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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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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 numbers...how 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.
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.
is a leading Zimbabwean author and has several published books and
poems including the aclaimed novel BONES. You can write to him at:firstname.lastname@example.org
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