/ 24 January 2020

What would Dambudzo be saying?

Dambudzo Marechera (Tessa Colvin)
'I am against everything': Dambudzo Marechera reading in First Street Mall, Harare, during the International Book Fair in 1983 (Tessa Colvin)

It is reported that in 1978 Dambudzo Marechera heckled Robert Mugabe when he came to London to address Zimbabweans at The Africa Centre. He had already seen the troubles ahead as he could read through the deceptive characters that were on the brink of leading Zimbabwe. Most of those in power in Zimbabwe today were Marechera’s contemporaries. His award-winning book, The House of Hunger, had just been published. In this imaginary conversation, Tinashe Mushakavanhu finds out what kind of things Marechera would be saying about his country and its endless troubles. Here are some of Marechera’s insights extracted from his own books or interviews he gave.

Where does the problem lie in Zimbabwe? Who is to blame for the crisis in Zimbabwe today?

We in Zimbabwe know who the enemy is. The enemy is just not white, he is also black. The police force, the army in Zimbabwe are three-quarters black. And for me I believe that to see the Zimbabwe struggle as merely a black versus white struggle is stupid and naive. And hence, in most of my work, there’s always a mistrust of politicians, no matter who they are.

Zimbabwe has been constantly in the news as a kind of hell on Earth. What is the actual state of affairs in Zimbabwe?

The rich are getting more powerful and richer, and the poor are getting poorer. Any writer worth his name cannot write about that; the publishers are afraid of government attitude towards anything they publish that may not be considered patriotic.

What is your opinion on leadership?

This is a weird world of mechanical speeches; lullabying the povo with mobile horizon promises. They are quick to mend legislation, so the world is what they make it for us who are passive; we who they shamelessly claim to have liberated from the white man. With that as their pretext, they weigh their grievous lot on us day in day out.

In the past four decades, the ballot has failed to effect political change. Is violence an option?

I am against everything: against war and those against war, against whatever diminishes the individual’s blind impulse.

What is your comment on the historical domination of Zanu-PF in post-independence Zimbabwe?

I am afraid of one-party states, especially where you have more slogans than content in terms of policy and its implementation. I have never lived under a one-party state, except under pre-independence Zimbabwe, Ian Smith’s Rhodesia, which was virtually a one-party state. And what I read about one-party states makes me, frankly, terrified.

After 40 years of misrule and dazzling corruption, do you think independence is a reality for the majority, or just an illusion?

I think some things have been improved. But basically our revolution has changed life only for the new black middle class, those who got university degrees overseas during the struggle. For them, independence is a reality; it has changed their income, their housing conditions and so on and so on. But for the working classes and the peasants, it’s still the same hard work, low pay, rough conditions of living. In other words, I don’t think independence so far has really made any significant change as far as the working class are concerned; especially for those who committed themselves to become fighters. They joined Zanla [Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army] or Zipra [Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army] before they’d finished their education. Most of them are now unemployed and live in the streets. This is what I wrote about in Mindblast.

It seems contemporary Zimbabwean writers are uncertain about their stand today. Was it easier for your lot before 1980?

Oh yes, it was. Because the objective was to fight racism and obtain independence. After UDI [Unilateral Declaration of Independence] in 1965 Ian Smith deliberately created the Rhodesia Literature Bureau to promote a certain kind of Shona and Ndebele literature that would be used in the schools and perpetuate the idea that racism is for the good of the blacks. And we had writers who were writing the very books Smith wanted the blacks to read. In primary school I was taught Shona literature that caricatures black people and which was in line with the specific political policies before independence. One of the main themes in Shona literature of that period was the story about a person coming from the rural areas thinking that he’d have a good life in the city. Then he or she comes to the city and goes through hardship and decides to go back to the rural areas because that’s where heaven is. Now this was in direct line with the urban-influx control policy. Blacks were being discouraged by the city council and by the government to come to the cities. In other words, even before I left the country, the literature that was being written here had no relevance to me or even to our people, to those who knew. Before independence you had two schools of thought among writers: those who participated in Smith’s propaganda programme, and those who had to run into exile and write protest literature. You will find that after independence the ones who were in the first school are now the ones in high positions, and those who were part of the Zimbabwean protest literature are the ones who are having problems or who have been forced to compromise themselves.

The economic downturn has driven many people out of the country, though in your own case your decision to leave was precipitated by your expulsion from the University of Rhodesia. Tell me, when you came back after nine years of exile in Britain, what kind of country did you expect?

The only idea I had of what to expect was what I had been reading in the British press about the struggle here and about what was going on in Uganda, about the military coups in Nigeria and so on and so on. In other words, the idea that our own independence would be another disaster had been instilled in me very much.

The Third Chimurenga came up with a wholly new cultural programme meant to celebrate Mugabe, the now deposed supreme leader, former first secretary of Zanu-PF, commander of defence forces and chancellor of all universities through musical galas, political jingles, et cetera. What in your view is the relationship between culture and politics?

Here we have a deliberate campaign to promote Zimbabwean culture: everyone is talking about it, building it, developing it. When politicians talk about culture, one had better pack one’s rucksack and run, because it means the beginning of unofficial censorship … When in Nazi Germany culture started to be defined in a nationalistic way, it meant that all other people, all other nations were stupid; it meant intellectuals, painters, writers and lecturers being persecuted or being assassinated. In this sense, all nationalism always frightens me, because it means the products of your own mind are now being segregated into official and unofficial categories, and that only the officially admired works must be seen.

These are edited extracts from Some Writers Can Give You Two Heartbeats, edited by Tinashe Mushakavanhu with Nontsikelelo Mutiti