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is not an option
Still: New Stories from Zimbabwe,Reviewed
by Richard Bartlett
July 22, 2004
Robert Mugabe is doing
his best to silence all voices of dissent in Zimbabwe. His latest assault
on the freedom of speech is the closure of the country’s only independent
daily newspaper, The Daily News. This closure, together
with all the other abuses of human rights and suppression of voices who
do not agree with him, is another sad episode in this country’s recent
history, yet the ultimate futility of these actions is highlighted in
the other ways Zimbabweans find to make their voices heard.
The title of this new anthology of 23 stories from Zimbabwe says it all:
Writing Still. For a country with such an acute record of censorship
and oppression it is surprising, pleasantly so, to see such a collection
of myriad voices placing their lives, and that of their country, so blatantly
under scrutiny, and being given the space to do it.
But this collection is art, not journalism, and it is a contribution by
23 writers, different voices, many of whom are still living in Zimbabwe.
Thus this collection is not one narrative, it is not the story of a country
driven into the ground by one man; it is about the country’s history,
its people, its urban squalor, its class dynamics, its land, and its leader
too, even if he never makes a direct appearance. He doesn’t have to –
that is the nature of art. And that is the strength of this anthology.
There is no way one book can replace the loss of the many voices Mr Mugabe
has attempted to silence, but for a world hungry to see behind the silences
of a dictatorship, to see not so much what is happening, but more why
it is happening, the historical background and the contradictory nature
of misguided revolution, and how it is happening in everyday life, then
this book takes us there.
The stories are arranged alphabetically, by author, so the journey one
embarks on when picking
up this book is not
linear, it allows no preconceptions of journey through Rhodesia to Zimbabwe
via revolution. Instead it is 23 snippets of life, beginning, and infused
with, the ordinariness, the mundanity of life that was made possible only
because the revolution over the racist Rhodesian state was victorious.
Yet it is also the quotidian condensed such that the absurdities of life
pour out of the pages.
The collection begins with ‘Universal Remedy’, which tells of two women,
one rich and one poor, one urban and one rural, one black and one white,
who come to share a life, and a vegetable garden. The collection ends,
coincidentally with a similar situation: white Zimbabwean finding common
ground with black as they adjust to the absurdities of life in Mr Mugabe’s
Zimbabwe, finding ways of resisting and speaking out. But where it begins
with a white departure, the collection ends with a white arrival, with
an affirmation of shared experience, shared idiosyncracies and shared
Between the departure and the arrival there are many others. The airport
arrivals hall where a passionate kiss is the medium for diamond smuggling
from the Congo, the husband who arrives home and has to grapple with the
trauma of revealing his affair because of fear of HIV/Aids, the forgotten
father whose arrival leads to a daughter’s departure, and the big black
car which carries the grim reaper in the garb of a president who comes
for a sick girl.
One story which deals with the excesses of the Zimbabwean state is Charles
Mungoshi’s ‘The Sins of the Fathers’. The scene is a funeral for the victims
of a road accident, two girls and their maternal grandfather. The tension
is between the father of the two girls and his father, a former minister
of state security. The son has disgraced his father by marrying into another
ethnic group. The father has used his power to wreak revenge. Now a family
mourns its multiple losses, and its inability to confront its country’s
The collection brings together so many different ‘I’s which treat us to
a experience of a country which is not just misery and deprivation. Yes
these are omnipresent, but so are survival, resistance, comedy and even
‘Seventh Street Alchemy’ tells of a prostitute who has slipped through
the cracks of bureaucracy and now needs to get a birth certificate so
her daughter can get a passport. But she can only do this if she can provide
her parents’ birth certificates. She has an opportunity to break out of
this Catch 22, but only when she breaks the law and they realise they
can’t charge her because she doesn’t officially exist.
One of the more disturbing stories, especially with the benefit of hindsight
is ‘That Special Place’ by Freedom Nyamubaya. It tells of a young woman
who leaves her final year of high school to cross the border of Rhodesia
into Mozambique to join the liberation struggle. She is not welcomed as
she expected; her education, especially in a woman, makes her a threat
to the camp commander, which means in the process of becoming a guerrilla
she also becomes a victim of torture. That special place is not one of
pride but of escape.
This story is disturbing because it sheds light, intimate light, on how
the revolution was hijacked, how personal desires and aspirations were
allowed to turn revolution into little more than a changing of the guard,
how small minds destroyed grand ideas.
At a different level the same idea, or revolution made little more than
excuse, is given voice in ‘Maria’s Interview’ by Julius Chingono. Maria
has just been made redundant from her position as a domestic worker and
with reference letter clutched in hand she goes for an interview at one
of those large houses hidden behind fences and large garden’s of Harare’s
northern suburbs. Her new prospective employer, Mrs Gahadzikwa, forces
her to unpack her entire life on the lounge floor. The colour bar has
gone, but the roles of maid and madam remain unchanged.
There are two issues which it would be improper to ignore when it comes
to discussing Zimbabwe: gay rights and land. Both are dealt with in a
number of the stories. ‘The Ugly Reflection in the Mirror’, by Alexander
Kanengoni and first published in The Daily News, pits white landowner
against one of the newly landed ‘war veterans’. It is a meeting of equals,
but the price is high.
Two stories dealing with gay rights tell of love lost, or never grasped.
‘When Samora Died’, by Annie Holmes, is more than a mere ‘gay rights’
story though. It is about the entrenched prejudices of white Zimbabweans,
not just against blacks and communists, but ‘homos’ too. ‘Mea Culpa’ by
Rory Kilalea, tells of a gay university student beginning to understand,
and deny, his sexuality in a world of racism. He finds a voice to fight
the racism and in doing so has to deal with the so many other remnants
hiding in his closet.
This collection can be read for all the right reasons: to understand Zimbabwe,
to hear what its people are saying, to see behind the barriers that Mr
Mugabe has created, and those he has failed to dismantle, and because
these Zimbabweans are Writing Still. But it should be read also because
they are able to write with beauty, with style that transcends ordinariness,
because they weave hope and threads of brilliance and despair and survival
into a multitude of narratives that turn Zimbabwe into more, much more,
than one man’s realm.
is the co-editor of the African Review of Books
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