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An overview of post-independence Zimbabwean poetry
Muchemwa and Musaemura Zimunya, Poetry International Web
October 16, 2008
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seeks to establish patterns that emerge from a given field. It is
a mapping of the territory where beacons are placed and contours
traced. In the case of Zimbabwean poetry, the stylistic and thematic
features are so varied as to complicate the broader picture that
we want to establish here. In the variety there are connections,
disconnections and reconnections that we want to trace as these
are shaped by historical context. These flow from creative processes
and purposes, thematic clusters, formal and stylistic patterns,
and the poet's relation to literary tradition. These often
cut across the tentative chronological categories that we have tried
to impose here.
poetry, for example, consistently proves the instability of historical
categories. Chirikure Chirikure, Albert Nyathi, Freedom Nyamubaya
and Ignatius Mabasa use a retrospective gaze to construct a modern
poetic idiom. Despite this instability, we want, as a starting point,
to offer a historical background that explains the context and purpose
of writing. This background includes a period that has not yet been
posted in Zimbabwean cultural consciousness, 1970-79; the
decade of promise and hidden skeletons, the decade of ESAP and rising
discontent; and then the post-2000 era. Each decade is crowded with
social, economic and political events that have a bearing on culture.
The decade of the Liberation
war, 1970-79, provides a critical reference point against
which the postcolonial experience is measured in much of Zimbabwe's
poetry, particularly in the work of poets like Musaemura Zimunya,
Chenjerai Hove, Freedom Nyamubaya, Chris Magadza and Chirikure Chirikure.
The memory of war continues to infect post-independence political
discourse and literary creativity. It is also liberating in that
modern post-colonial subjects reject the docility that is demanded
of them by cultures of terror.
The heady 1980s are characterised
by euphoria and the insertion of the amnesic imagination into the
national consciousness. It is the decade of reconciliation, exuberance,
false promises, and the civil war that poets have chosen to ignore.
It is associated with in-flows of international capital and populations
from the continent. It is also a period of extended goodwill in
which the founding president globetrots, receives accolades and
honorary degrees. It is a period of looking back west for a socialist
political movement that had relied so much on the east. It is sadly
the official enactment of ZANU PF culture of political intolerance
and violence that led to the emasculation, containment and ultimately
destruction of ZAPU in the Unity Accord of 1987. It is also a period
that promises vibrant debate and uncompromised and unembedded public
media. The dissenting voice of Dambudzo Marechera assumes a prophetic
The 1990s unmask the
socialist trappings of ZANU PF. The decade is marked by the introduction
of the Structural Adjustment Programme (ESAP) (1991-95), the
drought of 1991-92, the War Veterans Compensation Act (1996-97)
and DRC military adventure. The last two have disastrous effects
on the economy. Its downward spiral gives birth to a vibrant trade-union
movement, civil society, and political opposition movements with
which the ruling party has to contend using the tactics of infiltration,
ruthlessness, disinformation, harassment and decimation.
In order to forestall
articulations of rising discontent and highjack the process of constitutional
reform initiated by the opposition, the government crafts what was
seen as a flawed draft constitution and puts it to a referendum
in 2000. The rejection of the constitution is the beginning of the
electorate regaining power. The millennium is marked by fractures
of the national imaginary despite the shrill sounds of sovereignty.
That which was repressed in the 1980s returns to haunt the nation.
State violence against its citizens has now exceeded geographical
and ethnic frontiers to engulf the whole nation. This violence is
marked by arbitrary arrest, mysterious disappearances and inexplicable
deaths of political dissidents. This is followed by a militarisation
of state apparatus and the brutal violence visited upon the ordinary
citizens during the June re-run of the presidential elections.
While it is tempting
to establish generational dynamics in the growth of Zimbabwean poetry,
it is important to acknowledge the way in which writers continue
to exceed the limits of their times. There are re-connections, reversions
and in some instances a simultaneous occupation of many creative
temporalities. This is particularly demonstrated in the poets of
the 1980s who emerged from the colonial and Second Chimurenga background.
The poetry of Musaemura Zimunya, Dambudzo Marechera, Shimmer Chinodya,
Christopher Magazda, Julius Chingono and Charles Mungoshi continues
to have thematic and stylistic resonance in the 21st century. Marechera,
the wordsmith with an Icarian imagination, despite the deployment
of the parodic imagination in prose fiction, continues to have strong
influence on emerging poets, especially the protest and dub poets.
Some post-1995 poets like Chirikure Chirikure and Ignatius Mabasa
adopt a backward gaze to anchor their creativity in traditional
aesthetics while subjecting this to a revolutionary revaluation.
poets Christopher Magadza, Freedom Nyamubaya and Thomas Bvuma share
a common ideological background. Two of these, Nyamubaya and Bvuma,
focus on the fighter's experience of the war, although the
former transcends this by offering an inclusive nationalist and
transnationalist perspective. All three poets question the direction
the postcolonial state has taken. Magadza, despite the conservatism
of form and diction, uses language of indictment associated with
African oral literature to castigate cultural and political defilement,
and short national memory in his poems ‘Ghosts in the Maize
Fields' and ‘Quiet Diplomacy'. It is not just
bodies that are eliminated and disappear but also the nation's
capacity to remember and mourn those destroyed by a revolution that
has gone wrong. His poems provide a powerful critique of the postcolonial
order using images of cultural and political defilement as he castigates
political hirelings masquerading as ‘war veterans' who,
in a re-working of Chenjerai Hunzvi's malapropism (‘masquandering'
as war-veterans), recklessly squander the dearly bought reputation
of the freedom fighter.
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