Tribute to forgotten ancestors

Critical memory in Musaemura Zimunya’s poetry


April 1, 2004
In a long scholarly article written especially for PIW, Kizito Z. Muchemwa takes a look at the most important themes and influences in Musaemura Zimunya’s work.

Now I have spelt out my silence
my tribute to forgotten ancestors

To be a painter with brush and palette
To harness wing-bound passion
In frame and settle mutual dreams
Is to tame a wild horse.

Musaemura Bonas Zimunya was born in 1949 in Zimunya Communal Land in the scenic Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe. His poetry is in part a description of his physical and spiritual location in this part of the country. The landscape of beautiful mountains, weather, and glistening mountain streams captured in I Like Them, ‘Mountain Mist’, and ‘My Home’ forms the basis of exploration of his identity as a Zimbabwean, and later on as an African. It is refreshing to note that in approaching the issue of identity, Zimunya deals with specificities rather than abstractions. This gives an anchor to his imagination. His temperament also reflects the solidity of this anchor. As his poetic gaze expands to see the whole of Zimbabwe and Africa, one begins to appreciate the difference between what was and what now is. The gap between the ideal and the real evokes the emotions of loss, grief, despair and indignation in his later poetry.

Zimunya has dedicated himself to the opening of space for freedom of artistic expression in both colonial Rhodesia and post-colonial Zimbabwe. He represents a generation of Zimbabwean writers that have chosen to write in English, the language of the coloniser, a choice that Zimunya can defend. The bilingual Zimunya, who occasionally writes in Shona and has had one poetry collection published in his mother tongue (Williams 1998, see References), has come to accept, albeit with some reservations, English as his primary medium of creativity. English presents a challenge, a broadening of horizons, and breaks boundaries in ways that he feels Shona would not. Evading the essentialist traps of linguistic chauvinism, Zimunya believes “it is not enough to look at ourselves through our own image”.

Though the focus in his writing is on ancestral memory, Zimunya is quite aware of the dangers posed by an uncritical nativism in the politics cultural of identity. I suspect however that one reason why poets like Zimunya chose English as a medium of artistic expression is found in Zimbabwean literary history. With the exception of Solomon Mutswairo, most writers writing in indigenous languages, under the aegis of the Rhodesia Literature Bureau, adopted an archaic style and produced a literature that was largely anthropological. This literature focused on remote or exotic settings, situations, characters, and themes. Where contemporary elements were adopted these had to be sufficiently safe not to question the paternalistic hegemony of the colonial state.

This indigenous literature became an officially sanctioned filter for interpreting the black man’s colonial experience. It encouraged an ‘askarism’ that encouraged colonial repression. The poetry produced was poetry of totems, love, hunting, and cultural etiquette that cast a backward gaze to an ancient world, not for dynamic regeneration but for ossification of experience. It focused on petty rhetorical effects rather than on substance.

Writers like Zimunya, and others writing in English, would have been frustrated by the restrictions imposed by available poetic genres in the Ndebele and Shona literatures. In escaping from the ideological and aesthetic limitations evident in the indigenous literary canon as created, managed, and monitored by the Rhodesia Literature Bureau, black writers like Zimunya and others threw themselves at the deep end of Western literature, and each poet who took this option had to rely on his own wit, temperament, intelligence and imagination to survive the weight, scorn, and indifference of this alien literature.

Zimunya’s temperament, unlike that of his contemporary, Dambudzo Marechera, does not lend itself to expressions of excess, linguistically and formally. His task is quite modest though he is confident in his business of writing poetry. He does not strain metaphor to convey more than it can carry, neither does he have pretensions of re-inventing traditional English poetic forms like the sonnet. A keen observer of his known world, he captures subtle changes in the physical, cultural, and moral world, suggesting and commenting on what these mean to him and his people.

Poetry writing often invites the framing and issuing of grand manifestos and inflexible prescriptions by some poets, usually of oracular or revolutionary persuasions, irrespective of the poetic output of the individual poet who readily seizes the mantle of lawgiver. Manifestos and prescriptions work as workshop aids, but extending these to cover the work of poets of rival, and different persuasions is invariably problematic. The variety of human experiences and the multiplicity of contexts that shape them demand the different and nuanced use of poetic form, diction, styles, and content. The poetic terrain in Zimbabwe reflects differences in the practice of writing poetry determined by explicit and unstated poetic manifestos and prescriptions.

Of the explicitly espoused principles of creativity, the ones that come to my mind are those of Marechera, Thomas Bvuma, and Freedom Nyamubaya. Marechera, a complex, enigmatic figure in Zimbabwean literature, celebrates the power of art and the artist using many models of creativity from Western and other literatures when the creative purpose demands it. He wears both the prophetic and revolutionary mantles. Presenting himself as seer, iconoclast, creator, social and political dissident, Marechera’s poetic vision dissects Zimbabwe’s body politic exposing the post-colonial ugliness in ways that offend the political establishment. Marechera’s poetic vision is that of an outraged outcast.

Thomas Bvuma and Freedom Nyamubaya, both liberation war fighters, present a poetic creativity forged within the revolutionary crucible of Zimbabwe’s war of Liberation. Both poets demonstrate a confident unity of purpose between war and poetry. Both war and poetry are viewed as methods of deconstructing the discourse and order of colonialism. Thomas Bvuma’s poem, ‘The Real Poetry’, confidently and stridently asserts what constitutes authentic poetry, and excludes from the revolutionary republic of poetry, all writing that does not fit this narrow view. Nyamubaya, who is less strident but no less assertive than Bvuma, sees poetry writing as an ongoing revolutionary struggle against injustice.

Zimunya, the most prolific and widely published Zimbabwe poet, lacks the shrill, querulous arrogance of the artist, à la Marechera, or the revolutionary exclusivity of Thomas Bvuma. Zimunya is not in the habit of making large statements about poetic processes and purposes. The terms revolutionary, prophetic, iconoclast do not seem to fit in any description of Zimunya as a poet. The language and rhythm of his poems lacks the excess and violence of either the revolutionary or the prophet. This does not mean that he is less of a fighter than Bvuma and Nyamubaya. Exceptions concerning the temptation to issue pronouncements are found, however, in Kingfisher, Jikinya, and Other Poems and Perfect Poise and Other Poems. These exceptions describe Zimunya’s characteristic style and what impels him to write poetry. There is a close link between painting, and poetry writing, in Zimunya’s poetry that explains his poetic technique. A similarity between painterly and poetic codes that allows this poet to vividly and economically evoke a scene and create mood.

He possesses an assured voice that explores a broad range of human experience and emotions as he sets out to speak for his generation, time and country. His accessibility, simplicity, with the exception of the occasional unfortunate “|big word”, and the apparent descriptiveness of the poetry, need not be mistaken for a lack of depth. Zimunya’s mode is primarily visual and gustatory based on the acuity of observation. This gives his poetry a particular brand of sensuousness that allows him effortlessly to give landscapes and cityscapes moral and philosophical depth.

Like many writers of his generation, Zimunya’s poetry has been shaped by the experience of colonialism and what came after its demise. For most Zimbabwean writers writing is a broad quest that allows them to search for their antecedents, a search that leads me to focus on the central position that Zimunya occupies in the creation of ancestral memory. This creation of memory does not follow pathways that lead to enchanting gardens of the past. Ancestral memory in Zimunya’s poetry is a critical cultural consciousness that is brought to bear on themes like love, man’s relation with nature, politics, the quest for freedom and identity. A strong sense of community runs through all his poems. Regardless of the autobiographical ‘I’ persona in some of the poems,, the voice that speaks represents a community, a people. Aware though he is of the academic and somewhat privileged group he belongs to the poet does not forget his peasant roots. Zimunya returns to these roots to discover sources of ancestral memory. This memory is a critical awareness of the past and how it can redeem the present.

To introduce this critical consciousness that inhabits Zimunya’s invocation of ancestral memory I want to use the concluding poem to Perfect Poise and Other Poems that provides a retrospective frame for reading of a poetry that is offered as tribute to ancestors. The three collections, Thought Tracks (1982), Kingfisher, Jikinya and Other Poems (1982), Country Dawns and City Lights (1985), and Perfect Poise and Other Poems (1993, 1996) mark the various expressions of this tribute. Zimunya’s tribute can be read as a recovery and validation of the past in the face of the onslaught of colonialism and modernity, a celebration of ancestral memory, and expressions of a vigilant and relentless moral and cultural consciousness. This vigilance enables Zimunya to trace the cultural contours of the country and to subject these to an intense moral searchlight. Each volume marks a specific period and captures the prevailing spirit of a given moment in the history of the country.

Thought Tracks, to a large extent autobiographical, is a volume of the 1970s that expresses a yearning for a restitution of damaged landscapes. Landscapes and cityscapes in this and subsequent volumes are metaphors for cultural universes, habitations of imagination, lore and values. Thought-Tracks is a collection that includes Zimunya’s early poems written before 1980. The collection is divided into seven parts: ‘Home and the Mountains’, ‘The Prisoner’, ‘For the Bearers of the Burden’, ‘To the Fighters’, ‘Zimbabwe and the Ruins’, ‘Of Exile and Home’, and ‘Others’. Despite the experiences of colonial deprivation, political imprisonment, the suffering of peasants and the proletariats during the liberation war, this collection is full of promise and optimism. The poetry has the promise of freedom, the recovery and restoration of myths and identities, and the fulfilment of a people’s manifest destiny. Zimunya believes in the convergence of the visions of the politician, the historian, and the poet.

Belief in this convergence centres on the dominant symbol that generates meaning for the colonised, Great Zimbabwe, that Zimunya wants to have a common meaning for all people. This wish is greatly disabused by the divergent visions of the nation after independence. What provided unity of vision during a broadly conceived nationalist struggle was the capacity of the Zimbabwe symbol to mean different things to different people and its power to generate a resonance in freedom seeking minds.

Symbols do not categorically define meaning and those that do so quickly degenerate into literal ordinariness. Symbols that remain potent are those that have power to suggest by giving glimpses of what is forever on the edge of consciousness. This leads to different articulations of thoughts and feelings in the minds of the poet, the politician, and the historian using the same symbol as in the case of Zimbabwe’s cultural and political history. The early Zimunya is reluctant to acknowledge the fact that politicians and poets perceive different kinds of power in the symbols of the ancestral past, and usually proceed to construct conflicting systems. A celebration of the power of the Zimbabwe ruins in ‘Valley of Mawewe’(Endless Calls), ‘Zimbabwe’(After the Ruins), ‘Rock of Zimbabwe’, ‘The stone speaks’, ‘Zimbabwe bird’ celebrate nationalistic consciousness, but not the power of a party and the new black elite.

This collection indicates Zimunya’s characteristic style and thematic concerns. Subsequent collections are only variations of these basic themes and honing of the style of landscape painting. I am tempted to find a similarity in style between Zimunya’s poetry and that of Derek Walcott in whose rendering of the Caribbean and other landscapes is found a convergence of painting and poetry, capturing the colour, shape, and movement of places, incidents and people. Motion is the essence of Zimunya’s landscapes. A sense of arrested movement is captured in I like them, a poem in which motion is used to express the symmetry that the poet sees in nature. In the concluding stanza of ‘Mountain mist’ a metrological event demonstrates mystery and power of nature. The poet uses sexual metaphor to described mist enveloping mountains:

Arched solidly he remains
Like a pangolin during a mating season
And the green carpet white he stains
Until mystery dissolves him.

This giving of motion and energy to landscapes reveals an important relationship that Zimunya establishes with the land, even in those poems where the land is also associated with less benign objects. The rural landscape is the point of location and departure for Zimunya in his search for meaning for himself and his people. Apart from providing location of the poet’s spiritual, cultural, and emotional universe, poems like ‘I Like Them’, ‘Mountain Mist’, and ‘My Home’ show Zimunya’s ability to construct visual and kinetic images from the landscape and to make these convey a variety of emotions and moral attitudes. The poems are persuasively autobiographical, charting the evolution of the individual from the country to the city. The autobiography is not merely about spatial distances traversed by the poet from the Eastern Highlands to the country’s capital city, but is also about cultural transformations that accompany the physical separation from the land. Zimunya’s autobiography is that of a particular generation and class that had become alienated from authentic roots by colonial education and colonial capitalism.

This autobiography is conceived in terms of an imaginative migration of the spirit that would capture the redeeming essence of a lost culture. In No Songs, a poem that captures the pessimism and cultural malaise of the 1970s, Zimunya mourns the absence of an ancestral tradition that would end the cultural drought of the time:

We have no ancestors
no shrine to pester with our prayers
no sacred cave where to drum our drums
svikiro to evoke the gods of rain
so we live on
without rain, without harvest

This national state of absence refers to historical details: the dynamiting of sacred caves in hills fighters had fled to during the 1896 war, and the hanging of Kaguvi and Nehanda. Such details became metaphors of national disruptions. Some of these disruptions are indicated in the prison poems directly born out the student riots at the Mount Pleasant campus in 1973, the subsequent mass trial, incarceration, rustication, and in some cases expulsion of students from the university. These autobiographical poems speak of private suffering and deprivation and do not bring out quite clearly the sense of journeying and of paying tribute to ancestors so important in the poetry of Zimunya.

The poems that have a bearing on this matter are those that are dedicated to the fighters and the Zimbabwe ruins. The war poems, however, written in exile, lack the immediacy of poems written at home and become exercises in maintaining contact with home. It is the Zimbabwe symbol that Zimunya reverts to in the section ‘Zimbabwe and the ruins’ in order rejuvenate creativity and to clear pathways leading to an ancestral past. To Zimunya, in his writing back mode explicitly found in poems like ‘White poetess’ (Thought-Tracks) and ‘You Were’ (Kingfisher, Jikinya and other poems) where he examines the shortcomings and arrogance of the white colonial literary canon, the stone monument is offered as a tradition antithetical to and older than Christianity and ancient Greco-Roman civilization. Awed by the presence of this symbol of antiquity and indigeneity, Zimunya can only express wonder at the grandeur and mystery of the ruins, but fails to articulate the core values of this ancestral tradition. Such a gap does not detract from the poet’s quest for ways of recovering what has been destroyed by colonialism.

Aware of the damage done to the physical and cultural fabric of the country, the poet embraces writing as one among many other ways of repairing this damage. Like the guerrilla fighter and the politician the poet is engaged in the struggle for the righting of wrongs. Before disillusionment sets in, Zimunya believes in the efficacy, complementarity, and unity of the military, political, and artistic aspects of the liberation struggle. Focusing on the artist’s contribution to the struggle with no foresight of the impending antagonism generated by different interpretations of liberation ideals Zimunya’s searches for a muse that would free him from the tyranny of a foreign canon.

Exposed to traditional English literature at school and university, Zimunya seeks an escape from a literary tradition that writes out African creativity and the ability of an African poet to write certain kinds of poetry. A quest for indigenous models of poetic creativity distinguishes Zimunya from other Zimbabwean poets such as Marechera, Nyamubaya, and Bvuma. Marechera, though rebellious and iconoclastic, has been too marinated in streams of western literature to notice and embrace alternative poetic traditions. Bvuma espouses an internationalism that cannot be sustained without losing the power of specificity. The difference with a poet like Marechera lies in Zimunya’s desire to explain his art to his readers in terms that are familiar to them. He wants to confront the detractors of African creativity by offering Jikinya, a mythic figure that enables him to convey a strong sense of community.

The collection Kingfisher, Jikinya and other poems, like the anthology Zimunya edited with Mudereri Kadhani (1981) to mark the attainment of independence, is generally celebratory for two reasons. In this collection, Zimunya gets back to the figure of Jikinya who appears in low key in his early poetry. With a new burst of energy and confidence Zimunya returns to Zimbabwean myth and folklore to confer the status of muse on Jikinya. Conscious of the restrictions, placed by the English literary canon and language on African writers, writing in English, Zimunya, in poems such as ‘You Were’, in the tradition of ‘writing back’, finds a muse that frees him. His poetry has been an attempt, through explorations of the ancient world, to find indigenous roots of art.

In his search for ancient roots in Zimbabwean poetry, Robert Muponde (1999) discusses the implications of his thesis of “the road not taken in Zimbabwean Literature”. Muponde views modern Zimbabwean poets writing in English as writers who have lost their path. Some important precedents in the history of Zimbabwean creativity, San Rock Art, the music and poetry of the Chimurenga War, suggest the lost path according to Muponde. There is, however, a significant gap between the ancient San world and Zimbabwean War of liberation, a gap that has not been interrogated, and in this huge gap are many paths, not a single one, that have not been followed. Zimunya’s poetry dips into this gap to come with Jikinya, one of the symbols of indigenous creativity.

This discovery is important for Zimunya because, in its complexity, the figure of Jikinya stands for a number of redeeming qualities. Unlike Helen of Troy in Western mythology, Jikinya’s beauty is not destructive. It is beauty that redeems, unites, and heals the community and individuals. Zimunya, by embracing Jikinya, rejects an aesthetic principle that emphasises the pursuit of romantic beauty for its own sake. In Jikinya (An African Passion) Zimunya provides a link between art and political struggle. Jikinya becomes a symbol of pain and suffering that energises the liberation struggle. She becomes the powerful, unstoppable, communal, peremptory voice demanding justice and freedom.

Celebration is explained by what Zimunya believes to be a convergence between artistic and political aspects of the Zimbabwean experience. Poems like ‘Underground’, ‘A Boulder Fell’, and ‘Hope Again’ celebrate the dawning of a new era. Zimunya pays tribute to fighters of the struggle. The heroism of these fighters, like his art, is inspired by a return to the hills and caves of ancestral memory. It is this memory that equips both artist and fighter for the battle against colonialism. ‘A Boulder Fell’ and ‘Hope Again’ are expressions of joy at the newfound freedom. Events of the first decade of independence in Arrivants and ‘Anniversary’ threaten this freedom and Zimunya, alert to the dangers of narrow nationalistic vision, is not blind to their negative implications.

Country Dawns and City Lights, coming after a brief flirtation with the ode celebrating public achievements in Kingfisher, Jikinya and other poems, retreats to the now familiar Zimunya country-city contrast. Zimunya is very aware of the contradictions of the post-colonial city that now has become an expression of the new nation state and neo-colonialism, but shows a reluctance to interrogate these fully. The retreat into the past is accompanied by a sadness that sees the ancestral world as being under threat and vanishing. Zimunya evokes a world of youth, of traditional values and folklore in poems like ‘Childhood’, Fairy Tales, ‘To Be Young’, ‘Love Potion’, ‘Mice in the Cleft Stick’, ‘Country Dawns’, and ‘When the Mamba Strikes’. The two poems that clearly portray a vanishing ancestral world are ‘Childhood’ and ‘Fairy Tales’.

Zimunya’s landscape painting imbues the country life with the numinous element especially in the two poems. Supernatural characters, larger than life heroes, deus ex machina save potential victims from danger. Animals like the hyena and the lion are symbols of the numinous. These have been replaced by troops of ravaging baboons that bring no splendour and no mystery. The modern world represented by the city is a world of lack, of absence of redeeming mystery marked by a qualitative diminution life’s grandeur. Although there are other poems that speak of this diminution, A Long Journey chronicles the epic fall from the numinous, heroic, ancestral world of Great Zimbabwe, lions, hyenas, witchcraft, love potions, and magical tales to the prosaic, vile, world of today. That chronicle begins with the coming of the Pioneer Column, harbinger of colonial modernity and suffering. Modern means of transport hasten the pace of urbanisation and rural-urban migration. The intrusion and disruption of the city are still felt in the post-colonial city. The call and pull of the numinous is felt by those that have not been totally deracinated:

We have fled from witches and wizards
on along long road to the city
but behind the halo of tower lights
I hear the cry for 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.

This vestigial power the ancestral world has over the post-colonial city gives Zimunya temporary solace from the grip of neo-colonialism and incipient failures of the post-colonial state. To admit these failures would tarnish the image of a new government the poet thinks has been voted in to establish continuity with the ancestral past. Zimunya’s portrayal of Harare, the post-colonial city, focuses on a black working class marooned in a foreign environment. The cartography of the southern African city reveals racial and class cleavages, patterns of domination and marginalisation. This construction of economic, social, and political space, much as it is captured and condemned is not aggressively interrogated. The social and political conditions that have created Loveness, the arch-siren of the city, economic poverty, and alienation from the ancestral past are not examined. The rampant sexuality of errant black womanhood, in both the colonial and post-colonial city, conceived in images of consumption, is seen as corrupting and economically destructive:

Like the beauty of a lover
The beauty of the city
only lasts the lick of an ice-cream
and the melting of chewing gum
or the coolness of beer
or the groan of a prostitute
the pleasure of disco pounding numbness
and the tinkle of a coin.

There is an unnecessary and un-worked out synonymy between the city and the urban black woman in terms of their ephemeral of attraction and satisfaction. Zimunya’s urban black siren is a nightclub habitué, dancer, artificial beauty who rapaciously preys on working class men (‘She Danced’, ‘Loveness’, You Haven’t Met Her, ‘Month-end’, ‘I Couldn’t Believe It’, ‘Grace’). Loveness, the epitome of urban femininity, is contrasted with Jikinya, the country beauty that harnesses spiritual energies that unite men, and does not lead them to destructive desire and individualism. The problems of the city, its politics and economy, are unduly attributed to black womanhood and it is unfortunate that Zimunya does not recognise these women as also victims of the city. The unfortunate part of this portrayal is that women are viewed, just like goods in the consumer capitalism of the city, as marketable commodities. It is this consumerism that is inimical to the development of a true sense of community and self, and grasp of a people’s origins and destiny. In this regard the city is the maze in which this quest becomes problematic.

Although Zimunya examines the under-belly of the city in Country Dawns and City Lights and emphasises loss, this loss can no longer be attributed solely to the disruptions of colonialism. An unquestioning inheritance and extension of the cartography of the colonial city and all its implications has to be confronted. The poet’s vision assumes that the post-colonial state would establish a spiritual continuity with the ancestral order. This continuity is singularly lacking in the world created by the new post-colonial state. The class, racial, cultural, and economic structure of the post-colonial city has not changed to indicate a substantive and qualitative change in the nation’s body politic.

In post-independence Zimbabwe the sense of freedom, of having arrived, of an end to “those years of drought and hunger” (Zimunya) is betrayed. In the Zimbabwean context the semantics of freedom are tragically embedded in the semantics of violence. The bloody liberation struggle was a Caesarean operation that scarred both mother and child. This scarring that has made it difficult to inaugurate an untrammelled experience of freedom. National moral and intellectual recession, frightening atavism, and the adoption of uncritical memory have driven the poet to adopt a pessimistic mood in Perfect Poise and Other Poems. This pessimism contrasts very sharply with the exuberance, enthusiasm, and hope in the face of adversity found in Thought-Tracks.

When those symbols the poet sought to give consolation to his “restless imagination” have either been besmirched by unsavoury associations or commandeered for the destruction of dreams, the temptation is to seek silence. This reads like an abandonment of vision. Zimunya feels there is need, at various levels of the Zimbabwean experience, to create “perfect poise” in order to remain sane. ‘Poise’ is pitted against a collapsing world and suggests balance, equilibrium, or façade. In the context of Zimunya’s poetry, in both the private and public spheres, sources and staying power of poise are important.

In a world
of impending ruin
a cigarette stub
a London watch
And strong perfume
preaching the gospel
according to St Paris in tropical nights
may hold this temple
in perfect poise somehow.

grief may be forestalled
by the strength and hue
of oxblood lipstick,
tenderness that mocks
the vain thews of Samson
the way women of class do.

Ancestral memory and neo-colonialism are sources of different types of poise. This short poem using material symbols of neo-colonialism mocks the impossible and fragile dignity of the neo-colonial elite in Africa. Premised on the inauthentic, the private life of this elite reveals the ludicrousness of “oxblood lipstick”-induced passion. In a world of “impending ruin”, the superficial, the imported, and pretentious cannot withstand onslaughts fragile freedoms and aborted rights, and cannot engender genuine desire. Doubting the efficacy of irrelevant cultural imports and witnessing either the retreat of or suppression of ancestral memory, Zimunya bids farewell to the unqualified optimism of the first decade of independence.

Of the three sections that make up this collection the one that does not revert to old themes is ‘Gallery’. This section is made of poems that are like snapshots or paintings of scenes and characters from Zimbabwe and the rest of Africa at the close of the twentieth century. Poems like A Farewell to Youth, Hooray for Freedom, ‘Broken Eggs’, ‘Men and Monkeys’, ‘Of Kings and Prophets’ and ‘To K’, ‘Benzocrats, ‘Not in Vain’, Last Quarter Moon, ‘Algiers: Nightflight’, ‘Africa’ and ‘Still’, paint a grim picture of dream landscapes that are overrun by murderous tyrants and their greedy sycophants.

One of the snapshots depicts the restless, elemental energy of the mob at a political rally to receive a life president in ‘Broken Eggs’, in which the poet combines the visual and olfactory to convey a sense of helplessness, pity, and disgust. It is interesting to note that, in this scene of frenzied waiting, the life president is not described and this conveys a sense of presidential remoteness, inaccessibility and regal indifference. The political rally is a symbol of mass hypnosis in Africa in which ordinary people connive at the death of clear thinking and death of freedom. Adulation and deification of rulers is one of the indicators of death of freedom. In one of the poems Zimunya personifies freedom as a choking and gasping victim of repression:

For now, welcome a decade
buried before its virgin mother
and impotent father have sinned
and conceived its throes, its unwilling conclusions
of wild intentions. There is a deep-end
and a shallow-end, in between,
a floundering uhuru, choking and gasping.

‘Facing 1991 (and beyond)’

Zimbabwean poetry and fiction are usually pre-occupied with the idea of being Zimbabwean. This pre-occupation explains the narrowness of focus sometimes found in the literature. This narrow focus sometimes accounts for the inward gaze that can be debilitating. An ability on the part of a writer to broaden the temporal and spatial limits of imagination can be liberating and can yield fresh insights. Most Zimbabwean writers, especially first and second generation ones, have failed to escape from the grip of this narrowness.

In Perfect Poise and other poems, Zimunya broadens the context of poetry writing and this enables him to paint his poetic themes on a broader canvas. Every aspect of life in the last decade of the twentieth century is bereft of the sacral element and this has led to the proliferation and acceptance of evil on the continent. Zimunya sees the convergence of Zimbabwe and Africa’s retrogressions in public life that is defined by the military and dictators. ‘Algiers: Nightflight’ offers a vision of Africa in which the Pan African ideals have been compromised and Africa’s reputation traduced this time round not by foreigners but her wayward children.

A string of burning beads
blazes through the night
a branding vision miles below
pauses like golden dew at the edger
of darkness like a question mark.

A bird’s eye-view of Africa at night creates a brief, safe space for the contemplation of Africa in the 1990s. In transit Zimunya assumes a statelessness and homelessness that is fast becoming the fate of Africa’s workers, academics, writers, and artists driven into exile by the greed, violence, and intolerance of a preying military and dictatorship. He probes the weak spots of the continent. Intertextual echoes remind the reader of J. P. Clark’s poem, ‘Ibadan’ that captures the poet’s sense of amazement at the beauty of that ancient Nigerian city in its imagery and rhythm. The rhythm of Zimunya’s poem creates a melancholic mood. Zimunya’s “string of burning beads” does not stand for flashes of beauty. In the context of the poem it stands for the wars that continue to haemorrhage the continent. He grieves for the death of freedom, the absence of justice, and the death of dreams that Africa wants to bequeath to her children.

In earlier poetry collections, as a cultural figure who seeks common ground for the creation of a sustaining vision, Zimunya is usually reticent about explicitly political themes. This reticence is disappears in his 1993 collection. Any critic who seeks to crucify Zimunya on the cross of crude nationalistic aesthetic needs to acknowledge the honest with which the poet confronts the arrogance, insensitivity, and immorality of political power. In ‘Last Quarter Moon’, a paean to Zimbabwe and Africa’s disappearing beauty is represented by the image of moonlight. The brilliant image crafted by the poet captures the disappearance of truth, freedom, public spiritedness, and peace on the continent. Darkness also entails repression. Prudence either enforced or adopted as an option of basic survival entails accepting silence and acquiescence.

It is no longer prudent
to remember
where the other three-quarters hang:
Our searching fingers may unearth
worms of faith dumped in its youth
and justice staggering under greed.
Were it not so would you begin
the telephone conversation with
a declaration of patriotism and bug-scorn?

The search for lost visions is constrained by agents of repression responsible for the diminishing of democratic space on the continent. The discourse of freedom, truth, and social justice is persistently pushed underground. Today the inheritors of Africa’s ancestral legacy are men of pomp and circumstance that not moved by the suffering of common people. ‘Hooray for Freedom’ ironically conveys the bitterness of a people that helplessly watch the greed of their rulers and the impoverishment of the nation and emptiness of political rhetoric. Zimunya is prophetic in portrayal of state intolerance, violence, and loss of original nationalistic vision. The collection is an indictment of repression, cruelty, greed and unbridled lust for power.

I believe this collection expresses critical memory and captures a new mood of unromantic vigilance. In these poems Zimunya captures a national disillusionment with independence that has not brought freedom. The perception that independence has not necessarily brought freedom is not unique to Zimunya, but is also felt by all Zimbabwean poets who have not been co-opted into covering up the sores of a sick continent. A huge gap exists between the rhetoric of exponents of Africa’s renaissance and the reality of wars, hunger, genocide, rapacity and kleptomania of governments indifferent to the fate of suffering masses.

Today Africa’s apocalypse breaks into our consciousness with images of atrocities of war in the Great Lakes region, Sierra Leon, Liberia, Angola, Sudan and the two Congolese republics. Things that escape attention are the hidden images not captured on camera; the slow, subtle attritions on freedom and human dignity; the disappeared evidence that gives contrary images of what we have become; and the loss of ideals. In instances where regimes control dissemination of information the democratic space for offering alternative visions is diminished. Ideals that give hope to nations are lost through state propaganda. Zimunya, often a dramatic poet, does not capture those lurid but real details that shock us into violent indignation. Relying more on understatement, on subdued metaphors, rather than overstatement, he invites readers to share with him, through a variety of emotions, the imaginative journey he embarks on into different realms of time to create images of Zimbabwe and Africa.


Kizito Zhiradzago Muchemwa is a lecturer in English, Literature and Media Studies at Zimbabwe Open University. He did a BA (Hons.) and MA in English at the University of Rhodesia, and Graduate certificate in Education at the University of Zimbabwe. His research and teaching interests are African, African American and Caribbean literature. He has edited Two Tone (June 1976) and Zimbabwean Poetry in English (Gweru: Mambo Press, 1978). His poems have appeared in New Writing from Rhodesia, ed. T. O. McLoughlin; When My Brothers Come Home: Poems from Central and Southern Africa ed. Frank Chipasula (Middleton, Conn: Wesleyan University, 1985) and And Now the Poets Speak ed. Kadhani, M. and Zimunya, M. ( Gweru: Mambo Press 1981).

© Kizito Z. Muchemwa  

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