From Chindau to English and back…ecopoetics and the wider context of RUPISE

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By Dr Tafataona Mahoso

I AM grateful to the editors of The Patriot, The Herald, Daily News and NewsDay for publishing reviews of my latest book Rupise Poetry of Love, Separation and Reunion, 1977 to 2017.

Almost all of the reviewers have made significant comments on the use of language in Rupise and wondered where the influences came from for such language use.

On the surface, it is easy for me to remember that the sense of magic in language for me came from my mother who spoke a very poetic form of Chindau.  

Once my mother and the community I grew up in had nurtured this sense of magic in language, it is obvious to me how the sheer sound of English would also strike me first even before the actual meanings behind the fascinating sounds.  

But at an even deeper level, Rupise is not just about the impact of Chindau on my usage of English.  

It is about what the new global earth movement might call ecopoetics, the development of the whole communicative environment or its powers as language.

This is not difficult to understand in the context of Zimbabwe. The most dreaded experience for colonised and dispossessed Africans was forced removal.  

Africans were not only forced to give up access to sacred sources of inspiration such as Rupise.  

They also gave up the names, the songs, the dances, the stories and horticulture that went with that access.

In contrast, the most persistent fantasy among the white settler population in Zimbabwe was that of Rhodesia as an empty territory whose sites were blanks to be renamed as Victoria Falls, New London, Fort Victoria, Banket, Avondale and Borrowdale.

Rupise is about the association between love and water, on the land, and woman and land/soil, on the other hand.  

A Rhodesian film made in the 1920s was called Mazoe – Window on Rhodesia; and it was introduced as: “The story of the transformation of an empty fever-ridden wilderness into highly productive (white) farming estates.  

A rich golden valley of industry, prosperity, beauty and outdoor enjoyment.”

There is also in the same film the image from a photograph taken in 1899 with the caption: Mazoe Valley photographed in 1899 – A virtually uninhabited wilderness. 

This fantasy is astounding because in real history the Manzou (Mazowe) area was one of the most important theaters of the First Chimurenga, 1893-1896! 

Mbuya Nehanda is associated with  that area.  

So how could it be empty?

In this context, Rupise was renamed ‘Hot Springs’ and turned into a white resort.

Based on the historical images to which I have been exposed, the RUPISE cover image lies somewhere between that of Zimbabwe’s Mbuya Nehanda and that of ancient Egypt’s Isis, with Isis helping to point out the fact that the Mbuya Nehanda narrative in the liberation of Zimbabwe either ignores or takes for granted the central role of water in that struggle. 

In contrast, the glory of Isis arose from her reign over a civilisation and provident biodiversity made possible only by the floods of Ethiopian waters from the combined flows of White Nile and the Blue Nile. 

Settlers celebrated Manzou Valley in their film because of the waters of the river which filled Mazowe Dam.

Creative African artistes would enhance our understanding of art and life by studying the aesthetic significance of the historical fact that all indigenous African churches in Zimbabwe and beyond routinely use water as the key ingredient in healing ceremonies and rituals.

While the water symbolism is global, even universal, its local use by indigenous churches is partly borrowed from African culture and partly from the Bible.

Within Zimbabwe there are important local nuances and meanings having to do with water:

In Mutoko, all visitors to one’s homestead must be greeted with water enough to drink and to freshen up.

Among African families in Zimbabwe, a bride-to-be, when being formally introduced to her future in-laws, is expected to offer warm water for washing to all important members of the family to which she is being introduced. This water represents the bride-to-be’s love extended to the entire family.

When a woman becomes a widow, she is given three options which she must demonstrate using water: If she wants to remain unmarried but within her late husband’s extended family, she will give a cup of water to a male child or her husband’s sister or niece; if she wants to marry one of her husband’s male relatives, she will offer the water to him; if she wants to leave the family altogether, become independent and return to her own relatives, she will not offer any water to anyone. The person offered the water indicates acceptance by taking a sip from the cup.  

Refusing to take a sip means rejection of the offer. All this is done in front of the extended family and community, including the chief or headman.

Rupise as an extended metaphor therefore radiates, reverberates, with meanings that provoke the imagination.  

There is water, rock, soil, foam, geothermal heat and changing hues of light that depend on whether it is raining, sunny, dry, full moon, starlight without the moon, dawn or dusk.

The press in Zimbabwe is full of environmental stories about urban associations clamouring for the preservation of ‘wetlands’. The focus on ‘wetlands’ rather than water is curious to me; since with plenty of water even rocks eventually become soil and dry lands turn into wetlands.  

So the critical ingredient is water.

Rupise is about homecoming and the reclamation of one of Africa’s elemental resources for personal and community expression.

Moreover, Nehanda in Zimbabwe’s liberation story is defined as Mbuya Nehanda, the grandmother of the nation. 

There are mothers, fathers and grandfathers of the revolution; just as there were such kinsmen and kinswomen in my personal upbringing. 

But we are rarely told about the ‘Mainini’ of the struggle. Chimbwido is to an extent that ‘Mainini’.  

In fact, the search for this obscured or missing relative and her water now drives space explorations: Is there water on Mars and other planets?

In terms of my own personal experience of these images, the missing or understated elements are the water and the role of ‘Mainini’. 

Rupise the woman comes to me as Mainini Rupise and, like Rebekah in the Book of Genesis or Isis two millenia before Rebekah, she comes with water. 

The entire global earth movement cannot redeem the earth from contamination without focusing on redeeming the elemental role of clean and cleansing water.  

So, the drive to find water and human relatives in outer space may be viewed as an attempted escape from the damage that has been inflicted on our real earthly water bodies, earthly relatives and neighbours.

Personally, Rupise was the female mentor, the gorgeous female cousin of my mother who enabled us as adolescent boys to go swimming naked with the girls in river pools without anyone ever being sexually molested or raped. 

She was the only one with the charm and beauty to be able to wrench boys from their attachment to mother’s love and to stick (attach) them on to new and infatuating beautiful girls across the river, beyond the hills or even overseas.

Just a few years older than the rest of us, Mainini Rupise was more than attractive enough for us to have a crush on her; but she remained selfless and disciplined enough not to take advantage of our sexual vulnerabilities.

We moved slowly and smoothly from playing match-making games overseen by Mainini Rupise and other mentors to somewhat serious love relationships. 

The first girl I remember falling in love with had a name Mwapaona which beautifully alliterated and rhymed with mine, Tafataona.

Many strikingly different water songs come to mind.  

One of them went as follows:

“Mwaramu ndomucherere mvura

Ngemazamo

Mwaramu ndomucherere mvura

Ngemazamo.”

This can be translated roughly as:

“I will fetch you drinking water

Cusped between my very own breasts

I will fetch you drinking water

With my very own breasts

But Mainini Rupise’s association with water meant that her lessons went far beyond swimming naked in river pools and what they call ‘responsible sex education’. 

They included early teachings in biodiversity which were strengthened by the fact that my mother was a potter and midwife (nyamukuta), while my father was a medicine man: meaning that both parents dedicated their lives to biophilic occupations centred around land, water and the powers of sunlight, with Rupise the geyser invoking geothermal connectedness and adding the image of clean, permanent and unmetered power into the mix.

But, let me not lose the point: Much of the power of Isis, Rebekah and the Mainini Rupise who took us skinny dipping with girls came from their association with water, leading me to conclude that much of the force and soul of the African movement to reclaim the settler-stolen land of Zimbabwe in fact came from the need to redeem the water. 

That is the message of the poem ‘Rupise Three’.

So, in the course of my poetry writing, I remembered that in the local Chindau I grew up speaking, RUPISE resonated meanings which included love/romance. 

I was even more reassured that I was not going mad when in reading Colin Turbull’s The Human Cycle I found this passage about the people of the Ituri Forest in the Congo who are called the Mbuti.  

The author wrote:

“I discovered that young or old, male or female, whenever on their way through the forest, the Mbuti talk, shout, whisper and sing to the forest (ndura) addressing it as mother or father or both, referring to its goodness and its ability to ‘cure’ or ‘make good’… it is the same word.  Whether to address the forest as mother or father or both is an individual choice, depending, the Mbuti say, on how they feel at the moment… Like our father or mother the forest gives us food, shelter, clothing, warmth and affection…”

In the chapter called Childhood: The Art of Becoming, Turnbull described, “the joy felt by Teleabo Kenge when he slipped into the bopi (the children’s playground in the forest) one moonlit night.”

The atmosphere experienced by this child induced a poetic frenzy with Kenge, “adorned with a forest flower in his hair and with forest leaves in his belt of vines and his loin cloth of forest bark.”

There Kenge danced and sang alone in, “evidence of ecstasy.

“I am dancing with the forest, I am dancing with the moon.” 

I owe my ear for expression and vivid language first to my mother, especially her poetic command of Chindau.

Both in storytelling and ordinary conversation, my mother used colourful and dramatic words which made their impact on the child unforgettable, as follows:

Names and naming

My mother would use the name ‘Mabhumbuta’, for instance to mean a boy or young man with tendencies to bully and terrorise others and to grab things that did not belong to him.  Mabhumbuta could become a looter if given a chance.  

The meaning solely depended on the sound of the word and the emphasis my mother put on it.  

The name ‘Jwanya’ she used to describe a character whose lack of intelligence bordered on the moronic.  

“Izwa nawe zvinopangwa vamweni, Jwanya woye!” meant, “you should heed the advice other children are being given, you silly boy.”

Jwanya was both mischievous and foolish.  

‘Chingwarire’ was the opposite of Jwanya.  

Chingwarire was an intelligent, sensitive and attentive child, a quick learner.

The name ‘Joro’ my mother used and pronounced in a way that left no doubt in our mind that it was not cool to be called ‘Joro’.  

It was a close synonym of Jwanya.

Names of persons which were expressive but not necessarily negative included opposites like ‘Chikwiti’ and ‘Mutindori’ or ‘Chikwinya’ and ‘Mutindori’.  

Chikwinya and Chikwiti suggested good health and strength of body which was demonstrated by the way the fit person walked: balanced body weight and height; a confident step and gait. Mutindori suggested not only lightweight and lack of confidence in one’s movement; it also suggested isolation and lack of confidence about what was ahead: One who tends to wander alone without clear direction.

Other unforgettable Chindau expressions included cherengende!, gurububu!, bwabwadiibwa!, bwandakata!, shoori!, nyungwarara!, ungururu!, and gurumwandira!

‘Cherengende’ was used to describe a wide vessel or pool or depression filled to the brim.  

‘Gurububu’ described a large crowd of people who were all seated and watching you so that you had to be mindful what you did or said standing up in front of them.

‘Bwabwadiibwa’ described a hopeless state of rottenness such as that of large quantities of avocado pears, guavas or eggs that did not just rot but would also start to ooze all sorts of undesirable fluids. 

‘Bwandakata’ described the act of sitting and folding one’s legs flat on the ground especially before a respected person in order to show humility or obedience.   

‘Shoori’ was synonymous with ‘songoozo’ and described the state of feeling isolated and abandoned especially in the midst of many people with whom it was impossible or difficult to identify.   

It described the feeling of alienation in a crowd where others were well-connected. 

It described someone whose apparent relationship with the group or crowd was clearly frosty and probably required mediation.

A related expression was ‘nyungwarara’.  

This described the posture of someone who was seated in a way which indicated either embarrassment or isolation or both in the middle of a debate or conversation going on around him or her.  ‘Ungururu’ described a related posture but the reason for it could be that the person was feeling cold or ill and not necessarily embarrassed or isolated.

‘Gurumwandira’ and ‘Bwandasi’ were two related Chindau nouns with slightly different nuances.  

The former defined a spectacular quantity or number whereas the latter defined a spectacularly embarrassing scene or act.  “Wakataure bwandasi pane gurumwandira revanhu,” would mean, “He or she said spectacularly shocking things in front of a huge gathering of people.” 

Developing a sharp ear for expressive and vivid language

Growing up, I was aware that I had picked up powerful sounds and expressions which I did not consciously or intentionally seek after; because they came as I was slowly waking up at dawn or as I was falling asleep in the early evening.  

These sounds included cows mooing after their calves which were separated from them in reparation for milking in the morning.  

They included cocks crowing from midnight till morning or women waking up early to pound sorghum and rapoko or to mill using grindstones.  

These women’s activities were always carried out amid singing and recitation of poetry and the making of collective vocal sounds intended to lighten the hard work.  

Most of these vocal sounds moved back and forth from poetry to song and back to dance, song and poetry often accompanied by bird-sounds outside. 

The external background sounds often sharpened the context of close calls and conversations inside the hut.

Those performances accompanying the pounding of grain, just like those for thrashing, tended to be dominated by dance-like movement and sound while those to accompany grinding activity tended to be dominated by poetry and song.  

All of these were absorbed in dream-like form because they occurred as one fell asleep at night or as one was slowly waking up in the morning.

Prenatal sound absorption 

Poetry for me represents the small dreamlike protrusions of joy or sorrow or pleasure coming out of a vast elemental ocean of experiences of which the poet is somewhat aware but cannot explain.   

For me sometimes, poetry is like occasional wild flowers which emerge here and there across a vast terrain indicating that the ground, the soil underneath is potentially rich in minerals, moisture, and other unexplained nutrients.  

Only the beauty of the occasional wild flowers suggests the power and mystery of what lies beneath the surface.

It was from my studies of African culture and other cultures that I came to appreciate the value of this vast resource beneath the surface and to understand that the bedrock of that resource was laid before I was born. 

Modern science now confirms what African parents always assumed: That the baby is aware of music, sound and movement long before it is born.  

The Mbuti of DRC have always assumed that the unborn child is fully aware of the life outside its mother’s womb.  

So they assume that the child exists the moment both parents agree to have a child. 

So, soon after pregnancy, the expecting mother composes a special song for the baby and chooses a place outside the hut where she will sing to the unborn child its special song.  

The mother also creates a story especially for this expected baby.  

She tells the story over and over again before and after the baby is born.  

So each child is born with a special song, special story and special place outside the hut where the song is performed and the story is told specifically and specially for this one child.  

My mother also treated all her children as unique and special in a manner comparable to that of the Mbuti.  

That is why RUPISE the book is partly dedicated to her.

FROM CHINDAU TO ENGLISH AND BACK: ECOPOETICS AND THE WIDER CONTEXT OF RUPISE: By Tafataona P Mahoso                                                          Page  PAGE 11 of 12

FROM CHINDAU TO ENGLISH AND BACK: ECOPOETICS AND THE WIDER CONTEXT OF RUPISE: By Tafataona P Mahoso                                                          Page  PAGE 11 of 12

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