Beaven Tapureta Arts Correspondent
Professor George Kahari, an academic and literary critic, recalls the late writer and cultural guru Dr Solomon Mangwiro Mutsvairo as a quiet, smart student at Howard Institute where they both went for their primary and teacher training in the 1940s.
Mutsvairo is revered for his epic novel “Feso” (1956) and penning the Shona lyrics of the national anthem “Ngaikomborerwe Nyika yeZimbabwe (Kalibusiswe Ilizwe leZimbabwe/Blessed be the Land of Zimbabwe)”.
In a conversation with this writer, Prof Kahari, who is also cousin to the late cultural guru, said Mustvairo was a very likeable person, always smart during his student days and had his country at heart.
The conversation with Prof Kahari was to make up for the postponed presentation which he was expected to make at a meeting themed “Writers’ Families Reminisce” held last month by Zimbabwe Writers Association.
His talk at this meeting was to focus, from a relative’s point of view, on Solomon Mutsvairo’s character regarding his writing and relation with others.
“He was a very quiet person but he loved education.
“He loved choral music and actually had a beautiful voice.
“It wasn’t conspicuous at Howard that he would become a writer but he was outstanding, meticulous in his singing,” remarked Prof Kahari.
Some people who came into contact with Mutsvairo have also confirmed his affection for music.
One of them, Mickias T Musiyiwa, once told Memory Chirere in an interview published in the Southern Times that Mutsvairo had the habit of singing traditional songs in lectures.
Mutsvairo’s gift for music must have contributed to his lyrics winning the national anthem writing competition conducted by Government.
The anthem, adopted in 1984, was translated into Ndebele by Ndabezinle Sigogo, another late literary giant who wrote mainly in Ndebele language while Fred Lecture Changundega of the Zimbabwe Republic Police Band “musicalised” the anthem.
The adoption of his lyrics as the official anthem marked another huge achievement for Mutsvairo and his patriotic quest for a better Zimbabwe never missed his written works.
Prof Kahari said Mutsvairo didn’t pursue music further but only concentrated on working with school choirs and remained focused on his educational and cultural work.
“What he did was to confirm his versatility as far as music is concerned,” said Prof Kahari.
Growing up in an era when colonialism faced strong opposition from indigenous people, Mutsvairo (and his contemporaries such as Bernard Chidzero and Paul Chidyausiku) consciously or unconsciously opted to fight it with the pen to liberate the masses from oppression.
“You can see his concern for the people, his love, not only as it is coming out of his writings but in his deportment, every day, the man was proud of his country.
“He always talked about the colours of the zebra. When you talked to him he likened Zimbabwean society as the emblem of black and white as portrayed by the colours of the zebra.
“He believed this country was for everybody, not only blacks but human beings as long as one appreciated the values of the indigenous people,” Prof Kahari said. Mutsvairo was deeply interested in hunhu or Ubuntu, especially Shona people’s values.
“To Mutsvairo hunhu meant knowing one’s roots and values.
“He didn’t study history for the purposes of revenging but in order to help him to go forward and incorporate everybody,” said Prof Kahari.
From Howard Institute, Mutsvairo went to South Africa to do his secondary education at Adams College. There were no secondary schools during that time in Zimbabwe, then Southern Rhodesia, and excelling African students had to cross over to South Africa to further their studies.
Paucity of educational opportunities was one of the major grievances of black people in Southern Rhodesia which led to the Second Chimurenga war.
In “The Struggle for Zimbabwe”, a book chronicling the quest for freedom during colonialism, it is stated that private studies or enrolment in South Africa were the only way Africans could get secondary education until 1946.
While studying at Adams College, Mutsvairo was exposed to English and Zulu literature which then influenced him to write “Feso”, a novel in his mother language which would usher in a new era for Zimbabwean literature in 1956.
According to the Literature Bureau records, 1956 was also the same year Ndebele literature took off with the publication of “Amandebele Ka Mzilikazi (Umvukela WamaNdebele)” by N Sithole.
In an interview in 1988 with Angela A Williams, Mutsvairo revealed that in writing “Feso” he wanted to provide written material in African schools since there were few books in Shona and none in Ndebele.
However, writing in the Zambezia journal in 1982, Prof Kahari noted that “Feso” served two purposes, that is, “as an experiment in the reduction to writing of hitherto unwritten dialects” and “as an experiment in the transformation of the traditional folk-tales, myths, and legends, which have an element of fantasy in them, into the Western type novel form which aims at realism”.
The poem “O Nehanda Nyakasikana” which is found in “Feso”, is a “masterpiece within a masterpiece”, as the poem literally became a battle cry for liberation war fighters who used it to educate and mobilise the masses against oppressive colonial rule.
Many will remember how the late Vice-President Simon V Muzenda recited the poem at national gatherings to remind the people about their history.
No doubt “Feso” has been a timeless and brave book, having been at some point banned by Rhodesian censors as it challenged the colonial consciousness.
It is however, sad that the English translation of “Feso” done by its author and published in 1974 is less known or talked about in Zimbabwe. What more, “Feso” in its original Shona language is difficult to find in the Zimbabwean book shops.
Government, in recognition of Mutsvairo’s immense contribution to Zimbabwe’s arts and culture, particularly for giving the country a national anthem, bestowed upon him the Order of the Star of Munhumutapa and when he died in 2005, accorded him a provincial hero status.
Other works by Solomon Mustvairo are “Murambiwa Goredema” (1959), “Ambuya Muderere” (1967), “Mapondera: Soldier of Zimbabwe” (1978), “Tagutapadare” (1982), “Chaminuka: Prophet of Zimbabwe” (1983), “Mweya waNehanda” (1988) and “Hamandishe” (1991).
He also translated his own Shona poems into English, for example, those found in the anthology “Zimbabwe Prose and Poetry”.
He contributed poems in the collections “Madetembedzwa Akare naMatsva” and “Nduri DzeZimbabwe”.
Mustvairo was also the first writer to occupy the post of Writer-in-Residence at the University of Zimbabwe’s Faculty of Arts and held the position for three years and also at some point chaired the National Arts Council.
In 2003, he was awarded the Arts Service Award at the second edition of the National Arts Merit Awards (NAMA).