African culture uncensored

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.

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years. We’ve survived thanks to the support of our readers, we will need you to help us get through this.

To help us ensure another 35 future years of fiercely independent journalism, please subscribe.

Percy Zvomuya
Percy Zvomuya is a writer and critic who has written for numerous publications, including Chimurenga, the Mail & Guardian, Moto in Zimbabwe, the Sunday Times and the London Review of Books blog. He is a co-founder of Johannesburg-based writing collective The Con and, in 2014, was one of the judges for the Caine Prize for African Writing.

Engineering slips out of gear at varsity

Walter Sisulu University wants to reprioritise R178-million that it stands to give back to treasury after failing to spend it

Lockdown relief scheme payouts to employees tops R14-billion

Now employers and employees can apply to the Unemployment Insurance Fund for relief scheme payments

Press Releases

Covid-19 and Frontline Workers

Who is caring for the healthcare workers? 'Working together is how we are going to get through this. It’s not just a marathon, it’s a relay'.

PPS webinar Part 2: Small business, big risk

The risks that businesses face and how they can be dealt with are something all business owners should be well acquainted with

Call for applications for the position of GCRO executive director

The Gauteng City-Region Observatory is seeking to appoint a high-calibre researcher and manager to be the executive director and to lead it

DriveRisk stays safe with high-tech thermal camera solution

Itec Evolve installed the screening device within a few days to help the driver behaviour company become compliant with health and safety regulations

Senwes launches Agri Value Chain Food Umbrella

South African farmers can now help to feed the needy by donating part of their bumper maize crop to delivery number 418668

Ethics and internal financial controls add value to the public sector

National treasury is rolling out accounting technician training programmes to upskill those who work in its finance units in public sector accounting principles

Lessons from South Korea for Africa’s development

'Leaders can push people through, through their vision and inspiration, based on their exemplary actions'

Old Mutual announces digital AGM

An ambitious plan to create Africa’s biggest digital classroom is intended to address one of the continent’s biggest challenges — access to education

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday