One of the ironies of post-independence Zimbabwe was that on the eve of writer Dambudzo Marechera’s return from Britain after years in exile, his novel, The Black Sunlight, was banned by the censorship board. This sinister Orwellian body, established in dark Rhodesia, alleged that the novel imitated the worst aspects of modernism — it was “clumsy, [made] excessive use of four-letter obscenities” and was generally meaningless.
The Black Sunlight is a coruscating carnival of witty erudition and an anarchic narrative of the human condition. It could best be described as a bastard child of two mongrels, one from Europe and the other from Africa, with no known continental relatives except for a few nodding acquaintances. It was, therefore, ironic that one of the people who appealed the decision was Aaron C Hodza, a rainmaker and eminent researcher of Shona culture.
In his submissions, carried in Flora Veit-Wild’s biographical tome, Dambudzo Marechera: A Source Book on His Life and Work, Hodza quoted from ancient Shona praise poetry, some of it ribald and explicit. One of the poems, Jakwara, from a maize-threshing ceremony, reads: “Thank you, Farting One/ Who Farted in Sky./Going blast!/ In Shabani they heard you/ You made the arse sore,/ Evil buttock/ Lion testes/ Slave to the cunt.”
A particularly explicit poem titled Chasura states: “The cunt/ It’s strong, and big,/ The cunt, sit down and it will crack/ The Penis, It’s erect and big/The Penis,/ Sit down, it will peel.”
Musa Zimunya, a poet and academic, pointed out in his appeal that these “obscenities” were “guaranteed a cultural and artistic place in our tradition of art and sculpture”. Zimunya added that if the censorship board was to take its decisions to their logical conclusion, it might as well ban a substantial body of Shona proverbs and tales. And the board might also want to get in touch with other thought-police institutions on the continent, including the ones in Nigeria, Kenya and Zambia. Some African countries, instead of abolishing the colonial institutions that had been used against nationalists, found these bodies all too useful in their fights against their post-independence opponents.
The Igbo of Nigeria have a proverb popularised by writer Chinua Achebe that goes: “Unless it dies young, the penis shall surely eat bearded meat.” This was a way, I guess, to say that things happen in due course and there is no point in rushing to indulge in sexual activities. The testicles, penis and their exploits are a point of reference.
In Zambia the Bemba coined a saying, “ubuchende bwamwaume tabonaula nganda“, which translates to “a man’s whoring does not break up a family”. These chauvinistic words, the roots of which must lie in polygamy, seem to suggest that it is alright for men to sleep around. Or, alternatively, that the family can survive the vagaries of patriarchy. It is perhaps what a Guinean proverb refers to that says: “A child can play with its mother’s breasts, but not its father’s testicles.”
The word “chende“, the root for the word for testicles in some languages, is quite popular in African proverbs. In Ghana there is a proverb, “It requires a lot of carefulness to kill the fly that perches on the scrotum”, which does not really require explanation.
It is not just genitalia that feature often — scatological content is also important. The Bemba have a proverb, “uku tamfya lunshi kunya pabili“, translated as “in order to chase away or distract a fly, one must shit in two places”. The proverb’s sibling, “munshebwa ayile namafi kebena buko“, is meant to be advice to a person who is paying his in-laws a visit. Its English translation is: “The person who doesn’t take advice or correction went to his in-laws covered in shit.” Then there is the enigmatic “imputi iyi sula tayi leka” — “an arse or anus that farts never stops” — but my source cannot quite explain its meaning.
In matters sexual the Kikuyu of Kenya have it all worked out. Pleasure can only be sexual; everything else is imitation, as the proverb suggests: “Mrio koragwa handu hamwe, ko kngi ni cama“, which in English is something along the line of “Pleasure is only at one spot, the rest is just sweet”.
Whereas censorship bureaus want a puritanical idea of society and language, by its nature language is resistant to the language police, always tilting towards the informal and the impure. Our ancestors recognised this and, as a way of control and to encourage creativity, designated the times and places for the obscene.
Percy Zvomuya is not in the habit of repeating vulgar proverbs
View more highlights of the year that was in our special report.