Lessons from the late Nathaniel Manheru

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WHEN the legendary musician Dick Chingaira passed on recently and Cde George Charamba turned up to express his condolences to members of the Chingaira family, most of us assumed all was normal, that Charamba was doing the expected thing according to our traditions on such sad occasions.
More so those who knew Charamba’s love for certain types of our music must have assumed that Charamba had turned up at the Chingaira home as a fan keen to bid farewell to one of his favourite musicians.
But soon the normal began to change for the less normal.
He openly confessed that indeed he had been the ghost all along, the ghost which, for many years, hovered over the inimitable Nathaniel Manheru, that Saturday Herald columnist who, for better or for worse, never hesitated to provoke, cajole, challenge and more often than not, to condemn and infuriate us as readers.
The Manheru style of journalism had what Nigerians call the Bolekaja tradition, that unfailing sense of ‘come let us fight if you can and may the best win in the end’.
Love him or hate him, Manheru made many friends and many enemies in equal measure.
But the point remains and this is not an exaggeration.
He sold the Saturday Herald most and the edition owes him a tidy sum.
There are many readers who confess today that they bought the Saturday edition of The Herald because of Manheru’s column.
That is a mere hint of his achievement, that is also an indication of the kind of challenge which one of our national papers now faces.
The question is: Why did those who hated Manheru’s politics and style, all those who never hesitated to accuse him of many crimes, some big, some small, all those who loathed him with a murderous passion, continue to read him during all these years?
Why did it become a habit, a kind of masochistic ritual for those who hated his ZANUPF politics to go on reading his column when simple logic dictated that they stop and forget about Manheru for good?
There are many reasons for this unusual state of affairs, far too many it is not possible to do justice to most of them.
Perhaps a more practical approach is to begin by saying something about some of the possibilities in Zimbabwean journalism which Manheru hinted at, whether intentionally or otherwise.
In case Manheru is gone for good and does not resurrect again as he did before, it is crucial we come up with some specific ‘take-aways’ from his kind of journalism.
In fact his journalistic output raises cross-cutting issues which have a bearing on the development of our journalism in the country.
First: Those who read the Manheru column will readily admit that it was written by someone who was well-informed, someone who unleashed facts and figures whenever these were required to convince his readers.
He may not have convinced us all the time, but the fact remains: He created the strong impression that he knew what he was talking about.
We did not have to agree with him all the time and he did not expect us to, but his column was almost always a treasure-trove of useful information nevertheless.
Reading each column was like an exercise in feeding-off him at many levels, whether you disagreed with him or not.
Some may argue Manheru was well-informed because he was strategically positioned within the political establishment to know what was happening on a daily basis.
It is a plausible argument.
However, it is one thing to access information, it is quite another to make sense of it all and to transform that information into the kind of knowledge which generates insights which address our ever-burning desire to know the political, social and economic processes which define our lives.
Manheru did that with ease.
Most of us looked forward to his column because it shed some light on some of those aspects which shape our lives.
Second: It is a fact that Manheru wrote his column from a specific point of view which said he was an African and proud of it.
He never apologised for being thoroughly pitch-black and boasted in a manner which convinced most of us that he felt completely at home under his black skin.
Unlike most of us who would rather identify with the white world and its values and styles and most disconcerting of all, with its point of view, Manheru never hesitated to identify with black people, notwithstanding their well-documented history of powerlessness, vulnerability and unmet needs on a global scale.
Accordingly, he always promoted what he perceived to be their interests, those of the underdog in local, regional and global situations.
Arguably we rushed to read Manheru because deep down at the subliminal level we could easily identify with him as one of us, that is, notwithstanding some of the unpalatable stuff he would say about us.
Because of that shared history of subjugation and exploitation, he wrote his columns from the point of view that all of us yearned to chart a way forward on a collective basis; that all of us wanted to define for ourselves an alternative liberationist pathway which would lead us away from the colonial towards a state of complete independence.
As readers, we never doubted that Manheru was a nationalist in outlook, but one who never hesitated to promote a pan-African perspective as one way of promoting and protecting mother Africa.
In other words, for Manheru, writing meant he had to be committed to something bigger than the self, to something which amounted to creating a legacy of resistance against the deforming impact of colonisation and the endless hegemonic projects by imperialist powers.
Put briefly, for one to write, one needs a point of view, but for one to adopt an appropriate point of view, one needs to understand history well.
Third: In style and execution, Manheru loved the language he used.
To paraphrase Dambudzo Marechera, he took to the English language in the way a duck takes to water.
Further, one could tell he read world history and literature on an encyclopedic scale and did not hesitate to conscript both for purposes of articulating his vision.
Consequently, he is one of the few who made us feel that world literature could be made to explain our local realities, our ambitions and failures even.
We felt empowered, given something more than logic and reason when we read Manheru.
But the one writer he often cited to back up his position on the use of English is Chinua Achebe who, at his most creative and most persuasive, seized the language of the coloniser and did things with it — such as bending it and remoulding it in order for it to accommodate the tormented vision of the subaltern. The lesson is simple: Master the language well enough to use it in an original way.
Exploit it to the limit so that it carries your burdens and vision in the way you want.
A good contrast is in order here.
In many ways Manheru was the opposite of the late Alexander Kanengoni.
Where Kanengoni went for simple diction to express complex concepts and situations, Manheru went for the kind of vocabulary which sometimes stretched one’s knowledge about the language to the limit.
Where Kanengoni was economical and sparing in style, Manheru was sometimes so generous with his language that he became promiscuous.
In brief, he demanded that we do our homework as readers so as to follow his arguments in all their twists and turns.
However both Kanengoni and Manheru were creative minds, original in their approach to journalism, in the way they deployed their concepts and arguments and in the way both were committed to their causes as Africans.
Both made literature, history and culture an integral aspect of their journalism.
One never felt bored reading their works because they had a cause, a language to express that cause and of course, the required imagination.
Most of us will miss them and the kind of journalism they promoted.

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