymen, have yourselves a ball...

*** from 'The Black Insider'


  1. words are nothing without action. in villages, at work, in the sexual act, everywhere and beyond, the cold silent man who does things is more useful and more respected than the man of nothing but words. words mean nothing without deeds. afrika drinks the words of others, forgetting that those who perfect their native thoughts with action - the chinese, thais, japs, etc - have a better quality of life than afrikans. they speak no english, no french, no german, no spanish... in fact, few of them speak a second language. dambudzo, the dumb idiot who spoke and wrote beatiful prose in an adopted tongue, cannot be the role model afrikans need. va chirere, we need doers not talkers. we need running water in our taps, not running stomachs. we need medicines, machines, muscle.. throw dambudzo in the dustbins of deed, choose a local language to express sentiment and convert it into a roaring force of action. jambo afrika!

    1. I do agree with you that "words are nothing about without deeds"! But sometime only words can also work where deeds can't. Such as when we read Bible then we just imagine the deeds of Jesus but can't see others through our eyes who really do those work.

  2. Godfrey. Thanks. But Marechera didnt say only English words work. He was talking about the power of language! Any language. Even the great deeds of the Chinese that yu mention, started as thoughts, words. And Gofrey, some of the things most destructive were/are written in African languages. It may not be enough to write in an African languge.

  3. Really Dobrota Pucherova article so nice.

    Article Writing

  4. @ kwaChirere, as one of your former students, I have to admit Dambudzo Marechera has stuck with me since the day you introduced him to us in that Lecture room. Your appreciation of his work made us sit up and pay attention. How we wish we could have spent an hour with the man himself. Thank you Sir, may you never falter.
    @ Godfrey, what have you done lately?

  5. Dambudzo, Chirere, Mungoshi, Chinodya i salute