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Freedom after expression
Chenjerai Hove
August 13, 2005

Many years ago in my country, Zimbabwe, a writer was arrested for making some drunken remarks about the President.

'Can I have two presidents, please?' the writer had asked. The writer was simply wanting to buy two bananas from a vendor at the market, of course, with a little accompanying humour. But it so happened that the name of our president at that time was Mr Banana, and the ears of those employed to get angry on behalf of the president were within earshot. As the police officer was locking him away in a police cell, the writer asked the officer: 'Excuse me, why are you locking yourself out?'

The officer was stunned and went to report to his boss, who immediately declared the prisoner 'a bit mad' and released him without charge after a few slaps on the face.

'Words cause itches in the private parts of the republic', I once wrote in one of my long poems. After a public reading, a secret service agent came to find out what I might be meaning by that? I professed total ignorance and wondered what he understood by the two lines. He thought they meant 'the private parts of the president.' I argued that it was his own interpretation, not mine.

Writers and prison. A writer's language describes and names visible and invisible prisons. Sometimes those who think they are free, are in the most painful prisons. The idea of a president being locked up in an eternal motorcade for twenty-five years can only remind me of someone who has been in prison for life. Wordsmiths, that is, writers and journalists, are, in oppressive systems, an extremely endangered species. African governments have the illusion that writers and journalists are the government's unpaid public relations officers. And the politicians are not about to give up that illusion. We are supposed to paint the glorious and happily-ever-after banner for our country, never the sad tears and pain our governments sometimes cause us.

All we know and cling to is the knowledge that we are the public relations officers of true human hearts and consciences. As creators, we are not about to give up that principle, that eternal dream. But we know that part of our task is to paint in words the sad tears trickling down our patriotic cheeks, to write and record that we were present when such injustice and violence descended on our village, our land, our street. Politicians are in charge of making laws which put writers in prison. I have always wondered why they fear writers.

'Who elected you to speak on behalf of the public?' I have always been challenged by the politicians in my country. And they add: 'I was elected by a constituency of voters, 40 000 of them. Who elected you?' I always answered: 'My conscience elected me. You are elected for five years, I am elected for life.' Thus the relationship between a writer and a politician is established: a battle for constituencies. The politician dances to the constituency of numbers. He/she wants a full stadium to address. In the process, the politician hopes to capture the hearts and minds of the people. But the writer is not interested in numbers. He/she is of the constituency of mind. When the politician searches for the constituency of mind, he is shocked to discover that the writer/artist has already occupied that space. Hence, the anger begins.

The politician is in control of handcuffs, guns, prisons, the police, the army, parliament, institutions of violence. The writer is only in control of feeble words, words which float in the wind like butterflies, language. Words which can appear to be crushed with the hammer of political oppression, with prison. Unfortunately, words, like the free wind, and the smell of flowers, refuse to die, even after the politician's five-year development plan has run out. Political and artistic language is different. The writer fights to name things freely. The politician seeks to name things for political gain through concealing truths or distorting them.

When once I wrote the draft speech of the Minister of Information for the opening of the Zimbabwe International Book Fair, she was respectful enough not to change a word. Then she phoned me later and asked me to apply for the civil servant job of director of information in her ministry. 'What would I be doing every day?' I wanted to know. 'Your will write my speeches and the speeches of other ministers,' she said.

Imagine, a writer being a speech writer, writing long speeches about the current 'operation demolish poor people's dreams,' 'operation filth and dirt', 'operation follow the leader', 'operation imprisonment,' 'operation eternal life for the leader,' etc. Many senseless 'operations' aimed at destroying language and people. But the hidden purpose was more complex than that: control of my words, my vision, my dreams and aspirations. Politicians are not about to respect the freedom of language, of expression.

The current deputy minister of information in Zimbabwe says he is the 'de facto' editor of the government daily, The Herald. He cannot countenance leaving words in someone else's hands. Literature, art, by nature is subversive, not in the sense of a desire to capture state house, but in the sense of searching for that which is hidden, the echoes of the hidden, human heart and mind. It is in the language of art that identity is discovered. Our identity is the compendium of our sorrows and joys, our smiles and our wounds, the very scars on which our history is recorded. Our historical and geographical beauty and ugliness, our wisdom and its accompanying foolishness. Our conquests and defeats. The way we search for meaning in life, the illusions we cling to, our cruelty, everything. That is what art searches for, because no human being is ever a one-word answer. We are complex, and art celebrates that complexity.

In literature, words are like bullets which shoot the heart and the mind, creating all sorts of images and metaphors which explode the human imagination and the will to live a tense life full of human doubt and joy, human freedom as it flowers amongst the social and political worms that seek to kill it from inside and outside.

As writers, we have the duty to restore the proper names of things in a complex, multifaceted dialogue. Oppressive political systems believe in a social and political monologue. The head of state should not be criticised. He should be allowed to run the country through a political and social monologue until he dies. For the politician, the world is made up of many schools he built, bridges, clinics, stadiums, computers distributed, rallies addressed, years spent in meaningless monologues in state house. No, the writer, the artist, searches for something deeper: the solitude of power, the solitude of huge crowds where everyone is, politically, just 'the masses', 'my voters', 'my constituents.'

The writer searches for the hidden meaning of things, of human experience, of possibilities and choices. As writers, we do not ask for too much: we just demand the right to name the colours of our flowers, the intimate and intricate music of our birds as they sing our sadness and joy, the turbulent and rebellious hearts of our fellows, the funereal voices of social and political oppression, the cries of the lovers in each others' deadly and joyous embraces, the celebrations of the free human soul searching for the gods and the ancestors. The imprisonment of writers is a vain attempt to put ideas in a cage so that the artist can be humiliated in the zoo of ideas without possibilities and choices. Physical imprisonment is supposed to exile us from the public. It is a form of physical and artistic torture. For, we poison the minds of the public, the youths, the women and men reduced to manipulated machines by systems which specialise in torturing ideas and the imagination. 'Your books are beautifully written,' one education officer said to me. 'But we cannot put them in schools. They are too political. If you remove the political bits, we will prescribe them for children in schools,' he said. I cannot imagine an adulterated version of any of my novels. It would be an insult to the imagination and to creativity.

Oppressive political systems thrive on feeding the people on a diet of illusions, of power, freedom, smiles, happiness, wealth to the dispossessed, victory even at the height of oppression. A writer's task is to reject all that, to continue to name things in their proper shapes and sizes, to search for real meaning and complexity of the human condition. Exile, imprisonment, silence, harassment, oppressive laws, the secret service, all those are instruments created by our governments in order to torture human bodies and free ideas.

'You can disappear anytime we want,' is the slogan that I have had to confront for many years, from the men in dark glasses and suits. But even as writers are in prison, they still search, with the intimacy of their souls and the freedom of their words and imagination, for the freedom for words, images. We have, indeed, freedom of expression. But we demand more: freedom after expression. ' In saying ''this is who I am'', in revealing oneself, the writer can help others to become aware of who they are. As a means of revealing collective identity, art should be considered an article of prime necessity, not a luxury,' shouted Uruguayan writer, Eduardo Galeano, while in exile from his cruel, beloved homeland.

*Chenjerai Hove is a leading Zimbabwean author and has several published books and poems including the aclaimed novel BONES. You can write to him

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