Elliot Ziwira: @ The Book store
“ON a fine Spring day in Harare, Sithembiso and I buried her brother Fitzpatrick ‘Fitz’ MacDonald Muzanenhamo . . . It was Spring, a season for birth and blessings, not death and curses”, laments the journalist-narrator in Bill Saidi’s “A Fine Day for a Funeral” in the anthology “Writing Now” (2005), edited by Irene Staunton and published by Weaver Press.It is rather ironic that death, “a necessary end” as William Shakespeare puts it, will not be kept at bay because in life we live with death.
Death in itself marks the beginning of life as a season, but humanity will never get used to it. To die is to begin another process of life for other generations, yet the pain of losing a loved one, a colleague, a mentor, a friend, remains as fresh as a lump of pain embedded in the heart. It is indeed sad that as a new season of hope ensues for all of us in the New Year, we lose a dear friend and colleague in the stature of Sylvester William ‘Bill’ Saidi, who passed on on January 4, in his ancestral land of Zambia at the age of 79.
Saidi has returned to the source as they say, but we at the Bookstore are poorer without him, although he has left us even richer, for artistes do not die. As a journalist of repute, Saidi contributed immensely to journalism as an editor, columnist, mentor and proof-reader in a career spanning over 50 years, but it is not our tradition at the Bookstore to write obituaries, or eulogies.
Books are our forte and Saidi contributed a lot to our shelves through such titles as “The Hanging” (1978), “Return of the Innocent” (1979), “Day of the Baboons” (1988), “Gwebede’s Wars” (1989) and the “Brothers of Chatima Road” (1990).
He published two stories with Weaver Press: “A Fine Day for a Funeral” in “Writing Now” (2005) and “The Winning Side” in “Writing Still” (2003), as well as “Who is Who in Zimbabwe” (1991) and a memoir, “A Sort of Life in Journalism” (2011).
As a gifted individual endowed with wisdom and vision, Saidi played his role well as an artiste in guiding his people by indicating to them what may be regarded as an ideal way of doing things. In this instance, he functions as a teacher, as Chinua Achebe posits on the role of the writer as a teacher in “African Writers Talking” (1972) when he says: “What I think a novelist can teach is something very fundamental, namely to indicate to his readers; to put it crudely that we in Africa did not hear of culture for the first time from Europeans”.
Thus, an artiste functions as the custodian of the cultural norms and values of his community. He is conscious that tribalism, political intolerance and avarice are a bane on regeneration and progress. The cultural norms and values of a community or nation are contained in literary works, and not in history books, as maintained by Chenjerai Hove in “Palaver Finish” (2002).
Saidi’s characters are shaped by his firm belief that victims have a way of turning back against their tormentors, thus becoming victim-monsters.
As a writer playing his journalistic role as an artiste, Saidi uses the autobiographical mode to capture the voyeur in humanity which draws excitement from trauma and suffering.
He gives voice to the oppressed not by merely speaking for them, but by suffering with them, and making his own experiences the benchmark of their resilience. The also departed Chenjerai Hove cited in Veit-Wild (1993:3, 4) complements this rationale of the artiste as the voice of the voiceless when he quips: “African writers have to perform the task of helping to awaken the consciences of the world to the plight of the powerless in a world where the muscle of arms rather than morality seem to determine the fate of life.” Chinweizu et al (1985) also concur that “the artist in the traditional milieu spoke for and on behalf of his community”, and this is what Saidi set out to do, and he effectively does it in his short stories “A Fine Day for a Funeral” and “The Winning Side”.
The journalist-narrator in “A Fine Day for a Funeral”, Munyaradzi Banda is caught between power politics and love, in an epic that questions the essence of repute in the absence of integrity. Munyaradzi falls in love with Sithembiso Charity Muzanenhamo, who is Professor Pedzisayi Macmillan Muzanenhamo’s daughter. As professor of political science, Muzanenhamo rises on the wing of his South African wife, as Professor Vusimuzi Dlamini.
At Independence, he abandons his wife and returns home with his two Children Fitz and Sithembiso to take a prominent position in the ruling party as a politician. As the story opens, the narrator tells us of the death of his third wife Sithembiso’s brother Fitz, who is found dead at his lodge or brothel rather, in the Avenues area of Harare.
Saidi adeptly takes the reader through the intriguing journey that the narrator embarks on as he cuts across class barriers. Sithembiso falls in love with the poor scribe of Malawian descent to spite her father from whom she is detached as she tells the narrator: “I would love my father to see us together . . . Me a good girl from the best, the only tribe, and you, a Chewa from Malawi. He would kill you because he is a bigot.”
The barrenness of the relationships in the story leads to a whirlwind that sweeps the narrator off his feet. The wealthy professor wants his gadabout son, whose “mortal weaknesses were money, women, fast cars and more money”, to become a Member of Parliament under his wing. Fitz, becomes the “reluctant politician dealing in girls and foreign currency on the black market.”
The ensuing power struggles leads to dirty-digging and political mudslinging which leave Fitz dead, leaving no offspring to take his father’s legacy into the future which irks the professor because his wife who is much younger than him is barren, and his daughter deliberately humiliates him by marrying “achimwene” from Malawi.
The opulent scene at the funeral, the barrenness of expectation as well as the hypocritical inclinations exposed, reminds one of Charles Mungoshi’s story “The Sins of the Fathers” in “Writing Still” (2003).
As the drama plays out, it dawns on the narrator that “politics was not about ideas, about good men and women who stood up to serve; no, politics was a game in which stakes for riches, power and glamour were very high.
As the humongous political arm attempts to sweep the dirty under the gaping carpet, Munyaradzi Banda, the “aspiring novelist working as a senior proof-reader for slave wages on a daily newspaper” is told by Sithembiso his lecturer-wife, “You’re a journalist. Your job is to expose, unveil what’s hidden.”
Bill Saidi subscribes to Soyinka’s (1973:89) observation that “the artist always functioned as the voice of vision in his own time.” This means that the writer should record current and topical issues, which affect the community, because it is such issues that the reader can easily identify with.
The journalistic aspect of the role of the artiste is also echoed by Chinweizu et al (1985:248) when they say: “Our job as writers is to be articulate and to present to our audience the stresses and joys of our societies as they take place.”
Like Chirere in “Somewhere in this Country”, Saidi in “The Winning Side” highlights the plight of street urchins by exploring societal whims, which expose the individual to violence, yet expecting him to remain a saint.
The maturity that the child characters show is a result of the hardships and violence which they are exposed to on a daily basis. Winning is good, for losing is always depressing, but being on the winning side every time somehow leads to complacency and impedes creativity and progress.
Tichaona, the protagonist in the story whose parents are victims of political violence, is told by his mother: “Your uncle Charles always wants to be on the winning side. It is not always good to be on the winning side. You might lose your soul.”
Saidi indeed rises to the occasion as a journalist and artiste in shaping the aspirations of his people.
The Bookstore is poorer without his candid exposure of the rot in our midst, yet we find solace in the indelible mark he has left on the literary scene.
Go well Bill, although this really is not “A Fine Day for a Funeral”.