Freedom Nyamubaya belongs to an elite group of former guerilla fighters who are also talented poets in their own right, among them being Dukas Chifamba and Carlos Chombo. For these writers, the liberation war was not a bloodthirsty venture but a necessary suffering for the cause of freedom and justice, requiring immense sacrifice on the part of the combatant. In the year 1975, as a teenager fresh from school, Nyamubaya crossed into Mozambique to train as a fighter for freedom in order to join ZANLA forces in the war to liberate Zimbabwe from settler colonialism. Because she left for the war front when the mind and the heart are ready and susceptible to adventure, Nyamubaya’s work is full of vitality.
Over the years, these war poets’ ‘authentic’ depiction of the struggle from the ‘front’ has exercised the minds of scholars, critics and fellow writers when set against the imaginative fictions of civilian authors inspired by the very same war experiences. Experiences at the ‘front’ were many: the reasons for fighting the war, the goals of the liberation struggle, the effects of the war on individuals, the training and the adventures, party ideology, the heroism and the anti-heroism, and of course, the tragedy of it all.
Nyamubaya is unique for being perhaps the only living female ex-combatant gifted with the talent and the discipline to reflect on her good, bad and ugly war experiences through the art of poetry. Her poetry is layered with the many voices of the voiceless comrades, fellow sojourners in the cause of freedom, justice and other values of the struggle.
Nyamubaya’s vision of the struggle is pivoted on her commitment to the noble values and goals that guided it. Her involvement is so passionate that she cannot be an outsider looking in but an active fighter or critic of all the ills of colonialism, neo-colonialism and African patriarchy.
In 1980, Zimbabweans celebrated independence, the end of war and bloodshed, a new era promising a great degree of happiness and restoration of racial dignity. Beneath the euphoria, however, was unease over the unreconciled military wings of the two major liberation movements, remnants of Muzorewa’s Pfumo ReVanhu and relics of disgruntled Rhodesian soldiers.
The publication of On the Road Again ushered in Freedom Nyamubaya as a new literary voice with a poetic story to tell and a message to convey. Perhaps this voice is best characterised in these lines from her poem ‘Tribal War’:
Struggle is not a destination
But a river that runs forever
For Nyamubaya, the aftermath of war was but one big illusion of peace and happiness cloaking a more desperate struggle that was set to continue unabated, “an endless journey”. In this poem, she charts her tribulation from the moment she is born to a life of slavery. The noble goals of the struggle have been undermined by the material greed and the lust to dominate the weak by the political leadership. Thus, the struggle against oppression takes many forms and cuts across many eras, from 1980 to the present crisis of the twenty-first century, the much contested ‘Third Chimurenga’ or ‘The Struggle for Democracy’.
In her parable, ‘The Dog and the Hunter’, Nyamubaya tells the story of political betrayal using the treachery of a master who, after taking a dog on a punishing hunt, only reserves the fleshy catch to himself and leaves the bones for the dog. Soon we see the dog rummaging from one “rubbish pit to another” for survival. The hunter is the political chef who hogs power and riches after independence while the povo must scramble for the crumbs after all their sacrifices for freedom. This parable complements another, ‘Knife and Fork’, in which, in spite of their labours, neither fork nor knife knows the taste of the sumptuous dishes they help into the mouth of the diner: they remain malnourished, for all that.
In another poem entitled ‘Tribal Wars’, the poet describes the folly of Africans who wage vicious war against one another, ostensibly in defence of tribe but funded by foreign forces seeking division for their own profit:
We are a misinformed army
Pointing our guns at ourselves
Without vigilance, Africans risk losing all the gains of the independence struggles and the noble goals of liberation for which so much blood was shed, so many lives were lost.
Our enemy has a new job in Africa
Advising and monitoring power-thirsty monsters
This struggle pits the African against the settler and the imperialist, comrade against comrade, chefs or leaders against the povo or the people, the poor against the rich, the poor against the poor, and so on. The singular unifying strand in all these struggles is the revolutionary conscience or consciousness of the poet, always observing injustice and seeking justice for the sake of the deprived, robbed, betrayed, downtrodden, hungry, etc.
Like all genuinely trained former combatants, Nyamubaya has the forthrightness and courage of one who has been prepared to die for what she believes. Thus she speaks with reassuring fearlessness, proclaiming that through suffering in the extreme she found her freedom; and she will share this freedom with others by expressing it, no matter what the consequences. True freedom knows no fear.
In On the Road Again Nyamubaya’s poetry is stunning, disturbing and unsettling. Yet every so often the effect is ruined by flaws of language – imperfections her publisher was unkind enough to reproduce without any effort to clean up. The result is creative work whose linguistic quality frequently condemns a genuine artist to being unnecessarily patronised. This diverts attention from a very serious artistic mind. Yet perhaps more tolerant readers may detect the scars of a young African mind wounded by colonial education, in which opportunities for development of black artistic talent were very limited.
The poetry under review is steeped in the primary metaphors of war, colonial injustice, liberation and the quest for justice. Briefly, some of the themes and motifs running through the poetry of Nyamubaya include the sacred call for self-sacrifice for the higher goals of freedom; the necessary conscience for freedom and justice; the morality of the struggle (war, warfare, shedding blood, killing); the covenant at the heart of the struggle; the struggle as a journey or odyssey; the reward of triumph and heroism; and, finally, betrayal or disillusionment.
She chastises hypocrites and false leaders, just as she castigates those shameless opportunists who have hijacked the revolution and taken the places of genuine travellers on the metaphoric freedom train, and she bemoans the loss of freedom’s values and decries the sidelining of genuine liberators when rewards are finally handed out.
In her new poems, published here on PIW for the first time, Nyamubaya continues to target the hypocrisy of her erstwhile comrades, freedom fighters now in high office, and of neo-colonialism and political intolerance, all of which lead to black-on-black political violence and the abuse of human rights. In the poem ‘Mysterious Marriage Continued’, she continues to monitor the continuing struggle and the elusive goal of ‘Freedom’ that she began in On the Road Again. Given the periodic murders of the innocents that have dogged post-Independence Zimbabwe, it is not surprising that she takes a satirical view of our erstwhile liberators. She observes the politically motivated atrocities against political rivals and innocent citizens in the Gukurahundi massacres of the 1980s, the post-2008 election brutalities and the recent killings of diamond panners of Marange, ostensibly to stop illegal mining, even as ZANU(PF) politburo and military chefs pick up the loot for their personal profit.
This situation begs many questions: Why encourage someone to vote for a candidate of their choice and then turn around and sever their hands (“short sleeves”) or arms (“long sleeves”) on suspicion of betrayal afterwards? What value does freedom have when someone who has used that freedom to vote is then killed as a result? These rhetorical questions Nyamubaya asks without giving the obvious answers. In Zimbabwe, elections are not about freedom of choice, but about supporting the self-seeking whims of dictatorial leaders. Here, the life of the voter is the least sacred thing.
But among her most recent works, the poem ‘For Suzanne’ is irresistible for its gentle narration of the ordeals of a woman who sacrifices her life to train and carry arms for freedom before suffering humiliation through rape, when her body becomes a
. . . a church
For high-ranking monks to relieve their stress
From hypocrisy and narrow-mindedness.
The high-ranking comrade kills her dignity in an act of sexual savagery akin to the colonial rape of the land. ‘For Suzanna’ is an ode to the woman who must thereafter bear the burden of pregnancy and labour, and deliver
. . . healthy babies
Through caesarian section without anaesthetics
Operating with a sharp, ageless stone.
Her babies received tree bark and leaf comfort . . .
In addition to all this she must slave in the fields “from dusk to dawn” to raise those babies into men who must insult “her kindness / Though mental and physical rape” until, “haunted by images / Of torture and savagery” and the invisible demons “that use her / As a pocket for their debts”, she has a mental breakdown.
This is a poem of a woman from the heart of a woman and for all women. It is a fitting anthem in praise of the enduring strength of women in the most humiliating conditions created by colonialism and African patriarchy. It is also a poem about the irony of defeat in this triumph, of confusion in the certainty of motherhood: is a mother close to God, given all this?
Nyamubaya’s poetry is heavily influenced by orature, replete with such narrative features as proverb, parable, paradox, irony, sarcasm, anecdote and satire. In most poems, the folkloric dialectic of morally opposed ideas symbolising moral conflict is to be observed. People’s good deeds sometimes triumph over evil, and vice versa. As this dialectical conflict rages on, it’s the same with capitalism and socialism, justice and injustice and so on.
Nyamubaya may have been a product of ZANU(PF)’s military and ideological training, but when she puts pen to paper, she is not swayed by loyalty to what has, over the years, grown into a Masonic cabal of tyrants trampling over the dearest wishes of the people underfoot. In writing, she is only proclaiming faith in the values for which the same ZANU(PF) and the people fought, because these values matter more than individuals.
Musaemura B. Zimunya is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe and one of Zimbabwe’s most well-known poets.