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A Poetic Mindblast Re-encountered
July 01, 2004
Zimbabwean poet Dambudzo Marechera has often been considered as
un-, or even anti-African by politicians and narrow-minded intellectuals
alike, writes Brian Chikwava in this essay. Yet, "Instead of a grand
public voice articulating an African reality, he chose a private,
often anarchic, voice that magnified his personal experience and
ideas and cast the grand visions of the African experience into
You may not
be way off the mark if you consider Marechera’s poetry a form of
mental banditry: for here is a poet who shook his mind in order
to shake other minds into awareness. In the process he left many
overawed and several shaking their heads in disapproval. Marechera
is, on a sunny afternoon, one of Africa’s first products of the
post-modern condition; but on a damp morning, black Africa’s first
intellectual aberration. Such is the ambivalent effect of his work
on his readers.
One can also
be forgiven for supposing that Marechera lived in an era when large
creatures roamed across Africa’s post-colonial scene who felt compelled
to marshal all African thought into a combat position against the
whole edifice of colonial philosophy. Naturally both aggressive
and guerrilla tactics were used to undermine and infiltrate colonial
institutions of power and authority. A great deal of effort went
into creating a new African reality that would become the benchmark
of the African experience.
have a deliberate campaign to promote Zimbabwean culture: everyone
is talking about it, building it, developing it. When politicians
talk about culture, one had better pack one’s rucksack and run,
because it means the beginning of unofficial censorship," Marechera
is said to have once remarked, feeling the weight of the discourse
around him and the pull it was having over African arts.
fears were not confined to politicians, however, but extended to
all the intellectuals who felt that his work was largely un-African
if not anti-African. It was un-African because it did not fit within
the post-colonial project that everyone was busy constructing. It
was anti-African because its fraught existential nature, and its
reliance on Eurocentric techniques went against the grain of post-colonial
discourse, and the sensibilities that everyone culturally or intellectually
inclined was supposed to pay obeisance. While the baggage of cultural
obligation weighed on the African cultural worker’s spirit, Marechera
skipped on to the scene lightly wearing the cloak of individual
experience, which he can toss over his shoulder like a prince.
Within the context
of the post-colonial African intellect interested only in creating
an African perspective of social and economic realities while simultaneously
de-colonising African minds, Marechera’s life and work infused a
disquiet and discord. This was so because he refused to surrender
the authorship of experience and reality to the ideal of an African
grand narrative. Instead of a grand public voice articulating an
African reality, he chose a private, often anarchic, voice that
magnified his personal experience and ideas and cast the grand visions
of the African experience into the shade.
Against war and those against
War. Against whatever diminishes
Th’ individual’s blind impulse.
Shake the peaches down from
The summer poem, Rake in ripe
Luminosity; dust; taste. Lunchtime
News – pass the Castor Oil, Alice.
Edible Worm’ is a poem that, while defiantly indulging in what one
could call existential hedonism, also demonstrates Marechera’s disdain
for co-option into collective perspectives. Maybe he read a lot
of Groucho Marx, who was once quoted as saying "I don’t want
to belong to any club that will accept me as a member."
Perhaps it is
not surprising that the disdain for individual experience, which
the African post-colonial project has assumed, should naturally
progress into disdain for the individual’s rights. Today the African’s
reality is in the safe ownership of governments, perhaps nowhere
more so than in Marechera’s own home country, Zimbabwe, where the
individual has been squeezed out by an obsession to force the "African
experience" into the liberation movement’s interpretation of
what this should be. What is revealing is that most African states
have also found it necessary to close ranks with the Zimbabwean
government and ignore the brutal experience of the individual at
the hands of the state and ruling party. No doubt this is because
the individual is perhaps the single most alarming and self-sustaining
threat to a liberation project that has metamorphosed into an elite
African club, who have realised that the ‘revolution’, nicely wrapped
in anti-imperialist rhetoric, can earn them the political capital
they need to safeguard their wealth and status.
House Dressing Table
Or perhaps plain Mrs Andy Capp?
I hear their
Gone with the tumult,
All that’s left to resign
Is this whirlwind role
This radioactive image
Of African mutants in transition.
Yes, a radioactive
image and mutating Africans. Of course, the temptation is to fill
in all the gaps created by poetry’s ability to condense, crystallise
and juxtapose an experience or thought, but then meaning can be
argued until the cows come home. What is relatively less volatile
is the underlying tone of a poem, the colour and texture of its
distilled essence. Perhaps I am now too accustomed to the smell
of back-streets, but this poem smells to me like a liberal quantity
of piss being sprinkled on the Lancaster House talks, the negotiations
that gave Zimbabwe its independence. Why was Marechera so cynical?
Perhaps his perceptions had already been coloured by events in other
independent African countries. Nonetheless, the suggestion that
post-colonial African governments might mirror their colonial forbears
made intellectuals brought up on a Pan-Africanist diet uncomfortable.
1980 was not time to sow doubts in the minds of black Africans lest
they slither down the slopes of doubt and reason.
The poems published
here, chosen from Cemetery of Mind, represent Marechera’s
anarchist attitude, his flair for keeping a finger on the pulse
of changing social and economic fortunes in the newly independent
Zimbabwe. Dry cynicism, poetic activism, and a desire to reach out
and communicate were his ways of grappling with personal observation
and experience. What is startling is just how resonant Marechera’s
poetry is within Zimbabwean society today.
Blast the poet
or let him blast your mind!
was born in Victoria Falls in 1972 and grew up in Bulawayo. After
completing school in Zimbabwe he went to university in Bristol,
Great-Britain, where he graduated with a B.Sc (Hon). Apart from
writing, Chikwava is also a blues/Afro-jazz guitarist/singer/songwriter
and a keen follower of the visual arts scene, and has spent a lot
of time collaborating with some of Harare’s upcoming jazz musicians
on experimental shows trying to fuse action painting and live music.
Brian is currently working on short stories and a music album. His
short story, ‘Seventh Street Alchemy’ which appeared in Writing
Still, (Weaver Press, 2003) won
the 2004 Caine Prize.
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