Child of War
By Ben Chirasha
Published by Macmillan Africa Publishers Oxford 1985
NOVEMBER is an auspicious month for conscientious patriots of Zimbabwe.
It is a month we commemorate Chimoio and Nyadzonia battles where thousands of innocent children, combatants and Zimbabwean refugees were brutally massacred by Rhodesian Air Force strikes.
Many fellow comrades, brothers, sisters, fathers and mothers died in the name of Zimbabwe.
November is also the month that ushered in the Second Republic and new dispensation in 2017.
It is in the spirit of documenting our military and literary heritage that I chose to review Child of War, a novella by Ben Chirasha, published in 1985, five years after independence.
Many innocent children were entangled in the maelstrom and crossfire of the Rhodesian insurrection.
Colonial cattle laws imposed on the African rural villager disturbed the natural status quo of the villages and their traditional animal husbandry, particularly the young unsuspecting innocent herd boys who were unaware of these laws.
Certain land spaces and grazing pastures were racially designated for white cattle owners, despite the fact that some of these spaces belonged to generations of indigenous ancestry.
Written 33 years ago, yet still fresh, vivid and relevant in this era of land reform in Zimbabwe, Child of War, summaries the fundamental reasons Zimbabweans went to war against the colonial settler-regime.
The fairly-paced and eloquently written novel recounts the story of a 13-year-old cattle herder, aptly named Hondo Tapera – a name that encapsulates the main character of the book and resonates with the spirit of the nation in the 1970s during the war. Hondo experiences recurring dreams and nightmares of his great-grandfather who was killed in the First Chimurenga by colonial raiders.
“They say he died during the First Chimurenga War. He was a warrior,” confirms his mother, when Hondo awakens from his nightmare.
Chirasha, in his novel, is a remarkably talented visual story-teller who paints a narrative of the war of liberation so intense and vividly real that at times one can feel the skin tingle.
The story unfolds thus:
One day while herding cattle, the young cattle herder, Hondo, encounters the freedom fighters.
“What’s your name?”
“Who gave you such a name?”
“My father, I think.”
“Did he know you would be a child of war?”
“Have you heard of guerillas, Hondo?”
“A little bit.”
“And you thought guerillas were wild animals, didn’t you? Wild animals that walked on four feet, on moonlit nights and ate people. That’s what your teachers taught you and what the radios and newspapers said; isn’t it?”
Hondo’s father is mercilessly shot one moonlit evening by a white farmer – Taylor — while trying to retrieve: “The family bull, revered as the animal embodiment of our great ancestral spirit,” that had wandered onto the white famer’s pastures at night.
Hondo finds his father. “There was a big dark smudge on his chest where the bullet had hit him. His body was limp. He was bleeding through his nose; his mouth was open.”
“Hondo! he whispered my name weakly before he died.”
This event was to change his life. Farmer Taylor, the Rhodesian farmer, was known in the village as ‘Mpengo’ – denoting his rabid temperament. The mere mention of his name brought fear to every soul in the village.
“On hearing that name shouted, even old grandmothers took their ancient skirts up in their arms and scurried for safety, while brave men lay on the ground hiding.
Farmer Taylor owned the rich grassland on the other side of our village. His farm was large – perhaps 10 or 15 times larger than our village.
The land was oh so much richer than ours. The grass was waist high, the stone-less soil crumbly black.”
“As a child,” said Hondo, “I had often wondered why our cattle browsed on the barren slopes and why we wasted our time scratching the stoney fields with our hoes, instead of using the rich grassland on the other side of the fence.”
It is in these few simple lines that Chirasha summarises the fundamental reasons that Zimbabwean people went to war. The land, cattle, segregation, separate development, racism, bigotry and the illegal Rhodesian occupation of our indigenous land, are wittily summed in young Hondo’s questioning mind.
Following the death of his father, Hondo experiences his first pungwe (an all-night vigil).
He recounts: “Freedom became a song, the name Taylor, the poison we spat out of our lips as we stabbed his effigy with our clenched fists. Down with farmer Taylor!” cried the guerilla commander.
“Down with him!” we all cried with down-turned thumbs.
“Down with all his friends and allies who rob and cheat us of what is ours!”
“Down!” we responded, with voices that filled the sky and reverberated across the roof of heaven.
As the story unfolds, the pages plunge one into the horrors of war and an inferno of pain. The unruly war of rhythm sputters out on the pages, like the automatic fire of a machine gun.
“The helicopters reappeared, this time over the village! They nosed over the fragile line of yellow mushroom roofs. One, two, three, four huts burst into flames underneath them.… the five helicopters meteored over the village, blazing a trail of burning huts beneath. I heard bullets like raindrops on rock.”
Packed with military action, atmosphere and literary ingenuity, action follows menace and Rhodesian racism mingles with violence and horror as the author describes the savage air strikes and physical torture that were wrought on the innocent rural villagers.
Written in the first-person narrative, the immediacy of action in the novel is compelling, as Hondo is swept into the fighting by the charismatic commander of the local guerillas.
Hondo and his classmates experience the horrors and tribulations of war and find that though forgiving is easy, forgetting is much harder.
The novel is as interesting as it is educational, historic and relevant and due to its simplicity, will appeal to adults and secondary school children.
Perhaps it is time the book is introduced in the English or heritage curriculum of Zimbabwe as it is a realistic and graphic summary of the war of liberation.
The only information we have of the author on the back sleeve of the book is that Chirasha was born in 1957 and grew up and went to school during the turbulent war years.
After graduating from the University of Zambia, with a degree in literature, he worked as a teacher, curriculum developer and radio dramatist.
Child of War was his first novel in the pacesetter series.
Further investigations revealed that the author was Shimmer Chinodya under the nom-de-plume Ben Chirasha.
It was digitised by Indiana University, US, in April 2010.
For views and comments, email: tonym.MONDA@gmail.com.