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Author Archive

Writer in Exile

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Friday, July 3rd, 2009 by John Eppel

I’ve just won a prestigious prize – tens of thousands of dollars (US) – thanks to that large, yellow-fleshed Swedish friend of mine, the one who nominated me for the Nobel Prize, which was won, would you believe it, by a racist white Afrikaner whose name I forget.

So, no, I don’t feel bad about winning a prize as a writer in exile.  We black female  writers with peasant backgrounds are the most discriminated against of all when it comes to prizes.  I’ve won only about twenty since I began publishing. The fact is, I can’t write when the mossies bite.  (Ha ha: I’m a poet and I didn’t know it!).   In Bulawayo that means November to March or April, depending on the rains.

Thanks to my Scandinavian, German, and Canadian fans (they have called me the Jane Austen of Africa although I believe I am better than her at marulas and stones), I have no problem with free accommodation at these divine writers’ retreats, which range from medieval castles to five star hotels.  They worship me.  After all, they say I am Zimbabwe’s greatest author. Eat your heart out, Doris Lessing!

I got the idea from these battered old Rhodies who can’t survive on the sort of income that their servants have been surviving on for decades.  They sell what’s left of their worldly possessions in order to buy a return ticket to England.  There they are in great demand as care-givers to the elderly.  After three months they have earned enough forex to live fairly comfortably in Zimbabwe for a year or two. Then they return to England for another stint.  A woman called Mrs Tennyson, who rents one of the servants’ quarters on my property in Kumalo suburb, and who teaches A-level Maths at one of the local private schools, told me her story.

What with spiralling inflation and a plummeting economy, teachers in Zimbabwe can no longer survive on their incomes.  It was only as a last resort that Mrs Tennyson decided to become a nanny in England.  Before that she tried to supplement her income by selling what she called “finger dips”, at church bazaars, flea markets, and school fetes.  She made egg cup sized containers out of tin foil, and then she went round the various hotels and restaurants of Bulawayo importuning the waiters for left over gravy.  The little she received was poured into a large enamelled pot and blended with herbs from her garden and shocking quantities of her home-made, used tea-leaves wine.  If the sucker hadn’t given away most of her dips she might have earned good money from her enterprise; but you know what these people are like?  Giving things away is so patronizing, so condescending, so racist, really, when you come to think of it.

The same thing happened with the used motor car oil (to bring out the glow in paving stones), which she importuned from petrol attendants at garages all over town.  Then it was shopping bags sewn from used plastic litter, tons of which, she informed me, can be gathered from the pathways that make diagonal connections with the road grids of suburban Bulawayo.  What was it after that? Oh yes: insect repellent made from repellent insects, crushed, and mixed in a Vaseline base; sold by the thimbleful.  She had inherited a thousand plastic thimbles in five different colours from her grandfather, Fred, who had been a frequenter of auctions and who could never resist what he considered a bargain.

Anyway, this loser, Mrs Tennyson, and her ilk, gave me an idea.  It’s always pissed me off, somewhat, that the one literary prize I haven’t been able to compete for is that which is awarded to a writer in exile.  I’ve done pretty well with all the other prizes.  One of my books, Called The Scent of Jacaranda, won a poetry prize in Canada, a novel prize in Sweden, and a play prize in Germany – all in the same year.  I used the money to buy this house, my Pajero, and my imported crystal chandelier.  Don’t touch it; it’s fragile; it came all the way from Vienna in Austria.

I said to myself, you can’t claim political exile since you are well up with the ZANU PF élite; and you can’t claim economic exile since royalties and prize money have helped you amass a small fortune;  you can, and will, however, claim exile from these pesky mosquitoes.  They interfere with your creative genius, which is a world heritage.  The rest, my dear, is history. From my place of exile, a five star hotel in Frankfurt, I submitted a piece called Jacaranda O Jacaranda.  The Scandinavian adjudicators (I know them all personally) were unanimous in awarding me the prize.  I intend to go into exile every year from now on, especially when those pesky mossies begin to bite.

A Reluctant Soldier

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Wednesday, May 27th, 2009 by John Eppel

I was 27 when I was called up to protect God and Country from the twin evils of Communism and African Nationalism.  God had recently become a Born Again Christian, and Country was a chartered company called Rhodesia.

My first experience of war was the basic training camp at Llewellyn Barracks outside Bulawayo: it was 8 weeks of hell.  The drill sergeant kept threatening to ram his wand of office up our “dung funnels”.  I was luckier than many because, with my short back-and-sides, my pencil-thin moustache, and my tilted beret, I bore a resemblance to Monty of Alamein, under whose overall command our drill sergeant had seen active service, in a war he sentimentally described as The Last Effort.  Whenever he looked at me standing stiffly to attention on the parade ground, his eyes misted over.

There were three categories of so-called Territorials: A, B, and S.  The As were one hundred percent fit for combat, the Bs had minor disabilities like colour-blindness, while the Ss were hopeless cases and were there for one reason only: they were white, and all white males from the ages of 18 to 60 had to be called up.  I was categorized B.  I had two minor disabilities: I was short-sighted and I was a school teacher.  According to our trainers, from the Camp Commander down to the lance corporals, teachers had no skills and were fit for nothing but cannon fodder.  Consequently we became riflemen; and it was with my rifle, my “wife”, that the real troubles began.

Part of our training was a competition on the shooting range, which involved the entire barracks.  I came second last with a score of 13 out of 300.  The recruit, who came last, an S-category, threw an epileptic fit on automatic fire.  If the moon had been a target he would have achieved quite a good score.  Coming second last was bad enough but some of my rounds went into the target of the guy next to me, and he came first with an incredible score of 340 out of 300.  The soldiers running the competition were so disgusted with me and the epileptic that they made us run, on the spot, with rifles held aloft, until we collapsed.

Even the epileptic beat me in the competition to dismantle and reassemble our weapons in as fast a time as possible.  The winning time was measured in seconds; I was at it for nearly an hour, and the final result was something more akin to an agricultural implement than a weapon of war – and there were bits left over, one of which was stuffed into my ear by a disgusted instructor.

My punishment was even worse the day I asked one of our trainers, who used variations on the word “fuck” to punctuate his lectures, which knots we should use when tying our white surrender flags to the barrels of our FNs (automatic rifles manufactured in Belgium).  My heart wasn’t in this war.  I was too old to be taken in by the crude propaganda of the Rhodesian government. I knew that I was on the side of the baddies.

After basic training I was called up every school holidays and deployed to various hot spots.  I stuck it out for two years then left for England with a hundred Rhodesian dollars (worth fifty pounds sterling) in my pocket and a knitted tea cosy on my head.  There I applied unsuccessfully for political asylum.  After all, I hadn’t made the slightest attempt to assassinate Ian Smith or to down a Viscount, or to overturn the concrete picnic tables at designated lay bys.

Most of my time on call ups was spent digging bunkers or getting drunk on warm beer; but I was involved in one contact, near a post on the Mozambique border called Vila Salazar.  I have described this contact in poetry (confessional) and in prose (mocking) and I reproduce the poem below.  The contradiction of being a European-African has resulted in my speaking with voices that seem, and might well be, contradictory.  I’m no Billy Budd, in whose nature there was neither the will nor the “sinister dexterity” of satire.

When our section went out on patrol or to set up an ambush, we left our grenades behind so that we could fill our kidney pouches with quarter jacks of cheap brandy or cane spirit.  Then we would find a “safe” spot, usually half way up a koppie, disconnect our radio (it seldom worked, anyway), and sip our way into oblivion.  We were sitting ducks.

Once our platoon commander decided to accompany us and that was the closest I came, in the War of Liberation, to being shot.  Some “terrs” had been spotted in the area and it was our job to track them down.  The platoon commander, in great excitement, told us to look for a certain pattern of shoe sole favoured by the enemy.  For hours in the sweltering heat we searched the rock-hard ground for these prints.  I was fed up.  I saw a cow-hoof print in a gulley and called out: “Sarge, I’ve got their trail!”  Would you believe it, he ordered the rest of the section to leopard-crawl towards me.  “Look!” I whispered, pointing at the cow-hoof print.  The platoon commander stared at it for a second or two, and then he stood up, cocked his rifle, let off the safety catch, and took aim at me.  The next few seconds passed for an eternity.   I won’t bore you with the details of my punishment.  Alexander Pope once said: “Those who are ashamed of nothing else are so of being ridiculous.”

Read the poem . . . Spoils of war

The artist in times of crisis

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Tuesday, May 5th, 2009 by John Eppel

The topic is rather vague.  I take it to mean, for the purposes of this discussion, not spiritual crisis or domestic crisis or epistemological crisis, but economic crisis brought about by the politics of cronyism and patronage.  Anybody with a sense of history can see that power corrupts so that today’s oppressed will become tomorrow’s oppressors.  Davids are Goliaths in waiting.  I believe it is my duty as a published writer to keep detached from this ugly cycle so that I can snipe at it.

Sniping is an appropriate figure of speech for writers because they attack from a distance, not like performance artists – actors, playwrights, poet-musicians, film-makers, who engage in hand-to-hand combat and who are, consequently, living a lot more dangerously.  It was his plays in Kikuyu, not his novels in English, that got Ngugi imprisoned.

It’s not only my genre that makes me feel a little safer in our police state.  Unless you’re a commercial farmer, being white still carries a few advantages in this country.  For example, you’re less likely to be searched at a road block.   And unlike Olympic swimmers and Wimbledon tennis players, serious white writers in Zimbabwe have, until recently, been dismissed as irrelevant.  While I used to find that hurtful, I also found it curiously comforting.  I believe my phone is tapped, and I have had some threatening calls, and my laptop was ‘disappeared’ by a senior police officer; but I have yet to see the inside of a prison, and my bones are still intact.

I said earlier that writers attack from a distance.  They work at home or at the town library.  They are seldom asked to read in public because the public find their readings boring.  They are physically detached from their books.  But I have created an even greater distance by the use of satire, a form of sniping which allows me to be disingenuous, to hide behind my irony.  However, this sometimes backfires.  For example, readers think I write sonnets and odes and sestinas because I am colonial-minded, but I write them to parody colonialism.  I reject for mine what Coetzee said about Pringle’s verse: “The familiar trot of iambic tetrameter couplets reassuringly domesticates the foreign content”

The artist is notoriously egotistical, a persistent self-promoter – crisis or no crisis.  The artist would do well to heed the almost daily heroics, in Zimbabwe, of vegetable vendors, certain bloggers, certain journalists, certain human rights activists, and those who wait outside jails.

They say art thrives in times of crisis.  Where then were the artists during Gukurahundi?  Were they still too intoxicated by the euphoria of Independence to take notice?  Where today have all the writers gone? – some into exile, some into silence, some into self-censorship, some into commercial farming!

The Comma Splice

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Wednesday, April 29th, 2009 by John Eppel

Good writing begins with syntax, and nothing weakens a sentence more than the comma splice.  Look at an example:

This device, far from interfering with the law of the Pendulum, in fact permitted its manifestation, in a vacuum any object hanging from a weightless and unstretchable wire free of resistance and friction will oscillate for eternity.

Here the comma splice occurs between “manifestation” and “in”; the result is a fused or run-on sentence where two independent clauses have been joined without an appropriate conjunction or punctuation mark.  There are three ways of correcting this: replace the comma with a full stop and start a new sentence; replace the comma with a semicolon; follow the comma with an appropriate conjunction.  The writer of that sentence, Umberto Eco, chose the third option: his comma is followed by the conjunction “for.”

Pick up any newspaper or magazine, and you will find comma splices galore.  They occur even more frequently in the compositions of school pupils.  Look at this example:  “Suddenly there was a knocking on the door, I could feel my heart thumping in my chest, the knocking got louder and louder, I went downstairs clad only in my flimsy pyjamas.”  I drew the pupil’s attention to the three comma splices, and he corrected them thus: “Suddenly there was a knocking on the door.  I could feel my heart thumping in my chest, as the knocking got louder and louder.  I went downstairs clad only in my flimsy pyjamas.”

I suspect that the main reason for the proliferation of comma splices in popular writing is the near demise of the semicolon as a punctuation mark.

The suicide bomber

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Wednesday, April 29th, 2009 by John Eppel

Ali van Baba could moralise at length on the subject of pork; on the subjects of alcohol and adultery he was a little more circumspect.  For you and me pork is no big deal; it’s a sausage or a slice of polony or a side of bacon; but for Ali van Baba, Bulawayo’s first, and to date, only suicide bomber, pork was a very big deal.  Okay, it divideth the hoof and cheweth the cud, like cows and sheep and goats; but did cows delight in filth and dung?  Did sheep?  Did goats?  No, people who eat pork live for the lusts of the flesh.  Pigs are insatiable.  They ejaculate by the pint. They gobble up everything you put before them.  How did that poet, whatsisname, put it:

They chop a half-moon clean out.
They eat cinders, dead cats.

What’s more, they are carriers of the hairlike nematode worm, which causes trichinosis in humans, and in Ali van Baba’s view, any human who eats pork deserves the affliction.

Offensive books like Mein Kampf and The Satanic Verses and The Da Vinci Code couldn’t hold a candle, in Ali Van Baba’s opinion, to “The Three Little Pigs”, not to mention all those stupid nursery rhymes that cutesified the abominations: “And there in a wood a piggy-wig stood….”   Sick!  Ali van Baba had a mantra, and it went like this: “and he huffed, and he puffed, and he blew their house down”

It was his disgust for pork (and for other things about which he was a little more circumspect), which turned mild-mannered, retiring Ali Van Baba into a suicide bomber.  And he it was who invented what has now come to be known as the strapless bomb.  The explosive he made from an old IRA recipe and he attached the device to the front of his body by means of three suction pads, one on each nipple, and one, somewhat larger, on the belly button.  He shortlisted three possible targets: the mosque on the Harare road (because its onion domes were painted a lurid green), the synagogue in Kumalo (because they wouldn’t allow him to pee in their flower bed) and the Blood of Jesus Christian church on the Old Esigodini Road (because it looked like a miniature Jaggers Wholesale building, which is constructed not of straw, nor of sticks, nor of bricks, but of state of the art zinc).  Then he applied the pork test.  Muslims eschewed the flesh of swine; Jews too, the tempting aroma of grilling bacon notwithstanding; but Christians, most of them anyway, loved it.  So pork made him decide, finally, on the last named institution; pork – and practicality.

You see, Ali Van Baba had decided on the wooden horse trick to lure his victims to their destruction.  If he chose the mosque, he would leave outside its gate a styrofoam camel on wheels, with him hidden inside.  If he chose the synagogue, he would leave outside its gate, a giant bagel, with him inside (the cream cheese, so to speak).  He couldn’t, at first think of an equivalent lure for the church.  A giant jar of home-made jam?  No.  A giant pot plant?  No.  A giant braai pack?  Maybe.  Then it came to him… of course… two birds with one stone… a giant piggy bank.  Most Christians ate pork; and judging by the Pajeros and double cabs that patronised this church, they weren’t averse to money.   A piggy-bank wooden horse would be easier to construct than camel or bagel wooden horses, so he set to work, and before long he had constructed a piggy bank large enough for him and his strapless bomb to hide inside.

Sure enough, it worked.  One dark Saturday night, under cover of an overcast sky, whispering, ‘he huffed and he puffed, and he blew their house down’, Ali van Baba, wearing his strapless bomb and a matching pair of blue overalls, wheeled the porcine contraption all the way from his home in downtown Bulawayo to the gate of the Blood of Jesus Christian church.  It took him hours, and along the way he psyched himself up by repeating his mantra, and by muttering: ‘Three cheers for the big bad wolf!  Down with the piggywig who was willing to sell his ring for a shilling.  Down with Porky.  Down with Petunia.  Down with the old person of Bray who fed figs to his pigs.’  He climbed into the piggy bank through an ingeniously constructed trap door under its curly tail.  Then he made himself as comfortable as possible and waited, eyes fixed on the coin slot above him, which grew progressively lighter.  The first service would begin around 8 a.m. the next day.

He must have fallen asleep because the sound of excited voices took him by surprise.  Then he began to move: through the gate, along the ground a way, up a ramp – the voices were growing in number and volume – into the warehouse of a building, and then up towards the holier end.  He began to fondle the button, which would detonate the bomb.  ‘He huffed,’ he whispered, ‘he puffed… and he blew their house down.’ There was a commotion about him.  Suddenly a loud voice called for order, and order there was, and in those seconds of awed silence, Bulawayo’s first and, it is to be hoped, only, suicide bomber, pushed the button.  Damn the IRA!  Only the detonator went off, blowing Ali Van Baba out of the trapdoor, the pig’s vent, where he was received with rapturous applause by the congregation.  Then that same voice, which had silenced the flock, announced in tremulous tones that the Second Coming was at hand.

The Big Five

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Thursday, April 23rd, 2009 by John Eppel

It was at Punda Maria where, despite the intrusive Mopani trees and the irritating call of the Cape turtle dove, we got our first sighting.   We couldn’t believe our good luck.  If it wasn’t for a herd of impalas leaping idiotically over the road, we might have been able, with our Canon EOS 350D, to play with its shadow, its reflection, its profile.  You guessed it: a silver Toyota Land Cruiser Prado VX Turbo Diesel .  My hand was shaking when I ticked it on the checklist.

Our two-night stay at the Punda Maria rest camp was all but ruined by the crowds of long-tail cassias, Natal mahoganies, sycamore figs, tamboties, and the ubiquitous mopani.  The birds were intolerable, especially that raucous francolin!  Even worse, a pack of hyenas insisted on patrolling the boundary fence.  But all was not lost, for, parked two tents down from our campsite, was a Range Rover, 3.6 litre, V8 turbo-charged and intercooled diesel engine, glovebox illumination… smell those leather seats… and emblazoned on its rump, the proud words: “Don’t try to follow me – you won’t make it”.  We must have photographed it a hundred times.

After Punda Maria we headed southtowards Shingwedzi and, with the aid of our Zeiss FL (with fluoride glass) we almost completed our checklist: Mazda, Isuzu, Volkswagen, Ford, BMW, Honda, Opel, Nissan,  Hundayi… you name it.  But we were obsessed with the Big Five, and we’d already been fortunate enough to encounter two of them.  The famed Kanniedood Drive was a big disappointment because the bush was teeming with game: obnoxious giraffe, silly wildebeest, vain zebra, supercilious kudu….  Even the skies were polluted, with kingfishers, bee eaters, storks, herons and, worst of all, eagles and vultures.   At the sight of a ground hornbill waddling along the road with no fewer than three frogs in its repulsive beak, we almost decided to turn around and head for home.

If anything, our camping experience at Shingwedzi was even worse than those disturbed nights in Punda Maria. We had to erect our tent right under an apple leaf tree!   The resident birds, none more obnoxious than the glossy starlings and the woodland kingfishers, completely spoiled our sundowner time; and our sleep was disturbed by the yelping of jackals and the eructations of rutting impala.  We even had to listen to a leopard coughing.  But then peace at last, nay joy, when we heard the arrival of the ‘best 4X4 by far’, the Landrover Defender 2.5 TDi with Aircon, CD-Radio, Power Steering, Centre Diff Lock/Rear Diff Lock, Customised Safari Equipment.  Using our flash, we got in some good shots: from the back, from the front, and from both sides.  We managed to get a wonderful close-up of the left back passenger door handle, a picture we intend to frame.

On our way to Balule we were surprised to find that the low-level causeway over the Olifants was under water.  We, along with a number of other visitors, were afraid to attempt a crossing in case the powerful current swept us into the disgusting brown river.  It seemed as if we had been marooned there for ages, pulling faces at the wire-tailed swallows and the yellow-billed storks, bored stupid by a fight between two male hippos, sickened by the cry of the fish eagle… when a seeming miracle took place.   We heard the powerful diesel engine before we witnessed it:  a snow white Toyota Fortuner 3.0TD 4X4 with all the mod cons including mp3, Elec. Windows, and Airbags.  Almost simultaneously a huge rogue elephant with tusks that ploughed the earth before it, began crossing the causeway from the other side.  There is no stopping one of the Big Five, however – except briefly, to engage  low gear – and the Fortuner  eased on to the causeway.  The current swirled about its massive, beautifully treaded wheels as it approached the elephant, now flapping its ears like carpets being dusted.

We began to giggle with excited apprehension.  Predictably the elephant chickened out and backed away, allowing the Fortuner to cross over to glory.  We cheered and cheered, as did the other stranded visitors, all deeply satisfied with our photos of that ineffable vehicle.

After an hour or two the water subsided sufficiently for us to attempt a crossing, and we were mightily relieved to get to the other side.  Balule was a most rewarding camp site since we counted no fewer than thirteen white and silver Toyota Hilux Double Cabs within the boundary fence.  If there were a sixth Big One, this vehicle would be It.  Our disappointments were restricted to a few squirrels and an ugly pair of plum-coloured starlings.  Oh, and the far too many Terminalia prunioides with their creamy flowers in slender axillary spikes, their purplish red fruits, and their long, drooping branches.

The next day turned out to be our last because we got to see the last of the Big Five; consequently there was no longer any point in enduring unpleasant scenery: bush, bush, and more bush – especially when it teemed with game.  We suspected something dramatic when, on our way to Satara, we saw a herd of buffalo surrounding a male lion, which had been mortally wounded in a battle with a sable antelope.  That was on the left side of the road.  On the right side a rhino and a leopard had teamed up to fight an elephant, and the result was carnage, enthusiastically welcomed by four species of vulture, a family of hyenas, a pack of wild dogs, a marabou stork, and God knows how many dung beetles.  And guess what we saw in the midst of it all? Yes:  the rarest and positively the most beautiful (and dangerous) of the Big Five: a Mitsubishi Pajero with Bull Bars, electronically controlled sequential multi-port fuel injection, and a place to hold a can of coke.