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Brian Chikwava    

Writing the Story of Zimbabwe

(All About A Sullied Imagination & An Elusive Language)

Brian Chikwava, 2004 Caine Prize winner, writes from the UK


To a man who only has a hammer, every problem that he encounters looks like a nail, so said Abraham Maslow. Well, it’s unfortunate I find myself in a similar position because, being a writer, I now happen to have only a pen in my toolbox, and every problem that crosses my path now inexplicably resembles a story that needs fixing – cross out a few lines here and there, add some there, move chunks of texts about and all is sorted.

Largely because of this sole tool at my disposal, I have also come to think that, at a certain level, the art of story writing has a lot in common with the art of politics; both are best practiced when one has a willingness to let other people into one’s creative world as critics, so they can make a difference by helping you rejig your ideas. For both practices you also need a good nose for the language that suits your story and, above all, a powerful imagination. With that in mind, a glance at Zimbabwe tells me that this is a bad story that needs more than thorough editing; it needs a complete rewrite. Whether we will see a good rewrite depends not only on the writer of this story, Robert Mugabe, but also on whether the opposition, his critics, can put on the table new ideas that will take the story in another direction.

Needless to say, for every well-executed story, there are always a dozen other horrors of creative endeavour littering the literary landscape. Similarly, for every successful political project there are a dozen other wreckages scattered all over our continent. Whether the story of Zimbabwe will eventually be part of that lot is not for me to say. No doubt this will be pored over by scholars for years to come because surrounding it is a bad tempered row about which genre the Zimbabwean story belongs to. Mugabe insists this is an epic that is as good as Tolstoy’s War & Peace, except that the story of Zimbabwe is packed with more heroic exploits and, significantly, can only end with the triumph of his will over history. The opposition and others think it should be shelved under ‘tragedy’. Yet whether it ends up on this or that shelf is not the biggest problem with the script. The biggest problem is that there has been a singular failure of the imagination. The star role should have been given to the common person, but Mugabe has planted himself right at the centre of the story. If a mhondoro spirit (the mythic lion spirits that are the custodians of the Zimbabwe) were to appear to him now, offering to do anything he desired on the condition that it shall be twice done to every citizen of Zimbabwe, it would not be out of character for him to request that one of his eyes be disgorged. Sadly that is where Mugabe is today happier if the citizens of Zimbabwe lost their sight, lest they see the ruin that he has delivered them into. But that is hardly surprising because an imagination that is pickled in, and sullied by its own bitterness, is never the greatest tool to write a story with, as any writer will attest.

There is a cliché that the only thing history teaches us is that we do not learn anything from it. One recalls Ian Smith’s vision of a Rhodesia that would last a thousand years. This was after his government had severed relations with Britain in a unilateral declaration of independence and sovereignty. Smith had been scripting the story of a thousand years of Rhodesia when it fell apart simply because black people, failing to recognize themselves in the role that he had scripted for them, refused to cooperate. Perhaps from that, Mugabe figured out that Ian Smith was too squeamish about realizing his vision. Now, nearly three decades later, in the midst of economic hardship and arbitrary state violence, Mugabe has cast the majority of Zimbabweans into the role of cheerleading him in his heroic exploits against Britain. But they do not recognize themselves in the role he wants them to play. Of course, where he can, he has seen to it that such ‘slow-witted’ citizens end up as only one thing: state rejects. They get cleared away by government initiatives such as Operation Murambatsvina and are spitefully dispossessed of their selfhood if not their lives wherever they come into contact with the state. So there – Rhodesians never die. They simply turn black, rewrite their script, and implement it with twice as much fury and brutality. To those at the receiving end of baton sticks, a thousand years doesn’t seem such an illusory vision after all. Meanwhile other African leaders stand aside and wring their hands most touchingly.

Mugabe aside, there is also the failure of the opposition to articulate its vision. The problem seems to be the absence of a language with which to convey its political project. This was well illustrated the week after Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai’s brutal assault by the police. We saw Tsvangirai’s media team allowing him to be aired on radio and TV around the world bemoaning his head that was still dizzy and sore – the veritable language of victimhood. I am not at all suggesting that Tsvangirai was not in pain, or indeed that he is not a victim. What I seek to understand is how the general populace, the people that he is supposed to inspire, is supposed to reconcile this sorry spectacle with the indomitable leader of a people’s movement, which is what Tsvangirai has cast himself as in the political theatre that is Zimbabwe? Mugabe probably suffers sweat-drenched sleepless nights and cracking headaches as circumstances push him against the wall, but we have yet to hear about that. In an age where the average teenager on understands the art of image and myth-making it seems odd that Tsvangirai’s media advisers are still so backward.

But maybe the problem lies elsewhere: Tsvangirai does not have just one audience but two – one, outside Zimbabwe, to whom he must look like a victim, and the other, in Zimbabwe, to whom he must be the irrepressible opposition leader. Now, look at it that way and Tsvangirai’s problems with political language sharply come into focus. If he is confused about whether he is a victim or a fighter, how can he possibly know what tongue to speak? The problems may even be deeper. With its roots in the trade union, one would have expected Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change to speak a language that inspires the common people. From their inception they took their eye off that, flirted with the neo-liberal policies and allowed Mugabe to snatch the left-leaning language that was rightfully theirs. Now they do not know if they are free marketers or a grassroots movement, and that may explain why Morgan Tsvangirai, given a chance to write Zimbabwe into the future, still holds his pen mid-air, staring at a blank sheet of paper in front of him. The story is there somewhere inside his head, but what language? Or is there a central problem of characterization with this engaging story of Zimbabwe? Do we have a hero or victim as the protagonist?

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