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Aloes at Hillside Dams
There is something human about aloes.
They smell - and feel, if you probe the slimy
parts – like sex. They have cuticular roots
and they object to being planted in rows.
Their welcome is arm-like, sometimes grimy
with white scale, sometimes polished absolutes.
Their process of dying is shameless: top
down (or bottom up). In their multitudes
they elaborate these Dams, not, somehow,
as genus, or variety, or crop,
but as comrades, citizens, darlings, dudes.
Their spaced teeth are not vicious. Then and now,
past and present, something human. The name
invites a greeting… all winter… aflame.
I went to Grahamstown for a week to visit my daughter, Ruth, who is completing her Masters on memoirs by white Zimbabwean women. I attended a colloquium where Masters and PhD students present aspects of their dissertations to supervisors and other interested lecturers. My daughter’s paper went well although one of the lecturers, a white woman with an excellent reputation as a teacher, queried the sincerity of Alexandra Fuller’s second book, Scribbling the Cat. I tended to agree with her and wondered aloud if it wasn’t the same with Peter Godwin, that his books had become progressively less sincere, seemingly written to order. I had inadvertently lit a fuse. She made academic mincemeat of Godwin, and climaxed with, ‘I’m sick of hearing about white boys in Africa!’ I got a distinct impression that she was including this old white boy. I felt like replying – since I’m not an academic and don’t need to be politically correct – I felt like replying, ‘Well, I’m sick of hearing about white girls in academia’… but I chickened out.
While I was in Grahamstown, Dan Wylie launched his new poetry collection, Sailor, Poems for my Father. Using Homer’s Odyssey as a frame, it sets out upon a son’s quest for his father. Every poem is a gem. It was Dan who drew my attention to David Hughes’ disparaging comment about me in his influential book, Whiteness in Zimbabwe. Race, Landscape and the Problem of Belonging. I’d like to reply to David Hughes in this blog. Here is what he says on page 10 of his book:-
In “I and the Black Poet” John Eppel contrasts himself – savouring “a memory of crocus bulbs” – and his counterpart: “He focuses on Sharpeville and Soweto”. That poem first appeared in the 1970s. By 2007 Eppel had written a handful of novels centering on political and economic corruption in Bulawayo (e.g. 2002 and 2006), but his poetry still fetishized crocuses, the Matobo hills, and so on. The choice of subject was deliberate. Eppel was, as he explained to a literary magazine, trying “to find a voice which merges British form (prosody) with African content (mostly nature)”. Blacks – evidently capable of killing whites and being killed by them – still did not seem to rank as publishable “content”.
I try to teach my school pupils about the often dangerous power of rhetoric – selectivity, generalisation, emotional manipulation… as a satirist I use it myself. Politicians use it, priests use it, moms and dads use it; but one doesn’t expect trained academics to use it. Hughes deliberately – he can’t be stupid – misreads my poem. In fact it is a confirmation of his attitude to white Zimbabweans (which is how I felt in the 70s, more than 30 years ago). The tone of the poem is not assertive, it is apologetic, self-mocking. Here it is:-
I and the Black Poet
I have my subject in focus,
now I must focus my poem.
It’s a memory of crocus
bulbs. The memory is dim
but on page ninety-seven
of What Flower is That?
there’s a picture of a pink one.
The petals are opened – not flat
like a daisy, or just,
like a protea, but halfway
like me. Now, with care, I must
arrange my words so that the ‘gay
little flowers…pop right out
of the ground in earliest spring.’
Shall they be white, or violet
or yellow or blue? And shining?
Shall they shining? Not bright
like stars, or dullish like paper,
but halfway like spoons. O the light
in the pink of this picture
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.
Willows require still pools,
girls, silver-backed mirrors,
priests, the cross of Jesus.
can take their reflection
from the dull sky of tarmac.
In her obituary of Yvonne Vera, Ranka Primorac wrote: “The most courageous among them [her other books] is The Stone Virgins, the first work of fiction that openly exposes and condemns the government sponsored violence [Gukurahundi] against civilians in Independent Zimbabwe.” Primorac goes on to praise its “stylistic mastery and political bravery.” Yet The Stone Virgins has never been banned; Vera (who, curiously, received the Tucholsky Award of the Swedish PEN for a writer in exile or undergoing persecution) never went into exile, was never persecuted, never even harassed. The novel was published in 2002 when the government’s policy of re-crafting and subverting the law to support its ideology of “patriotism” was in Operation [upper case deliberate]. How come they left her alone? I can think of two reasons: first, that Primorac is wrong about Vera’s political courage; second, The Stone Virgins is a novel written in turgid English, and was never likely to influence the restless povo, for most of whom books are unaffordable, and English is very much a second or third language.
By blurring distinctions between dissidents, pseudo-dissidents, and soldiers; between war and massacre; by the timing of the atrocities described in the novel, Vera creates self-protecting ambiguities. For example, the brutal murder of the shop owner, Mahlatini takes place in 1982, before the Fifth Brigade was officially mobilised. His killers are called “soldiers”. Just before he dies, the author puts a suggestive thought in his mind: “He did not want to see who was killing him, just in case he recalled something about the eyes, the forehead, the gait of this man.” Just in case his killer was a local?
The saintly man, Cephas, associated with the mazhanje (umhobohobo) fruit of the eastern highlands, is Shona (his tagged on surname, Dube, notwithstanding); the diabolical man, Sibaso, associated with the marula fruit of Matabeleland, is Ndebele. Dissidents and pseudo-dissidents did commit atrocities, some hundreds, mainly against whites and so-called sell-outs; but the Fifth Brigade, targeting innocent rural folk, killed, raped, and maimed tens of thousands. Vera’s choice of perpetrator in this context seems somewhat skewed. No wonder she wouldn’t allow copies of Breaking the Silence, Building True Peace, to be displayed in the Art Gallery shop when she was the Director – the same art gallery where Owen Maseko’s exhibition remains sealed off to the public. So, Ranka Primorac is wrong – there is nothing in The Stone Virgins that” openly” condemns and exposes Gukurahundi. On the contrary, it is full of lyrical self-censorship.
The second reason why the authorities might have left Yvonne Vera alone recalls the words of the writer, Stanley Nyamfukudza: “One of the best ways to hide information in Zimbabwe is to publish it in a book.” The Board of Censors tends to overlook the written word because the vast majority of people in this country have little access to books, especially fictional books. The visual arts, township drama, and performance poetry are another story! The Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiongo was imprisoned not for his novels in English but for his plays in Kikuyu. The authorities don’t want the masses to get too excited.
So, why Owen Maseko? Again, I can think of two reasons: first, his exhibition is courageous to the point of recklessness in its exposure of what has now been officially classified as genocide; second, as a visual artist his work is immediately accessible to the restless povo. It speaks a universal language.
In his book, Keywords, Raymond Williams describes culture as “one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language”; yet I am going to have to rely on this word in my very short discussion, especially the second of the five definitions given in the Concise Oxford Dictionary (Ninth Edition): “the customs, civilization and achievements of a particular time or people”. In my discussion I shall particularise the vague word “achievements”, first into the word “arts”, next into two names connected with the arts, both names currently in the news: Munyaradzi Chidzonga and Charles Mungoshi.
In my opinion, Charles Mungoshi is Zimbabwe’s greatest living writer. This award-winning, internationally respected author of novels, poems, and short stories – in Shona as well as in English – is desperately ill, and almost destitute. In cultural terms, he is one of Zimbabwe’s most precious jewels. His voice, even in English, is quintessentially African, never pseudo-European. He is our collective treasure. And yet, the so-called guardians of our heritage, our culture – those in high government office – have done nothing, as far as I know, to assist Charles Mungoshi in his hour of need.
Along comes the handsome actor, Munyaradzi Chidzonga, who was outvoted in the finals of the peeping Tom television show, “Big Brother”; unfairly outvoted, according to some of our Government Ministers who watch the sordid programme on their plasma screens when they should be attending to potholes, and housing shortages, or reading Charles Mungoshi… along he comes, this born free son of the soil, trailing, not clouds of glory, but dreams of one day meeting His Excellency, the Head of State, First Secretary, Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces…er… where was I? Oh yes, this darling of ZANU PF heavyweights, bringing Zimbabwean culture to the furtive voyeurs of the African continent… what does he get?- a reception at State House where His Excellency etc, etc, shakes his hand and proffers him a cheque for an obscene amount of money. No wonder Munyaradzi was over the moon.
None of this really has anything to do with culture. It’s all about political opportunism and, God help us, it works.