Elliot Ziwira At the Bookstore
As we celebrate Heroes Day, it is imperative that we take time to reflect on the many sacrifices made by gallant sons and daughters of the Motherland, who put their lives on the block for us to attain the freedom we enjoy today.
Our freedom did not come on a silver plate, for there are sons and daughters of the peasantry who sacrificed limbs, eyes and mental well-being for this beauty of a country formerly known as Rhodesia.
Zimbabwean literature is a battlefield where individual biographies are juxtaposed with the national one and its ethos, especially when it comes to the liberation struggle and its aftermaths. A perusal of our literary cache will expose the different ways in which the revolutionary zeal and ideology is portrayed.
Writers like Alexander Kanengoni, Freedom Nyamubaya and Thomas Sukutai Bvuma, who because of their experiences in the liberation struggle use the autobiographical mode to capture their own travails and bring to the fore the dehumanising nature of war, the hollowness that comes with death and the fear of losing loved ones. Kanengoni and Nyamubaya use the novel and the short story, respectively, while Bvuma uses verse.
Kanengoni in “Echoing Silences” (1997), like Nyamubaya in “That Special Place” (2003) and Bvuma in “Every Stone That Turns” (1999), uses characters drawn from the war-time and post war-time zones.
But unlike Bvuma, Kanengoni effectively employs the metaphor of madness and the symbol of ghosts to express himself. Using the protagonist, Munashe, who abandons his university studies for the higher calling, the writer depicts war as dehumanising and deplorable. In his eyes, war produces victims and “is the greatest scourge of mankind”.
Munashe suffers psychological damage during and after the war. The traumatic experience of the war burdens his psyche as “the walls of (his) mind had already fallen in”.
“Echoing Silences” highlights the profound suffering that guerrillas faced. The sense of hopelessness pervading the novel is explored through Munashe, Sly, Kudzai, Bazooka and the Section Commander, who was once a teacher. Munashe survives the torture, hunger, killings and brutalities, probably because he “had died at Chimanda. What survived through the war was (his) ghost”. Like the others, he is a victim of circumstantial consequences as he finds himself embedded in a labyrinthine snare which he cannot undo.
His only escape becomes hallucination and drugs, which reduce his life to a mere reverie. Throughout the bloody war, “the routine killings, the unabated savagery and the dying”, he had always yearned for an opportunity to tell the Section Commander how “disillusioned he had become . . . ”
Female combatants like Kudzai, as is also evident in Nyamubaya’s “That Special Place”, are at the mercy of the vagaries of war and the sadistic nature of Man. Their desires and dreams are set ablaze as their fellow comrades think in carnal terms; repeatedly raping them until what is left of them are fragmented souls and empty shells.
Hopelessly reduced to a sex machine by the perverts in their midst, Kudzai laments: “Three abortions in one year. My life in the war. What sort of credentials are these? I don’t want to be considered anything. I am nobody. I am nothing . . . I no longer menstruate and I am not pregnant. Menopause at twenty.”
Because of the travesty that has become her life, Kudzai yearns for death, and Munashe — who is in love with her — wilts inside. Sadly, or may be fortunately, she succumbs to the madness of it all.
The first person narrator in “That Special Place” is deflowered by the sadistic Detachment Commander, Nyati, who continues to molest her as she hopes against hope that the war abruptly ends. Bazooka was followed by “phantom witches that possessed his mind”, which culminates in his demise as he vainly attempts to escape from them. His level of disorientation is only equal to Sly’s who thinks he could slip into civilian life easily when he decides that he is “tired of the endless killings . . . tired of everything”, and that he is “not a hero and I don’t want to be one. I am just a poor ordinary person who wants to live”.
This dark side of the war is also depicted in Bvuma’s “Every Stone That Turns”, especially in the poems “Survivors”, “Private Affair” and “Mafaiti — he loved to pluck a plump louse”. Whereas Kanengoni examines the psychological realm, Bvuma uses crude vulgarity and comic rhetoric to lay bare the dehumanising effects of war. Bvuma, like Kanengoni, shows how the families left behind are also victims. Munashe’s family suffers when he brings the ghosts of war to their doorstep, and subsequently dies and Mafaiti “fell somewhere at the front” leaving behind a young family that he so much adored.
In “Private Affair” he explores how moral values are thrown to the wind as defecating is communalised in a way, because it is no longer private.
Like Kanengoni, the poet examines the hardships of war, the hunger and the thirst. Freedom fighters deliriously fight over their urine and engage in combat with phantom soldiers. The level of disorientation during the war deplored by Kanengoni, Bvuma and Nyamubaya reaches a crescendo when the combatants fail to differentiate dreams from reality.
In “Echoing Silences” Munashe moves about in the rain “opening his palms to try to hold the downpour, behaving as if he were insane” and Bvuma’s Mafaiti “loved to pick lice from a comrade’s hair”. These presentations of seemingly trivial actions explore the psychological effects of war at the deeper sense of the bizarre.
Mafaiti cherishes his family and equates his passion for his wife and son to his other passion for plucking lice. The plucking of lice as a pastime also obtains in “Echoing Silences” as Kudzai and her fellow female combatants are seen “washing their clothes and searching for lice in their wild unkempt hair”.
In “Dusk of Dawn” (1995), Freedom Nyamubaya highlights the other side of the guerrilla fighter and the essence of spirituality. The book is a collection of short stories and poems based on the liberation struggle and its aftermaths. Though the defeatist tone pervading the short story “That Special Place” is also prevalent, especially in the poetry section, as reflected in the metaphorical title, the freedom fighter is not portrayed as sadistic, implacable and brutal, but humane and fallible.
In the story, “The works of Mudzepete”, Nyamubaya hoists the reader on a whirlwind voyage of intrigue as she examines the psychological effect of the war on the individual psyche through Temba, who strives to escape from the traumatic nature of battle through a potent illicit brew, mudzepete, which heedlessly intoxicates him to such an extent that he directs the enemy troops to their hiding place, calling out: “Hey! We are here! You are lost! Please come this way!”
In his drunken stupor, he challenges his fellow comrades: “Hey comrades! Don’t be cowards. We are here to fight! Why are you hiding in the bush and every day demand sadza and chicken from the povo when you are such cowards?” Using the first person narrative technique, the writer exposes the other side of deceit as the narrator ambivalently exonerates Temba from blame at the same time slamming him for selling out.
With the Rhodesian soldiers in hot pursuit, the “rogue” fighter miraculously hides under “a long 30-metre drum which had been brought for cleaning.”
The writer adeptly plays on this scene as the freedom fighter is saved by a young woman, who profanes ignorance of his whereabouts insisting that he just passed by.
Nyamubaya writes: “Trembling and urinating deliberately to save the comrade, she pleaded, clapping her hands and then the soldiers went away.” Such is the nature of sacrifice driven on by hope and a unity of purpose as the masses join the struggle on the side of their liberators.
In “The Bangle” as also obtains in “The works of Mudzepete”, Nyamubaya, focuses on the mythical side of the war as Comrade Zuda is given larger than life prowess culminating from the bangle that he always wears on his wrist. As a leader he is flawless and humility is his forte, which makes him a darling to the villagers and his subordinates.
Unlike Nyati in “That Special Place”, Zuda is not driven by sadistic carnal desires to oppress his fellow comrades. He is “quite popular with the men because he never touched or showed an interest in any of the young or old women.” The writer looks at how the belief in the supernatural catapults the fighters to dizzy heights, which leaves even the foe in awe. Traditionally women are believed to redirect even the best of men to mediocrity, thus they are supposed to be absent in men’s camps as they prepare for battle.
Since time immemorial warriors were told to abstain from sexual activities with women just before or during battles, failure to adhere to this regulation was always frowned at as it often led to demise.
It is on this backdrop, therefore, that Zuda is regarded as drawing unusual courage, bravado and excellence from his bangle and his strict principles as pertains to women. He could easily win battles on his own as he is equated to “a section of 15 soldiers.” However, as human as he is, Zuda falls in love with a teacher from a nearby school, which prompts him to promote his second in command to the rank of detachment commander; his own rank, and implore him to move on as he insists on doing it alone “single-handed and for Zimbabwe.”
Though Comrade Zuda’s story may read like an epic plucked from folklore, such fighters who could take on enemy battalions single-handedly because of their unique fighting skills realistically existed in the liberation struggle, and their exploits are the fruits of Independence we enjoy today.