In Zimbabwe, Literature Is Protest

In November 2017, when a military coup removed Robert Mugabe as Zimbabwe’s head of state after 37 years of rule, euphoria gripped the whole country. Many saw it as an end to “the house of hunger”—the title of a widely read 1978 novel by Dambudzo Marechera that described the people’s suffering under tyranny.

Poet Philani A. Nyoni captured the excitement vividly in a stanza of a poem he composed on the day Mugabe stepped down:

Twenty-one-gun salute to the November sun!
I washed my face and wiped it with the flag.
Not for lack of a more appropriate rag,
But in salute of the spirit of the time …

The poem appears in his book Philtrum, which candidly expresses the bitterness that gripped the country during Mugabe’s rule and soon afterward. Mugabe’s philtrum, the vertical groove between the base of the nose and the upper lip, has become an unmistakable symbol identifiable with his political character. Nyoni, a spoken word artist, portrays the spirit of resistance against what he describes as “the eye of the demon.”

Three years later, Nyoni’s work and other fresh, vigorous writing by the younger generation of Zimbabwean writers continue to evoke the country’s fears, struggles, and hopes.

Zimbabwean literature has been a literature of resistance against political and socio-economic injustice. This tradition, which it shares with other African countries, dates back to the days of colonialism. The Zimbabwean struggle for independence from Britain was portrayed by an earlier generation of writers including Solomon Mutsvairo, whose 1956 book Feso, the first novel written in the Shona language, probed the condition of the people under colonial rule. The tradition of literary resistance carried over in the post-independence era with voices such as Dambudzo Marechera, Chenjerai Hove, Yvonne Vera, and many others writing in Shona.

Emerging authors today are carrying on the themes of struggle and resistance, capturing the harsh socio-economic conditions prevailing in the country through realism, satire, and other modes. The works carry strains of protest against the ever-worsening situation. The coronavirus is only the latest calamity, ushering in a final collapse of vital sectors like education and industry. Zimbabwe’s legal tender, the Bond note, is struggling so much that almost all prices are set in U.S. dollars, putting many everyday items beyond reach of many ordinary people.

A collection of short stories by Farayi Mungoshi, Behind The Wall Everywhere, portrays introspective characters wandering through amazing plots, trying to eke meaning from their circumstances. Like his father, the legendary Zimbabwean author Charles Mungoshi, Farayi Mungoshi uses an apparent simplicity of language to explore how economic problems become psychological.

In the title short story of the collection, for instance, a farmer’s bride tries to awaken her new husband to the dangers of a controversial land reform program:

Everything in this country is going downwards, there is no production, industries are closing down and the money keeps losing value. The Governor keeps on removing zeros from the Dollar to save paper. Now he wants to bring back coins we last used God knows when. How is that going to help us?

The new government promised to resolve these major issues—the land redistribution question, inflation, unemployment, poverty—with an initiative to develop local industry and court international investment. Despite declaring that “Zimbabwe Is Open For Business,” however, they stand unresolved. Recent arrests of advocates for change and economic uncertainty may spell disaster for the initiative.

In harsh economic times, unemployment leads to spiritual hopelessness. In Mungoshi’s story “The Tower Light, Weed & Becoming,” the characters keep their “issues” locked up in their hearts. Ordinary Zimbabweans are doing the same because it seems there is no one—no person or government—ready to listen. Lacking a normal, functional society to belong to, Mungoshi’s character Nugget smokes Mozambican marijuana, climbs up a tower, and threatens to jump.

He is not alone; many young Zimbabweans fall victim to drug abuse and suicidal behavior. One of the most poignant characters in Behind the Wall Everywhere is Zvidzayi, whose parents have sent him to the United Kingdom because “they did not like seeing him hanging out at street corners with Tendayi and Jimba, drinking and smoking and coming back home drunk out of his head.”

Alone in a foreign country, the young man holds two burning wishes: for change in his life and for conditions to improve back home in Zimbabwe. Zvidzayi is superstitious, embodying the extreme despair which has now become a spiritual crisis for the unemployed young people. He says, “I am tired of doing the same things over and over, like there is some invisible force controlling me.”

If only post-Mugabe Zimbabwe were to listen to its young voices, the country could be restored to caring for our own needs.

In August, the government echoed the sentiment, with President Emmerson Mnangagwa commenting, “The dark forces inside and outside our borders have tampered with our growth and development for too long.”

The lack of trust between the government and the people is mutual. Zimbabwe’s official National Youth Policy vows to “empower the youth” by “marshalling the resources necessary for undertaking programmes to fully develop youth’s mental, moral, social, economic, political, cultural, spiritual and physical potential in order to improve their quality of life.”

Yet in conference rooms and at political rallies, young people are promised non-existent jobs. Teen pregnancies and alcohol and substance abuse are rampant. If a country’s young people are unhealthy mentally, will there be any development? Are there any pathways to empowerment available for the youth?

To answer these questions, author Charlene Vuta wrote the nonfiction book Beyond Politics while still a student at the Midlands State University. Vuta’s major concern is that politics have overtaken economic development, and this has created economic dependency. In simple non-fictional terms that even the leadership can understand, she proposes a number of brilliant ideas for reforming economic sectors in Zimbabwe. Collective responsibility, resource prioritization, education for development, and youth empowerment are essential, she argues, to the recovery process.

According to Vuta, Zimbabweans—along with other Africans—must re-define youth empowerment. She begins by re-defining it in the context of Africa as a concept essential to not only education but all sectors of the economy. Without this practical definition, she says, youth empowerment could be misinterpreted as a political idea.

“The discussion of youth’s problems has only become a familiar debate topic in Africa,” she writes, “and not a cause for concern to be dealt with.”

Other new writers are giving voice to their generation’s despair about the country’s broken political and socioeconomic reality. Dobhadobha: A Book Without Margins (2019) by Shepherd Mutamba, who is also a biographer and journalist, is an innovative book which fuses photography and poetry. The poems and the vivid photographs accompanying them capture the heart of a struggling Zimbabwe and raise questions many Zimbabweans keep asking.

Aluta Continua: The Struggle Continues (2018) by Kudakwashe Manjonjo is a collection of fictionalized tales about some of Zimbabwean human rights activists. By using political fiction, his book seeks to restore the dignity of the work of activists.

Gather the Children (2018) by Batsirai Chigama is a national award-winning poetry collection with poignant, lyrical words. In the spoken-word cadences, her book casts light upon the Zimbabwean reality.

These books are voices for the voiceless. The opportunities presented by self-publishing and the digital world have made it possible for the new writers to share words about their individual situations, as well as Zimbabwe’s collective turmoil, with deep sensitivity.

If only post-Mugabe Zimbabwe were to listen to its young voices, the country could be restored to caring for our own needs. Zimbabwe, once known as “the bread basket” of southern Africa, is more than capable of feeding itself and some of its neighbors.

But with the youth unemployment rate shooting high and no economic solutions in sight in this hour of the coronavirus, deep despair is lurking—”behind the wall everywhere.”

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