Professor Kahari’s 50-year odyssey in literature

23 Jun, 2014 - 00:06 0 Views
Professor Kahari’s 50-year odyssey in literature Professor George Kahari (left) poses with James Muzondidya in this file photo

The Herald

Professor George Kahari  (left) poses with James Muzondidya in this file photo

Professor George Kahari (left) poses with James Muzondidya in this file photo

Stanely Mushava Literature Today
“Nothing good can come out of Zimbabwe” is becoming a buzzword of mainstream proportions. We are losing an aggressive estimation of our potential as a nation. Pessimism runs the tapestry of our national outlook. We justify this self-deprecation by playing second fiddle to others on many platforms.

However, if any truth underlies our deflated self-esteem, it is not because there is nothing good in Zimbabwe but because we lack the virtue of celebrating and exporting our homegrown accomplishments.

The foremost impediment to our cultural development is not lack of funds or absence of talent. Nay, it is our inability to locate those who have excelled among us and build on their achievements.

Prof George Kahari, for one, fits into Phillip Brooks’ observation that biography is a meeting of three characters of whom the most interesting is the subject, the most privileged is the reader and the least regarded is the author.

On this score, Literature Today takes a fresh look at the work of this pioneering champion of the indigenous novel and, arguably, Zimbabwean literary criticism’s principal thoroughbred.

Prof Kahari’s research interests comprise a vast expanse from traditional narrative genres, social registers, poetry, panegyrics, elegiacs, children’s songs and rhyme, proverbs, riddles, ritual drama to religious lyrics.

He has profiled and appraised a litany of local authors, including Herbert Chitepo, Mordecai Hamutyinei, Patrick Chakaipa, Joseph Kumbirayi, Paul Chidyausiku, Wilson Chivaura and my late uncle Janfeck Chekure against the critical background of an evolving canon.

His astute engagement with issues spans a broad thematic range including liberation discourse, political protest, spiritual bankruptcy, family disintegration, femininity, secular education, decadence, crime and dislocated urban life.

The late minister, Dr Bernard Chidzero, described Kahari’s writing as “a work of art in its own right in the sense that the author is creatively perceptive and interpretive, handling the twin instruments of word and idea in a neat and mutually integrative fashion so that the whole informs as well as delights the reader”.

Despite the prolificacy and proficiency of his work, Kahari remains largely an unfamiliar figure outside the classroom for a man who has laboured for 50 years to bring our literature to universal attention.

A 1977 entry in “Who’s Who” by Robert Cary and Diana Mitchell describes Kahari as “a well-built, immaculately dressed man with a powerful voice and readiness to enjoy a joke”.

When I met Prof Kahari at Harare Club to receive biographical material on Stanelake Samkange from him, he had not ceded any of the foregoing qualities to age.

However, when we met for the second time recently, he appeared reserved, preferring that his work speak for itself, although he maintained his jocular disposition.

Prof Kahari explained that he decided to profile Shona literature because the tradition was growing but there was no corresponding discipline to appraise the emerging works.

“No one was writing to critique the new work. Zimbabweans were writing in both Shona and English but their works were not being examined.
Kahari ventured into the virgin discipline with a 1964 article “Oral and Written Literature in Shona: Contrasts and Continuities” which appeared in “African Languages in Schools” edited by George Fortune.

The article ignited a train of activity – 15 more papers, 14 books, two of which are pending release, and several seminar and conference papers.
Last year the Zimbabwe International Book Fair awarded him a certificate of honour on the occasion of its 30th anniversary.

Kahari also participated in nationalist politics as one of the intellectual revolutionaries of the liberation struggle from 1970 to 1980.
The Government honoured his participation with the Gold Liberation Decoration and the Silver Liberation medals.

His critical body of work assigns Shona fiction to two compartments: the modern novel and the romance (also called the old world narrative).
Kahari observes that the local novel is arrived at by balancing oracy (traditional oral patterns) and literacy, hence insists on studying the novel in light of the traditional genres.

“The novel incorporates into its structure traditional Shona narrative devices, fusing the techniques of oral narratives into the alien form of the English novel,” he explains the intermediate status of the Shona novel as a cultural relic and a modern text.

Kahari believes that, far from stagnating, the Shona novel is vastly improving and emerging writers are outperforming their predecessors.
“The novelists are improving by the day. They are challenging the predominant style of expressing oneself in one way.

“Whereas the old writers used to write chronologically, the predictable way, as in the folk-tale, the new writers are exploiting more enabling techniques to capture their world artistically – talk of stream of consciousness, in media res, the first person narrative and other techniques.

“They imitate social reality in ways they find more compelling for the particular case, from the middle, back and forth; they have stopped going from start to finish,” he said.

“Novelists like Ignatius Mabasa are approaching writing in Shona from a different perspective. They depart from “sarungano’s reference to ‘imwe nyika iri kure kure kwazvo’ (detached setting) and forcefully relive the reader through contemporary,” he said.

Kahari said the modern novel’s insistence on imitating social reality based on empirical and existential reality makes it a far richer text.
The breakaway from static tradition is referenced in Kahari’s seminal text, “The Rise of the Shona Novel”, when he marks out the second generation of writers, particularly Charles Mungoshi, for a head-on engagement with trending reality.

He observes that the second generation writers’ image of Shona society differs radically from the one portrayed by their older contemporaries such as Samkange and Mutswairo.

“The latter used historical facts to write historical novels of propaganda, satire and protest while the former used historical facts but internalised and transformalised them so that fit into various levels of meaning, symbols and chains of associations.

“This is understandable since Samkange and Mutswairo have come to the writing of novels through the discipline of History. According to Mungoshi, history is part of us, how each one of us perceives history and its influence on society and how society and history affect us becomes the novel’s point of intensity,” observes Kahari.

Turning to the current state of Zimbabwean literature, Kahari is of the view that the declining reception of literature occasioned by an austere economic setting has dealt a disservice to an improving tradition.

“The majority of Zimbabweans are poor and would rather buy mealie-meal than buy a novel,” Kahari says.
“Publishers can only publish what they can sell. And it turns out that libraries and schools are no longer buying much as they used to.

“There will come a time when the adoption of electronic publishing in Zimbabwe will reawaken interest in literature. Even those old texts people seem to have forgotten about will come back again. It has happened in other countries and it can also happen here,” he says.

However, Kahari also feels that writers are not, altogether, getting the reception merited by their works from the local audience.
“Zimbabweans do not have the gift of generosity to hold the achievements of their compatriots in high esteem,” Kahari says.

He says while Zimbabwe is best as far as literacy has concerned, we have failed to convert that to a robust engagement with our literary and intellectual fraternity.

Kahari was a central committee member and deputy publicity secretary in the wartime Zapu and a member of ZANU-PF’s consultative committee after Independence.

He has served as an ambassador to Germany, Italy and Czechoslovakia and has been Visiting Professor of Modern African literature at a couple of American universities.

Kahari has two forthcoming works “A Standard Dictionary of Shona-English Names” and “The Odyssey of Shona Narratives”.

Stanely Mushava blogs at

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