Escaping from suffering through laughter

Elliot Ziwira @the Bookstore
Africans generally, and Zimbabweans particularly, are a unique people in that instead of wallowing in sorrow in a world where the superiority of race is evoked at every corner of its precincts, they let out a hearty laugh and let things be.

They look at themselves; at their lack, at everything going wrong about them, and laugh; real hard. They can make so much noise about the visible, nay invisible panties of one Zodwa Wabantu, that one may be forgiven to think that the circus train is about town, and all of them have suddenly become clowns. They make fun out of everything, and nothing particularly.

My people, for I am one of them, take to WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms at their disposal to atone for the physical, emotional, psychological and physiological challenges that confront them through rapturous laughter.

Over centuries of suffering, oppression and subjugation, Africans have learnt that laughter is the best weapon to deal with adversity and to replenish the soul. Unfortunately, or fortunately, it is this nature of the African that is construed for docility and naiveté; it is this that is used against him and yet it is this that is his strength, his abode, his resolve.

The reading of Doris Lessing’s “African Laughter: Four Visits to Zimbabwe” (1992) reveals more about what the African thinks about himself and his environs than what those who purport to understand him do. The book, which effectively exploits the autobiographic mode, chronicles the writer’s own experiences through a combination of stories, poems, anecdotes, obituaries, newspaper cuttings, songs, historical allusions and sojourns.

Having been banned from Southern Rhodesia for 25 years because of her criticism of the then white government, as reflected in her first novel “The Grass is Singing” (1950), Doris Lessing visits Zimbabwe in 1982, two years after Independence. She made three other subsequent visits in 1988, 1989 and 1992.

Her first visit reveals the euphoria reminiscent of Independence, as the majority black populace celebrates their freedom from the colonial yoke of oppression and subjugation; the problems associated with teething as the young black government learns the ropes of governance; the depression, despondence and frustration of the defeated whites who feel hard pressed to not only accept the outcome of the protracted war, but to submit to their former “bossboys” now in charge; and the hope of a newly born nation, whose desire to experience the Utopian kingdom promised them is thwarted by a new breed of black fat-cats, who hijack the revolution from the majority and run away with it.

A brief history of colonialism and how it displaced the original owners of the land and forced them to eke out a non-existent living on the periphery of rich arable land now occupied by the alien gangs from the West justifies the ensuing wars the first one of which the Africans lost and the second one which they won.

Lessing gives the whiteman’s perspective of the land and the war, which he calls the Bush War. The whites were fighting to preserve the legacy left by Cecil Rhodes and his Pioneer Column, who were on “an adventure for the sake of the Empire, for Cecil Rhodes, whom they knew to be a great man, for the Queen . . .” They believed that “Salisbury, a white town, British in feel, flavour and habit,” was theirs for keeps because “the conquered were inferior, that white tutelage was to their advantage, that they were bound to be the grateful recipients of superior civilisation.”

The whites cared more for the land and its animals than they did for the Africans. They would rather protect animals and allow them to roam freely in vast tracts of arable land than give the same land to the blacks, who were packed in reserves in what they (whites) derogatorily called “kraals”.

The Africans were fighting for what was rightfully theirs; for equal opportunities, against repressive laws that relegated them to arid lands, robbed them of their humanity, castrated their sense of worthy and stunted their dreams. Theirs was a struggle for liberation and not a mere Bush War.

The picture that the writer conjures evocatively questions the essence of freedom in a situation where the predatory nature of Man bares itself in the reversal of the roles of the hunter and the hunted. The defeated whites, whose erstwhile zealot, Ian Smith, conceitedly believed that there would never be black majority rule “in a thousand years”, fail to swallow the reality that stares at them, as a result they play the blame game on the ruling zanu-pf Government. Some decide to “take the Gap” in apartheid South Africa because they cannot endure a “black government.”

Lessing highlights the bitterness at the core of the white progenies, as they are made to play second fiddle to the true owners of the land that they so much adore, through the veranda gatherings, which have become their pastime, as they recite The Monologue.

Her brother Harry who talks ceaselessly “about the innate inferiority of blacks”, and yodels about how the country used to be beautiful when it was under white administration, finds it unreasonable to “give free lifts to people, who had just unfairly beaten his side in the War.” The olive branch of reconciliation that is extended to them by the black government is frowned upon, as doom is prophesied.

The white dream remains etched in the past, where events seemed to favour their lot, hence, progress remains clogged in the world of yore, as spanners are put in the wheels of developmental projects.

The majority, as a culmination of sabotage, individualism and deceit, find themselves in no better a situation, as poverty continues to gnaw at them, yet they remain resolute and find respite in laughter. Theirs, as described by the writer, is: “The marvellous African laughter born somewhere in the gut, seizing the whole body with good-humoured philosophy. It is the laughter of poor people.” There are several other incidences where laughter is used as a form of escapism from lack.

On the flipside the Africans who are referred to as “our Affs” by the whites are determined to haul themselves forward even in the face of adversity. They are aware that only knowledge has the capacity to turn the wheels of fortune, so the acquisition of skills is given priority. More schools and vocational centres are constructed and the Holy Grail is put in focus.

Labour laws, which favour those that toil, are enacted, and minimum wages introduced; yet the issue of the land remains thorny as it is still in the hands of a few; and the prophets of doom are quick to point out that the schools lack books and trained teachers; that the O-Level pass rate for 1988 was a mere five percent; but is that not an achievement considering that the bottlenecks in education during Smith’s regime saw to it that very few blacks acquired a secondary qualification?

The expatriate teachers funded by the donor community also find the terrain steep and as a result they end up receiving enlightenment from the same people they purport to guide to the light.

However, there are some whites who genuinely believe that Zimbabwe is their country and that they should work for its development. They work at par and in harmony with their fellow men regardless of colour, creed or race.

On the other hand there are fellow blacks who exhibit glee at those who suffer while they corruptly line their pockets aboard the gravy train, from which they elbow out the majority, yet the African laughter exuberantly releases its echoes in the rich mountains of the motherland.

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