By Brian Maregedze
Each generation must discover its path to greatness or sink in oblivion, as the truism goes. Trapped in Zimbabwe’s myth of the New Dispensation, I literally “got my things and left” (The House of Hunger; p.8).
I used to tolerate staying in Zimbabwe and only leave when making visits but the thought of leaving intensified with the birth of Zimbabwe’s New Dispensation. Leaving in the sense of putting on hold projects I felt I had invested in for a long time, the books I contributed especially for high school learners, History and Family and Religious Studies. I couldn’t stomach leaving Zimbabwe and as a writer re-reading Dambudzo Marechera, I found myself obsessed with a question he once paused, “can writers whitewash poverty”? The month of November offers an opportunity to reflect on Zimbabwe’s so-called new dispensation, deploying Dambudzo Marechera’s classic ‘The House of Hunger’ as an entry point to the continued crisis.
I write this piece within the trope of Marechera’s “visionary character, leaving and or escaping.” A sense of vindicating Marechera is borne out of a Zimbabwe with gerontocracy leanings politically; effort to make sense of the relevance of the youths in Zimbabwe’s leadership and future as well as other African countries, it becomes vital to draw lessons from this literary genius. More importantly in writing Zimbabwe’s memory, it is observable that the euphoria of the November 2017 new dispensation locally and internationally is waning.
DambudzoMarechera was born in June 1952 and passed on in August 1987 aged 35. The House of Hunger (1978) is his first autobiographical work. The book has been interpreted variously to point to moments of leaving shame, poverty and hunger as a result of the challenges he encountered due to poor family background. His father died in 1966, as a result of a hit-and-run ruthless driver. In the autobiography ‘The House of Hunger’ it is noted that the car was replaced with a train:
“The old man died beneath the wheels of the twentieth century. There was nothing left but stains, bloodstains and fragments of flesh… and the same thing is happening to my generation.”
David Kerr, a literary critic would later argue that forMarechera, “the train carries the thrust of Western technology, destroying indigenous African culture, and leaving in its wake both literal death, and more widely a psychic destruction, the anomie which engulfs and even though sometimes they do not realise it, his whole generation.” Put in a different context, thirty years after Marechera’s death, the young are dying in their numbers with drug abuse which is even distressing more. Toxic uncertainty in the economic and political space is also disheartening.
Worse still, mental illness is criminal in Zimbabwe as one can be sentenced to be in prison rather than to rehabilitation centres. It is the youthful generation in Zimbabwe and the global south who need to fight against the injustices they are confronted with. Marechera is known to have found consolation in alcohol in a way to suppress alienation and loneliness associated with capitalism. It is no coincidence that after his expulsions at the then University of Southern Rhodesia (now University of Zimbabwe) and Oxford University, he wrote The House of Hunger. This is the book which won him the prestigious Guardian First Book Award.
The context of Marechera’s book is in the 1970s when Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) was under the brutal Ian Smith regime. The setting is such that Marechera left The House of Hunger due to the various predicaments he encountered in his upbringing. Although I am writing in 2019, having left literally The House of Hunger, I find many similarities with Zimbabwe’s new dispensation. A narrative was choreographed by the political elites in a way to sanitise the ouster of the late Robert Mugabe with masses playing their part under the code named Operation Restore Legacy. The rise of Emmerson DambudzoMnangagwa to the presidium is now for all to see as an equivalent to the death of constitutionalism (Tinashe Chisaira; 2017).
Worse still, the neo-liberal path undertaken by the government of Zimbabwe has been used for regime survival. The masses will continually wallow in poverty as the economic policy adopted doesn’t serve the interests of the ordinary people but rather to continually offer room for more looting by the ruling elites. Put simply, it’s drinking from poisoned chalice. The launch of the Transitional StabilisationProgramme (TSP) by MthuliNcube, the Finance Minister in Zimbabwe in 2018 already has a bad start with the inflation rising as well as the rich-poor divide growing. Social service delivery has also worsened reminding the people of Zimbabwe the struggles associated with the Economic Structural Adjustment Programme (Esaps) of the 1990s and its obvious failures. More disheartening is that the failures associated with ESAP served the interests of the ruling government as they were involved in looting.
The cut-and-paste model didn’t work and so is the TSP pursued by the ED administration. More surprisingly, the ruling regime will be investing in the procurement of AK47s and sniper rifles to calm protests associated with poor living conditions. The rhetoric and paradox of cutting government expenditure whilst playing ‘catch and release’ on corrupt government thugs is incriminatory. As such, the new dispensation mantra is absolute nonsense. The Robert Mugabe nostalgia and the November memes circulating in Zimbabwe are indicative of a disgruntled people. Thoughts of and on leaving The House of Hunger are now the order of the day.
It happens that DambudzoMarechera remains a “celebrated writer” in Zimbabwe many years after his death. He seems to be an all-time writer and true prophet given the circumstances surrounding Zimbabwe’s post-independence experiences.
When Zimbabwe attained its independence on April 1980, the euphoria for a better Zimbabwe was high. The Lancaster House settlement of 1979 had relieved the white-settler government of responsibility for colonial injustices while national reconciliation, truth and redistributive justice were accorded lip-service. Calls for the rejection of reconciliation also came from Zimbabwean literary circles with luminaries such as DambudzoMarechera in Cemetery of Mind denouncing reconciliation (Muponde 2005).
IbboMandaza (1986) argued that reconciliation in the first decade of Zimbabwe’s independence was not genuine but based on political expediency of the highest order: white Zimbabweans had gained the most enviable decolonisation settlement possible because the Lancaster House settlement perpetuated many of their colonial-era political and economic privileges.
Having lost political power to black nationalists, white Zimbabweans who chose to remain in post-colonial Zimbabwe concentrated on preserving their economic privilege. The same academic, IbboMandaza (2018) argued that ED Mnangagwa’s new dispensation is actually evidence of being back to the future (things being recycled, while packaged as though they are something new).
Some analysts romanticised reconciliation and Mugabe’s leadership in the first decade. Jeffrey Herbst proclaimed reconciliation to be Zimbabwe’s ‘greatest success’ on the basis that white Zimbabweans had resided peacefully in the 1980s, for example (Herbst 1990: 221). Herbst observed that white Zimbabweans did not renounce their colonial way of life at independence. Inquisitively, he seemed not to grasp how this enduring colonial way of life was an obstruction to the ‘greatest success’ he proclaimed.
I came across another “Marechemania,” Tanaka Chidora’s poetry. In his poetry, “Leaving” which I found well articulate especially the last paragraph and stance;
Some things are easier said than
….fearing to brave the rootlessness of
but one day when you finally close
just know that you have slammed the door
and it’s time to take your things and leave.
Adapted from #TheDyingCity
Dambudzoism which are manifestations of DambudzoMarechera’s persona in writing has been observed in commemorations, cultural events and productions inspired by, or dedicated to, the writer. The Facebook Page(s), Twitter on social media are common spaces where Marechera is represented variously.
The fear of being labelled a traitor as a writer especially when you say out the obvious is another challenge that writers have to confront. Dambudzo Marechera faced the dilemmas of being an educated writer challenging both the Ian Smith colonial government and the black nationalists’ government.
As such, he was accused of betraying “his country and people.” Above all, an interesting question which still holds value from Marechera’s writing is, “can writers whitewash poverty?”
Brian Maregedze is an author, historian and columnist. Membership: Zimbabwe Historical Association (ZHA). Email; email@example.com