Introduction to Zimbabwean Literature in English
By Rino Zhuwarara
pp 323 © 2001 College Press publications
NOT many academic studies by indigenous Zimbabwean writers have received critical attention, let alone a scholarly review.
It is for this reason I selected to review Dr Rino Zhuwarara’s Introduction to Zimbabwean Literature in English, a definitive and analytical chronicle of English literature by indigenous writers, produced in Zimbabwe.
Dr Zhuwarara was born in 1953, in Chitomborwizi Purchase Area, near Chinhoyi, approximately 125km north-west of Harare, in Mashonaland West Province.
He attended Moleli and Goromonzi Secondary Schools and studied English and African Literature at the University of Wales and Sheffield University in the UK.
He completed his PhD in 1984 at the University of New Brunswick, Canada, and currently teaches literature and media in the Department of English at the University of Zimbabwe.
Dr Zhuwarara has long been engaged in the study of Zimbabwean literature in English.
His Introduction to Zimbabwean Literature in English © 2001 lays bare the many-layered evocations of Zimbabwe’s society and the broader cultural and physical landscape at a crucial time in our history – a time that sheds light on the state of our society today.
In his Introduction ‘Background to Zimbabwean Literature’, Dr Zhuwarara asserts:
“The colonial educational system reinforced the alienation of students from their African backgrounds; even the university college of Rhodesia and Nyasaland remained smotheringly British.”
Given these anomalies, it is not surprising for Zimbabwean indigenous authors to have produced such a large body of literature in English.
In terms of their cultural and religious orientation, Africans perceived their plight not merely as a reflection of their fundamental disruption of their cultural matrix, but more specifically as an outcome of a dislocation which had occurred to the African religious system itself.
Christianity handicapped the growth of African culture, including orature, art, music and dance; but more so, African ritual with its profound supplication, deep spirituality and the dramatic force of the dancers that offended the missionaries’ moral sensibilities and who considered dance to be ‘magical, witchcraft and heathen’.
Orature and literature found new expression in the settings of peri-urban and township life.
For Dr Zhuwarara, the crisis of African independence, indigenous land reclamation and land ownership were topical issues throughout most of the English literature and fiction written during pre and post-independence.
Zimbabwean writers have produced a literary account of the survival and adaptation to the different circumstances thrust and imposed on African people by missionaries and colonialism, with the resultant resolution of those circumstances articulated through poetry, short stories and novels.
Dr Zhuwarara presents a sweeping insightful analysis of Zimbabwean indigenous literature in English with a microscopic vision of a scientist in his book, where he writes: “The aggressive presence of Western culture in a colonial context was acutely felt by the African people, especially when missionaries showed cruel insensitivity by relentlessly attaching cherished African institutions, such as polygamy and African religion with its accompanying traditional beer for ritual purposes.”
According to Dr Zhuwarara: “The depth of hostility which some holy Christian fathers harboured against African religion, in particular, and culture, in general, is echoed in the words of Father Biehler, written by Lord Grey from Chishawasha in January 1897 – he regards the ‘Mashona’ as the most hopeless of mankind that he states that the only chance of the future of the race is to exterminate the whole people, both male and female, over the age of 14!”
In his introduction, Dr Zhuwarara writes: “One of the results of the colonial encounter between Africa and Europe has been the birth and significant growth of modern African literature in English.
Although expressed in a foreign language and to a large extent, depended upon borrowed form; it is a literature manifesting a sensibility that is, more often than not, rooted in African oral traditions.
In general, one finds that Zimbabwean fiction is responsive to and reflective of historical processes which were affecting society as a whole.
There is a parallel movement here, which points to the existence of a strong umbilical cord between history and fiction, as well as poetry and drama.
This organic tie, in itself, is not a new or original Zimbabwean phenomenon; it has existed in the history and literature of other societies, especially those in Africa, where oral literature was an integral part of the history and religion of the tribe.
In the Zimbabwean case, the historical experience sheds considerable light on the tone, form and thematic preoccupation of the fiction.”
Dr Zhuwarara’s critique and testimony of Zimbabwean literature is a witness to life.
Here, he constructs meaning out of the diverse impulses that make the book a revelation and of the historical turmoil of colonisation and Christianity.
He offers accomplished deconstructions of the socio-political milieu in which the writers were seeking their voice between the early 1970s to the late 1990s.
His epic post-colonial analysis of Zimbabwean literature is a historic masterpiece.
He has trodden a scholastic path, revelatory in its elucidation of Zimbabwe’s current circumstances yet unmatched in literary criticism in Zimbabwe.
As a critical work of art, Dr Zhuwarara’s study sheds light on the realities, dreams and crushed ambitions of the oppressed indigenous society under the colonial Rhodesian regime of the time.
In an effort to help better understand our literary heritage, Dr Zhuwarara unearthes the literary developments of the early 1980s in Zimbabwe and brings back into play the socio-economic milieu of the time as well as the relational importance of the earlier literature.
Dr Zhuwarara unfurls the pages of complexity that post-colonial Zimbabwean literature brings.
He invokes selflessness to explain and disclose the layers of history, sociology and oppression that informs modern Zimbabwean literature.
Introduction to Zimbabwean Literature in English discusses themes of connection with the land, shared throughout the various narratives of colonial displacement and loss and presented by the writers, most of whom yearn to reclaim the land of their ancestors.
In his book, the author writes: “Most of the Africans found themselves literally transformed overnight into squatters on white farms which had been their ancestral lands.
In Zimbabwe, Africans were driven away from the rich highveld into what came to be known as ‘reserve lands’.
Apart from undermining the economic independence of the African and therefore making him more dependent on the wage-earning economy, the loss of lands severely disrupted the smooth functioning of the African belief-systems.
African societies regarded the land as the home of the ancestral spirits, who, according to tradition, asked as intermediaries between the living and the dead.
In the systems themselves was enshrined a social vision whose ideals called for the consolidation of communal values.”
Prognostically, Dr Zhuwarara, through this literary study, had thus pre-empted the land reclamation exercise a decade prior to its occurrence.
On the colonial dispossession of African land, Musa Zimunya wrote:
“We have no ancestors
No shrine to pester with our prayers
No sacred cave where to drum our drums
And no svikiro to evoke to gods of rain
So we live on
Without rain, without harvest.”
Noticeable in Zimunya’s poem is: “How the voice of the persona is one that is out of tune with the natural rhythms of life and culture and therefore is no longer capable of experiencing re-generation,” says Dr Zhuwarara writing on his work.
From 1978: “A new tempo of creative writing had begun in Zimbabwe.
In short, there was an unprecedented amount of literary fermentation taking place, which coincides with the last phase of the guerilla war and the attainment of independence in 1980.”
In his study, Dr Zhuwarara reviews/critiques 78 works of literature from writers Charles Mungoshi, Stanley Nyamufukudza, Dambudzo Marechera as well as Chenjerai Hove and makes comparative assessment of the creative works by various other writers.
The voices of women authors who tackle race relations and gender as well as the impact of the lives of women during the war of liberation are given due credit for their contribution to Zimbabwean literature in English.
Among them are Tsitsi Dangarembgwa, Freedom Nyamubaya, Bertha Msora, Yvonne Vera and Kristina Rungano, who proffer the experiences of women, colonisation, gender discrimination and the struggle to be heard in a racist patriarchal society.
Through his analysis, we read the earnestness of the writers and the questioning of the African man’s state of affairs in his native country under foreign rule.
Most engaging is his analysis of each writer and how they engaged in the tension between the African self and the imposed colonial matrix.
Dr Zhuwarara’s literary commentaries range from the bucolic drama and caustic language that distinguished Marechera’s incisive criticism of Rhodesian and English societies to Mungoshi’s impressionist, cinematic characterisation, dramaturgy and unassuming tone in his works The Coming of the Dry Season, Waiting for the Rain and other novellas.
Marechera (1952-1987) won the Guardian Fiction Prize in 1979, just before Zimbabwe’s independence. “His is pure verbal acid” is described by Zhuwarara, “as stunning and horrifying, and yet, often very funny, with a cruel and bitterly sardonic note.”
The late Marechera, “…perhaps still the most avant-garde writer in Zimbabwe, explored the theories of disillusionment and pessimism which are more vigorously developed in the House of Hunger © 1978, Black Sunlight © 1980 and Mindblast © 1984. … he felt the urgency of addressing the violent subjugation of the African in Rhodesia.”
While Marechera was easily accessible to the international world who recognised in his work the spontaneous idiom of existentialist literature, he still remained rooted in a society that was severely scarred by colonisation.
Dr Zhuwarara writes: “Titles such as Waiting for the Rain and The House of Hunger are all pointing to the sub-human condition under which indigenous people were forced to live under during the colonial era.”
Most of the literary work discussed in Mungoshi’s portfolio acknowledges, or hints, at: “The suffering and humiliation that goes on in the life of blacks, in both rural and urban areas; and have their roots in the politics of the country (during the Rhodesian era), and how politics allocates resources and power.”
With themes such as ‘violence, alcoholism, boredom, despair and ennui’, Mungoshi explores the tragicomedy of life with the wit and numbing pathos of an astute impressionist.
In most of his stories, Mungoshi portrays ‘the deep sense of uncertainty and confusion which has gripped African society – that is caught between the African past and its demands and the colonial presence with its new religion – Christianity!’
The ramifications of Christianity and the atrocities of war on the African psyche had disillusioned many writers who tackled the subjects in various prose.
Regarding the book Coming of the Dry Season, Dr Zhuwarara comments: “Mungoshi is a master at marrying an intimate unassuming tone to a deft ironic style which relentlessly exposes the vulnerability of those who live the life of the wretched on the earth.”
Dr Zhuwarara sums up Waiting for the Rain and outlines the state, “…of a colonised African society that is in the process of losing its sense of cohesion and identity as a result of the impact of colonial modernity of African beliefs and culture.”
In his summative commentary on Mungoshi’s SOS from the Past, Dr Zhuwarara points out that it is “…the conflict between the demands of traditional African society, with its values of sharing and community solidarity and those of the city with their tendency to encourage the spirit of individualism,” is the main thread of conflict Mungoshi explores in the story.”
Dr Zhuwarara reviews and exposes, “…a yawning gulf between the black and white races in post-colonial Zimbabwe, in terms of attitudes, perception and worldview which have yet to be addressed.”
One unmistakable feature in Dr Zhuwarara’s study of literature from a Zimbabwean period that stood on the knife-edge of colonialism and Zimbabwe’s war of liberation is its vitality and its relevance to the indigenous land repossession and the return to our grassroots through indigenisation programmes.
The book is an elucidation of Zimbabwean literature in English through an informed and incisive guide to understanding the rich pool of literature that derives from, and distinguishes, Zimbabwean life.
It is a research gem for scholars of Zimbabwean literature in which the clarity of academic prose is detailed, incisive and expository.
Dr Zhuwarara provides a fresh perspective on the genesis and development of pre and post-colonial African, Zimbabwean literature in English.
In this insightful compendium of Zimbabwean literature in English, a chapter is devoted to each writer; making this book an indispensable guide for anyone seeking to understand the mind and soul of Zimbabwean literature.
According to the publishers, College Press: “This book is a critical survey of the creative work in English that has been published in Zimbabwe since the early 1970s.
The writers selected for study are those whose creative works are often found prescribed either on the school syllabi or on literature curricula at universities.
To this end, the book is a valuable guide to readers of Zimbabwean fiction, particularly those who study it at secondary school, college and university levels.”
Dr Zhuwarara’s critique on Zimbabwean literature provides a relatively authentic cultural base from which present generations can face the future.
Dr Tony Monda holds a PhD in Art Theory and Philosophy and a DBA (Doctorate in Business Administration) and Post-Colonial Heritage Studies. He is a writer, lecturer, musician, art critic, practising artist and corporate image consultant. He is also a specialist art consultant, post-colonial scholar, Zimbabwean socio-economic analyst and researcher.
For views and comments, email: tonym.MONDA@gmail.com