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Honwana and the Southern African short story
Memory 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 traditions.

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.

Nearly every 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 teeth.

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 infinite.

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 issues.

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 . . .
But, strangely enough, he wished
he could turn round as many
times as possible . . . And as he slid
into deep sleep, he smiled, feeling
so much alive.

This kind of tradition has however stuck forever. Even more contemporary short-story writers of the region still use it long after "the guerilla days"

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 and animals.

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
to come out of the cold.
The is something in a cold
chicken-s voice that asks for
something you don-t know how
to give, 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
for something different from what
other dogs usually had, always
looking with those blue eyes,
but so big, like someone asking
for something 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
to have 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:

It-s 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.

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