Robert Muponde

Robert Muponde. Photo by Mai Palmberg

Land as the text of Zimbabwean history

Robert Muponde is a writer and student of literature. He was born in 1966 in Rusape. He has a M.A. in English literature from the University of Zimbabwe , and has taught different high schools in Zimbabwe . He was appointed head and coordinator of literary studies at the Zimbabwe Open University in Harare, with responsibilities over all ten regional campuses of the Open University.

In 2002 he was selected as one of the research students to the Doctoral Fellowship programme at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research, University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg (WISER). His Ph.D. thesis is on the construction of childhood in African literature in English, particularly Zimbabwean literature.

Muponde was founding vice-chairmen of the Budding Authors' Association of Zimbabwe 1990-1994. He was English editor at College Press publishers (a sister company of MacMillan) 1995-1997, and is a trustee of the Dambudzo Marechera Trust. He has edited 'No More Plastic Balls'. 'New Voices in the Zimbabwean Short Story' (Mond Books 2000), and together with Mandi Taruvinga an anthology on Yvonne Vera's writing, 'Signs and Taboos' (Weaver Press 2002).

Are there many, or any, writers who write in the spirit of the “third Chimurenga”? Could you mention one or two or a few, and could you tell what kind of writing they do?
Yes, there are many. But they should not be seen as a sudden eruption on the scene. They choose their predecessors from a history that has been defined restrictively as about land. The violence associated with the “third Chimurenga” has deep, psychic roots. It has for a long time enchanted the imaginations of our writers.

So, the literature of Zimbabwe is inextricably bound to the violence of the history and land that engendered it. The land itself is not only a geographical entity, but the very text of the Zimbabwean history. It drips with blood, entombs bones of both colonial settler and Mbuya Nehanda's children. It is suffused with memory. This memory is often imaged as, and transcribed in, the body. The land assumes the lineaments of a living personality, as in Dambudzo Marechera's poem “Pledging My Soul”, and the omnipotence of an all-pervading deity, as suggested by Nyenyedzi in Vera's 'Without a Name'. It is difficult to remember without it, and bodies are described, shaped and destroyed depending on the content of their memory of land. Their fate is inscribed in the manner in which they relate to the land and its memory. Mazvita in 'Without a Name' is an archetypal martyr in the struggle against a national culture drawn from the imaginaries associated with the land. These imaginaries include the strugglers, now called the war veterans, and the “peasants” who bore the brunt of the war for land, and on whose behalf the war veterans struggle, and on whose behalf they now invade commercial farms, etc.

Are you saying that writers took up the theme of the “third chimurenga”, with its central place for land, even before the politicians?
Yes and no. Politicians have not been quiet about land. They have only been accused of doing nothing about the land. Doing nothing about the war heroes. And about the peasants on whose doorsteps the war was fought. Writers have tended to be viewed as possessing more refined sensitivity to the plight of “the people”. They have compiled formidable dossiers of the misdeeds of politicians on behalf of “the people”. They have sought to redirect the efforts and talents of politicians to “nation-building” by reaching to the bottom of suffering caused by landlessness and betrayal of war heroes and the virtues they stood for.

So, you will find Shimmer Chinodya, in his 'Harvest of Thorns', writing within the complex cache of metaphors that launched the “third Chimurenga”, namely, the lack of recognition of war veterans in post-war Zimbabwe , and the subsequent sense of entitlement nurtured by the war veterans in national politics. Chinodya may argue that he was only being prophetic, just like George Mujajati would insist on the righteousness of the lawlessness of the landless Zuze invading a shop in 'Victory'. Mujajati's 'Rain of My Blood' could be one of the first plays in Zimbabwe to raise the question: where are they now our war veterans? His 'The Sun Will Rise Again' was followed by Mujajati's bodily entry into opposition politics in 2000 as an MDC activist, hoping to right the wrongs of state. He did not stay there long, overwhelmed by the combined brutality of the lawless Zuze ('Victory') and the forgotten war veteran Kid Marongorongo ('Rain of My Blood') . Chenjerai Hove's 'Bones' may as well be a founding text for “The Third Chimurenga”: the characterization of the land as teeming with autochthonous forces voiced by the spirits and represented by the sons of the soil, the guerrillas; the white people viewed as outsiders, locusts and vultures; the white farmer Manyepo as cruel. Hove 's novel colludes with the basic rhetoric of the nationalists.

Of course there are veiled, perhaps unintended, complicities in this “third chimurenga” project. And also rivalry to the extent that the writer who a year ago was urging the politician to seize land, even factories and shops belonging to white people (as suggested in Mujajati's 'Victory'), in the name of “the people”, now finds the politician has not only wrested the source of the writer's legitimacy, but has outdone the writer in shouting the presence of inequalities in society. The politician has gone further. He has left the writer with two stark choices: the writer must endorse the politician's and war veteran's actions because that is what he was urging in his poems (in the case of musicians, in their songs), or he must condemn the actions as reckless, etc. It isn't much of a choice, as the opposition party the MDC has discovered. It now boils down to the question of how to find new subjects in creative writing, and in politics. If the whole national culture and the production of consciousness hinged on immersion in the land, the writer needs to find new ways of animating the subject of his art, and these are not easy to find in a situation where writing has mostly been about representing bread and butter issues.

But Chenjerai Hove does not seem so happy now with the way things are going? Is he now writing “against himself”?
True. Chenjerai Hove is not happy. Some writers and critics now fail to understand him, because their writing careers were founded on the need to “finish” the war for “our” land. Shimmer Chinodya's 'Dew in the Morning' and Charles Mungoshi's 'Waiting for the Rain' are now being read like new discoveries for their land content. Everyone should read how Charles Mungoshi and Tafataona Mahoso depicted land-hunger way before their time!!

Chenjerai Hove is not happy. It should surprise for someone who has written 'Bones' and 'Ancestors' and 'Red Hills of Home'. I read his recent collection of poems 'Blind Moon' (2003) . He warns: “from now on/we tread the road,/the footpath of illegitimacy/to the tune/of praise singers/flatterers/charlatans.” He is genuinely struggling to find a new poetic subject, but he will be stuck with his past for a long time. He has reached a critical point in his career, and like George Mujajati, he is groping for subject, and must find ways of differing with what he thought were “voiceless”, or “unvoiced” subjects. He will have to find new ways of speaking to power without perpetuating it. “I Shall Not Speak”, his poem in 'Rainbows in the Dust' (1998) , could be one way he could start, if he could insist on saying “palaver finish” to power and to his past entanglement with the rhetoric of “the land”.

His 'Palaver Finish' (2002) was translated into Shona to mean 'Zvakwana' (“enough is enough”). It condemns the violence and insensitivity of power in post-2000 Zimbabwe . I heard the police came looking for him early 2004, thinking that he could be linked to the “subversive” publication called “Zvakwana”, published by a street level resistance movement. But of course the police had not read his 'Zvakwana', and had no idea that it is quite harmless and is available in bookshops, unlike 'Zvakwana' the newspaper. All it means then, as reflected in the writing of Chenjerai Hove, is that we are likely to see emerging post-2000 writings on the violence of the failed state against the opposition (defined in its broadest terms), but perhaps not in the same way you would characterise oppositional writing. Here, the writer is creating a new subject upon which to engage the state, the previous contentions have been wrenched around by the state to its advantage. We are likely to see the writer producing a new “people” against which to measure the limits of the state, and that of his own writing.

But of course some young writers like Memory Chirere, in his short story 'Maize' have already begun to celebrate the dreams of the newly resettled farmers and in another of his unpublished short story, he is already intrigued with the departure of the white farmer and the arrival of the black farmer. He is not alone: musicians such as Simon Chimbetu, Elias Musakwa (a gospel singer) and Chiyangwa (a.k.a. “Toilet”) have all joined the “Hondo YeMinda”(War for Land) show. Some musicians have made money out of singing old war songs in support of Mugabe's “third Chimurenga”. And talk of getting land for a song! Even before them, musicians like Thomas Mapfumo sang praises of the ruling party and its leader, while some editors in the 1980s published editorials urging the government to send more Fifth Brigade troops into Midlands and Matebeleland, in spite of the fact that the army was committing genocide and ethnic cleansing in those regions. This complicates further what writing (even singing) is about, and should be about.

Chenjerai Hove was condemned by some of his fellow writers for saying that the streets of Harare are littered with corpses. They forgot that he was using the necessary tools of his trade as a poet, and called him a sell out for living in France while a revolution (which required his poetry!) was unfurling at home. In the same year, a cricket player, Henry Olonga, was demonised and hounded out of country for mourning the “death of democracy” in Zimbabwe . So, the violence associated with “The Third Chimurenga” is embedded both in the texts of the writers and in civil practice. It makes writing such as Chipamaunga's trilogy 'A Fighter for Freedom', 'Feeding Freedom' and 'Chains of Freedom' look not only like a rehearsal of the “third Chimurenga” but an authorized “opposition” to it.

If land is the ground that all Zimbabwean writers stand on, so to speak, where are the differences in dealing with violence?
The violence is in the memory, and the memory is in the violence. Acts of writing are in themselves acts of memory. And, by extension, acts of memory are acts of violence. Very often, the violence has been contained as ‘liberatory', as a way of reconnecting with history and recovering identity and dignity. Some writers and critics question this representation of violence in a situation where the ruling party monopolises the description and deployment of ‘liberatory' violence. The memory of land is at critical moments enshrined in the body of the war veteran and the figure of Mugabe.

In 'House of Hunger' (1978) and 'Black Sunlight' (1980), Marechera grapples with this memory and violence in ways that are novel and insightful. In order to tame the memory, Marechera hacks into it, mutilates, kneads and recasts it, refusing to be dominated by its sucking, quicksand-like centripetal force. He dismembers the memory, in order to deny it linearity, particularity and exclusivity – which is the source of its nationalistic hegemony.

Now, when I ask you about the present situation in literature, how come you talk so much about Dambudzo Marechera who died in 1987?
“What would he have said?” is a question that is often asked these days about Dambudzo Marechera. It is as if he held the key to an understanding of all forms of disenchantment. He continues to be viewed as living, as an undying presence and fighting spirit in Zimbabwean literature. He is often thought to have cleared substantial imaginative space for Yvonne Vera and other young writers to write the way they do now.

Yvonne Vera works into and out of the memory to reconstruct the body of Mbuya Nehanda, the spirit mother of the Zimbabwean revolution. This she does to give a historical body and language to the spiritual offspring of Mbuya Nehanda, the women whose narratives are "under the tongue" and whose identity is "without a name". Vera has written four historically significant novels to capture this sequencing and embodying of memory: 'Nehanda' (1992), 'Without a Name' (1994), 'Under the Tongue' (1996), and 'The Stone Virgins' (2002). Vera's authorial violence is seen to be more redemptive, not in the nationalistic sense, but in the form and content of her ideas about change and freedom. She denies nationalistic memory its ventriloquism, and speaks for the unsung, unimagined community of women in post-war Zimbabwe . This in itself requires some form of violence – a refusal to consent to the agreed image and memory of the land and the body of Nehanda (land and woman).

Marechera's authorial violence is manifested both in his representation of a counter discourse to the constructed and perpetuated memory of nation and state, and in the form of his writing as well. While Yvonne Vera employs an almost Marecheraic violence in the form and content of her writing, the lyricism of her disjointed prose suggests a desire for harmony, order and community (see the ending of 'Without a Name'). She does seem to "write away" from the centre in order to get right back to it, albeit with an altered consciousness, while Marechera seems to "write away" from the centre in order not to get back to any centre, or to any destination.

I think that Yvonne Vera is so far the only major writer, after Marechera, who has managed to bring new concerns into the novel, without falling into the either/or trap, where you either praise or condemn the “revolution”, however it is defined. In her writing are strong suggestions of how not only to step outside a charmed imaginative space of land, but how to mediate possibilities of new sites of social entanglement and freedom. She manages this by resetting the terms of engagement with “the history” and “the land”.

[This interview was conducted by e-mail in February 2004]

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