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Chenjerai Hove, writer and social critic
August 22, 2005
‘I cannot be silent
and not speak my mind when I see humans being treated like animals’
PROFILE: Chenjerai Hove writer and social critic
History: Chenjerai Hove is an award-winning writer, poet and social
critic whose work deals with the injustices of colonial era and present-day
Zimbabwe. Forced to flee his country after intimidation and death threats,
he has lived in exile since 2001. He currently lives and works in Stavanger,
‘We’re much worse off than we were during the colonial period. There’s
not a day goes past without someone being taken away or beaten up by the
youth militia." Chenjerai Hove fled Zimbabwe in 2001, a year before
Robert Mugabe took the reins of power. "They had already put all
the rigging mechanism into place," he says, remembering the presidential
campaign. "I used to write about how the politicians were cheating
and about the whole institution of rigging the elections. It became very
difficult for me, with death threats and being followed and all the surveillance.
My telephone was always being bugged and my children told that I was going
to be killed at any time. Every day there was an anonymous threatening
As a university lecturer and journalist, Hove was an important cog in
the Zimbabwean state machinery. As an internationally acclaimed writer
who won the 1989 NOMA Award for his poetic novel Bones, he became a spokesman
for ordinary Africans. Neither incarnation tallied well in post-independence
Zimbabwe. Hove’s refusal to change tack, to stop asking difficult questions,
marked him out as trouble to the ruling Zanu PF party. "I got a lot
of information from the secret service because there were some guys there
who liked me," he explains. "One of them told me I was going
to be kidnapped and was going to ‘disappear’. I thought he was joking
but that evening I got another anonymous call saying ‘Please leave, please’."
Which he did, immediately. It was the end of a prolonged chapter in Hove’s
life which had seen him offered bribes in return for government favours,
accused of smuggling 23 kilos of marijuana across the border to Botswana,
and watched from outside his house by police on a permanent stakeout.
Leaving his family behind, Hove took the next flight out of Africa, fleeing
to Paris where he stayed for three years. Now an official guest in Stavanger,
Norway, one of 34 designated Cities of Asylum for persecuted writers around
the world, he works without danger, gives talks to schoolchildren and
watches his country from afar. "I just take it as the political aberration
that a dictatorship always creates," he says without bitterness.
"Right now Zimbabwe has around four million people in exile for one
reason or another so I accept it as my fate. I cannot be silent and not
speak my mind when I see human beings being treated like animals."
Mugabe’s land reforms have seen farms repatriated from their white owners
with disastrous effects, sending an economy already blighted by drought
and HIV/Aids into an even sharper nosedive. The indiscriminate bulldozing
of urban slums, meanwhile, which has rendered hundreds of thousands homeless
and affected millions more, continues to provoke alarm, if not action,
from world leaders. "I wrote about the so-called land reform legislation
and was accused by the government media of being a lover of white people,"
says Hove. "The racism card works very well with other African leaders.
Mugabe portrays himself as a champion of the black man. But if you look
at the 2002 presidential elections only about 10 white people were killed.
More than 500 black people were killed. He refers to himself as a destroyer
of the white empire, which is completely false. Most of the human rights
abuses that have been happening since 2002 have been against black people.
The image of him fighting colonialism is totally ridiculous, it’s madness."
Hove, travelling with refugee documents, planned to discuss all this and
more at an Edinburgh University conference recently but was stopped by
officials during a scheduled touchdown in Amsterdam. "It was terrible
because the airline insisted that I didn’t need an additional visa,"
he explains. "I already had a boarding pass to go right through because
I’d done all the check-in procedures before starting the journey in Norway.
When I told the officials to phone ahead to Edinburgh University, they
said it wasn’t their problem, and that they didn’t need to phone. Even
the Norwegian authorities told me that I didn’t need a visa. The apparent
undercurrent seems to be that I might have absconded. I told them there’s
no way I could hide, I’m a well-known writer and I can’t just go into
hiding. It wouldn’t last a week before a journalist picked up an interview
with me. I suspect one of the reasons was also because I’m a Zimbabwean."
Paperwork permitting, Hove will be back in the capital this month to take
part in the Imprisoned Writers series at the Edinburgh International Book
Festival. Having lived and studied in the city in the past, it will be
a homecoming of sorts. "I remember my days in Edinburgh very well
and wrote some of my poems there. When I got the invitation to perform
at the book festival, I saw it as a chance to go back to my old city.
I like the architecture and the museum-like quality. I used to take long
walks every Sunday down Princes Street. It’s a poetic city and I had a
lot of friends who introduced me to Robert Burns. I like him very much
for his freshness of language."
Published last year, Blind Moon follows on from Hove’s previous collection
of poems Rainbows in the Dust. The language in both books is simple, direct,
and challenges the authorities. Communication in Zimbabwe, it seems, is
best avoided, and especially when it deviates from the official government
line. "Even to hold a meeting in someone’s house you need police
permission," says Hove. "They behave as if they are Mugabe’s
personal police force. The Public Order and Security Act makes it illegal
to criticise Mugabe, so how can an opposition party operate?" All
of which, believes Hove, may eventually lead to drastic measures. "A
total blockade would include a lot of suffering for ordinary people but
then we need that sort of medicine for us to recover. The system will
collapse and then we’ll get change."
In terms of the future, Hove knows many things are beyond his control.
While his family wait patiently for him to return, and face harassment
on account of their surname, he still finds the time to laugh, and refuses
to give up on his country. "I hope the dictator doesn’t outlive me.
I hope the dictatorship collapses soon. If it does I would like to go
back and start rebuilding again with my people. The people who are taken
into the youth militia are young. Instead of being taught a skill they’ve
been taught to kill people, to destroy property. They need rehabilitation,
emotional and psychological, and I would like to participate in that process.
We need to fight to normalise our political systems and to relearn what
it means to create a new democracy. I see myself going back to do that
but if that doesn’t happen maybe I’ll have to look for another country.
Or maybe the Norwegians will ask me to stay."
Chenjerai Hove will appear at the Imprisoned Writers event in Peppers
Theatre, Edinburgh, on August 13 at 5.30pm. Entry is free. For more information
or call 0131 624 5050
Reprinted from The Big Issue in Scotland.
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