Back to Index
and the Southern African short story
Chirere, Munyori Literary Journal
March / April 2009
We killed Mangy-Dog is
Luis Bernardo Honwana-s only prose book. It is a very small
book of only seven short-short stories. In the bookshops and libraries
one could easily bypass it in search of "bigger" books.
Published first in Portuguese
in 1964 and translated into English for African writers series by
Dorothy Guedes in 1969, this book of "Mozambican stories"
is a pathfinder of sorts in the Southern African short story writing
The uninitiated might
not know that while the novel is prominent in East and West African
writing in non-African languages, the short story is arguably "the
genre of Southern Africa" and Honwana of Mozambique is a trendsetter
in that regard.
Southern African writer who has become prominent today started with
short-stories or has a short story collection somewhere along the
way. Dambudzo Marechera-s House of Hunger, Charles Mungoshi-s
Coming of the Dry Season, Njabulo Ndehbele-s Fools and Other
Stories, Ezekiel Mphahlele-s Corner B, Alan Paton-s
Debbie Go Home and many others are short stories books. Even the
so called novels from Southern African tend to be merely long-short
stories sometimes called novellas. One only has to see the very
thin volumes of 'novels- like Nadine Gordimer-s
July-s People and Laguma-s In The Fog of The Season-s
End. The short-story is "the genre of Southern Africa"
and the reasons for this are yet to be properly established.
Maybe the very
obvious reason is that colonial Southern Africa quickly developed
a vigorous magazine and periodical culture whose limited space tended
to attract the publication of shorter forms like the poem and the
short-story. Both Honwana and Mungoshi-s short-stories first
appeared in magazines in both Rhodesia and Mozambique. It is with
the short story that the Southern African writers tend to cut their
Another suggested reason,
among many, is that the very acute nature of colonialism in Southern
Africa demanded that the writer be subtle and muffled and the best
form to do that in is usually the short-story.
It is no accident therefore
that the short-story of Southern Africa tends to be of a relatively
shorter length when compared to short-stories from other parts of
the world. The author is under some pressure to tell his story in
as short a space as possible. Infact these stories reminds one of
letters. Honwana-s "The hands of the Blacks" is
just about three pages but the burden and depth of that story is
The narrator in this
kind of short story is usually a child. The child grows up alongside
the development of the short story collection. The child in these
short stories is a clever technique to suggest a certain innocence
when, infact, these children lead the reader into very important
It is also not a coincidence
that most short-stories from colonial Southern Africa tend to end
in an inconclusive way. They merely hazard a suggestion or just
wander into a king of poetic haziness. They disappear into the matter
or vegetation like some skilled guerilla fighters. Njabulo Ndebele-s
"The Test" ends with:
He felt, warm, deep inside him . . .
enough, he wished
turn round as many
as possible . . . And as he slid
sleep, he smiled, feeling
This kind of tradition has however stuck forever. Even more contemporary
short-story writers of the region still use it long after "the
The short-story has also become more attractive as it imitates,
only in a technical ways, both the high school composition and the
traditional folk-tale. It has a special attraction for the new writer
but it develops into an addiction. Mungoshi has actually returned
to the short story after his several prize-winning novels. Stanley
Nyamfukudza even wrote two short story books after his more prominent
novel, The Non Believer-s Journey. Even Musaemura Zimunya
who is arguably the most prominent Zimbabwean poet in English has
broken into short story writing. His one and only book of short
stories called Night Shift has actually brought new dimensions to
the Zimbabwean short story. Southern African writers just cannot
let go of the short story!
All the same Honwana
is a pathfinder. His technical and thematic tendencies can be deciphered
in most short stories in the region. Born in Maputo in the early
1940s the only visible tradition in black Portuguese writing was
poetry - because poems tend to escape censorship more easily
- Honwana first trained as a journalist. Being conscious of
both art and politics he got the mentorship of Jose Craveirinha,
the great Mozambican poet and got involved with FRELIMO, for which
he got jailed between 1964 and 67.
Using a style akin to
those of American mid century realist writers like Steinbeck, Caldwell
and Hemmingway, Honwana developed a very sensitive style of short
story writing. He feels deeply into character, the weather, birds
Being a painter
and journalist with close leanings to film, Honwana draws meaningful
and memorable pictures in his stories. His description of a sick
dog has no equal in the region:
Mangy-dog had blue eyes with
no shine in them at all, but
they were enormous and always
filled with tears that trickle
down his muzzle. They frightened me
those eyes, so big, and looking
at me like someone asking for
something without wanting to say it.
That eye for detail and
an in-depth sympathy for animals is also evident in Mungoshi-s
"Shadows on the Wall" when the boy narrator watches
chickens moving in from the rain:
One by one, our chickens began
out of the cold.
something in a cold
voice that asks for
you don-t know how
something more than corn.
In the Southern African
short-story the human victims see their own victimhood in animals.
In Honwana-s "We killed Mangy-Dog" the boy narrator
sympathises with the sickly dog. The dog is an outsider, a thing
of the fringes which rots as it lives. In this community where the
divisions between black and white are synonymous with rich and poor,
the moving- dead dog symbolizes the sickness of society and the
long and painful journey to justice. Followed and described intensely
by the boy-narrator, the dog stands for inherent vulnerability.
By the time the dog gets executed, one feels that the boys have
killed a fellow human being.
The story that "pretends"
to talk about a sickly dog is internally talking about the segregative
nature of Portuguese assimilation and especially how blacks stay
in the fringes:
Mangy-dog must have hoped
different from what
dogs usually had, always
with those blue eyes,
big, like someone asking
without wanting to
say it . . .
The issues of land and
social space are also very central to the Southern African short-story.
Sometimes they are expressed as cause of an overwhelming vulnerability.
In Honwana-s "Nhinguitimo" one Virgula Oito is
deeply connected to his land in the Valley of Goana. The narrator
says Oito would launch into "a description of his maize, his
beans, his groundnuts, his cabbages, his potatoes" and "his
black earth of the valley."
Oito goes on and on until
he learns that the white man wants to acquire his land. He goes
into a frenzy:
"Matchumbutana . . . "
Virgula Oito spoke very slowly, falteringly! "Matchumbutana . . . I
was born on that land . . . My father was also born there . . .
My whole family belongs to Goana . . . All my ancestors are buried
there . . . Maguiguayana, Lodrica (the whiteman) has tractors,
shops, big farms . . . Why does he want our place? Why?"
But, the move to take
over Goana from the natives is put in motion. As portrayed in many
other Southern African short- stories, the native will not do anything,
at least in the interim. Even his colleagues cannot help Oito. Ironically
he attacks his fellow black men and the whole administrative settlement
is thrown into disarray. There is an outburst of emotion with no
seemingly useful and constructive action.
This brings us to the
major criticism levelled against the Southern African short story:
it tends to give in and poeticise around important practical matters.
There are several short
stories in the region which tend to lend credence to the above observation.
In Njabulo Ndebele-s "Fools", a Boer lashes a
native with a sjambok but the native "continued only to look."
Instead this native laughs at the Boer who is lashing him. Instead,
it is the Boer, sjambok in hand, who breaks down and cries and stops
beating the native. And later, the native argues why he had not
ran away or fought back:
I had crushed him (the whiteman) with the sheer force of my presence.
I was there, and would be there to the end of time :
a perpetual symbols of his failure
a world without me.
In Honwana-s "Dino"
a whiteman seduces a man-s daughter right in front of the
father. After the public sexual act, the whiteman gives the father
(Madala) a bottle of wine. After casting "his eyes upon the
anxious faces surrounding him," Madala "swallows"
(the wine) "in one gulp, allowing a good part of it to wet
his beard and run down his neck."
This could be clearly
one of the most pathetic moments in Southern-African Literature
when the whiteman is not content with only driving the black worker
like a horse but also rapes and ravish his daughter.
But if one were to bail
out the Southern-African short-story, one has to make use of its
structure. Being very short in length, this kind of story tends
only to go round an episode and a single character. It cannot suggest
"revolution" in an obvious and progressive way as the
novel would. If anything, this kind of short-story depends on lining
up victims inorder for the reader to see through the victimizer.
In "Dina" the whiteman-s level of inhumanity-ravishing
a girl in front of her father - leaves the reader with a never-ending
revulsion. The stage for revolt is therefore well set.
When one goes through
the seven short stories of Honwana, one senses an effect brought
forward by "piling" and "cumulation". The
Southern African short story, in that regard, makes its point collectively
and not individually. That is achievable because these stories tend
to come in collections.
For instance although
Mungoshi-s Coming of the Dry Season seem light and and readable,
the stories are arranged to "score" a pyramid effect.
The first story is "a boy-s story" but by the
time you reach "The Accident," you realize that you
have a Nationalist book in your hands.
Although Luis Bernardo
Honwana-s name is not frequently referred to, he set into
motion a very rich short story tradition whose variations are discernible
throughout Southern Africa. He brought poetry to prose. He brought
useful simplicity to the written word. Above all, he brought useful
understatement and ambiguity to the local short story. Some of his
characters say simple things which, however, call for reading . . .
reading and re-reading. Here is a parting example:
nothing, mother, but, you know, our son believes that people don-t
mount wild horses, and that they only make use of the hungry, docile
ones. Yet when a horse goes wild it gets shot down, and its all
finished. But tame horses die every day. Every day, d-you
hear? Day after day - as long as they can stand on their feet.
Please credit www.kubatana.net if you make use of material from this website.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License unless stated otherwise.