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disabling case of writer's block
May 03, 2007
To a man who
has only a hammer, every problem he encounters looks like a nail.
So said the
American psychologist Abraham Maslow -- and, being a writer, I find
myself in a similar position. I happen to have only a pen, and every
problem that crosses my path resembles a story in need of fixing.
Because of this,
I have come to think that the art of story writing has a lot in
common with the art of politics.
A glance at
Zimbabwe tells me that this is a bad story. It needs more than thorough
editing; it needs a complete rewrite. Whether the script can be
fixed depends not just on its main protagonist, Robert Mugabe, but
also on the opposition. Their part is to put new ideas on the table,
to carry the story in another direction.
he is living an epic history, something like War and Peace. Except
that his story is packed with more heroic exploits than Tolstoy,
and can end only with the triumph of his will over history. The
opposition, and many others, thinks it should be shelved under "tragedy".
Mugabe has scripted
himself into a role in which there is no room for fresh thinking.
If a mhondoro spirit (the mythic lion spirits that are the custodians
of the people) were to appear before him with an offer to give the
president anything he desired, but on condition that this wish shall
be given twice to every citizen, it would not be out of character
now for Mugabe to request that one of his eyes be gouged out.
This is a failure
of the imagination. But it also reflects a failure of the opposition
to articulate its vision. Nowhere was this better illustrated than
the week after Morgan Tsvangirai's brutal assault at the hands of
the police. Tsvangirai's wounds were paraded on television stations
worldwide -- the veritable victim.
I am not suggesting
that Tsvangirai should not be in pain, or indeed that he is not
a victim. What I seek to understand is how the people are supposed
to reconcile this sorry spectacle with the inspiration required
of an indomitable and populist leader?
For his part,
Mugabe probably suffers sleepless nights and fierce headaches. But
we have yet to hear about that. In an age in which the art of image-making
is mastered even by teenagers on MySpace, it seems odd that Tsvangirai
has not grasped this.
Or maybe the
problem is deeper than that. Tsvangirai has two audiences, after
all. One is outside Zimbabwe, to whom he must look like a victim.
The other is in Zimbabwe, to whom he must at least try to act the
part of irrepressible opposition leader. He is not sure if he's
a victim or a fighter.
There is no
language to convey an alternative political project. With a trade-union
background, one would have expected Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic
Change to speak a language that inspires the common people. Instead
he has flirted with neo-liberal policies.
do not know whether they are free marketeers or a grass-roots movement.
Lacking the right words to spell this out clearly, Mugabe has been
able to pose as a people's leader, monopolising the idiom of the
left -- with all its leftist language.
This may explain
why Tsvangirai, given a chance to script a new plot for Zimbabwe's
future, is still holding his pen in mid-air. A better story lies
somewhere inside his head, but he does not have the language for
the task. Staring at a blank sheet of paper in front of him, Tsvangirai
must confront the first question of characterisation: Is his protagonist
hero or victim?
is a Zimbabwean writer and winner of the 2004 Caine Prize for African
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