Elliot Ziwira At the Bookstore
In the African experience it is rather folly to downplay the role that women have always played in upholding societal values as well as moulding the family unit, which is why the adage that “behind every successful man is a woman” holds water. African Literature, especially in indigenous languages, is inspired by the crucial role that women play in culturally encoded societies. As observed by Furusa, cited in Chiwome and Mguni (2012:40), “(a) search for language should be a search for collective wisdom and sensibility. It should be intended to bend the collective volition into harmony with the demands of social development.” This is especially so because “language embodies and is a vehicle of expressing cultural values,” (Chinweuzu, et al, 1982:7).
Cultural ethos obtaining in African folklore, folk songs, riddles, idioms and proverbs can only be aptly articulated through indigenous languages. Language is a powerful tool in the conveyance of a people’s values in their original form. However, the aesthetics of language alone without an informed viewpoint on contemporary issues obtained in any pertinent society is void, as maintained by Nyagu (1990) cited in Chiwome and Mguni (2012) when he says: “African Literature must communicate. . . Writing that is mere intellectualism is not for a country that is full of social ills and miserable poverty.”
An artiste worth his /her salt should go beyond the celebration of language and capture the paralysis, malaise and stasis that weigh down on individual and societal expectations. He /she should guard against relegating his/her people to the doldrums of socio-economic idiocy by trivialising their suffering through language.
The people’s artiste should write: “about societies drained of their essence, cultures trampled underfoot, institutions undermined, lands confiscated, religions smashed, magnificent creations destroyed, extraordinary possibilities wiped out,” (Cesaire, 1994:21) In colonial Zimbabwe, the government abetted the subjugation and oppression of the ordinary people by creating stereotypes, demeaning their religious bases and mystifying their cultural and political idols, through indigenous languages. The Rhodesia Literature Bureau with its gatekeeping posture, created artistes, who were enemies of their people as creativity was compromised in the wake of the desire to be published and fear of literary obscurity.
Early literature in African languages was meant to alienate the African from his cultural roots, make him tolerate his suffering through the creation of temporary elixirs in the bar and the city woman. The city woman is portrayed as immoral and devious, and the urban man epitomises irresponsible penchants and seemingly enlightened inclinations; yet when things go wrong they rush to their rural abodes to seek solace. The real causes of their suffering, which are colonisation and displacement are not disclosed. Enlightenment is offered through Western education and conversion to Christianity .This is especially so in the works of Patrick Chakaipa, Bernard Chidzero, Ndabaningi Sithole and Emmanuel Ribeiro.
The Generation Two of Zimbabwean writers as categorised by Viet-Wild (1993), who were elevated to international fame courtesy of Western education thrown down their throats, continued to portray the African as an alienated individual who suffers an identity crisis .He remains normless, sceptic and quarantined on an island of acrimonious ignorance, as he struggles to locate himself in the national discourse. This is especially so in Charles Mungoshi’s “Waiting for the Rain” (1975), Stanley Nyamfukudza’s “The Non-Believer’s Journey” (1980) and Dambudzo Marechera’s “House of Hunger” (1978).
The emerging Zimbabwean writers have also somehow forgotten to express themselves in their mother tongues in their pursuit of sponsored themes.
It is against this backdrop that I find Ignatiana Shongedza’s “Kagurukute Ngoma YaMutota” (2007) a worthwhile read. Shongedza is an academic of note, who plies her trade in France at the Universities of Paris 1 Sorbonne and Paris 10 Nanterre. She has written extensively on the emancipation of women in Africa, which has earned her the title Dr.Dr. after acquiring two Doctorate degrees. Notwithstanding the almost three decades she has spent in the Diaspora, the writer remains a true cultural ambassador as her depth of language and thorough understanding of the Shona culture is astoundingly original. She really gets me thinking of Chinua Achebe’s insistence that it is through his Ibo culture that he can fully express himself as an African. The book was also published in French and English. Told in the third person collective voice, the book is a fountain of knowledge to those whose gait is in pursuit of a true African sensibility expressed in the African way. It explores among other thematic concerns, the central role that women play in fostering social cohesion and harmony, death, friendship, humility, religion and marriage.
Although royalty is used as a barometer and focal point as the central characters are drawn from the royal family, the classless nature of the Shona society is given prominence, for it is this that makes it distinct in the face of colonial encroachment.
The pre-colonialism setting used capitalises on symbolic and metaphorical elements devoid of alien influence. It makes the story so authentic that the reader may only remain aghast as he/she is hoist on a whirlwind voyage of suspense and intrigue into the world of yore. The use of both prose and dramatic conventions, as the writer taps into folkloric allusions, makes the story captivatingly realistic and ennobling.
Indeed the African novel has come of age. Through VaMakwiradombo, who is Paramount Chief Nyangu’s senior wife (vaHosi), Shongedza examines the enviable role that women play in the integration of the family. She is the one responsible for the day to day running of the household, choosing women for the chief’s harem of wives, and making sure that all the other women in the palace including the royal sisters, are toed into line. The Chief reminds her, to the benefit of the reader that he is responsible for the running of the state and when it comes to his own household she is in control. Whatever she says goes without question, which makes her respected and revered even more than the Chief himself.
Through inter-marriages women are also responsible for fostering lasting social and political alliances, as Okot p’Bitek in “Artist the Ruler” observes. Princesses, with their debonair, etiquette, deportment and humility, are expected to be exemplary as they are responsible for keeping the royal name in repute. Aunts and grandmothers are also responsible for their nieces’ behaviour-good or wayward.
However, the writer does not cushion royalty from human follies like deceit and lust, as Katoya, who is newly married, and her sister Mwiti; two of the princesses are sweet-talked into sex by the deceitful Mutambatuvisi, who lies to the former that her husband has died. He impregnates both of them and later marries Mwiti to raise his social and political bar as he is also distantly related to VaMakwiradombo. However, to the Shona people there is no such thing as a distant relationship.
Through their aunt VaNdege’s scheming Katoya’s pregnancy is forced on her unsuspecting husband Masango, who surprisingly resurfaces, much to the chagrin of the Chief’s Sahwira and traditional healer, VaMuparadzi, who sees through their folly, and jokingly admonishes it. Social cohesion is however, maintained as both marriages amicably subsists.
This deceit on the part of aunts is not unique, as it is common in African societies, as the need to protect the family name takes precedence over virtue. This rationale also obtains in Charles Mungoshi’s “Walking Still” (1997). Women are expected to remain chaste until they marry at around 20-years, and if they are found to be wanting the aunts shoulder the shame.
The issue of succession in African societies is also debunked, as Chief Nyangu; the father is succeeded by his son Toshefa while he is still living as he feels incapacitated through old age and illness. In a society where one’s wealth is determined by the number of wives and cattle he has, and not mineral wealth, he has many wives befitting his status, so he offers his younger ones for inheritance to his son, instead of holding on to them.
Death is revered in Shona societies, and the dead are respected as they are believed to join the ancestors and look after their families in the spiritual realm. Because of the fear of avenging spirits murder is frowned at. Religious and cultural rites performed after the death of loved ones are testimony to the communion that exists between the living and the dead. The chief’s death and his burial are shrouded in mystery as he is regarded closest to the ancestors and God. The use of the drum in communicating messages of death, war, celebration and exuberance is also explored.
Shongedza, as a custodian of African values lambasts the Eurocentric notion that Africans knew of God for the first time from foreigners through colonisation. Colonisation only brought Christianity and Jesus Christ and not God; the omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent force they had always worshipped through their ancestors. Though she is aware of the moulding potency of culture at the personal, familial, communal and national levels, the writer is conscious of the bane of cultural stasis and paralysis. Like Kwame Nkrumah in his Conciencism philosophy, Shongedza advocates the creation of cultural interfaces for societal regeneration and progress because not all alien cultural norms are destructive and the reverse also stands true.