Charles Mungoshi

Charles Mungoshi. Photo by Mai Palmberg

"It is the old story, isn't it?"

Charles Mungoshi is a writer in both Shona and English. He was born in 1947 in a village near Chivhu in Manyene Tribal Trust Land. His novel 'Waiting for the Rain' has been prescribed reading for years in Zimbabwean schools. This novel was published in1975, the same year as his Shona novel 'Ndiko kupindana kwa mazuva' (How time passes). He received an International PEN award for both these books. Mungoshi's other publications include two collections of short stories, 'The Setting Sun' and 'The Rolling World' (1987), two collections of children's stories, 'Stories from a Shona Childhood' (1989) and 'One Day Long Ago' (1991) and a collection of poems, 'The Milkman Doesn't Only Deliver Milk' (1998). His latest book is 'Walking Still', a collection of short stories, which was awarded the Commonwealth Writers Prize. He also has a short story in the anthology 'Writing Still' (ed. Irene Staunton, Weaver Press 2004).

The following text is from a conversation between Charles Mungoshi and Mai Palmberg, an event arranged within the framework of the series "The Writers' Africa" on 30 September 2003 at the Nordic Africa Institute in Uppsala. The evening ended with questions from the floor, indicated below with Q. Mai Palmberg's two closing questions are indicated with MP.

Let me start by asking you why you became a writer?
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 when I could read, which was five years after I started school, four or five years, I could read very well in both English and Shona. I always had books with me.

I am the first son and first child and after me there were three girls, then four boys, and as a boy you are expected to work with men. I didn't have any friends on this farm; the nearest friend was about a mile or so away. We were not allowed to visit anyone at all, not because they were cruel, but there was so much work to do on the farm and I was supposed to be always there, minding the cattle or running errands, and so on.

Even when I started going to school, my father would go to the school and tell the headmaster that his son would not be attending the Sunday school because he was the only one he had to help him on the farm.

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 heard 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.

What kind of reading, do you remember?
The very first book I read and I could only identify words like 'this' and ‘was' and 'it' and 'the', something like that, but I couldn't tell how the story went. But I remember very well the title, it was "Flamingo Island" and I loved the sound of the word 'flamingo'. I would say that word 'flamingo' and I thought it was wonderful. I didn't know what it meant.

Later on there was a proliferation of Second World War comics and cowboy comics, American literature, I think, from a publisher called Dell. These are the kind of comics I read. I didn't realise that then, but I think from very early I was a victim of the power of the word, so from reading those comics I easily identified with the heroes there and I found I cultivated a hatred for the Germans, or the Jerries as they were called in these comics, and the Nips or the Japs, as the Americans put it, and I was several cowboys. I never thought about the Red Indians. They were my enemies and I looked down upon them.

At that time there was not much literature from here. We are looking at 1959 and the oldest published Shona novel had been published in 1956. Then there was of course the Christian Bible the Bible, and it was in a very weird, very old print with letters and it was hard to read. It had been translated I think by some very enthusiastic white missionary. Some of what was supposed to be poetry, sounded very strange to the ear. Well, nobody read much, they read the Bible but otherwise what we called stories we heard from our grandmothers.

I think I became a writer was simply something out of this loneliness, I had to make something out of my life. I was amassing a lot of words and you either sing them or you shout them, you have to do something with those words, and I started putting together stories.

So did you do that already in school?
I did. I remember; the first poem I wrote was when I was the first year in school. I had to ask somebody how to spell the name of a certain girl who sat next to me. I wrote the word down and sent the letter to her. I think that's the first poem I wrote. Siphiwe.

So it's a one-word poem?
Yes, a one word poem with a whole lot of feelings behind it. Later on I wrote about valleys and mountains and trees and then the inevitable longer poem, longer version of Siphiwe, "The Love Story", which was published in a school magazine. And 4-years later in secondary school, 2-years away from my leaving school for good, I had a story published in a commercial magazine in Harare , Zimbabwe , and the following year another story. These stories were of course love stories and adventure stories. At that time I used to believe that a good story should have about two deaths on every page and a lot of blood right from page one to the end and so on and a bit of the bedroom scene, that was a good story as far as I was concerned.

Later on it came as a surprise when I was reading some English short stories in the school library. I read some stories, for instance, Ernest Hemingway's stories, and there didn't seem to be anything happening in those stories. I mean you can have a love story without people sleeping together; you can have a murder story without anyone being killed on the page and so on. It was something about the shot, the sound of the gunshot when the curtain is closed, that was something from Chekov I suppose, and the whole thing about writing a story in a manner that leaves a lot unsaid. I got interested in that and I found myself writing stories.

But what had happened again was this loneliness, which did not end by going to school. In fact I think it worsened because I couldn't sort of get myself together to become part of the other pupils at school. I think the final rift between myself and being part of whatever crowd I was supposed to have been part of came when I was, I think, thirteen and we were playing football. I always tried to avoid games where competition was required because I'd never lived or stayed with anyone or competed with anyone in anything, everything I did it by myself and I was the best by myself. So whenever I found myself competing I always came out the worst. So I was goalkeeper in this and somebody kicked the ball right on me and I fell back and I think I must have been out for two hours, and from there I hated football or any games that could kill, could hurt somebody.

From there I think I became friends with just my books and walking through the forest and I would maybe avoid going to, play truant from church and go out into the bush. I was very good at hunting for fruit and people like me for the strange fruits that I brought from the bush.

So when your stories got published and won these competitions, your parents were not very proud?
No, they were not. In fact what happened with this loneliness the other thing I did was I started keeping a diary. It was very strange, after writing about a painful experience, I felt very relaxed, very refreshed and very cheerful and in fact I became a kind of clown, I think. There was a kind of euphoria after writing a story or something that really pained me I became very funny. I don't know how to say it but one of the things that I became good at is acting on stage and so on.

And I think that also served me, that held me from writing gory stories, melodramatic stories into writing actually the kind of writing that I'm writing now, when.

Do you think that literature in Zimbabwe has gone through a stage of literature for education and social/political values?
Yes, when I went to school the teachers wrote on the black board "Think in English, Talk in English, Act in English". So they were very serious about education and that is what they taught. In secondary school we had plays, simplified stories; we had Shakespeare, we had Oliver Twist – all those stories. Some I don't know where they came from but I had those in primary school and in secondary school.

Well, I meant after independence. Some say that the early literature of independent Zimbabwe was not sort of following the nationalist call?
OK, looking at literature in Zimbabwe, and books like my 'Waiting for the Rain', Stanley Nyamfukudza's 'Non-Believer's Journey', Dambudzo Marechera's 'House of Hunger' and the other books – yes, they were seen as books without political ideologies, without any historical content, and as books that are individual or egoistic, and all that kind of things; there was nothing at all that would help there.

And our only response was that it was at least an analysis of and we were looking into the individual to see how and why the individual suffers and could you please offer an answer, if there is any answer? It's simply a laying open of what is bothering, a diagnosis of what's wrong with us, and they said, "No, ideologically this is empty".

But then, only recently I hear, and it's the same university and probably these might have been students in secondary school but now they are the lecturers, they are talking of this same book of mine again. I haven't changed a single word, but now they say it means something, this is one of the greatest things that have happened too. So it is interesting in the light of talk on self-censorship that a criticism of the present seems to have been written already in a book many years ago, which was then stamped as being ideologically empty.

Q. You have written your short stories, novels, and columns, but you have also translated, for example, Ngugi wa Thiongo's The Grain of Wheat. Could you tell us why you did that, and what that novel meant to you?
I was editor of a publishing house and we were all eyes open, looking around for the great novel of out of the struggle. I felt very bad, I couldn't write the Shona war novel. I really liked 'The Grain of Wheat', it was skilfully plotted and it did not tell that this is how it was, and this is right and this is wrong, and he has complex characters, and gave alternative interpretations.

And I felt reading The Grain of Wheat it that it was almost the same as in Zimbabwe, the British of the Highlands, the farms and the people living in the compounds and the people of the land dissatisfied, the educational system, the same sort of characters, headmasters and so on and the priests, all of it. I felt that Mau Mau was just like our Chimurenga.

So I felt that this would be of some help to the Shona writers who were trying to write about the war. I am not sure whether any of our authors did get inspired by it or learnt how to chisel the characters. But some have later written very well about the struggle, not as speeches but as subjective experiences, such as Alexander Kanengoni. 'Effortless Tears', I think that is one wonderful story. It is someone being honest about his or her experience, not trying to cover it up with pseudo-heroics and that kind of thing.

Q: You were talking about the characters in the Chimurenga, and you have described the second Chimurenga. If you wrote about it, how would you describe the characters in the third Chimurenga?
The characters? Which one is this third? Is it to be fought or has it been fought already?

Q: Are you very straight?
Where is it, the third Chimurenga? When was it?

Q: Why do you ask me?
Because you used the expression.

Q: But you know perfectly well what it is.
No, I don't. Oh, the one they call the third Chimurenga?

Q: The one going on right now.
I'm still confused about it, I don't know who is right or who is wrong. I don't even know whether we talk of right or wrong.

I think they are all what they've always been, trying to cheat each other. It's intrigue, and I'm better then you are and it is survival of the fittest. It is the old story, isn't it? It is lies you can do this thing it as long as you don't get caught. I think it's the same old - I need to sit down and write a story to illustrate. As the father who gives his children a snake when they ask for bread.

MP: Can I ask one thing that I forgot to ask before, this book 'Walking Still' was produced in 1997, right? Looking to the future, are you working on anything now?
I think I'll deal with the third Chimurenga.

MP: Now that you hear about it?
Now that I hear about it, it's interesting how we say third and second Chimurenga when the people are really the same people who are afraid, who fight, who are greedy, who hate their own or who twist, the same old - who love. I mean, they loved in the second, now they still love, they hate, and it's always about people who don't deliver, isn't it? It is the old hat and the same old characters, I suppose. With cell phones.

[Conversation with Charles Mungoshi on 30 September 2003 at the Nordic Africa Institute in Uppsala]

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