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An overview of post-independence Zimbabwean poetry
Kizito Muchemwa and Musaemura Zimunya, Poetry International Web
October 16, 2008

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An overview 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.

Dambudzo Marechera's 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 significance.

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.

The Liberation-war 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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