The Necessity of Zimbabwe


Dambudzo Marechera. From cover of Moving Spirit: The Legacy of Dambudzo Marechera in the 21st Century,
edited by Julie Cairnie and Dobrota Pucherova, 2012

by Daniel Bosch

Years ago, reviewing Dambudzo Marechera’s collection of stories and poems, The House of Hunger (Heinemann African Writers, 1978), I called him the Zimbabwean Keats. I don’t want to recant the estimation of the power of his work such a moniker implies, but it should be said that Marechera was no slight, mild-mannered, generous and sensitive surgeon from Cheapside. His too-small oeuvre is raucously energetic, frenetic, humorous, moodily swinging from chandelier and noose. And though he mixes in only a few one-hundredth parts of the pensiveness of his Romantic pre-cursor, I do not doubt that Marechera possessed what Keats called “Negative Capability.”

We have grown used to having a Zimbabwe, one nation past Zambia on our alphabetical lists. We have grown accustomed to a Zimbabwe in the clutches of an aging despot, no longer a revolutionary hero; its economy perched on precarious global markets. We are inured to the tug of news from a country where a gallon of milk might cost a gazillion Zimdollars. But in “House of Hunger,” Marechera’s narrator makes us feel the necessity that there be a Zimbabwe — no matter how troubling the disparity between revolutionary dream and post-colonial reality.

Listen in, below. A black Rhodesian Roman Catholic priest visiting the sixth form has just berated the narrator for stammering. When the priest claims that the narrator’s difficulty in exercising free speech is “the ape-man in (him),” the students erupt into class-warfare:

(The priest) went on:
‘Humility is the gateway to the halls of government. The
humility I mean is this: you had nothing but the ape-man in you. Then
Jesus Christ came…’
My inkwell missed his head by a breath and smashed into the
wall behind him. But he shouted all the louder:
‘You had nothing but the ape-grin in your brains. And the white
man came. Look around you. Surely the industry and progress…”
A large lump of sadza hit him squarely in the face.
But he seemed to draw strength from it and to drag it full-blast
out of his lungs of the earth:
‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. St Paul
himself, in…’
Three lumps of sadza flung from different points of the room
scored direct hits on his grey head.
But with a resolute shake of his stooping shoulders he cried
out triumphantly:
‘…in the Epistle to the Romans specifically says that loyalty
rather than insurrection is the supreme Christian virtue.’
There was a dead silence as he lowered his voice dramatically
and continued in a more confidential tone:
‘I was also, like you, restless and impatient. Listen, I never had
the chance—which you have now—of a formal education. My youth
was a hungry and impatient one; but my hunger was not for the things
of this world. My impatience was for the coming of a greater reality.
Those of you who know me well know that I was a homeless orphan:
without shelter, without food, without a father, without a mother,
without brothers or sisters, without the comfort of friends. There was a great void in
my heart. That vast emptiness was the horror of the heart of darkness.’
(‘The horror—the horror!’ Edmund mimicked unconvincingly.
Joseph Conrad was one of our set of authors then.)
At this point the door was flung open and Father Johnson
entered in great agitation. He took one look at our handiwork (the ink,
the mess of sadza) and as usual looked so shocked that no one dared
breathe lest our breath knocked him down. Finally he took the priest
by the arm and led him out of the room. As the door closed gently
behind them Edmund whispered loudly, ‘Ready, steady, go!’ and the
room resounded with catcalls, hoots, howls, ululations, screeches,
whistles, and the mind-bending agony of tables being drummed black
and blue.
‘Bloody missionaries!’
‘Bloody whites!’
‘They had the Bible!’
‘We had the land!’
‘Now they have the land!’
‘And we have the Bible!’
‘Bloody sell-outs!’

The economy and reach of this scene is breath-taking. Marechera’s vision edits every extraneous element, leaving the priest’s selfishness and temerity, the narrator’s shame and passion, the boys’ tinder-dry, hormonally inflected politics (auto-didacts unite!), the headmaster’s clued-in cluelessness, the ominous sound of colonial tables turned into drums. Yet every time Marechera’s lungs inhaled pride, they exhaled sung laughter.

The finale of The House of Hunger opens with his ars poetica:

The mind is a bell whose rope
Is tugged by the senses;
The clangorous din
Is the effort of the innermost in us.
(“Characters from the Bergfrith”)

Keats died of tuberculosis. His self-composed epitaph reads, “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.” Dambudzo Marechera was born in Southern Rhodesia in 1952 and died in Zimbabwe in 1987 of AIDS-related illnesses. I don’t know if he even has an epitaph. But let’s imagine that it reads, “Close the newsfeed and read my work.”

About the Author:

Daniel Bosch’s poems and translations have been published in journals such as Poetry, Slate, The Times Literary Supplement, Agni, The Beloit Poetry Journal, The New Republic and The Paris Review. He was Poetry Editor at Harvard Review for issues 19 and 20. In 1998 he was awarded the Boston Review Poetry Prize for a set of poems riffing on films starring Tom Hanks, and his first collection of poems, Crucible, was published by Other Press in 2002.  Recent essay-reviews by Daniel can be read at Artsfuse, Contemporary Poetry Review, The Critical Flame, The Rumpus and The Fortnightly Review. He lives in Chicago.