Me, Dambudzo: A personal essay
let the diverse voices speak for themselves. But this is not the whole truth. I could not write his life story because my own life was so intricately entangled with his.
While I have generally come to be known as “The Marechera Authority”, there have always been two narrative strands behind this persona — the public and the private. While the public one has stood out as strong and clear, my private life has been interlaced with love and passion, loss and pain, with illness and the threat of death. Yet, what I have gained is so much more than what I have endured that I am filled with gratitude and, I might add, with laughter.
My personal involvement with Dambudzo Marechera has affected my professional life in a way I would never have expected. The many ironic twists, the tricks that Dambudzo played on me even posthumously, make our story an immensely rich and funny one, one that I now, more than twenty-five years after I came to know him, want to tell.
I first met Dambudzo Marechera in Charles Mungoshi’s office. They were drinking vodka. Mungoshi was then an editor with Zimbabwe Publishing House (ZPH), one of the new publishing houses established after Independence in 1980. I had started a correspondence course for journalistic writing before coming out to Zimbabwe and was gathering information for articles about the upcoming Zimbabwean literary scene. I had heard about the legendary writer who slept in doorways and on park benches. Lately, it was reported, he had slept on the ping-pong table of a German commune after they had thrown him out of their house. I did not expect him there, on this bright October morning in 1983. While Harare’s Avenues were sparkling blue with jacaranda blossom on the east-west axis and blazing red where the flamboyants lined the numbered streets going north to south, I stepped into a rather drab office; a desk with a telephone and a pile of manuscripts in the in-tray, some wooden chairs and, in a corner, a bulging plastic bag and a portable typewriter — Dambudzo’s belongings, as I would learn later. He was using ZPH to freshen himself up after a night out on the streets.
“Hey, have a seat,” he said, pulling a chair for me at Mungoshi’s desk. His open face was looking at me expectantly, and Charles — not a natural speaker — gladly left his guest to his eloquent colleague. So that is him, I remember thinking, so accessible, charming and boyish, clad in denims and a faded light blue T-shirt — incredibly young.
He was 31-years old, I was thirty-six. I was wearing sandals, a pink blouse and wide, softly flowing trousers with a striking flower pattern. Looking me up and down, he said: “Oh, my lawd, your garments cannot be from here. You would rather expect them in a Bloomsbury setting than in prissy old Salisbury.” His stilted Oxford accent and the exaggerated emphasis on some of his half-mocking, half-serious words made me smile. I was curious to know him better.
We arrange to meet again soon at the Oasis Hotel garden, a popular place for expats and locals. When I enter the poolside bar, I find him surrounded by people yelling: “Hey, Dambudzo, what are you writing about?” He has some copies of The House of Hunger under his arm, which he is trying to sell — a few dollars for the next beer. “Shit man,” he says, when we sit down, “all they know about my writing is that it contains hot sex. But, between you and me, I learn all that from books.” Which is true, as I will find out later. His own sexual behaviour was not at all outlandish.
We talk. I tell him about my life, my political activism in the 1970s, how we collected 100 000 Deutsch Marks for Zanu-PF to buy four Land Rovers, the money then confiscated by the West German government because Mugabe was classified as a “terrorist”. And now I find myself in a country ruled by this erstwhile terrorist, now lauded as the “pearl of Africa”. The historical ironies criss-crossing my biography have just begun, so many more will follow. Dambudzo is a good listener and can relate to my experiences, as he lived with leftists of all sorts in the squatter communities in London, closely following the developments in Germany. The Baader-Meinhof group gave him ideas for his urban guerrillas in Black Sunlight. He tells me how alienated he feels in his home country. All his former fellow-students from the University of Rhodesia have become civil servants or university lecturers. Slogans about “building the new nation” wherever you go. Socialist realism is on the agenda, his own writing denigrated as Western modernist decadence, blah blah . . .
I am open to his views. After years of working with Maoist cadre organisations, I am wary of the so-called struggle of the workers and the peasants against capitalist oppression and international imperialism. I am excited to find a black intellectual who does not try to make me feel guilty for the crimes of colonialism but points his finger at his own leaders.
In the years to follow, I develop an increasing allergy to the patronising stand of European ex-lefties towards the poor colonised souls. The Albert Schweitzers reborn. Dambudzo Marechera is becoming my mentor. His ruthless critique of all types of attitudinizing is utterly liberating. I feel at ease in his company, I feel no racial bias, no need to justify my presence in his country. His curiosity about my life and ambitions, paired with his wittily flirtatious manner, work like a magic spell.
Our next date fails due to a misunderstanding. When we do meet again, he gives me his nicely typed poem “In the Gallery”. We arrange further dates. I drive to town from our house in Highlands using our family car, a white left-hand drive VW Passat station wagon, and meet him in one of the bars. We talk. I pay for his Castle Lager. Sometimes it is Chateau Burgundy. I drink G & Ts. We go dancing. He snatches kisses while I talk. During the daytime he “wanders through Hararean mazes” (see epigram to Marechera, ‘Parkbench Journal’ in Mindblast 119). He writes more poems, tears them up in fits of anger. Some of them survive. I will include them later in Cemetery of Mind (see Marechera, “A Writer’s Diary” in Cemetery of Mind 101-113) — traces of a burgeoning love for life.
One night he suggests that we drive to the UZ campus, a couple of miles north of the city centre. It is his old hideout. After his return from London in 1982 and the aborted filming with Chris Austin, he held readings and lectures there. The students venerated him. They let him sleep on the floor in their dormitory rooms. They called him Buddy. Albert Nyathi, now a well-known imbongi, was among them, as was Tendai Biti, right hand of Morgan Tsvangirai and minister of finance in Government.
We sit in the dark by the UZ swimming pool. We tumble about in the grass. It feels playful, joyful, frivolous. Yet back in the car, he starts pressurising me. I want to drive home. He urges me to stay. He pulls my hand into his lap and, angrily, provocatively, he says: “You see what you are doing to me, you can’t leave me like THIS.”
But I do. I give him the picnic blanket from our car, and he sneaks into the lavatories of Manfred Hodson Hall — where he resided as a University of Rhodesia student in 1972/1973 until the “pots-and-pans” demonstration, during which he was expelled as one of the ringleaders (Veit-Wild, Marechera: A Source Book 95-115; Veit-Wild, Teachers 205-213).
Alfred Knottenbelt, who had famously defied Ian Smith’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence in 1965, was his warden. 30-year-old Terence Ranger, another prominent figure in the early days of the university, staged an anti-colour-bar protest and was pushed into the pool by an angry white Rhodesian, the very swimming pool where we almost made love.
On that night in October 1983, I was oblivious to the history of these places. I would learn about it only much later when I followed the writer’s tracks from his birth in 1952 to his death in 1987. I would then also discover his play, “The Stimulus of Scholarship”, serialised in the UZ students’ magazine Focus in 1983-84 — the very time when the campus vlei became our first hideout. Did he talk to me about it? I cannot recall.
Did I have any idea what I was getting into? I had always had a longing for the wondrous, the fantastic, the outlandish. Dambudzo appealed to the clownish, melancholic, poetic part of me, which was menacingly dark and colourfully bright at the same time. I had never suppressed it, lived it out in pantomime or in romance, but had always been pragmatic enough to know that, for “real life”, I had to make rational choices. Dambudzo more than anyone before embodied this “other” side in me, he led me through many closed doors, he fostered my infatuation with the mad side of life, the “Coin of Moonshine”.
After those nightly tumblings at the pool and in the car, I consult with one of my German friends, an expat wife like me. A group of us meet regularly for gym, gossip and ranting about men. We are all in a state of excitement, stimulated by the beautiful country and the grand spirit of hope of unlimited possibilities that reign in Zimbabwe in those early 1980s. We are open to the new, ready to go beyond the boundaries of our lives as wives, mothers or teachers. I tell my friend that I am drawn to Dambudzo, but that I know it will be very complicated. Her laconic answer: “But you like it complicated.”
Her words propel me forward. Like the skydiving I do around the same time, I jump. I go for the free fall. Similar to the sensation when I first jump from a plane, I feel a complete whirling of body and mind. Yet, as daring as it is, I have my safety net, my family, my social and economic infrastructure, my inner groundedness. I have always been a fearless person. But I have been able to afford the occasional jump only because of my protected childhood, my emotional and financial security. I always believed I would eventually land on safe ground. What I do not know at the time is that my involvement with Dambudzo will be almost fatal, that for a very long time I will walk on shifting ground. Nor do I know that Dambudzo, the troublemaker, will unwittingly make me into his mouthpiece once his voice is gone and thus make me gain recognition I would never have dreamed of. For the first night we will spend together, we drive out to the Seven Miles Hotel on the road to Masvingo.
The manager in suit and tie greets us with a slight bow: “Good afternoon, Mr Marechera,” We sit under one of the thatched umbrellas. I feel awkward, the only white face among a raucous crowd of drinkers, mostly employees from the city meeting their girlfriends after work. I get strange looks and Dambudzo obscene remarks, in Shona, about his “white chick”.
Now it is I who is getting impatient, while he dithers. He needs another beer and a third or fourth, before we timidly ask for a room.
This essay was first published in Wasafiri issue 69, March 2012.
To be continued