Writing back to Empire: Not over until it’s over

Writing back to Empire: Not over until it’s over ARRIVAL OF EMPIRE . . . Members of the Pioneer Column set up a laager on the route to Fort Salisbury in 1890
ARRIVAL OF EMPIRE . . .  Members of the Pioneer Column set up a laager on the route to Fort Salisbury in 1890

ARRIVAL OF EMPIRE . . . Members of the Pioneer Column set up a laager on the route to Fort Salisbury in 1890

Hildegarde The Arena
I COULD not resist the invitation to attend the recently launched Faculty of Arts English Department Writing/Press Club series at my alma mater, the University of Zimbabwe, on September 17. Lovemore Ranga Mataire, in his column on September 28, introduced readers and potential speakers to the

Writing/Press Club.

A number of issues compelled me to attend. As a product of the Faculty of Arts, the English Department included, it was just exciting to go back. Then, there was the topic and the speaker. The topic was, “Is writing back to Empire still a noble project in the post-colonial epoch? How can this dictum be infused in the media?”

This is the very stuff that the world of academia relishes on, and also the stuff that thought leaders and the information heartland lives on.

When you have such an electrifying topic, it is evident that the discourse would be a meeting of the minds. And, with Information, Media and Broadcasting Services Ministry Permanent Secretary George Charamba, who is also the Presidential spokesperson as guest speaker, it promised to be what we term in Shona: “Hakuna makuva embwa” or put more lightly, “Hakuna zvinoera”. A loose interpretation would be there are no sacred cows in academic discourse, for the pursuit of knowledge requires broadened thinking.

As if to pre-empt the presentation, and Mr Charamba’s lamentation of “Oh ye men and women of little history”, I actually got lost, not in the university grounds, but the Faculty of Arts building.

Going up and down the stairs, I wondered that if I could not get my bearings right not so many years after leaving the institution, what more of what I had gained from it in the four years I was there, considering that the Empire really wrote to us.

And, Mr Charamba echoed the feelings of a lost former student when he said during the presentation, “. . . It is an illusion to imagine that a mere 35 years after Independence, we can afford to talk about the post-colonial era. Maybe we would be trying to please each other.”

Still searching for the venue, I also wondered how this Writing/Press Club would be different from the one we had during our time, not in the Faculty of Arts, but as a university-wide initiative, which allowed freedom fighters-cum-cabinet ministers to come to speak to students on a wide range of topics.

These included Cdes Solomon Mujuru, Edgar “Twoboy” Tekere, Herbert “Mangurenje” Ushewokunze, Eddison Zvobgo and others. General Mujuru said something so confounding during one of his presentations: “Iwe une PhD yako, asi in ndine yangu yegidi.” (You have your academic PhD, but mine is from the barrel of the gun.)

Still searching, I wondered whether he was practically writing back to Empire.

Mr Charamba tackled the topic from various perspectives as he remarked: “You asked me to talk about writing back to the Empire and whether that is still relevant. In fact, my mind was tickled by two things – writing back to Empire and then of course post-colonial . . . I have always had problems with post-colonial. It’s a very trendy term which we use . . . It gives an illusion of having encompassed and superseded the colonial epoch. I have a serious problem with that kind of thinking because I look around and I see very powerful symbols of long colonialism . . . colonialism which endures long after its common structures have been dismantled.”

He gave several examples and I will add my voice to an issue that I believe is so pertinent to defining who we are. “Is writing back to Empire still a noble project in the post-colonial epoch?”

Why should we question the nobility of writing back to Empire, when in actual fact Empire has never stopped writing us? Why can’t we interrogate why Empire continues to write us, before we make decisions on whether we should or should not continue to write back?

If we cannot respond to what Empire says, who will do that on our behalf? Considering the long history of colonialism, minus slavery, how much do we really have to show that we have reached the zenith and exhausted all issues? Maybe I am not that widely read to realise that writing back is now a closed matter.

The paradox is that we still acknowledge that Empire exists, which means that there should be some interaction. To let them write us without response would give them the upper hand again.

Let’s assume for a moment that they have stopped writing us, what then do we do with the relics of colonialism that are everywhere? Are they supposed to be ignored and curated as elements of history?

Mr Charamba gave a perfect example that is part of the Faculty of Arts. Why is the Department of English not the Department of Literature in English? Are students in the department studying the English language as French, Portuguese or Mandarin students are doing, or they are studying Literature in English? The same with the Department of African Languages where I was a student for four years!

This colonial relic has remained, but how many African languages are being studied in the department? What was the rationale to call it the Department of African Languages when it is very clear that what was implied was that all Africa’s languages did not really have a name, except to be defined as African languages?

Rectifying this anomaly is not only noble, but it would be indirectly writing back to Empire because you will have taken that bold decision to appropriate your identity.

Zimbabwe at 35 cannot deceive itself that it is no longer relevant to write back to Empire. And, the case analysis given by Mr Charamba on the celebration of Bulawayo’s 120th anniversary was a clear example that it is not over until it is over writing to Empire.

Last year Zimbabwe’s City of Kings celebrated “120 years as a modern city”, and Mr Charamba asked this rhetorical question: “Modern as distinct from what? The rituals of that celebration included speeches, research papers… It also included a train ride from Bulawayo to Figtree. O yea men and women of little history! In 1897, the train hits Bulawayo. What was written in front of that inaugural train? ‘Advance Rhodesia!’

“The ritualised train ride was commemorating Bulawayo as a modern city or it was celebrating colonial technological glory? Do we know the symbols of Rhodesia? It’s Rhodes; it is the train; it is a rectangular house structure as opposed to a rondavel. It is the cultivated garden to suggest unkempt nature has been conquered to create this ordered universe. Thanks to civilisation,” he said.

As he pointed out, what was the implication of this “Advance Rhodesia” ride as people commemorated a city founded by King Lobengula, a real king just like Britain’s Queen Victoria?

But as we continue to critique the notion of writing back to Empire, 35 years into Independence, we hope that we all have not been “turned into cultivated gardens to suggest unkempt nature has been conquered to create this ordered universe”.

When we also continue to clamour that Harare should be restored to its former Sunshine City glory are we aware that the British Empire had a colony on all the continents with different time zones. Thus the Empire at any given time always enjoyed sunshine on all continents. So, what are we writing back to Empire when we say that Harare should be a Sunshine City?

Ideas cannot be evicted, and I congratulate the stakeholders for coming up with something this noble. We could not do it during our time, but they have managed, and so far they have had an impressive array of speakers, speakers who force them to introspect.

It would be ideal if the presentations and discussions can be made available to a wider audience other than the members of the Press Club.

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