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Profile: Chenjerai Hove, writer and social critic
Paul Dargano
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
Age: 49
Lives: Norway
Occupation: writer
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, Norway.

‘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 phone call."

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 visit or call 0131 624 5050

Reprinted from The Big Issue in Scotland.

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