An Introduction to Post-Independence Zimbabwean Poetry



Seven poets are considered in this introductory overview to contemporary poetry in Zimbabwe: these are Musaemura Zimunya, Julius Chingono, John Eppel, Dambudzo Marechera, Chenjerai Hove, Chirikure Chirikure and Freedom Nyamubaya. The first four began writing before independence in 1980 while the last three belong to that generation of writers who emerged afterwards. Although reference is made to one pre-independence poet, Charles Mungoshi, and one post-independence poet, Thomas Bvuma, these two poets will not be discussed in detail.

The real poetry
Was carved across centuries
Of chains and whips
It was written in the red streams
Resisting the violence of
'Effective occupation'
It was engraved in killings in Katanga
In the betrayals of Mau-Mau
In countless anti-people coups
Its beat was bones in Bissau
Its metaphors massacres in Mozambique
Its alliteration agony in Angola
Its form and zenith
Fighting in Zimbabwe
The real poetry
Is sweat scouring down
The backed valley of the peasant's back
Down to the starved gorge of his buttocks
Its bubbles and broils
In the blisters of the farm labourer
It glides in the greased hands
Of the factory worker
Not a private paradise
Nor an individual inferno
But the pain and pleasure
Of people in struggle.

(Thomas Bvuma 'The real poetry')

O the light
in the pink of this pictur
is lovely. It half opens
me to the sky. Like silver-striped
leaves my arms follow seasons
never cold enough for a typed
memory of crocuses.
Too hot, this earth, for words to grow
into my bulbs. He focuses
on Sharpeville and Soweto.

(John Eppel 'I and the Black Poet')

The two quotations articulate concerns that are found in Zimbabwean post-independence poetry in terms of both content and style. Thomas Bvuma, largely because of his liberation war background, insists that poetry should be both revolutionary and popular, and his conception of 'the popular' in poetry is not limited to content but can be extended to style. John Eppel, because of his cultural background, indicates the significance of race in southern African literary creativity.
Zimbabwean poetry, both before and after independence, reflects a healthy diversity. Emmanuel Ngara in his Marxist approach to the study of African poetry, Ideology and Form in African Poetry, bemoans the absence of ideological clarity in Zimbabwean poetry. Ironically, however, this absence has liberated it from a stultifying similarity. Although there are significant differences between poets in the style and conception of poetry, there are also interesting areas of convergence that deserve attention.
There are three Zimbabwean poetic traditions: an oral tradition, which is predominantly black, and two literary traditions, one black and one white. These three traditions, and the various ways in which they interface, account for the diversity with which aspects of the Zimbabwean post-colonial condition are reflected. Chirikure, through a formal education, has been exposed to both the literary and oral traditions, and has been able to relate and draw creatively upon them all: his poetry challenges our separatist conceptions of oral and print poetry. Eppel represents a white poetic tradition but placing him in this category makes one feels uncomfortable since most published black poets have also been influenced by Western poetry. Marechera, and less so Zimunya and Hove, products of a university education, are as much influenced by the English poetic canon as Eppel. The differences only lie in their handling of themes. Chingono and Nyamubaya belong to an 'alternative university' and this is revealed in poetry that does not display any influence of a Western literary education in an adverse sense. They are natural poets who are not self-conscious about their writing. The self-reflexivity that is found in the poetry of the university educated poets is absent in their poetry.
The poetry of Charles Mungoshi, Julius Chingono, Freedom Nyamubaya is popular poetry in the simplicity of language, which is not found in either the indigenous or the Western traditions of poetry. It is this simplicity which separates their poetry from that of Hove, Zimunya and Marechera. Eppel's poetry reveals the problems of identity and survival of white traditions in a new political and cultural dispensation. Chirikure's writing reveals the growing importance of performance poetry and gives a fresh meaning to our understanding of popular poetry in the Zimbabwean literary canon.
The post-independence literary scene in Zimbabwe is characterized by continuation, refinement, departures and recovery. Continuation and refinement are found in the exploration of themes and styles by most poets who began writing in the 1970s. These would included the late Marechera, Mungoshi, Hove, Chingono, Eppel and Zimunya. Departure and recovery are associated with the poetry of Nyamubaya and Bvuma.

Musaemura ZimunyaAmong the poets of continuity and refinement, Musaemura Zimunya is the most prolific. The poetry he wrote after 1980 is about the search for cultural sites, and the myths that underpin the lives of people who are either confounded by, or marooned in, Western modernity, or who are contending with the post-colonial condition in Zimbabwe. Zimunya, however, can also be a poet of celebration, when the collective mood is right. He celebrated, for example, the onset of a new era of independence.
In Country Dawns and City Lights (1985) Zimunya demonstrates that he is the poet of cultural migration and the inhabiting of liminal cultural spaces. The first section offers the reader glimpses of life in the country. The initial romanticism that he revealed in his first collections of poetry have disappeared. He re-visits his childhood, without nostalgia and without evasion, as he writes about childbirth, love potions, randy sisters-in-law, mangy dogs, the tribulations of wet seasons, superstition and effects on neighbour relations, avenging spirits, witchcraft and the breaking of taboos, and the first sexual encounters of the young.
The second section opens with the poem 'A Long Journey' with travel as the controlling metaphor. The journey through time and space points at climactic moments in the experience of Zimbabwean blacks. 'Pick and shovel sjambok and jail' mark the beginning of imperialism. This is the era of forced labour, violent economic exploitation and suppression. The technology of the motorcar and the bicycle speeded travel from the bush to the city:

We have fled from the witches and wizards
On a long long road to the city
But behind the halo of tower lights
I hear the cry from human blood
And wicked bones rattling around me

We moved into the lights
But from the dark periphery behind
An almighty hand reaches for our shirts.

The city is then a border zone where travellers from the bush who are sojourning there find themselves controlled by two opposed forces. Zimunya's depiction of the city is dominated by images of consumerism and sex. The gustatory imagery used in poems like 'The City's Beauty' shows that the city's sustaining power is transience. In Kingfisher, Jikinya and Other Poems Zimunya develops the myth of Jikinya to write about womanhood in a traditional setting that inspires artists and communities. The antithesis of this mythic figure is Loveness who represents modern women. Loveness, like Jikinya, has the gift of dancing and an alluring voice. She is transformed into the femme fatale of the proletariat of Harare who uses her predatory sexuality to exploit men:

Of course, you have not met her,
Loveness, the sunshine of the city,
Once the honey-pie of the ghetto,
The sugar-loaf of the township
Now the ice-cream cone itself.

Although Zimunya tries to provide a balanced portrayal of women in 'Be Warned', the poem reads more like a belated, and strategic, apology than a genuine expression of admiration for women who resist men who treat them as sex objects. From a patriarchal perspective, women - embodied in the city's pick-up girls who haunt night-time Harare - are seen as the purveyors of evil in the post-colonial African city. The revulsion that follows sobriety after a long night of revelling is conveyed in the description of a vision of a woman with a 'goitre, spilling worms' in the poem 'Illusion'. There are other problems of the city - robbery, baby dumping, alcoholism, and sugar daddies - that are exposed by the moral conscience of the poet. Zimunya sees the city as place for the distortion and destruction of psyches. He is pessimistic about its capacity to provide sites for the creation of new myths by which people may live. There is no solace for a troubled country spirit confronted by the excesses of capitalism. Zimunya shares this dualistic vision with Charles Mungoshi and Chenjerai Hove, writers who in their poetry and fiction consciously use the country/town trope to construct the development of independence and post-independence identities. (However, most of Mungoshi's poems in The Milkman doesn't deliver only Milk, were written before 1980, and consequently do not have a significant bearing on the character of post-independence Zimbabwean verse.) It is Hove (whose two collections were published after 1980) who shares a desire with Zimunya to find and place metaphors of an indigenous wholeness exclusively in the country. The city for both poets is invariably the place of the black person's unlikeness, fragmentation and death. They differ in that Hove tries to speak for the marginalized, represented as workers, peasants, blacks and women. The latter, in particular, during the pre-1980 period are depicted as being incapable of speaking for themselves.

Chenjerai HoveIn the politics of speaking for others, Chenjerai Hove shows empathy but he often does not use the voices and the language of the disadvantaged. In Up in Arms (1982) and the Red Hills of Home (1985), he delves back into the past to explore the violence of colonialism and show how this continues to shape post-independence identities. Engelke (1998) draws our attention to the pre-occupation with the liberation war experience prevalent in post-independence literature. He considers this a way of remembering the past and the construction of national memory, and certainly, all the six poets considered here: Chingono, Eppel, Hove, Marechera, Nyamubaya, and Zimunya deal with the war. Each explores ways in which it has affected the construction of private and collective memory, and in each the distinction between private and collective biography is often collapsed. Private memory becomes a metonym of national memory. With Hove, this memory unravels the processes of colonial and post-colonial constructions of national identity. These two processes can be both constructive and destructive. From a nativist perspective colonialism is viewed negatively as a defacement of an indigenous cultural holism. This explains the unrelieved sadness that pervades his poems which mourn the transformation of traditional landscapes through the introduction and practice of colonial capitalism, and lack the humour that often characterizes Zimunya's poems dealing with the same subject.
It does not follow that post-colonial constructions of national identity are not associated with its defacement: most of the poets posit national identity as evolving and existentialist in character. The post 1980 period has shown that threats to autonomy and authenticity do not disappear with the departure of a foreign colonising power. Autonomy and authenticity are about freedom to search for and define sites of individual and collective identity. Hove and other Zimbabwean poets (often erroneously associated with cultural essentialism) see writing as liberating process of enlarging, rather than narrowing, the possibilities of constructing a national identity. They speak out against impediments to this endeavour.
In his two first anthologies Hove makes a revisionist attempt to validate the liberation struggle, an indirect way of celebrating the gains of independence since, by implication, independence has righted the injustices of colonial capitalism. The poet does not examine the contemporary post-colonial Zimbabwean condition. It is this avoidance that makes his poetry in terms of themes and style pre-1980. In, however, his last published anthology, Rainbows in the Dust, Hove assumes the pain, despair and anger that accompany disillusion with a post-independence government which has reneged on its promises and crushed the dreams of its citizens.

Dambudzo MarecheraDambudzo Marechera, much as he is a difficult writer to categorise, has found a niche for himself in Zimbabwean literature as a revolutionary writer, and his status as the poet of rebellion, the articulate spokesperson of artist in the Philistine post-colonial Southern African world cannot be questioned. He is, however, better known as a writer of novellas and short stories than as a poet, and his reputation rests on his award winning The House of Hunger and Black Sunlight. He has become a cult figure among the young where he is considered a radical writer who disrupts and fractures language and literary forms, claims that I do not feel have been fully substantiated.
Despite his reputation as an iconoclast, the influence of Western poetry is felt very strongly in Marechera's poetry. His autobiographical poems are very conventional in their use of allusion, reference, vocabulary, and poetic form, though they often strive to attribute significant meaning to every mundane action and utterance. He also uses conventional poetic diction, and has a particular fondness for abstractions reminiscent of the English romantics. Similarly he enjoyed compound words in the manner of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Thomas Hardy and James Joyce - 'teatowels', 'knucklebruised whisper', 'loveclasp', 'smilesigh', 'thornwine' - although his usage often appears more gratuitous than inevitable. Indeed, the allusions and references which account for the intertextuality of Marechera's poetry constantly remind the reader of his readings of Western classical and European literature.
Marechera's success at what Christo Doherty identifies as mimicry brings out more acutely the problem of voice, and the place his poetry has in Zimbabwean post-colonial literary creativity. His importance does not lie in the revitalising of the poetic idiom but in the consistent manner in which he has foregrounded the role of the artist in society, in his articulate energy, and his outraged social and political consciousness that refused to succumb to cant or yield to the temptations the new post-colonial order. He rages both against the horrors of colonialism and post-colonialism in a country that had alienated him after his return from exile.

Write the poem not from classroom lectures
But from the barricade's shrieking defiance
From the mortuary's brightly frozen monocle
From day's gunburst to night's screaming human torch
From bleeding teeth that informed to underground
Perception of black fire

Write the poem not from the rhyme & reason of England
Nor the Israeli chant that stutters bullets against Palestinians
Nor (for fuck's sake) from the negritude that negroed us
Write the poem, the song, the anthem, from what within

Do not scream quietly
We want to hear, to know
And forge the breastplate a poet needs against THEM!

This poetic manifesto that comes towards the end of Marechera's short life reveals a poet committed to the cause of the suffering common people, a poetry of rebellion against all forms of life that diminish humanity. Poetry is not an academic exercise conducted by the poet in ivory tower isolation. The existentialist conditions of writing poetry lead Marechera to identify himself with all victims of authority. Poetry is a refusal to acquiesce to the condition of victimhood, and becomes an assertion of autonomy and humanity. The urgency that he conveys here is seemingly not very different from the urgency that is expressed by Bvuma and Nyamubaya in their poetry.
On closer examination, however, the struggle portrayed in Marechera's poetry is not as communally rooted as that found in the poetry of the former two poets, both of whom participated in the liberation war. Much as he might want to identify with the popular cause, Marechera wrote about the common folk from the position of outsider and with an all-pervasive egotism. His idiom and perspective are often alien to the popular imagination, as he can be obscure and his literary allusions can be abstruse and inaccessible. He is immensely popular with the young, not because of the clarity and accessibility of his poetry, but because his life became an instantiation and symbol of rebellion. It represented a refusal to conform to the accepted (politically correct or nationalist) ideologies, a revulsion for simplistic expressions of solidarity with any kind of ethnic or Pan Africanist groupings, and his poetry does not run in nativist or essentialist grooves.

Julius ChingonoJulius Chingono is a poet of great simplicity and humility in his observation of people. He, of all the Zimbabwean poets considered here, is the least corrupted by affectation, intellectual pretension and ideological masquerading. This is why his voice sounds so natural. Chingono, unlike Marechera, the most self- conscious of all Zimbabwean poets, does not strive for special literary effects and his poetry is not an echo of voices from other poetic traditions. There is no attempt to use grand gestures and no effort to impress. Even when the subject matter is tragic, Chingono consistently avoids the use of hyperbole. His collection, Flag of Rags, contains poems published before and after 1980, and shows his concern for the lives of ordinary Zimbabweans, and reflects the anomie and disappointment, of the post-independence era, as illustrated in, 'I will join them', 'When they come back', 'Propaganda' and 'Civil war'.

I will now join them -
those tossed away
like cigarette ash,
those wearing the leaves,
those with no blankets
but the sky and the grass

The persona that Chingono adopts in 'When they come back' and 'Civil war' is the collective voice of the common folk whom politicians, often cynically, choose to call 'povo', suggesting the malleability of the ordinary people, and signifying a new brutal political paternalism. Chingono's voice is one of decency, peace, charity, and the will to survive and construct a sense of community and nation. This is not the voice of pusillanimous acquiescence nor is it the voice that cedes its right to speak for self. The sons who fought in the liberation war are translated into strangers by the traumatic and ambivalent experience of the war:

'These children look strange/In a halo of gunpowder.'

Chingono uses understatement and a matter-of-fact tone to write about the psychological and physical after-effects of war, which have made it difficult for the children of violence to fit into civil society. One can feel the tone of public exasperation with public leaders who continue to advocate 'war' as a means of solving national problems. He questions their motives, which he sees as a desperate, cynical way of furthering personal political ambitions. 'Civil war', for example, is a poem about the futility of the unnecessary 'war', the gukurahundi, that took place in the early eighties in which thousands of people were killed; and the war-weary public which war-weary condemned the fratricide of erstwhile partners (ZANU and ZAPU) in the liberation struggle. The persona that the poet adopts is that of a collective consciousness representing a nation that is wounded and fractured.

We have only started
creeping out of our holes,
enjoying the morning sunlight -
you are at again.
We have only started
laying our women
who have not yet conceived -
yet, you are at it again.

We have only started
to eat on prepared tables,
not peck hurriedly -
but you are at it again.

We have only started
breathing fresh air
free of gunpowder, yet
you are at it again,
shooting, shooting, shooting.

Anger and exasperation are brought out through his use of repetition, a repetition which emphasizes the gratuitous nature of the disruptions and violence of the civil war. This poem points to the institutionalisation of violence in the national psyche. A strange atavism that has seized a country struggling to define itself as a nation. In addition to this there are other vices represented by the imprecise symbol of 'westerlies', harbingers of confusion and insanity that have made the construction of community and nationhood difficult.
Chingono's vision is moral and characterized by a sense of community. He is outraged by the social and economic imbalances in post-colonial Zimbabwe. His poetry is largely about those on the margins of the new political order, neglected old mothers, street kids and slum-dwellers, and he gives voice to these marginalized and disadvantaged groups in society. Lack of human warmth and greed, selfishness and neglect have metaphorically turned the national flag into rags. The poem that gives the collection its title is about this tearing and fragmentation of the nation. Abandoned children, born out of animal desire, root for love in streets. Chingono's vision of urban anomie is similar in many ways to the one that is characteristic of the cityscapes found in the short stories in No More Plastic Balls.

John EppelJohn Eppel is a writer whose sensibility is scarred by the sins of race and history. He offers readers a close-up of white Rhodesian culture of privilege and moral amnesia in the poems that deal with the pre-1980 era. In the post-1980 poems Eppel articulates the problem Southern African whites face in the creation of a new identity that is not in conflict with the majoritarian concerns of post-independence nations. In both prose and poetry, he uses sharply observed images of place and period to satirize Rhodesian culture. There is evidence of relentless lacerating self-mockery as the poet writes about the past that has given him an identity that he urgently needs to discard.

Like shrapnel from an old bomb we scatter
to other lands, delivering reasons.
On our elbows and our knees, a season's
grass-burns. On the backs of our hands, faces,
and necks - the first traces of skin cancer.
Yes, we're Rhodesians. Does it matter?

This extract is from the poem, 'Rhodesian Lullaby', a poem that is a lament for loss and farewell to an old white culture and racial nation identity. War destroys this sense of exclusive nationhood based on race. Spoils of War (1989) and Sonata for Matabeleland (1995) evoke sense of place and period, in which ethnic and national psyches are made, unmade and re-made. This evocation is made possible by the poet's use of images of sight, smell, sound, touch and taste. It is the latter collection that uses images from the flora, fauna and physical environment to portray the experience of living in a specific region of Zimbabwe from the perspective of the insider-outsider.
Eppel has the sharp observation of a naturalist. Not many Zimbabwean poets are able to evoke in a poem the particularity of the physical environment in the way he does. The sights, sounds and smells of the Zimbabwean veldt and suburbia determine the shape, imagery and content of his poems. Dying albizias, the star of bethlehem, jacarandas, blooming jasmine, the belladonna lily, prickly wild cucumber, mimosa, stinkblaar, coral creeper, black jack and many other plants bring out the colours and smells of the veldt and the garden. Quite often an effortless synaesthesia as in 'A Flower Poem, No.2' marks the imagery of the poems. This synaesthesia reveals a deep and lasting familiarity with the land. Landscape is used as a metaphor for the alien and the other, but it is also turned into a metaphor of home, memory and a site for the location of identity. There is a celebration of the sounds of the Zimbabwean veldt: 'frogs bubbling and croaking', 'sopranos launched by Aunty Nola's higher/than hyena halleluias', 'frogs practising scales against the drone/of filter plants were of-keyed by the/massed choir of mosquitoes', 'the cadenza of crickets' ('November' SFM p.14), 'drone of beetles'. These images show Eppel's gift of describing familiar objects in surprising ways. The physical effects of October weather yields witty observations like 'toads like baby buddhas' and 'baobabs shrivel and squat/ like dotage on a chamber pot'. The usual monotony of the savannah weather is made interesting. The heat of October has a desiccating effect on plants and animals and paints a landscape of special aridity. The drought-prone western region of Zimbabwe is characterized by images of dehydrating heat in poems like 'Matabeleland Dry' and 'Winter in Matabeleland, 1987'.
The poems in Spoils of War and Sonata for Matabelelandare largely about the waning of a colonial settler culture. Although they are tinged with some kind of nostalgia, there are no regrets about the end of an era of white privilege. The metaphors deployed by the poet are often brutal in their exposure of the excesses, weaknesses and blindness of a parochial settler culture. The satire used to mock this culture is at times quite savage, especially in poems such as 'The Great North Road', 'Emigrant's Dream', 'The Rhodesian Lullaby', 'Thin White Line', and 'Pretoria Nightscape'. Although he savagely satires colonialism, Eppel also captures the poignant feelings of loss of home and identity felt by those white citizens of post-colonial Southern Africa. In a away he is a poet of white homelessness involved in the scripting of a new identity. In a poem like 'The Midnight Blooming' he writes about the inability of his art to capture the resonance and depth of the new discourse of people's power:

Although the band that played before
had twanged "Amandla" to a drift
of flowers sweetly clenched; and then
"Awethu" wafted thousand perfumes in reply;
although the rain came down in dog-
bites, and the midnight blossoms dripped
a crimson song, my stanzas,
O my stanzas, were as pale
as plastic bucket blue.

This is also reflective of a continuing failure to cross boundaries of culture and race. The space between the poet and the other can neither be narrowed nor obliterated, processes that would lead to empathy and the scripting of a new post-colonial identity for whites. There are now new sites and symbols of identity. He draws our attention to the temptation of seeing one's identity as that of a homeless poet in 'Poinsettias on Africa Day'. Exile and homelessness are not easy options for post- colonial Southern African whites. 'On Browsing Through Some British Poems' expresses the pain of not belonging to either England or Zimbabwe, the poignant in- between identity of the post-colonial Southern African white dominates his poetry. This in-betweenness that makes up the spoils of war. Memory haunts the poet in exile, an exile that is captured in the pain contained in the following lines from the poem 'Retreat' (SoW, pp. 38-39):

My times are, my spaces, are diminished./I am afraid. I have nowhere to go.

If Spoils of War is about the diminution of spaces and possibilities of the expression of identity, Sonata for Matabeleland is about the opening up of new spaces for the creation of new identity. This sense of a new beginning affects is not confined to a single race. The second section appropriately titled 'In the Time of Sweet Becoming' captures the euphoria of Independence. In 'Jasmine' the poet identifies himself with the national anthem of Independence, 'Nkosi sikelel' iAfrika', and its prayer for peace, freedom and human dignity. He teaches this anthem to his children in the new journey of creating a fresh identity from an old one that has been fractured. The poet shows his sympathy for the people who are now suffering the economic marginalization associated with post-independence Zimbabwe in 'Aluta Continua', 'Colonial Legacy', 'The Basket-Sellers of Matopos' and 'Waiting for the Bus'.

Chirikure ChirikureChirikure Chirikure works in a tradition of poetry that is the opposite of that represented by Eppel and Marechera, who were influenced by the English literary canon. His performance poetry combines elements of print and orality. This enables him to tap into the roots of indigenous art forms, in particular poetry which has a vast repertoire of styles and techniques. Performance is the hallmark of this oral poetry. In performance the language of a poem is amplified, intensified and reinforced by paralinguistic features. Pitch, stress, intonation are very important aspects of voicing the poem. Equally important are gesture and other non-linguistic elements associated with the context of performance. Performance poetry is very close to theatre since the audience is affected by the totality of theatrical spectacle. Duncan Brown's study of South African performance poetry challenges the primacy of literary poetic forms over oral ones. His project becomes one of 'recuperating oral forms for literary debate' (Brown 1998:23), a project motivated by an acknowledgement of 'the debt of almost all poetic forms to oral rhythms and vocalizations, and the vital and continuing existence of oral genres worldwide' (p.15). Modern performance poets in Zimbabwe, with special reference to Chirikure, do not seem to be worried about the hierarchies of creative and critical practices, since in their poetry they demonstrate the richness of creative interstices between the literary and oral texts. The two are not mutually exclusive but co-exist and enrich each other. It is this ability to work within and without the modes of print and orality that has made Chirikure's poetry different from traditional oral poetry.
Chirikure poems from his own admission in the introduction to Rukuvhute are first written and then performed. This creative approach takes away the element of improvisation that is associated with classical performance poetry. The power of his poetry lies in his combination of the strengths of both print and oral literature. Print ensures that the poet works hard at his craft and that the effects he wants to achieve through diction, technique and form are not fortuitous. The occasions - public gatherings, meetings, celebrations, nightclub musical sessions - determine the tone and manner of performance and the relationship between performer/poet and audience. Ululation, drums, rattles, marimba and song can be used to accompany the recitation of the poem. An appreciation of Chirikure's poetry would always be partial, an incompleteness that is caused by the deliberate use of both the print and oral modes. There are always two versions of the same poem in Chirikure Chirikure’s creativity: the printed poem and the performed one. The relationship between the two is heavily dependent on the person of the poet-performer. Performance is not simply an enactment and interpretation of the print poem but a poem in its own right.

In classical performance poetry there are some genres that are too fixed to allow individual creativity and originality. The praise poems of kings and clans display the same motifs throughout the ages. Totemic and monarchical celebrations are no longer relevant in addressing modern experiences. This genre is often open to abuse as it can be used for flattery, especially in instances of patronage and expectation of immediate material rewards. Chirikure Chirikure revitalises this genre by avoiding the pitfalls of flattery and by finding new subjects for celebration. Devices that are associated with poems composed using the oral mode are sparingly used. The poems in Rukuvhute are a celebration of the unsung heroes of the liberation struggle, a vigorous shout against the woes of post-colonial Africa, an affirmation of indigenous identity and Pan Africanism, and an expression of joy at the simple pleasures of life. A moral and empathetic social consciousness informs most of the poems leading the poet to express indignation at the prevalence of wars, hunger, disease and the denial of the joys of childhood in a poem like ‘Kunemi vana vemu Afrika’.

The persona that is used in Chirikure Chirikure’s poetry is not the autobiographical and egocentric Romantic ‘I’ that is found in the poetry of Dambudzo Marechera. The voice articulates the communal consciousness of a specific class, nation and culture. This consciousness is all the time challenging the moral and political inertia gripping Africa. It is a hearkening to action. The poet uses apostrophe to create an immediate auditor – African children, the Liberation War dead, Dambudzo Marechera, bread queue jumpers, the poet’s grandmother, a slighted lover, a sister-in-law resisting ancient cultural demands, revellers. In an attempt to avoid the solipsism of the I persona, Chirikure Chirikure uses the dramatic style to establish dialogism in a poem like ‘Tete Ndoenda’(‘Farewell Aunt’).

Chirikure Chirikure addresses Africa’s contemporary problems using poetic devices that reinforce his message and entertain the reader and listener. Syntactic and lexical repetition are used to create rhythm and give a sense of urgency that comes out powerfully during performance. Chirikure Chirikure’s exploits to good effect the sound symbolism in Shona poetry like ideophones and alliteration. He is able to use witty surprises as in ‘Ndichaitsvaka nameso mastvuku’.

In ­Hakurarwi (We Shall Not Sleep) (1998) Chirikure Chirikure has grown in confidence as a poet, a confidence that is demonstrated in subtle modulations of voice and the use of the dramatic style that reveals competing voices engaged in the construction of national identity and consciousness. The title of the collection entails the vigilance and energy that is necessary in safeguarding the survival of a nation. Chiririkure Chirikure’s voice is that of the village that allegorically stands for the nation. In adopting this voice the poet navigates a very difficult and often blurring line between monologic nativism and polyvocal hybridity. The adoption of a village voice assumes that the question of national identity is not problematic. This assumption is made possible by a strong accent on the sense of community that pervades Chirikure Chirikure’s poetry. This sense of community can be described as an acknowledgement of oneness in heterogeneity that is borne out of consensus. Competing voices and perspectives, through consensus, should ideally be woven into a communal identity. The poems that reflect this communal identity are, in addition to ‘Hakurarwi’, ‘Yakarwiwa nesu’ (‘We fought this war’), ‘Mukoko’ (‘The honey thieves’), ‘Dhisikodi’ (‘Discord’) and ‘Marangwanda’ (‘Dry bones’).

The title poem, ‘Hakurarwi’ (‘We shall not sleep’), is constructed on the notion of a traditional family or village court. The collective voice expresses indignation at the actions of an errant member who has a destructive streak. The aspects that are threatened with destruction are associated with cultural essentialism. The utter disrespect of one’s culture is described as an act of sacrilege that poisons the cultural fountains of the nation.

In ‘Yakarwiwa nesu’ (‘We fought this war’), there are competing claims to the ownership of the liberation struggle made by the voices of different groups and classes. The dramatic conflict is left unresolved in the poem. The implied resolution is an acknowledgement of how the different claims cohere. In any case the quest for heroism and recognition in the past is a trivial pursuit that will not provide answers to the urgent questions in post-colonial Zimbabwe. The question that concludes the poet conveys the anger of the poet at delusional people that live in the past while the nation is faced by severe problems. The keys to the national granary in this poem provide a metaphor of plenitude that has been compromised in many spheres of public life in post independence Zimbabwe.

Pre-independence Zimbabwean literature is dominated by the metaphors of drought and waiting. Independence briefly, at least in the poetry, releases metaphors of plenitude and created a sense of fulfilment. Poems in Kadhani and Zimunya’s anthology And Now the Poets Speak are intended to celebrate the coming of independence. A sense of new creative energy is shown in Zimunya’s Kingfisher, Jikinya and other Poems but this does not last for a long time. Disillusionment quickly sets in and national identity and consciousness are threatened from many fronts: corruption in the form of kleptomania, destructive egotism, murderous tyranny and suppression of free speech. Chirikure is able to use very pertinent metaphors that portray a sense of community: the bee-hive with images of sweetness that comes out of co-operation; the choir generating images of harmony and discord; and the village court (‘dare’) that allows discourse to flow freely. In the village context the poet puts cultural characters that speak from the many sites that make up the common identity of blacks in modern Zimbabwe. The symbols of communal unity and identity are drawn from the village experience that has shaped the sensibility of the poet. An attack on these symbols leads to fragmentation and anarchy. By using these symbols Chirikure Chirikure’s vision of national identity must not be confused with rigid and retrogressive nativism. On the creative level, Chirikure Chirikure uses formal and linguistic features that indicate he has freed himself from the debilitating shackles of cultural essentialism. This escape from this form of nativism has enabled the poet to embrace all significant voices that articulate the modern experience of living in post- colonial Zimbabwe: the voice of the village elder and sage who has lost patience with those who play life threatening games, a young man’s mourning of the death of hope in his home country, the paternalistic but ironic voice of a globetrotting leader who makes self-incriminating revelations about himself, the contrapuntal voices in ‘Gwara’ (‘The Way’) that reveal national conflicts and tensions.

Chirikure Chirikure’s poetry develops from the tradition of that great poem of indictment of colonial injustice, Feso, by Solomon Mutswairo. This pre-independence poem has important elements of voice, audience and identity that are found in the poetry of Chirikure Chirikure’s poetry. Poetry in indigenous languages during the colonial era, following the self-censorship and evasions of writers who enjoyed the patronage of the officially sponsored Rhodesia Literature Bureau, focused on totemic celebrations and cultural idylls and catechisms far removed from the burning social and ideological realities of the day. By evading this emasculated literary tradition Chirikure Chirikure has re-activated the springs of vernacular poetry and this has enabled the poet to portray and interpret the contemporary Zimbabwean condition.


If Chirikure Chirikure emerges as the new voice and the new hope of Zimbabwean poetry in terms of technique, style and the use of print and oral modes characterised by an effortless ease in the creation of poetry, Nyamubaya arrives on the literary scene to recuperate the poetic voice for women. Most, if not all, Zimbabwean male poets create images that reinforce the victimhood, depravity and passivity of women. Their sexuality, especially in the poetry of Musaemura Zimunya and Dambudzo Marechera, is an extension of consumer capitalism in which a woman’s body is depicted as an object of gratification. In Dambudzo Marechera’s writing the woman’s body is seen as territory to be violated and dominated. Partly as a reaction to these images of womanhood and partly as a reaction to the patriarchal violence of the war of liberation, Nyamubaya sets out to write poetry as a form of psychic and cultural carthasis for the Zimbabwean woman. In voicing her experience as a fighter during the war of liberation Nyamubaya exorcises the nightmare of the past. She transgresses political taboos by portraying a woman’s experience at the frontline in unflattering terms. The simplicity with which she does that shows the redemptive aspects of writing. Her poetry, like that of Thomas Bvuma, a fellow freedom fighter, is neither cluttered by ambiguity nor hamstrung by structural and verbal irony. The simplicity and confidence are characteristics of fighters who in moments of stress and urgent action cannot operate without these qualities. Lack of these qualities leads one into endless abstractions that incapacitate action.

In On the Road Again Nyamubaya exposes the nightmare of the past from the position of a woman and a fighter. As a fighter she does not feel that she has come to the end of the road:

Struggle is not a destination,
But a river that runs for ever.

The ideological war is broader and includes the fight against neo-colonialist manifestations in post-independence Zimbabwe, tribalism, corruption and phallogocentrism. Images of sexual violation, exploitation and domination in ‘Thinking Narrowly’ reveal the poet’s intense dislike of the continuing forms of oppression in contemporary Zimbabwean society. As a woman Nyamubaya sees the experience of the liberation war as psychically liberating. This has enabled her to re-think a woman’s sexuality and identity in poems like ‘Her Right’, ‘Rest, My Sister’, ‘She Is Relieved She Does Not Regret’ and ‘Osibisa’ in On the Road Again. Nyamubaya’s 1995 anthology Dusk of Dawn examines the oxymoron of independence from the position of one whose patriotism led to so much suffering described in the poems that candidly describe the degradation and sexual humiliation inflicted by compatriots during the war. The mind of the poet who suffered and who continues to suffer is ‘a cold room/That stores the most torturous secrets’. She is a survivor because she has made the wild part of her identity. Private and communal suffering of women does not seem to be commensurate with what independence has brought. It is this sense of disappointment that dominates the anthology. ‘Journey and half’ reveals the horrors of guerrilla camps: the invasive and degrading body searches, torture, and inhuman interrogation. ‘Secrets’ is a letter to a mother who reveals crimes committed by patriarchy during the war. The horrors of the past are part of an evolving woman consciousness in Zimbabwe. War made women lose their innocence by disabusing them of fantasies about the male body, by exorcising the peasant in the Zimbabwean black woman, and by offering new ways of thinking about gender. A new womanhood has been created by war and voices untrammelled by patriarchy will continue to be heard.

Conclusion; Works Cited

Zimbabwean post-independence poetry will continue to elude ideological and stylistic categorisation thereby ensuring a diversity of voices. There are promising indications that creative boundaries will continue to be pushed and collapsed as demonstrated in the Shona poetry of Chirikure Chirikure and the Ndebele poetry of Albert Nyathi. The two poets have found dynamic ways in which the artificially separated print and oral traditions interrelate in ways that perhaps the black and white literary traditions do not. The space between John Eppel’s black and white poets will be narrowed. This narrowing would perhaps be accompanied by the opening up of creative spaces for cultural groups that have been too silent and marginalised for too long. These two poets demonstrate that poetry can be brought to the people.


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© Kizito Z. Muchemwa  

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