In the early euphoric years of independence, more poetry was published in Zimbabwe than it is today. Now, though Zimbabwe, is a nation where many people both write and perform their poetry, very little is published because so few books are bought that publishers cannot afford to produce it. Kristina Rungano’s first, and as far as we know, only book of poetry – A Storm is Brewing – was published in 1984 by Zimbabwe Publishing House, shortly before she left the country in the mid-1980’s. However, the promise and potential of her writing is evident.
I have always loved Rungano’s work and have selected ten of my favourite poems which I consider to the best in this excellent collection. The poems illustrate her early life’s journey and growth both as a writer and as a person.
As a drama teacher and voice coach, I have found her poems splendid tools for teaching how to vocalise images, emotions and thoughts effectively. I can do no better than to quote from Professor Lewis Nkosi’s excellent introduction to A Storm is Brewing which he wrote while lecturing at the University of Zambia. Nkosi writes about Rungano being but eighteen years old when she wrote most of the poems in her book, the work reflecting a strange mixture of “gritty intelligence” and fragile vulnerability. He writes of “the uncanny power of her observation” and continues “A poem such as ‘Vocation’ is not only startling in the simplicity of its observations . . . it also represents a perfectly controlled modulation and refinement of feelings which are achingly, almost palpably felt the reader.”
Apart from acute observation, Rungano shows an astonishingly imaginative empathy for feelings stirred by events. In the poem ‘We Part . . .’ she writes of the terrible diminishment of self one feels at the death of a loved one. “ – Munya lies still/ a smile lingers on his face hardly formed/ I remember how His lips once whispered to mine/ when we languished in love’s esteem . . .” She illustrates this by referring to the bereaved with a lower case ‘I’ and suggests how important Munya was to her by capitalising the pronouns, “You, Yours, His”. It is an evocation of loss so sharp that we share the anguish in the final lines: “go home Munyaradzi/ the children call./ go home/ the coach waits/ they think they cover shame/ go home/ I follow close behind.”
Rungano spent a year in England studying computer science, returning to Zimbabwe in 1982. The homesickness behind that first visit is clearly portrayed and mirrors what many in today’s diaspora must feel in ‘The Strange Familiar Sight 11’: “She is far from the sunny streets of home/ Where one must jump out of bed before dawn/ Commanded by the warmth of Africa.” How accurate are her lines from ‘Londoners’ in imaging student life: “Someone belched/ And released a load of last night’s merriment/ Last evening we had known the bliss of pubs/ And in the morning light;/ Souls loitering in weary bodies/ We held each other close”.
Although Rungano denied she was a feminist, Professor Nkosi, draws our attention to the sense of anguish and frustrated rage behind the two poems, ‘The Woman’ and ‘African Woman’. In the first, she describes a woman coming from the well, bearing “the great big mud container on my head/ Like a great big painful umbrella”, of wanting to stay and enjoy the smell of flowers and grass. But duty calls with all its attendant oppressions: “Then I got home and cooked your meal/ For you had been out drinking the pleasures of the flesh.”
She continues: “Then you came in/ In your drunken lust/ and you made your demands/ When I explained how I was tired/ And how I feared for the child – yours; I carried/ You beat me and had your way . . .” The final line of this poem reaching into hopelessness. In the second poem, one can feel Rungano’s searing empathy exploring the human condition from the inside: “Young damsel weeps/ Pleads sadly for understanding/ But there is no place in our culture for love/ She is beaten by men/ Pass’d from hand to hand for a price . . .” Has anything changed since she wrote those lines? Has the abuse of women become worse – or does it only appear so because we can talk about it more openly?
Much of Rungano’s poetry employs a ‘persona’ not necessarily her own. She demonstrates a willingness to become other, to live another’s life through her imagination rather than her comparatively limited experience in terms, at least, of years. This is evident in the poem ‘We Part . . .’ discussed above and ‘Labour’ in which she tells of a birth – “Nine dreary months of waiting for this day” – and its aftermath – “Our very own baby – the very essence of our love/ And tiny hands would cling to my breast in hunger”. In the series of liberation war poems for instance, she experiences life vicariously, and writes, after listening to stories of returning relatives and friends who were involved in the struggle. In the poem, ‘I Pledge Thee Surrender’ she describes the blowing up of a building: “I remember the screams of despair/ How strange they sounded, yet so familiar/ I saw men dashing about,/ Children being shot like dogs”, a poem which exemplifies the horror of war through the ages.
On re-reading Rungano’s poems, I am constantly struck by the timeless quality of her work, and can see with hindsight her disillusionment with the newly independent state as exemplified in ‘Statistics’: “And the glittering slide out of big cars./ And take our positions in offices”; or again in ‘City Dweller’: “I’m sick and tired of city life/ The same old smelly buses/ With the same old people going to work”. Her poetry today is as as relevant now as it was when she was writing twenty years ago.
Susan Hains, a fellow of Trinity College (FTCL) theatre, London, has been involved in the theatre and film for over forty years, working in all aspects of production. Hains runs her own theatre company, the Actors’ Theatre, is the theatre critic for the Standard newspaper, and she is currently teaching part-time in the Theatre Arts Dept. of the University of Zimbabwe. At the Harare International Festival of the Arts (HIFA) 2005, she is planning a recital of Kristina Rungano’s poetry.