Thursday, June 20, 2013

Tinashe Muchuri, Beavan Tapureta, Lawrence Hoba and Martin Denenga

On Monday, 1 November 2004, I wrote a review article for a local paper and on seeing it and reading it today, I NOTICE that it was actually various young writers then affiliated to the now defunct Budding Writers Association of Zimbabwe who were some of the first people writing from within Zimbabwe to publish significant fictional work based on the fast track land reform of Zimbabwe. Tinashe Muchuri, Beavan Tapureta, Lawrence Hoba and Martin Denenga, you have your own corner in Zimbabwean literature! Some of these writers are now more established in writing and various other art forms. I also sense now that the Budding Writers Association of Zimbabwe scored its firsts which it never lived to benefit from. Below is that unedited review from 2004: 

 Zimbabwe land issue and creativity

Zimbabwe’s Land Issue:The Budding Writers’ Perspectives, Harare, 2004.
Editor: Dudziro Nhengu
A reflective Book Review by Memory Chirere
A new journal called ZIMBABWE LAND ISSUE has just hit the Zimbabwean and South African book markets like a bolt from the blue. It is the first in a new series of the “topical issues” journal being published by the Budding Writers of Zimbabwe (BWAZ).

BWAZ is a writer’s organization for new and young authors of Zimbabwe formed in 1990.  It has since grown to represent the nurturing of the growing army of new voices in Zimbabwe. 

With the return from exile in 1980 of serious writers like Dambudzo Marechera, Stanley Nyamufukudza, Musaemura Zimunya, Wilson Katiyo and others, there was a sudden and acute realization amongst the youth that writing could be taken seriously and a man or woman could be called “a writer.”  With the help of the then vibrant Zimbabwe Writers Union (ZIWU) there were inspiring readings and literary talks in Harare, Gweru and Bulawayo.

In due course BWAZ was formed.  To this day some of its earliest and founding members like Albert Nyathi, Ignatius Mabasa and the late Stephen Alumenda have grown to national stature.

Last month when the average established writer of Zimbabwe was yet to contribute to the ongoing debate and activities of the phenomenon now called the Zimbabwe Land Issue, BWAZ led the way with a scintillating publication.  Since the start of the mass farm occupations over two years ago, there has been remarkable silence about the land issue among Zimbabwe writers, save for Alexander Kanengoni who has routinely dropped here a story and there an essay-short story.

Could our writers be “playing it safe” because they are afraid to define their different positions?  Or, as one literary critic, Maurice Vambe told me, “they are still watching, Memory.  If they were to write about the land issue as it happens, they risk being journalists!”  Really?

This BWAZ journal contains short stories and a novella  based in various ways on the land issue in Zimbabwe.  These pieces, it must be emphasized, represent individual writers’ reaction  the land issue.

Handidzokere Shure Part 1-3 is a stimulating debate in epistolary from.  Three budding writers, Tinashe Muchuri, the late Blessing Chihombori and Beaven Tapureta build up on each other’s ideas and writings.  Should the land be taken away from the whites?  Should it be divided equally between black and white? What is the role of women here? What is the role of history? Is the reform necessarily violent…?

In Part I there are two letters – one from the “educated” George Gororo to his father and the other one from the determined Mr Gororo himself, in response to his son’s letter. These two letters represent two camps on the land issue.  George is an industrial worker who religiously believes that blacks cannot own farms because they neither have the technical know-how nor the resources to meaningfully turn the land into food to feed the whole nation.  George believes that blacks should only stick to domestic farming and leave commercial farming to the whites, who according to him, “…are the champions  of the Zimbabwe economy.”His father on the other hand argues that the land belongs to the blacks, it is their birthright and the white farmers must pack their belongings and leave for Britain.

Tinashe Muchuri continues with these “letters” between father and son up to Part 4.  Convinced that his father is an incorrigible land occupier, George shifts and writes to his mother to “please plead with father to leave Ndege’s farm now…” and stop dancing and ululating as the menfolk subdivide the commercial farms.

And the mother responds with unsurpassed verve: “You surprise me a lot George, my son.  So you think I am just, ululating and dancing?  I am not silent, George.  Ululating and dancing are a form of communication too… strategic talking.”

While Muchuri’s letters dramatise the typical  irreconcilable perspectives to the land issue in Zimbabwe, the writer could have gone beyond  binarism.  The epistle form is understandably an attempt to recreate a community dialoguing but the author could have taken this as opportunity to be more nuanced.  One could have given systematic background to why father and son view the issue differently.   Instead of erecting two war-fronts, one could have added a third or even fourth dimension.  The land issue in Zimbabwe, ironically, has offered some people opportunity for action or ambiguity or total detachment. More important, the rearrangement of land in Zimbabwe has not only operated at a physical level.  The mass movement of people, goods and properties has also caused a radical evolvement of mindsets and attitudes.  The Zimbabwe writer has a tremendous task here to explore even the land reform in the mind. 

In that regard “Tendai’s letter” by Beaven Tapureta, though cryptic, manages somehow to problematise the land issue in a more interesting manner than maybe Muchuri’s “letters.”  Tendai is a Zimbabwean young woman in exile in England but she has never lost sight of the events back home.  Out in cold England, she works for a white woman who not only calls her sister but also exploits her.  For Tendai, sister achy and feminism are abstract and lofty and does not address concrete issues.

Lawrence Hoba’s “The Trek” is evidence that some budding writers are reading widely and that one should not consider influences pernicious.  Hoba’s story reads like Honwana’s short story called “Papa-Snake and I.”  Here as in all prominent  Southern African short stories the child narrator sees much more than it intends to.  In “The Trek” the narrator is very critical of his father, an ex-fighter  who has acquired a farm formerly owned by a white man.  Father is lazy, always after beer parties. It is only mamma, throughout the years,  who has been the real land tiller.  The farm gate is written “Mr. J.J. Magudu.”  Why not “Mrs J.J. Magudu?” asks the narrator.

The late Martin Denenga’s novella – “Weeping,” is perhaps the greatest revelation of this literary journal.  As you read the first paragraph of this fast paced story, it occurs to you that this is a story that you will not ignore: “Some people simply called him Goddard. His friends called him Tim and his wife called him darling. His workers called him Goddard. His nickname was Minatonga, which means I rule. He hated his nickname…”

“Weeping” is about a conflict between a black community and a white farmer.  The white man accuses and punishes the community for poaching on his farm.  The neighbouring black community, especially Maruza, does not understand why and how they can be accused of poaching from their own motherland and so the conflict rages on.

Denenga does not limit the land conflict in Zimbabwe to one historical epoch, the land redistribution period.  He takes us back in time to long-standing conflicts that existed between Baas Goddard and his African neighbours of the adjacent Tribal Trust Land.  This helps to prove a historical fact that the animosity between blacks and whites in Zimbabwe over land is as old as colonialism itself.  The writer presents complex characters, black and white, and helps dispel the myth of a superior race.

Denenga feels deeply into the lives of farm folks and they ring true.  Their fears are expressed in their Nyanja laced conversations, drawing deep into their migrant labour backgrounds.  Their constant refusal to succumb to fate is best expressed in the seemingly mundane dance parties they organize in the farm compounds. Amongst them are guitarists of note, gifted story tellers, bottom wiggling dancers and legendary kick-boxers.

Since Chanjerai Hove’s novel called Bones, a prizewinning 1989 publication, “Weeping” is, arguably, the only literary piece in English that listens to the pulse of the farm-worker community.  One hopes that local publishers will soon take up this story.  It is only sad that Martin Denenga himself has passed on without seeing his work in print.  Infact information at the BWAZ offices has it that the unassuming Denenga was from a Marondera farming community.  One day he dropped the script at BWAZ, saying, “Read. Tell me what you think about it.”  They were never to see him again.  For over a year BWAZ put up notices in the papers and Radio Zimbabwe for Denenga because internal assessors found the script worth publishing. That tells the painful story of the struggles of Zimbabwe’s new writers. Denenga died not knowing the fate of his story and he remains unkwown.

Shimmer  Chinodya makes a guest appearance in this journal with his short story “Settlers.”  Chinodya like Stanley Nyamufukudza, Aaron Chiunduramoyo and Dr Charles Mungoshi are some of the prominent writers who have worked very closely with BWAZ in its various creative writing workshops across the country. Chinodya is well known as a great innovator of the short story form and he does exactly that with “Settlers.” Here the narrative follows the rambling thoughts of a new farmer and as you read on, your spirit rises, sinks, rises…

This neatly bound and boldly printed journal is well annotated and user friendly.  However the cover needed some deeper imagination.  The picture of the eastern portions of Zimbabwe in loam soils could have been more appropriate for a Geography or Agriculture text book.  One could have gone for a picture of many of Zimbabwe’s rolling wheat-lands or the never-ending stretches of newly ploughed red earths of early summer. The title too, is rather longish and its scholarly wording suggests, unnecessarily, regret.  A shorter, sharper and poetic line could have just done a better job.

One hopes that these writings will travel far and wide and contribute to both the debate and action on the land issue in our country and elsewhere. Maybe, against all odds, Zimbabwe’s more established writers could be pushed into writing about and around the LAND ISSUE.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The writer and the trauma of Childhood.

Someone once remarked that writers need to have had lots of childhood trauma to write great works, or something to that effect. That is not to mean that every piece of writing is exactly an autobiography. The strong assumption is that every writer has suffered a trauma or benefited from unusual experiences of mental excitement in childhood, which eventually turns the individual into a writer or these moments turn up constantly in the writer’s work…

Below I capture the intimate moments when various Zimbabwean writers have talked about important definitive moments in their childhoods. If you have read some of their works, these narratives could be very revealing. Look carefully and come up with your own observations:

Shimmer Chinodya talks to Anne Gagiano, 2010:
I write because… to echo maybe one of my favourite writers who is a Greek-American writer, his name is Harry Mark Petrakis, and he says writing is a process by which we, by which the writer, revisits memories of suffering and refashions them and softens them and lyricizes them and comes up with something which is more palatable, something which is more endurable. I think for me writing is like revisiting old pains, old memories, old troubles, old problems and doing something with them and coming up with something which is palatable, more digestible … swallowable, if you like. That is for me what writing is about. It’s about suffering and the artistic endeavour to create something possibly out of pain…
Two things: I think authors often say, ‘write about what you know’. I hate to read books where the writer creeps around and you think all the characters are plucked out of the sky and pasted onto the page with no conviction of there being any felt experience or any felt feelings. I very much like to write about what I know, but secondly, I need a vision of existence. You can’t be a writer and not have a vision. You need to impose your own views of life, your own view of [life], your own view of change and relationships … I saw a black actor being interviewed and they said to him, “But aren’t you an egoist?” And he said, “Of course I am an egoist, why should I go on stage if I am not?” Now I don’t want to go that far but I think artists are by nature egoists. Even if they’re writing about what [general life is like]. But their [egoism stems from their] view of life, their view of existence and a good writer must [change you, or must let you change your view, and must get people thinking about problems…] that’s what egoism is. I think.

Charles Mungoshi talks to Mai Palberg on 30 September 2003:
I don't know what else I should have become. I don't know how these things come about, but I think my parents wanted me to be something else, and even as late as, well, just before Walking Still was published, which is about five years ago, my mother said, "I'd wish you'd burn your library". Anyway, she didn't mean it and some good things have happened also. It probably has got to do with having your nose in the book and hardly saying anything at all to anyone; I am talking about when I was growing up.

But I always want to think that it was the loneliness, the way I grew up that led to my choice of career. It was not a career that I chose, I think it chose me. Traditionally in Shona culture you live in a round village and with the head of the kraal, somewhere there. But some time in the 1950s my father had to move from our village to start a farm of his own, a farm in the modern sense, with machines and all the modern technology, although not that productive.

This farm was about 17-something acres and you could get out with 20, 25 to 30 head of cattle for the whole day, feeding on wild fruits and you did not come back home until probably five o'clock in the evening. So most of the time I was alone...
And in school, when on Monday, Wednesday and Friday pupils stayed over after school – which closed at about 1 o'clock – to do sports or outdoor games, my father made sure that I didn't join the other pupils in those games.

My sisters being girls, I couldn't herd cattle with them. I couldn't work with them because they were women and they would be with our mother doing other things, so I was always almost on my own. When I was with my father, you can imagine the kind of conversation we had, "Pick that", "Did I say to?", "Did I tell you to?", "Run!" and so on, so you would wish to be as far away from him as possible.

So most of my life was really lived in my head and talking to trees and birds and animals. So I want to think the loneliness, being on my own, turned me sort of inside and the reading helped along. It wasn't long before I thought, "Well, I think I can also write a story". I think that's what happened...

Yvonne Vera talks to Grace Mutandwa, 2003:
I was born in Bulawayo on 19 September 1964 and attended Mzilikazi High School… My first school prize was in Grade Seven when I was presented with a pair of scissors for the best needlework. The art of needlework often required the patience of good stitching. I still love the creativity of cutting, sewing, choosing fabrics for their emotion and mood. I love the smell of new fabric.

When I look at someone, I try to understand what their mode of dress and fabric announces. Clothes have been the greatest adornment in most human societies, our language for courtship, relaxation, celebration and even grief… At that stage, I was overweight and when I went to the stage to get my prize others laughed at me… I have worked as a cotton picker in Chegutu, on the farms as a child. This was my first paid work. I've been a waitress in a fast-food chicken and ribs place and in Italian restaurants…
Musaemura Zimunya speaks to Edmore Zvinonzwa 2012:
I was born in Mutare General Hospital, grew up in rural Zimunya, attended Munyarari Primary School. I do not recall my father being employed and so my mother raised most of the little money that went towards our texts books – mostly second hand – uniforms and food. She brewed beer or worked in fields of richer neighbours and when we were old enough we would join her.

But my father was a great mbira and ngoma player, one of the greatest of his time. I recall him sitting me on his lap and picking the mbira keys against my ears. The sounds have remained with me ever since and so I am a forever profoundly moved by good mbira sounds. He was also a fantastic story teller with a flair for the dramatic and descriptive – which I believe I inherited from him.
My mother was the second wife of my father and so she bore the brunt of abuse that came with that. And, as time went by, as her children, we also shared some of that abuse. But, apart from not doing much to support us, I don’t remember my father being physically or verbally abusive to my mother, though, my mother sometimes did her best to take out her frustrations on him. I only recall him famously declaring: “Idi, andichayi mukadziba ini. Mudzimai ishuka.” (I will never assault a woman. A woman is a glorious thing!)
Growing up was mostly about herding cattle in the summer months and playing in the dry season. We had little teams of rival families playing organized games of “soccer” using tennis or plastic balls on Sundays. I soon fell in love with music and caught the ear of the church choir master who invited me to join. That was my route to the enjoyment of the arts as our choir competed in the Manicaland Schools Association Eistedford – a choir competition – and provided music for church services.
Following good Standard Six results, I got a United Methodist scholarship to study at Chikore Secondary School, Craigmore, Chipinge where I studied from Form One to Form Four. By the end of my Form Two, I was beginning to scribble poems under the guidance of a great master – Tobby Moyana. My first taste of excitement about my writing came in the same year when I read a valedictory poem in tribute to our respectable master of English, Miss Cousins. I cannot remember exactly what moved the assembly, but the applause was deafening at the end of my performance. Two years later, in 1970, I submitted a folio of five poems for a national poetry competition open to Rhodesians and South Africans. I did not do well enough to win the first prize but the quality of my poems moved the judges to recommend the creation of a special prize to accommodate my work. And so, I won my first national prize for poetry then…

Aaron Chiundura Moyo talks to Chipo Musikavanhu, 2012:
I was born in Gweru, Guinea Fowl. My parents worked at a farm owned by a Mr MacLean. The farm was called Clifton Down Farm and nicknamed Shoe Shine. It was 12 kilometres from Gweru town. My birth certificate says I was born in 1954 but I was actually born in 1950... 

I started school when I was 15 years old at the farm school which was called Shoe Shine School. I only managed to go to school then because my father had bought a farm and relocated there and I had stayed behind with my older brother. Grade one back then was called Sub A. Because of my age I had to fast track through school. So I ended up doing Sub A, Sub B, and Standard 1(which is now grade 3) in the same year. The year was 1965...

I passed my Grade 7 with a one in English and a two in Arithmetic. The overall pass was a two. ..The headmaster at Bumburwi School told me to go and get married because I was a grown man. I remember walking home, sad and discouraged, about to give up totally on school. When I was at the farm school it never occurred to me that I was a too old. Most of us at the farm went to school late. I only realised when I had gone to the government school that I was too old when people made fun of me. I was called Two-boy in class because the teacher said there were two boys in me. So when I was walking back home after rejection at the three schools I decided to go for what were called Removed classes. Removed classes were classes that were offered to those who had attained an overall mark which was more than two. They were only offered two years of high school. So I had decided that it was better to go to school for two more years than to not go to school at all. I decided to make one last effort to get a place. At the first school I went to, Mambo School, the headmaster accepted me and my spirits got raised again …
(By Memory Chirere)

Friday, June 7, 2013

Preserve without being conservative: Ignatius Mabasa

This writing is a reaction and perhaps a reflection. I have a question that is corroding my heart like seeds inside a rattle.

What is it that gives us legitimacy as Zimbabweans to the claim that we are the owners of mbira and marimba music, muchongoyo dance, the maputi snack, the nhodo game and such other cultural products?

Is it just because historically these cultural arts or heritage are attributed to Zimbabwe? Was soccer not invented in England but has now become a religion in Brazil, Spain and even Africa.

I am afraid that our days of claiming to be the people who own mbira and marimba music or Shona sculpture and such other heritages are gone and the centre no longer holds.

Like a deserted bird’s nest full of droppings acts as the only reminder that some bird once inhabited it, I fear that we risk being left holding on to resonators (mateze), snuff (bute) and other ritual regalia like ceremonial axes (makano), traditional cloths (maretso and others), while the soul of the music departed a long time ago.

While cultural heritage is passed down from previous generations, there are some forms of this heritage that require more than just receiving and passing on.

Generally, music requires passion, love, practice and attention to detail. And good traditional music is not made possible just because we Zimbabweans are closer to the ancestors than Americans or Asians.

Neither is good traditional music made possible because we wear dreadlocks and smoke weed. Good traditional music like any other music is a result of patience, passion and practice and more practice.

Some friends living in Santa Fe, USA, recently sent me a marimba CD by an American group called Polyphony Marimba. When I received the CD, I kept it for a few days because I told myself it is probably one of those feeble attempts by white people to play our music. But after listening to the marimba CD by Peter and Raven Swing, it knocked my socks off.

I never imagined marimba music could be so perfect, seamless, flawless to the point of almost making a seed that is resting its sleepy head in the darkness of the soil germinate. If I were the godfather of superlatives, I could have explained better how Polyphony Marimba through their music managed to start a fire without faggots.

The Polyphony Marimba music reminded me of what the wind did to a lost and lonely bird’s tufted feather when I was herding cattle as a young boy in Mount Darwin.

The wind would snatch and toss the feather in the sky, making it dance a dance unknown to feathers.
The wind would take the feather places as if mocking the bird that lost that very feather by saying I can still fly without you. Indeed, mbira and marimba music is flying high without us in very far away foreign lands and cultures.

Although you will not get a lot of information on their website, Polyphony Marimba were mentored by the late Dumisani Maraire, father of mbira princess Chiwoniso

From their efforts, one can see that the impact of inter-cultural dialogue is long term. Their website says, “Come enjoy roots music of Zimbabwe; dance as we keep alive the music of our mentor, Dumi Maraire, who ‘put the rock & roll in marimba!’

“Listen as we branch out into the songs of Peter and Raven Swing. We offer you vital and complex rhythms, a powerful acoustic tone, beautiful uplifting melodies, danceable and unique.”

I think what makes Polyphony Marimba music addictive, beautiful and unique is the care, the love and time that was invested in making the music. But, the most important ingredient that they added is innovation!

Who would have thought of rocking and rolling Shona traditional music? Speaking as an artiste myself, I can boldly say locally, most artistes are afraid of experimenting.

We tend to be satisfied with the same old things and yet the world is moving, if not flying. And that is where we are losing out - sitting and watching things happen to us, to our cultural heritage.

I know there are proponents for the preserving of our cultural heritage - raw and uncooked. While it is good to be custodians, there is a danger of being custodians that lose or destroy that which they are supposed to keep alive because we are failing to innovate, to repackage to dissect and even turn things on their head.

Doesn’t the proverb say some things need to be tried, the old woman from Chivi cooked stones and people enjoyed the stone soup. Experimenting busts formality and stagnation, it gives us wings.

Things are happening to our culture and heritage and whether we like it or not, we should not see these happenings as a tragedy, but as an opportunity to preserve without being conservative.

Ignatius Mabasa, The Herald, Friday 7 June 2013

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Negro Speaks Of Rivers

The Negro Speaks Of Rivers
I've known rivers:
I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I've seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset.
I've known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

+Langston Hughes wrote "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" while on a train ride to Mexico, where he would live with his father for one year. He had just graduated from high school in Cleveland, Ohio, making him a mere eighteen years old. The poem was published in Crisis Magazine (the magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) in 1921, a year later. When his train crossed the Mississippi River, Hughes was inspired by its beauty and was also reminded of its role in sustaining slavery in America. The sun was setting, and Hughes had a long journey ahead of him. He took out a letter his father had written him and wrote this poem on the back of its pages.