Vuso Mhlanga Correspondent
THE quest for a home and a sense of belonging is the substance of Zimbabwean literature. This is not a sweeping assertion that makes one liable to oversimplification of matters. True, the generality of many literatures, especially African and Caribbean, reflect that search for identity, but that there exist no other literatures as acutely aware and persistent in the search for its roots as Zimbabwean is not a grandiose statement, but one fully grounded.
Literature in its very essence is born out of a certain search and pressing need to express a whole range of human emotions and a panorama of human experiences.
With constancy however Zimbabwean literature makes that endless pursuit of identity its hallmark, its indelible imprint. Zimbabwean literature should be understood within that context of an endless pursuit of one’s roots.
One maybe probed to ask why that is the case. The answer has many dimensions. Perhaps one plausible response is related to the fabric of Zimbabweans; by nature we are a restless people, ever cognisant of our roots.
Admittedly, many among our ranks flounder on the verge of confusion in relation to their identity but the generality remain in constant touch with their true selves.
The other potent explanation for the constant search for identity is rooted in our own historical experiences.
Chief among our experiences is the liberation struggle — we bear the deep marks of a prolonged period of being estranged from our culture and land. In short, colonialism had deprived us of our space; physical, economic, and cultural.
It is against this background that our literature springs from and that of Africa in general. No literature springs from a vacuum.
That being the standing, our historical experiences, especially colonialism and its vestiges, bids our literature to continue asserting itself in a vigil quest to re-establish its identity in a maze of conflicting voices and emerging forces that make bold steps towards snatching our cherished place in the universe.
It should be noted that inadvertently, seen in the context of the development of Zimbabwean literature, our past is also a blessing in disguise.
New ways of expression were born of that history and endows our literature with aesthetic richness that has its roots to that turn in the history of our nation, especially during the censorship imposed during the time of the bold declaration of Independence and the subsequent years.
Conscious writers, particularly in English, across genres, in an attempt to escape the foreboding and seemingly omnipotent eyes of the muzzle, found new ways of expression. The use of understatement and compressed sentences conspicuous by their brevity largely find themselves in Zimbabwean literature, thanks to that history.
The works of Charles Mungoshi and Memory Chirere, among other prominent Zimbabwean writers in English, testify to that effect.
While the guerrilla fighters were dodging bullets and wearing uniforms that merged with nature as a survival strategy, the literature of that period was also carefully concealing itself from the muzzle as a survival feat.
For instance, Charles Mungoshi’s story “The Coming of the Dry Season” lends itself to the use of understatement and compressed narrative. Moab is the major character in that story. He is caught up in a Bohemian lifestyle centred on aimlessness of existence punctuated by the pursuit of sex and alcoholism.
He is said to have cried for something that is more than the death of his mother. That prompts one to ask; what else can a person cry for that is more than the death of his mother in gravity?
The answer lies in the historical context of that story; the story is set in Rhodesia of the 1970’s. The said narrator, like many among the ranks of his folks, yearns for independence.
This is just a case in point, but suffice at this juncture to testify to the aesthetic richness and literary style born of a trying situation.
It may be said that Zimbabwean literature resembles a hardy plant that thrives in difficult terrains and soils. In trying to circumvent challenges our literature invents new ways of expression .Our literature is resilient as the people it constantly seeks to chronicle.
This installment will focus on two, among many prominent writers who make up the body of Zimbabwean literature in English, Musaemura Zimunya and Memory Chirere.Their work, it can be premised, embody the said search for roots in Zimbabwean literature in English.
Born in 1949 in the lush and picturesque landscape of Zimunya communal lands near Mutare, Musa, as he is affectionately known, is a prominent poet, whose poems largely, without swerving, express a profound yearning for a home, an identity.
His poems, especially, “My Home” imbue an African sensibility and epitomise a collective search for a home. The pathos, the touching way in which an individual searches for his roots is uniquely outstanding – it is a mixture of protest and celebration of one’s origins; protest in the sense of expressing a dissatisfaction over the sad state of affairs in one’s home and a celebration of the the land of a person’s origins.
It is also an expression of one’s spiritual yearning to be reunited with his roots. It’s like the restoration of a people’s spiritual estate. After describing the beauty of the landscape, the following lines toward the end of the poem are so touching;
- Never mind sister
- This is our home
- Houses full of smoke
- And pendent soot
- full of the odour of life
- you see those umbrellas of tawny grass thatch
- piping dark blue wreath of smoke
- from rowdy beer-fires ?
- they shelter our people
- poor in clothes and heart moonshine cheerful in eyes and lips
- and us too
Nothing could be heartrending! As has been already reiterated, the poem is affirmative, and potent in expressing a deep yearning – both physical and spiritual – for one’s home, one’s identity.
The poem under consideration should be understood in context.
Musa grew up in Rhodesia, and was educated at Chikore and Goromonzi High schools before pursuing two degrees at Kent University, UK.
Like many of his contemporaries, colonialism had separated him from his roots.
He felt cut from the source of his being. That explains why his poems express that consciousness. It should be noted that that awareness of one’s home marked a turning point in the history of Zimbabwean literature in English. At first the writers in English wobbled, trying to carve a literary tradition.
Musa was among the pioneers, who did not have a writing tradition to emulate and to gather inspiration and a solid pattern from. So that was an extraordinary feat and a milestone in the development of Zimbabwean Literature in English.
Time will not allow us to say more information relating to Musa in this essay, suffice to say that he, among others, epitomises the search for identity. Many of his poems such as Zimbabwe (after the ruins) buttress the quest for identity motif – it celebrates part of our heritage, Great Zimbabwe, an imposing cultural and historic monument standing erect as a witness, even without words, of the ingenuity and craftsmanship of Zimbabwean people. Many of Musa’s poems are of this fold.
In the wake of the phenomenal developments in Zimbabwe, chiefly, the land reform programme, Memory Chirere, a third generation writer and poet continues the thread of the narratives that express a constant search for identity, especially in his telling collection , “Somewhere In This Country”.
Memory’s connection with his land, its people and its terrain is dazzling. Firstly, as the anthology’s title elaborates, the narratives he weaves can be placed anywhere within the Zimbabwean landscape. He writes about ordinary men and women, whose narratives resonate with anyone living in any part of the land, somewhere.
In the story “Somewhere in This Country”, from where the anthology’s title issue forth, an estranged man in the US is obsessed with his home. He is sick, and his kinsmen in America try to to pacify him, but the man is insistent ; he makes a bold , incessant demand to see the hills of his home , his cradle , where his umbilical chord was cut and buried.
At the doctor’s recommendation, the old man is taken to the land of his birth – a picturesque environment, broad and seemingly unending, a panorama of mountains, hills and valleys.
When he sees the countryside and its comely terrain, the erstwhile frail and spent man assumes a lively posture, a sense of agency. In an embracing posture as it were, “the old man opened up his arms and called, Mucheka was ungabeta”. He feels at home, he is suddenly free; that is why he bares his soul.
His search for the hills of his home embodies a spiritual yearning. The hills are tied to his cradle, the beginning of his history. Maybe he recalls, as his gaiety becomes more pronounced, the rain making games of his youth, an unfettered soul, a success of the human spirit.
He also may have seen in his mind sheep and goats grazing gracefully and the sporadic echo that slices the air of a young boy tending his flock through lush green vegetation on the hills, and across rivers.
At that moment he is that boy. He is part of the threads that weave the narrative of his story. This may remind readers of the persona in Dambudzo Marechera’s poem “Pledging My soul” whose spiritual attachment to his home is so pronounced as aptly captured by the following lines :
- Shall I not kneel to kiss the grains of your sand?
- to rise naked before you – a bowl of incense?
- and the smoke of my nakedness shall be
- an offering to you
- pledging my soul.
The persona in the poem above as if in a prayerful posture bares his soul and reveals his yearning and attachment with his home.
Home is not a place to lie idle; a person has to have a sense of agency in his home. The poem brings out, albeit in a rather subtle manner, a clamour for one’s means of production chiefly the land and its natural endowments.
Thus, in Zimbabwean literature as has been shown, the narratives keep negotiating spaces. Relevance has to be always negotiated or fought for. As the world changes, there arises a new need to adjust to the obtaining state of affairs.
Our literature too, continues to chronicle that search for identity.