The poetry of Chirikure Chirikure



Chirikure Chirikure blends humour and anger, text and music to achieve a pointed, wicked, risky satire that always finds its mark in contemporary Zimbabwe. In this article, Mickias T. Musiyiwa traces the Shona poet’s development and attributes his unique voice to his use of music and performance, satire and symbolism.

One of Zimbabwe’s most popular poets, Chirikure Chirikure began his literary career in the 1980s, an era when much Shona literature was celebratory, focusing uncritically on the liberation struggle. By contrast, Chirikure’s poetry was – and continues to be – satiric in tone, lampooning the excesses and indulgences of corrupt, irresponsible leaders who stand in the way of national development. In the introduction to his anthology, Rukuvhute, Chirikure declares that the purpose of his poetry is to ‘acknowledge society’s cracks . . . in order to prevent our dream crumbling’. In performance and in print, Chirikure focuses on the worsening plight of the Zimbabwean people.

Born on 17 March 1962 in Gutu, a rural district of Zimbabwe, Chirikure belongs to the third generation of the country’s writers, if we follow Flora Veit-Wild’s classification of Zimbabwean writers into eras. These writers, born after 1960, experienced childhood and adolescence during the politically turbulent decades of the war when race relations were more polarised than ever before. Like others of this generation writing about the post-independent period, Chirikure frequently introduces flashbacks to the liberation war. As he laments the plight of ordinary Zimbabweans and Africans today, these flashbacks remind the audience of the genesis of our post-independence problems. Like Chinua Achebe, he wants to persuade his readers to “look back and see where the rains began to beat us”.

Chirikure’s influences derive first and foremost from traditional Shona music performed in his home village during his childhood. The rhythm of Shona village life is always garnished with song and dance, drum and percussion. However, the poet confesses that the pulpit rhetoric of charismatic African Christian teachers inspired some of the devices he employs in his poetry.

Zimbabwe attained independence from Britain in 1980 and it was in that first decade, when Shona was re-affirmed as a national language, that Chirikure began writing and reciting in public, almost always in Shona. From 1984, as a student of History and Shona at the University of Zimbabwe, Chirikure gained new impetus and technique from urban musicians and theatre clubs. It is this poly-inspirational background that has culminated in Chirikure’s unique and celebrated style of contemporary Shona poetry. He writes poetry in free verse, partly to make it more accessible and partly to follow traditional Shona delivery.

After a postgraduate degree in Religious Studies, Chirikure joined College Press as an editor in 1988 and worked with the publishing house for the next seventeen years. During this time, he published his first two anthologies of poetry, Rukuvhute (The umbilical cord) (1989) and Chamupupuri (The whirlwind) (1994). Here, his main preoccupations are revealed. He considers the country’s cultural and political history in order to explore the source of the national dream, to show why ordinary people voluntarily invested their blood in a war of liberation. Now that the nation is free from bondage, his concern is to find out why the dream has not been realised.

From 1984 to the late 1990s, Chirikure performed with several music and theatre groups. Currently, he performs solo, occasionally without musical backing but usually to the accompaniment of mbira (the thumb piano associated with spirituality and the ancestors). On occasion, he uses poetry as a teaching instrument, for example in HIV/AIDS campaigns. To date, he has produced one album, Napukeni (napkin/nappy), with the support of the musical group, DeteMbira. His first attempt to record musical poetry, the album draws on his published work, just as his performances do.

The poet’s vision of post-independent Zimbabwe is analytical and critical. In all three of anthologies published to date – Rukuvhute (The umbilical cord, 1989), Chamupupuri (The whirlwind, 1994) and Hakurarwi (We shall not sleep, 1998) – he advocates for a genuine recommitment to the goals of the liberation war: patriotism and social reform. Chirikure’s is a dynamic but reflective authorial ideology. He continues to address the failure of the national leadership to transform the country for the benefit of the people who, over almost a century of colonialism, suffered dislocation from their cultural values and ancestral resources, especially land.

Three features distinguish Chirikure’s work from other Shona poetry in particular and Zimbabwean literature in general: his dramatic delivery, use of satire and employment of symbolism to ingenious effect.

Chirikure has worked with a number of musical groups, experimenting with music to provide a background for his poetic recitals. mbira has, however, become his main instrumental device, as well as a source of poetic inspiration. This unique style of performance – the recitation of poetry accompanied by the mbira – is referred to as detembira. Mbira music symbolises the expression of Shona people’s religious beliefs in particular and their cultural life in general, connecting them with their ancestors and God (Mwari) in the metaphysical world. It appears that, through detembira, Chirikure wants his voice to resemble the ancestral voices that carry the wisdom of the departed to their living descendants over centuries.

Combining his poetry with mbira music also has to do with the significant and changing role that the mbira has played in conscientising people about their rights and freedoms since the colonial period. During the Second Chimurenga (Zimbabwe’s armed struggle for independence), mbira music became an effective medium in which to communicate subtle nationalist and anti-colonial sentiments to politicise and mobilise blacks to rise and fight for their nationhood. In post-independence Zimbabwe, Chirikure perpetuates this association by using mbira music to raise the most sensitive issues in today’s society. Thus, mbira music gives Chirikure’s poetry the authority of Shona cultural and political history and tradition.

The aesthetic reasons for Chirikure’s incorporation of music into his poetic repertoire is to make it more appealing to the imagination than poetry that is merely delivered orally. Dramatized poetry has more impact than written poetry, and Chirikure wants the communication of his concerns to be performed so that it is lively and, within a largely oral culture, natural. He explains in the introduction to Rukuvhute that, initially, he had no intention of publishing; he simply wanted something to memorise before he gave a public performance. Written composition and performance complement each other in Chirikure’s poetry. It is the written poem that he oralises, adjusts and synchronises with instrumentation. Consequently, as Emmanuel Chiwome points out, he succeeds in bringing oral and written poetry together, creating a lively but close interaction between artist and audience. Furthermore, Chirikure says that music inspires and stimulates his imagination both to write and to recite poetry.

Satire pervades Chirikure’s poetry. While this device is employed by many post-independence writers in Zimbabwe and throughout Africa to criticise their leaders’ neo-colonial tendencies, in Chirikure’s poetry satirical modes are more pronounced; Chiwome describes Chirikure as one of the most powerful satirists in Zimbabwean literature to date. Satire is Chirikure’s clinical tool to dissect the illusion that was independence, the ephemeral euphoria that transformed into a profound and complex crisis of expectation on the part of the unsuspecting and gullible Zimbabwean people. Deep disillusionment now shatters the dreams of the new nation whose birth was so painful, protracted and bloody.

Chirikure justifies his call for social and moral reform by appealing to Zimbabwean history and cultural values. In his view, the communal spirit that once assured the survival and celebration of Shona life should continue to fuel the nation’s advancement. His recent poems ‘Yakarwiwa nesu’ (We fought this war) and ‘Dongongodza zvako’ (You say it all) satirise the various interest groups (war veterans, nationalist leaders, peasants, war collaborators) whose arguments over who made the most significant contribution to liberating the nation serve only to destroy the spirit of unity that made it possible to fight the war.

Symbolism is another key device in Chirikure’s poetry. The one-word titles of his three anthologies are powerful symbols in themselves, figuratively embodying Zimbabwean history and the African people’s yearning for a better life. The title of the first anthology is Rukuvhute (The umbilical cord); as the foetus is connected to the mother by this cord in the womb, so the African is tied to his or her tangible and intangible cultural heritage. Chirikure’s belief is that, as a nation, Zimbabwe cannot sustain control of its destiny if citizens continue to shun their cultural values in pursuit of western culture, systems of governance and economic programmes. When this anthology was published in 1989, no land reform had taken place and peasants were still toiling in infertile sandy soils in crowded reserves such as those in the poet’s home district of Gutu. Two years later, the government adopted the IMF-funded Economic Structural Adjustment Programme (ESAP), further worsening the socio-economic conditions of the masses. The poem ‘Man’a’ (Foot cracks) is dedicated to the peasantry and depicts their harsh predicament.

The title of the second anthology, Chamupupuri (The whirlwind), signifies the sudden transfiguration of African independence from dream to disillusionment. The symbol plays on the well-known quote from British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s 1960 speech, in which he spoke of the “wind of change” blowing across Africa. He was, of course, referring to the inevitability of change as most African colonies achieved their independence from European powers. While this was a welcome development on a continent that had been subjected to racial segregation and political and economic marginalisation, the hope and independence were unfortunately transient. The wind of change soon built up into a devastating whirlwind. Violent and destructive, the whirlwind represents all the calamities stirred up in the wake of change – the corruption, civil wars, neo-colonialism and coups that reduced the African dream to a mirage.

Chamupupuri was written when the adverse effects of ESAP were beginning to bite deep into the already deteriorating socio-economic life of the Zimbabwean people, both rural and urban. In Hakurarwi (We shall not sleep), the poet’s tone and mood have become increasingly confrontational. The nation is on a precipice, set to plunge into chaos. The problems, which began too soon after independence, have reached their zenith and are beginning to explode. While this dangerous scenario unfolds, many people are pre-occupied with arguments about who contributed most to the struggle for independence. Corruption is endemic, violence takes centre stage, scarcity of food becomes severe, children are starving, and basic commodities are distributed on the basis of nepotism, favouritism and political affiliation. The crisis has accelerated so fast that some cannot understand its nature nor how to confront it. In the poem ‘Munyama’ (Bad luck), Chirikure satirises such confused people for capitulating to fate and superstition, attributing their problems to bad luck and evil spirits. Instead, the poet prescribes mass action as remedy. Hence, the poem ‘Hakurarwi’ (We shall not sleep) symbolises the people’s resolve to remain awake and vigilant and to take matters into their own hands to prevent their nation from descending into further anarchy.

As my brief commentary on each one explains, the ten selected poems illustrate the development of Chirikure’s poetry in dealing with the Zimbabwean and African post-colonial predicament, from the publication of his first book in 1989 to the present.

Rukuvhute (The umbilical cord)
An expression of the poet’s cultural sensibilities, the poem reflects the Shona ontological belief that a person’s life and after-life are inextricably linked to their culture, in both its physical and metaphysical dimensions. This is therefore a critique of western culture and of those Africans who blindly embrace the values of the West, disorienting themselves in the process.

Kunemi vana vemuAfrika (To you, children of Africa)
This poem implores the African people and their leaders to reconsider their misguided actions, so detrimental to peace and development. The first stanza evokes the poet’s nostalgia for a peaceful and abundant pre-colonial Shona society, which he contrasts with colonial and post-colonial Africa: chaotic, oppressive and poverty-stricken. Civil wars lead to homelessness, despair, loss of life, hunger and starvation, simply because certain reckless people are greedy for power and money.

Izororo ramagamba nhai? (Heroes Day holiday)
The poem laments the short memories of those Zimbabweans who choose to ignore their sacred history, the very history that brought national independence. Chirikure lampoons people who choose to luxuriate in beer-drinking, prostitution and braais on Heroes Day, the day set aside to commemorate our fallen heroes whose surviving family members toil on, despite liberation.

Inongova “yes, yes”
Keeping colonial languages as official languages in post-independence Africa has been contentious. Chirikure is concerned that the linguistic dominance of English over indigenous languages in Zimbabwe forms part of the cultural imperialist onslaught that began with European colonialism and that continues to suppress indigenous cultures in contemporary times. He satirises the tendencies of people who prefer to speak in English rather than their mother tongue in everyday conversation, labelling them couriferistic. (The word is is derived from ‘couriferist’, meaning an African who uncritically imitates Western culture, from Emmanuel Obiechina’s Culture, Tradition and Society in the West African Novel.) The poem shows how deeply mentally colonised most Africans have become.

Chamupupuri (The whirlwind)
While independence was indeed a euphoric and celebratory experience, newly independent nations have rapidly deteriorated into deplorable chaos. Leaders and people alike are plunged into ideological confusion, while greed for power and money leads to corruption and civil strife, severing new nations from their history and culture and from the values that inspired their liberation struggle.

Tiri pano (paPorta Farm) (We Are Here [at Porta Farm])
Partly due to ESAP and increased rural-urban migration, squatter camps began to mushroom in most urban centres. Harare is no exception. Porta Farm, just outside the city, has been a settlement of hundreds, sometimes thousands of people for around fifteen years. The poem’s persona illustrates how post-colonial challenges have further impoverished the masses and plunged them into despair. The most basic greetings are abandoned. Even before the Creator, these ‘squatters’ are rejected!

Kunge Isaka naAbrama (Pakuuya kweESAP) (Isaac and Abraham)
In this poem ‘On the advent of ESAP’, Chirikure’s biblical references satirise the adoption of the IMF’s structural adjustment programme. The people were instructed to tighten their belts and prepare themselves for what was described as a transitory phase of suffering before the achievement of plenitude. For the poet, this is analogous to the story of Abraham and Isaac’s journey to Mount Moria, Isaac unaware that he was to be the sacrificial offering.

Hakurarwi (We shall not sleep)
In this poem, corruption has reached such unendurable heights that people have no option but to take matters into their own hands.

Yakarwiwa nesu (We Fought the War)
Here, Chirikure’s satiric venom is targeted at all those sections of the Zimbabwean populace whose arguments about who played a more significant role during the liberation struggle have divisive effects on the unity for which they fought.

Musha watsakatika? (The family is destroyed)
This short but sharply vitriolic poem criticises Zimbabweans who repeatedly comment that their nation has collapsed but who, by not doing anything about it, contribute to the problem.

Chirikure Chirikure is innovative in his portrayal of post-independence disillusionment. The markedly satirical tone of his poetry befits his purpose: exposing the irresponsibility and lack of accountability that prevent the transformation of post-colonial Zimbabwe and, indeed, the entire African continent. Following in the poetic footsteps of the Shona oral artist, Chirikure dramatizes his poetry to the accompaniment of traditional music, conjuring a unique aesthetic in a dialogue between oracy and literacy, present and past, poet and author, as he reveals the stubborn obstacles on the path to social progress.

Achebe, Chinua. Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays. Archor Books, New York 1988.
Chirikure Chirikure. Rukuvhute. College Press, Harare 1989.
Chirikure Chirikure. Chamupupuri. College Press, Harare 1994.
Chirikure Chirikure. Hakurarwi. Baobab Books, Harare 1998.
Chirikure Chirikure. Napukeni. Samanyanga Records, Harare 2002.
Chiwome, Emmanuel. M. A Critical History of Shona Poetry. University of Zimbabwe Publications, Harare 1996.
Musiyiwa, Mickias. Interview with Chirikure Chirikure, Harare, 21 May 2004.
Veit-Wild, Flora. Teachers, Preachers, Non-Believers: A Social History of Zimbabwean Literature. Hans Zell Publishers, London 1992.

is a lecturer in Shona literature, oral literature and literary theory in the Department of African Languages and Literature at the University of Zimbabwe.

© Mickias T. Musiyiwa  

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