UNDER THE EAVES WITH IGOMOMBE
Mario Vargas Llosa, the world-famed Peruvian writer, penned a small, but sweet collection of incisive essays titled “A Writer’s Reality.” My favourite from that collection is “Novels Disguised”. Its appeal lies in my unrealised and unfulfilled interest in reading history at college. After my As, I had hoped to read for a dual honours in history and literature. The history side meant coming under the mentorship of the likes of Dr Chirenje and Dr Beach, both of them late.
But that was not to be as the combination had been scrapped on account of excessive demands on the student. Yet that decision would never change the fact of symbiosis between these two disciplines. To appease this natural, but denied urge, my approach to literature became rooted in history, something — fortunately for me — which certain theories of literature do support and validate. That way I was able to service my dual aspirations, albeit without consequent dual certification.
After my literature studies, I decided to go back to history, with my decision this time buttressed by a growing awareness of the inadequacies of history as taught in schools and colleges. Lately though, I seem to suffer a severe reverse backlash. Increasingly, I realise I badly need my literature to deepen my perspective on history. Today I fully understand why Anthony Chennels, one of my lecturers at college, amphibiously treads between literature and history. And after reading Mario Vargas Llosa’s little essay, I am fully convinced good students of literature have a deep sense of history. And vice versa.
History and literature, writes Llosa, are founded on chronicles whose affinities are often inextricable: “The thin demarcation line that separates one from the other frequently fades away so that both worlds are entwined in a completeness which the more ambiguous it is the more seductive it becomes because the likely and the unlikely in it seem to be part of the same substance.” Llosa posits history against literature, truth against falsehood, reality against fiction, all to realise and admit to this symbiotic entwining. He attempts to explain this phenomenon in a way typical of a master writer. I will attempt a summary.
Human craving for fiction
As human beings, we have not fully imagined our appetite for lies [fiction], that is, realising that our appetite “for escaping objective reality through illusions, [is] so powerful and so deeply rooted in the human spirit that, once the novel could not be used to satisfy it, all other disciplines and genres in which ideas could freely flow would be used as a substitute — history, religion, poetry, science, art, speeches, journalism, and the daily habits of the people.” Which, in fact is why both history and literature are founded on the chronicle, a genre the Freudian Llosa calls “a hermaphrodite genre” which is notorious for “distilling fiction into life.” Llosa’s theory should not be difficult to comprehend let alone believe.
Zimbabwean histories are largely founded on white chronicles, including even when we seek to break free from these chronicles by digging into our past. Through fate of history — that word again — the first excavations were by whites whose findings transfigured into romantic fables we are to this day still fighting to de-stool. Worse when it comes to religion — all of it founded on mythic narratives whose contemporary update takes the bizarre form of catechised wonder miracles by which dull village crooks have now morphed into iconic figures entrusted with the vocation of healing our wounded souls and frustrated hopes for plenty and good life. For endless fees of course, decently called tithes!
Our own home fiction
As for speeches, well, ain’t we fresh from an election season where we all rode chariots of make-belief legends? Bullet trains, spaghetti roads, wheelbarrows of greenbacks, etc, etc. Journalism — oh my word! What a ritualised, fastidious obscenity! While we seductively enjoyed young Chamisa’s fictionalised political offerings in the just-ended harmonised elections, we also grapple with the hard and frightful fact of recent history, namely that our body-politic produced such fiction which more than 2 million of our citizens found plausible enough to be a worthy imbibe, indeed worthy enough for judicious electoral support. I hope this demonstrates how history and fiction are intimate cousins, cousins so too bold to be restrained by the crime of incest, however, punished. In which case the gentle reader releases me to move beyond this rather heavily erudite parenthesis.
A great civilisation that still fell
For more than a century before Peru fell to Spanish conquistadors, a huge, transcendent imperial civilisation — Tahuantinsuyo, better known as the Inca Civilisation — held sway. As a civilisation, the Inca empire was far greater than its cousin, the Aztec. Or any in Europe, least of all that of Spain to which it would later fall so spectacularly. While historians have celebrated many facets of Inca civilisation — it’s awesome power, labyrinthine administrative machinery, its architecture, its water engineering feat characterised by intricate web of irrigation channels — the first ever such in human history — its oral chronicles, etc, etc, it was left to Mario Vargas Llosa to locate its unmatched greatness: “This civilisation,” wrote Llosa, “managed to eradicate hunger in that immense region. It was able to distribute all that was produced in such a way that all its subjects had enough to eat.” Added Llosa, “Only a very small number of empires throughout the whole world have succeeded in achieving this feat.” I don’t know which empire Llosa had in mind when he made this last point. To my mind, not a single polity, least of all an empire, has achieved this feat of eradicating hunger let alone poverty. We can forgive Llosa for this rather reckless sweep. In any case, the achievements of the Incas, an important subject though that is, are not what attracts me to Llosa.
One great question of history
What does a simple yet fundamental question of history which he poses. Why did such a vast, conquering and caring civilisation fall prey to a mere handful of Spanish conquistadors led by Pizarro, numbering less than 200, their black slaves and collaborating Indians apart? In utter amazement, Llosa adds: “When the reinforcements started to arrive, this first wave [of attackers] had already dealt a mortal blow and taken over an empire that had ruled over at least twenty million people. This was not a primitive society made up of barbaric tribes like the ones the Spaniards had found in the Caribbean or in Darien, but a civilisation that had reached a high level of social, military, agricultural, and handicraft development which in many ways Spain itself had not reached.”
The question that haunts
Llosa is not being academic. He poses a question which haunts many students of conquest history, not least those on our African continent. Whether you choose to look at Samory Toure and his Mandinka Empire, the Asantehene and his Ashanti Empire, or, to come home, Lobengula and his Ndebele State, the same question haunts and confounds historical inquiry and analysis. I, too, am alive to it although I have sought to forestall it for now by inquiring into our own claim to a distinct civilisation as Africans living on swarthes of land between the Limpopo and the Zambezi. But I know that once this is done, the same vexation is sure to visit me, visit me with even added vengeance if I succeed in making a case for a distinct civilisation by and for our forebears. Why do distinct and strong civilisations succumb or acquiesce to others that come from afar, even then less elaborate and secure than they are? Surely the first call of any civilisation is building ramparts for its defences, not to mention enhancing its own capacities to conquer and control? And I argue that you don’t even need to be a student of history to be haunted by this question; only a victim of past history and a citizen of a polity that must survive and thrive in this predatory age. And the answer can never come from casting lots; rather it is found in adventitiously and judiciously reading our past, whether as conquerors or as victims of conquests.
Mass deaths we could afford
Llosa’s take is refreshing. Not so much in what it postulates as in how it illustrates its core postulate, which by the way is quite simple if not overworked. First, what he discounts. It was not the superior gun, amazing and even heavenly though its thud and devastation may have been to the befuddled Incas. For starters, they could have simply died a lot more to exhaust the conquistadors’ gunpowder. We saw that at Pupu when Lobengula exhausted the Allan Wilson group’s firepower simply by throwing a mass of brave warriors against it. Arguably, post-1893, the combined Ndebele and Shona wars of resistance almost did the same had it not been for certain tactical miscalculations which prolonged white defences, and enabled fresh reinforcements. Whatever high mortalities superior arms levied against our forebears, still our forebears could afford them while remaining still standing on own free land. In the case of the Incas, slaughter followed conquest; it did not occasion it.
What did was what happened in the Cajamarca Square on the fateful day of November 16, 1532, before the Inca world fell: Pizarro captured Atahualpa, the last Inca Emperor. “At the precise moment the emperor is captured, before the battle begins, his armies give up the fight as if manacled by a magic force. The slaughter is indescribable, but only from one of the two sides. The Spaniards discharged their harquebuses, thrusted their pikes and swords, and charged their horses against a bewildered mass, which, having witnessed the capture of their god and master, seemed unable to defend itself or even to run away. In the space of a few minutes, the army . . . which had dominated all the northern provinces of the empire, disintegrated like ice in warm water.” A grim but remarkably illustrative chronicle.
That day at Cajarmarca Square
Llosa unpacks the essence of Inca vulnerability: “The vertical and totalitarian structure of the Tahuantinsuyo was without doubt more harmful to its survival than all the conquistadores’ firearms and iron weapons. As soon as the Inca, that figure who was the vortex toward which all the wills converged searching for inspiration and vitality, the axis around which the entire society was organised and upon which depended the life and death of every person, from the richest to the poorest, was captured, no one knew how to act. And so they did the only thing they could do with heroism, we must admit, but without breaking the thousand and one taboos and precepts that regulated their existence. They let themselves get killed. And that was the fate of dozens and perhaps hundreds of Indians stultified by the confusion and the loss of leadership they suffered when the Inca emperor, the life force of their universe, was captured right before their eyes. Those Indians who let themselves be knifed or blown up into pieces that sombre afternoon in Cajarmarca Square lacked the ability to make their own decisions either with the sanction of authority or indeed against it and were incapable of taking individual Initiative, of acting with a certain degree of independence according to changing circumstances.
Those one hundred and eighty Spaniards who had placed the Indians in ambush and were now slaughtering them did possess this ability. It was this difference, more than the numerical one or the weapons, that created an immense inequality between those civilisations. The individual had no importance and virtually no existence in the pyramidal and theocratic society whose achievements had always been collective and anonymous — carrying the gigantic stones of the Macchu Picchu citadel or of the Ollantay fortress up the steepest peaks, directing water to all the slopes of the cordillera hills by building terraces that even today enable irrigation to take place in the most desolate places, and making paths to unite regions separated by infernal geographies.” Here is the master craftsman at work with words, all to convey and illustrate nuanced meaning like no other!
What is more about Llosa’s reading is how it can be generalised beyond Peru and South America, to explain the fall of comparable civilisations. Or their antipodes: stateless formations that though falling in the end, resisted more tenaciously than standing empires. One is almost tempted to cite the Ndebele kingdom to illustrate the former, and the loose Shona societies to illustrate the latter. Outside the initial battles near and after Shangaan where Lobengula’s elite brigade first engaged the invaders, and later at Pupu when the fleeing Monarch wiped the Wilson column, the highly centralised and militarised Ndebele State resisted little. Quite the contrary, fiercer, longer and more heroic resistance would come three years later, from about March 1896 when the Monarch had been deposed and possibly dead.
Far from weakening Ndebele resistance, the absence of a central focal point did in fact create conditions for larger, longer and fiercer resistance. Even more remarkably so for the loosely organised Shona societies whose resistance persisted right up to the turn of the 20th Century, if Mapondera is to be read as part of this story of resistance. All of which seem to agree with the Llosa thesis that whilst “beehive” or “anthill” civilisations are capable of fighting against natural elements and defeating them, indeed are quite capable of producing and heaping surpluses, they seem not as well capable of facing the unexpected such as “the absolute novelty presented by the balance of armoured men on horseback who assaulted the Incas with weapons transgressing all the war-and-peace patterns known to them.”
When leaders fall
Alongside Llosa, I push the thesis right to its brink, and in ways to upset those loud Mthwakazi activists. So used to centralised and regimented authority and mores, by origin the Ndebeles were fated to resist en masse, and then again to sue for peace en masse. And by “en masse” I am describing their decision and mode of waging war or waging peace. Rhodes could only have held an “indaba” with a Ndebele society.
No indaba would ever have worked in Mashonaland where power was diffusely organised and held around little, localised chieftaincies like the Chiwashiras, Makonis, the Nyandoros, the Maponderas etc, etc, each of which gave variegated resistances to colonial encroachment. Unlike the Ndebele State, Shona communities gave greater scope and space for particularised human activity and decisions, outside that legislated or controlled by highly organised state power. Arguably and as a result, loss of self-determination both at conquest and at peace would have been more keenly felt in Mashonaland than in Matabeleland where, to use Llosa’s words, “the individual could not morally question the social organism of which he was a part because he only existed as an integral atom of that organism and because for him the dictates of the state could not be separated from morality.” Indeed once Agreement with Rhodes had been struck, the Ndebeles submitted to the new white “inkosi”, even agreeing to bury and salute him at Matopos in 1902.
If historians like Ranger are to be believed, until the late 1930s, Ndebele politics of nationalism expressed themselves as revivalism of Khumalo dynasty than as search for a new, broader Nation which, ironically enough, both Mzilikazi and Lobengula successively died trying to construct and found. Of course those little boys and girls who agitate in the name of Mthwakazi are unaware that far from proffering a novel proposition, their wish to revive the Ndebele kingdom is simply an attempt at romanticising politics of a by-gone era that futilely seek to challenge the linear thrust of historical movement. Need we wonder that the July 30 harmonised elections buried them? Simply, one cannot look up to processes that underpin and legitimise modern bourgeois states to meet, let alone sire feudal aspirations and outcomes. One then turns to Herbert Chitepo’s thesis on “the passing of the tribal man” as a result of higher processes of settler colonial capitalism, to then understand how much later and poignantly on farms, in towns and in cities tribal-free nationalism took seminal forms like transcendent trade unionism for it to have Zimbabwe as the goal of African struggles. All this is a new hermeneutic of history which this column seeks to tease out and broaden, but as a tool with which to tackle contemporary challenges and tendencies.
Fat Boy, Ford and Microsoft
Gentle reader, I am sure you and I believe that history delivers living lessons. We know from history that great civilisations do not necessarily equate to longevity of independent socio-political systems. Civilisations need strong defences, one good lesson we draw from past civilisations: from the Incas, the Egyptians, Sumerians, Mwenemutapas right through to the Ndebele kingdom. Likewise, great powers need great economies, something we learn from the recent history of the Soviet Union. Enduring powers and civilisations do have “Little/Fat Boy”, Ford and Microsoft. Above all, they have a State which is fact, a force and a facilitator, both marshal national energy and to motivate individual initiative. This is where capitalism may have excelled up until now before contrary systems developed the art of hybridisation. It remains to be seen how centralised states with the flexibility of capitalism stand to fare in the future, and how “invisible” states which have shunned overt centralisation of power also stand to fare in the future.
Equipping a Powell
Coming back home, our history teaches the pros and cons of statecraft. We know by force of history the strengths and weaknesses of centralised command and power; we know the strengths and weaknesses of diffuse and de-centred power. From the Mugabe era, we know the strengths and weaknesses of a strong State without a strong economy, the latter boiling down to a strong, indigenous middle class which is loyal to the State. I can relate quite well to ED when he says his ambition is to create millionaires. Millionaires who are not only that by the number of coins, but also that by the amount of commitment to the State. And I mean State which should never be conflated with Government of the day. Equally, when Strive Masiyiwa commits $10m to fighting cholera, I see less the lives he saves and more his availability to his people and to his State. Yes, much more, I see a new page in relations between a sitting Government and the Nation’s entrepreneurial class, however nascent by value or by number.
To my mind, this has been the missing link, one never to be made up for by engaging managers of multinational companies whose owners do have States to be loyal to. I can only encourage ED to do more to engage and support, well above and beyond little politics of small corporations. The ultimate measure is how well ED’s Zimbabwe sires corporates of global stature. The Second Republic needs its Corporate vision like never done before. I doubt that goodwill is all it will take. I suspect that belief is the bit it will need. For goodwill breaks when the road gets bumpy. Belief allows the holder to hold on and tight while the vessel navigates choppy waters. It may not be sufficient to declare the end of politics; it might very well be necessary to divest from the governing bureaucracy the deeply embedded political reflex which has alienated so many national entrepreneurs. Always bearing in mind that with a Mister Ford, it is very easy to equip a General Powell!
Coffers versus stomachs
One detail which Llosa’s little essay gives is the internecine conflict within the ruling class of the Incas. But it is a point which needs to be updated to approximate contemporary political formations. Our simplistic media will think I am referring to intra-Zanu-PF politics. They are right, yet only partially. The often unacknowledged truism of contemporary politics is that stable nations are run by ruling and opposition parties working in concert. Chamisa and his bunch of supporters may be slow learners, but I noticed from the cholera pandemic that he is slowly coming around, loudly preaching the need for a national response.
This is a far cry from his rather bald brag that his Alliance controls taxpayers! Well, the young man needs a bit of schooling beyond principles of statutes. Coffers may be filled from cities and towns, but stomachs do feed from the countryside. That includes stomachs of industries! And as was known from as far back as the days of Napoleon, armies do march on stomachs. Except we did not have to wait for a lean year to deliver the lesson to young Chamisa. Only running tummies and portentous cadavers. If election residues would not unite us, overflowing residue of human waste certainly now does. After all, national leaders rule from whole, never from partitions.
Poor chip off the block
And as death has amply shown, we don’t beat it by pleading with the Pizarros to pay us a visit by way of an invasion. It is in this area where Chamisa has a hard lesson to grasp. It is all too easy to suggest ED is a true chip off the Mugabe block. Politically easy and convenient to say and proclaim so. And then load all ills on this self-defined sense of changeless continuity. Such a narrative provides a scapegoat and excuses the opposition from the discomforts of self-examination. One in which lessons will be unpalatable.
I wonder how Chamisa reacts to a growing proposition that he is proving a very bad and poor chip off the Tsvangirai block. In every sense, whether internal to MDC politics, or more broadly in terms of national politics. I wonder how he reacts to a well-set thesis that the real impediment to national convergence now is himself, Biti, Komichi and those little, young idealistic “revolutionary” scholars who think confrontational politics and obduracy will change the electoral residue.
When every dog must defend its food
Much worse, who, alongside Biti, think there is some Pizarro lurking about, ready to smash a centralised State whose will to resist and resist is long sapped. Which is what explains their belligerence at home and obsequiousness in the presence of foreigners. It is despicable to see the national ego kowtow so irreparably, moreso given our recent history. If it helps there a little anecdote which even Lobengula left our Nation. In one of his encounters with King Lobengula barely months after assuming power on 24th January, 1870, Thomas Baines made a telling diary entry. Told about rumours of growing threats of encroachment from the Portuguese and the Afrikaners on his Kingdom, Lobengula remarked to Baines: if there were intentions to invade his country, “every dog would defend his own food!” Well, that eventually happened, with the tragic result that all the dogs lost their food. But not their puppies which became big, winning dogs letter.
I hate to think we are poor litters of brave dogs that lost their food. Much worse litters who bark at each other when Pizarro is walking into the homestead. It cannot be us. The politics of being askaris of Pizarro must now make way to a new reckoning that great nations are governed by ruling parties and the opposition alike, united around a national interest. Much more than ED, Chamisa and his group need to reinvent themselves so they belong to this Nation which must move on. With them in tow. Ngachirire!