Dreaming, Crying and Laughing in Shona: The Poetry of Ignatius Mabasa



At the Zimbabwe International Book Fair (ZIBF) Writers’ Indaba of 2005, Ignatius Mabasa compellingly argued that African writers should exploit the rich resources available in their first languages, rather than try to express themselves in ‘borrowed’ or second languages. Part of his paper, entitled “Why I write in Shona”, reads: 

I have spoken the language from birth until now. It is the language I think, dream, cry and laugh in… . Writing in Shona is liberating. The best of my conversations are in Shona because it allows me to bypass toll gates set for me by the English language.

The reflective mind behind these words was primarily nurtured in the rural areas of northern Zimbabwe. Born at Karanda Mission Hospital in Mt Darwin in 1971, and raised on his grandfather’s farm in Chesa, Mt Darwin, Mabasa indeed grew up thinking, dreaming, crying and laughing in Shona. His biographical background reads like that of many other black Zimbabwean writers. He would have first encountered English in primary school as a subject formerly taught by a teacher who also spoke it as a second language. And the teachers in those days were famous for their belief in the adage that sparing the rod would spoil the child, particularly his grammar. Thus we see several generations of young English language learners carefully following the adventures of Benny and Betty (the boy and girl characters in the then grades one and two English textbooks). We also see these learners reciting rhymes such as “Little Jack Horner” and not asking any ‘silly’ questions while within reach of the teacher’s ‘rod’. But later, on their own, they would start asking themselves a number of questions. For example:

Humph. So why did little Jack Horner sit in a corner to eat the pie? (The concept of rhyming for its own sake, would not yet have sunk in this stage) Aha, I think I know why. Probably to hide from brothers, sisters, ‘cousin brothers’ or ‘cousin sisters’ who might also have demanded a share of the pie. But then, why was he playing with it like that instead of just gobbling it up quickly? Humph. And also, what kind of pie was this anyway that had some plums inside it? The pies that I saw when I went to Salisbury last year had meat inside them, not plums. And then, why was he calling himself a good boy after playing with his food like that? Humph. I hope teacher won’t ask these questions tomorrow. Perhaps I should go to school wearing three pairs of shorts again?

It is needless to repeat Mabasa’s point that this ‘real’ thinking would be taking place in the thinker’s own mother tongue – Shona or Ndebele, in the Zimbabwean context. In asserting the primacy of the vernacular over English as the language in which ‘real’ thinking, dreaming, laughing and crying take place, Mabasa inflected Ngugi’s Decolonising the Mind (1981) theme in an interesting fashion. He specifically highlighted the cognitive and emotive benefits of communicating in one’s own mother tongue. This point shall be revisited later.

Mabasa’s journey through primary, secondary and university curriculae must therefore have been a process in which the two language systems were constantly ‘superimposed’ with the learners, however, always ‘visualising’ the underlying system while trying to communicate in the ‘outer’ one. Of course, learning English was part of one’s ‘survival kit’ – a ‘kit’ that would continue to be needed in one’s postgraduate and working careers. In Mabasa’s case, English was indispensable when he visited Illinois in the USA between 1999 and 2000 as a Fullbright scholar, teaching Zimbabwean literature in English at the North Central College and the College of Du Page. Currently, Mabasa works for the British Council in Harare as Assistant Director, where English is indispensable, even though he may be able to develop projects that focus on the cross-fertilisation of ideas and language.

Literary Calling
Ignatius Mabasa first drew attention to himself when a selection of his poems appeared in the anthology, Tipeiwo Dariro, which was published in 1993. He has recently published another collection of poems under the title Muchinokoro Kunaka (2005). But before we examine elements of Mabasa’s identity as a poet, below, let us take a quick look at his remarkable achievement as a novelist. Mabasa’s (1998) award-winning novel, Mapenzi (Fools) has been hailed as a masterpiece that, together with Charles Mungoshi’s (1988) Kunyarara Hakusi Kutaura?, has redefined the form and the thematic scope of the Shona novel. Chirere (2004) articulates the impact of Mapenzi thus:

Ignatius Mabasa’s Shona novel Mapenzi (1998) is not considered an ordinary novel in Zimbabwe. In fact, Mapenzi is not a novel if one considered the multiple potentials of its themes, language and, especially its style and structure. Before Mapenzi, Charles Mungoshi’s Kunyarara Hakusi Kutaura? was broadly speaking, the most innovative and eccentric novel in the Shona language…. Mapenzi is the first Shona novel in which sexual intercourse is graphically described. Mapenzi could be the first novel to work with the technique I have begun to call ‘sublimation’, i.e. a technique where character stands outside himself in describing what is inside/out.

Mabasa has also invested some of his energy towards the general development of young literary talent in Zimbabwe. At the British Council, he was heavily involved in the Crossing Borders Creative Writing Programme (which he reports on, on this website). Mabasa has also regularly acted as adjudicator for the Zimbabwe Book Publishers’ annual awards in various genres. Also worth mentioning are his popular folktale column, “Tamba Mwana Tamba” in the vernacular newspaper Kwayedza / Umthunywa, and his ongoing involvement – running workshops and critiquing the manuscripts of aspiring writers – as a member of the Zimbabwe Budding Writers’ Association.

Mabasa as a Poet
What does Mabasa do as a poet? Does he take some of the experimentation and innovation that we see in Mapenzi to the poetic domain? Does he fit into the so-called ‘three generations’ framework that categorises Zimbabwean poets with reference to key chronological milestones in the history of the country (see Muchemwa 2003 – on this website). Or is he one of those elusive ones who leave critics clutching at old skins they have sloughed off, refusing to be ‘pinned down’ or to be ‘tucked’ into any pigeon holes? Time will tell. We, however, do learn from Mabasa that: “Poetry is storytelling / Only that it does not tell / Of stories in a far, far land.”

Indeed, in his poetry, Mabasa appears to retain the appetite that has been noted in Mapenzi for critiquing and deconstructing ‘immediate’ or ‘lived’ social realities. This is not done in the postmodernist sense, where all realities and ‘truths’ are challenged, and no ‘truth’ rises above suspicion. Rather, we see a ‘modernist’ tendency in Mabasa to juxtapose the human failings that he exposes against implied or overtly-stated value systems. At the same time, Mabasa refrains from assuming the position of moral ‘judge’. Instead, in many of his poems, he projects himself as a ‘helpless’ kind of observer who is somehow implicated in the very human failings that he criticises, and yet simultaneously redeemed in our eyes since we realise that he is, after all, the one who is highlighting the weaknesses in question and thus challenging our complacent acceptance of them.

In ‘Mhango’ (Cavities), a wife and mother whose husband is ‘out there’ in the ‘Zimbabwean-Diaspora’, experiences sexual urges that are almost as painful and persistent as toothache throbbing in the multiple cavities in a set of rotting teeth. The character receiving and interpreting the signals which she transmits both as innuendo and as body language is however, far from ‘clean’ or ‘innocent’ himself. In fact, the narrator's silent worry that she is destined to spend the night with “that fool Gandari”, comes across as an ambiguous reaction: a mixture of dread of the corruption unfolding before his eyes and jealous anger that, it is after all, Gandari, who is going to ‘assuage’ this palpable libido. His final observation that, “Aids…/ ichatikuhumura semashizha muchando” (“This Aids…/ Will surely finish us off”), written as it is in the first person plural, reinforces the impression that he himself is implicated in the very corruption that he brings to our attention. And he himself is as susceptible to the threat of the AIDS pandemic as the tragic woman and her lascivious paramour. The same idea of the observer becoming helplessly sucked into the corrupt activities that the poet observes, is again repeated in the poem ‘Muna Samora Machel’ (In Samora Machel). Here, he witnesses the deadly violence of rioters clashing with the riot police. Mabasa becomes implicated in the violence when he hits a pedestrian with his car then speeds away from the scene for fear that the crowd may turn their anger onto him. It is almost as if the burden of guilt in Mabasa’s poems must be borne by all parties, including himself.

At other times, however, Mabasa critiques human failures ‘from the outside’, mercilessly mocking the vanity that often accompanies them. The poem ‘Amerika’ lampoons the profligacy and licentiousness of American society, the hub, so to speak, of our so-called ‘global village’. In this society, the ultra-rich can afford to buy synthetic buttocks; mothers-to-be assert their right to be fertilised by ‘high-quality’ sperm bought from the sperm banks, and there are even scandalous suggestions that dead Hollywood stars should be mummified so that their remains may be preserved forever. The final punch line of this poem plays with the pun in the word star: “Mwari wenyu wamunovimba naye ndeupi?/ Nyenyedzi chaidzo dzisingadzime dziri mudenga?” (“In which God do you trust? / Above are the everlasting stars”). It is almost as if this society, not satisfied with the ‘undying’ stars that light up our heavens, attempts to substitute divinely-created stars with Hollywood-made ones.

The poems on war (‘Hondo’) chide those who speak lightly about war, as if it were some kind of trivial game when in fact war is so physically and spiritually deadly that it can infect the very soul with ‘gonorrhea’: “Hamuoni honye dzakakora here / dzirikutakanya dzichibva mumuromo mangu / Ipo pano pandiri kutaura nemi?” (“Don’t you see the maggots / Coming out of my mouth / As I try to talk with you?”)

Mabasa also seems to take a dim view of the so-called ‘third Chimurenga’ that for the past decade or so, has tragically polarised Zimbabwean society. In ‘Svoto’ (Defiance), the elements seem to join in some kind of universal conspiracy to sabotage the success of the land redistribution exercise: “Pakupedzisira poshaya kana donwe / Nyangwe rimwe chete zvaro remunwe waRazaro / Rinotsvoda miromo yevhu, / Yaputana, yaunyana sedama rechembere” (“No drop / Of the sacred rain / Kisses the sad, dry / Dying wrinkles / Of the earth”.). Indeed, the harsh economic ramifications of the land redistribution programme have reduced the populace into ‘zombies’ and carrion for scavenging ravens that disembowel corpses which lie scattered everywhere in ‘Rufu’ (Epitaph). The poem ends with an eerie dirge sung by these feasting ravens; it goes: “Zvapera, zvapera, hapana achachema / hapana achaviga, hapana achataura / kana ivhu rekufushura vafi hapachina” (“No dignity, no rites, no tears / No pastor, no speech, no soil.”)

This brings us to the point that we also see quite a number of thematic overlaps among the poems. The desolation that we find in ‘Svoto’ and which takes a turn for the worse in ‘Rufu’, is also invoked in ‘Poetry’, albeit with a feeble attempt at humour:

Poetry is an old man in dusty fields
A scarecrow, talking to himself
Poking at the stunted rapoko crop
And asking himself
“What happened to the land
That the government redistributed?
Was it all taken by the news-reader
Because he got the news first?”

The poem ‘Kana Ndafa’ (When I Die) berates the tawdry eulogies often made at funerals and the poet demands that when he dies, no such empty talk should be allowed: “Kana ndafa / Handidi mariro / Anotaurwa zvakazorwa uchi” (“When I die / I don’t want a funeral / With tall speeches….”) This hatred for flowery but empty speech recalls the sentiments expressed in ‘Poetry’: “Poetry is not big words / Poetry is not confusion, mystification, chaos and noise…” We can also make thematic links between the poem ‘Hwayi nemapere’ (Concrete and Plastic) and the poem ‘America’ in that both reprehend the deification of man or man-made artifacts above God and the products of nature.

A Note on Translation
I am sure that readers looking at Mabasa’s poems in both Shona and English will agree with me that the Shona versions wield much more evocative power than their English translations. Many such readers would also agree with me that this is not really an effect of poor translation. Rather, it is more because there are some nuances of meaning which are almost impossible to transfer to a different language. Let us compare how the poem ‘Hwayi Nemapere’ (Concrete and Plastic) begins in Shona as opposed to in English. The italicised words which start the poem in Shona, (but which are glaringly missing from the English version) are missing from the latter version because they make an inter-textual reference to a Shona childhood game that would need to be understood by the reader first before the opening lines can begin to make sense. In this game, two teams of children (that I will call teams A and B) shout the following words at each other:

Team A: Hwayi hwayi huyai ( literally: Sheep sheep come!)
Team B: Tinotya (We are afraid)
Team A: Munotyeiko? (What are you afraid of?)
Team B: Mapere (Hyenas)
Team A: Mapere akaenda Hwedza (The hyenas are not here anymore since they all went to Wedza)

Team A’s last response is the signal for members of team B (the sheep) to try to break out of a ‘siege’ mounted around them by members of team A (the hyenas) who surround them in a wide circle that has some gaps through which a nimble- footed ‘sheep’ can dash to ‘freedom’. The role of the ‘hyenas’ is to try to catch as many of the escaping ‘sheep’ as possible. Usually, trying to catch the sheep escaping through the gap on one’s left hand side gives another sheep, waiting to escape through the gap on one’s right hand side, the opportunity to dash out. The game is usually played in the ‘open air’ on full moon nights in rural areas.

The point is that this intertextual reference to the children’s game would perhaps only make sense in the English translation if accompanied by a copious footnote (or some other such encumbrance) which is why the translation just excludes that whole part of the poem in the translated version. The presence of the ‘sheep-hyena’ exchange in the Shona version accentuates the sense of loss caused by urbanisation. Readers are poignantly reminded of the open moonlit spaces that have disappeared since the concrete and plastic of urbanisation took over. And the Shona version also ends with the powerful rhetorical question: “Ndiyani iyeye akati mapere akaenda Hwedza?”, which could be translated as “Who lied to us that the hyenas really went to Wedza?”, which is missing from the English translation.

We are back to the most important statement which Ignatius Mabasa seems to make as an up and coming and increasingly influential Zimbabwean poet writing in Shona. This is that no second language can ever possess the resources for self-expression that are available in one’s first language. And, even translations can never recover the full range of meanings that one can express when one uses one’s mother tongue.

Chirere, M. (2004) “Mapenzi and The Art of Leaving Centre” http://www:jahn-bibliothek.ifeas.uni-maiz.de/JJSAbstracts.html#CHIRERE
Mabasa, I. (2005) “Why I Write in the Shona Language”
Wa Thiongo, N. (1987) Decolonising the Mind. Harare: Zimbabwe Publishing House

Clement Chihota is studying for a PhD in English at the University of Cape Town, where he also teaches a course in Zimbabwean fiction. Clement has also published a collection of poems Before The Next Song, (Mambo Press, 1999). He has short stories in both Writing Still and Writing Now (Weaver Press: www.weaverpresszimbabwe.com). You can contact him by .

© Clement Chihota  

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