In 1989, the very young publishing company, Baobab Books, held a workshop for young and aspiring writers and poets at Ranche House College in Harare. Two initiatives emerged from this week-long teach-in and discussion: the Budding Writers of Zimbabwe association (BWAZ) was formed, and Tsotso, a low-cost, low-budget quarterly magazine of poetry and short stories emerged. It was run entirely by willing volunteers, the first of whom were T. O. McLouglin, M. Mashiri, F. R. Mhonyera, S. Nondo and H. Lewin. Looking back today, Tsotso (the name means ‘twig’) was an achievement reflecting over a decade of poetry by mainly young, previously unpublished, aspiring poets. From its inception in the winter of 1989 to the last issue in 2001, a cross-section of writers experienced growth as a result of their work being edited and published therein. As an aspiring poet during that time, I feel privileged to have been one of the chosen Tsotso poets.
Although most of the poets whose work is featured in the magazine live in their first languages, many opted to write in their second language, English, knowing that they could reach a wider audience in this way. The editors, however, also encouraged writing in the poets’ home languages, and for the purpose of this retrospective, poems in each of Zimbabwe’s three main languages – Shona, Ndebele and English – have been selected. We have decided not to translate the Shona and Ndebele poems into English, but have included notes that summarise the themes of each poem. The subject matter of the poems varies, though there are pivotal themes of relationships, youthful yearning, and the terrible betrayal that AIDS can inflict on the beloved and on families.
Most of the Tsotso poets were young. It does not, therefore, come as a surprise that most were preoccupied by issues of relationships. The word “love” is the only one that appears as a poem title in all three languages. In ‘Uthando’, the Ndebele word for love, Gloria Murindi uses words such as “mystery”, “happiness” and “friend” as metaphors for this feeling. Before love had manifested itself within her, the writer could not associate herself with the emotion (“ngisithi ngeke ngathanda”). Unlike Murindi, Ephraim Marumba in ‘I Love You’ wonders why he does not verbalise his declaration of love, instead doing something unrelated, such as “looking away” or smiling. He hopes his gesture will convey the message in all its sincerity, for, as we know, there are many ways of expressing one’s love besides the spoken word.
Rudo is the Shona word for love, and it is also the title of Lovemore Chakahwata’s poem in which he feels let down by unrequited love. Undying love is what he had been dreaming of but alas, it all comes to naught “asi pwata angova mazenga”. In ‘Painful Desire’, Nhamo Muchagumisa feels similarly rebuffed, as the subject of his affection seems indifferent to him. Is there nothing, he thinks, between them, except the writer’s “painful admiration”? Or does the recipient of his affection intend to test the poet’s sincerity in hiding her enthusiasm for her suitor’s advances? Clifford Ncube’s ‘Ngiph’ indawo enhliziyweni yako’, has the writer reeling beneath a loaded heart. The pain he feels is likened to the stab of a spear (“egwaz ’inhliziyo yami”). The suitor’s desperation appears to mutate into a plea for mercy rather than a declaration of love.
But Guy Phiri finds love, which he packs with vivid imagery. The final couplet of ‘Tattoo’ – “I want you on my skin like a tattoo/ and in my blood like ink” – provides a convincing conclusion to his intimate poem. He wants his loved one to be “imprinted in a place/ where all our secrets are hidden”. The addressee could well be ‘Nombeko’, the character in his eponymous poem. Nombeko is no ordinary girl: not only is she beautiful, she is also the personification of good behavior, hence her name, which literally translated from Ndebele means “the well-behaved one”. The writer is so much in love that it feels as though he has taken a love potion that has him hearing Nombeko’s name even in birdsong. He wishes he was her blanket (“ngifisa ukuba yingubo yakho”). Likewise, Nyambayo in ‘Murume wangu’ (My Husband) is full of praise for her loved one. Men like Nyambayo, a pillar on which the nation rests (“Nyika inomiswa nevarume vakadai”), are every woman’s dream.
In ‘Two Crows Tango’, Megan Allardice expresses her relief that the birds do not try to establish an attachment to one another. The poet regards freedom highly, having to exist “wholly for that evening” without the “Routine and/ the dubious joys of baby-bird rearing”. After the two have “had their fill of one another”, they can go their separate ways without bitterness. On the other hand, ‘Our Picture’, by M. Charmaine, expresses sadness at the gulf that has arisen between two lovers. Emotions drop from elation to depression; the picture of bliss bears “no hint of the pain to come”. Rory Kilalea is one of the most accomplished of the Tsotso poets. His composition, ‘Flowers in Winter’, is a fitting response to M. Charmaine’s ‘Our Picture’. In this six-line poem, he consoles a friend on her loss, reminding them that “Even in frost there is life”.
Love and loss are in these youthful poems often coterminous as in R. Bhira’s poem ‘Murume wangu wakaoneiko?’ (What happened to you, my husband?), in which the narrator wonders why the once gentle lover now transfers his work-related stress to his family. Perhaps this is the work of demons (“kuda mweya yerima”), his wife muses. Victor Jaravaza in ‘Tadii zvedu ta . . . ?’ (Why don’t we . . .?) has found the perfect solution to such a problem: it is of no use holding on to a relationship that is no longer viable. When the couple’s dialogue resembles snarling dogs (“kuhonyerana sembwa”), it is better for them to go their separate ways.
There are, however, some marriages that last. In ‘Lize lifike’, another poem in Ndebele, Hleziphi Dube has the lovers vowing to be true to one another throughout their lives. Their love has matured with time and they await death as a unit (“liyoze lifike sibambene”).
In Zimbabwe, HIV/AIDS casts a dark shadow over relationships. Sibonginkosi Ndlovu regards the disease as a witch in his Ndebele poem entitled ‘Mthakathi Wezigodo’, in which people have been turned into moving graves (“bangamangcwaba besaphila”). Some are warned of the disease, but fail to take heed. Fabian Maunganidze tries to warn the reader to be on their guard in his Shona poem entitled ‘Ndambakuudzwa’. The poet feels especially sorry for the affected and infected children whose suffering is not of their own making (“Ko vana vawagarisa parufuse?”). Wonder Guchu asks ‘Who will come knocking at your door?’ in his poem about the pain that results from reckless behaviour. The repetitive “who will, oh jane” drives home the folly of falling into the trap of reckless promiscuity. “On a hospital bed” is where you will end up if you ignore the warnings, writes Toga Jamu. Sometimes it becomes hard to tell whether someone is still alive or already dead; the poet feels the need to declare “I’m still alive”.
Tsotso magazine served us well. For most of us, it was first time we had our work in print. In it we learned from each other. I hope this selection of poems stands as testament to the aspirations of the magazine.
Joyce Chigiya (née Chauke) works as a schoolteacher. She has had a number of poems published, and a handful of them appear on this website. Though she is conversant in both Shona and Ndebele, her writing is mostly in English. Five of her poems have been translated into Chinese in an anthology entitled No Serenity Here.
Poetry International gratefully acknowledges the permission granted by copyright holders to reproduce the poems here. Every effort has been made to trace copyright holders and to obtain their permission for the use of copyright material. If there are any errors or omissions, we would be grateful if notified.