July 1, 2004
Controversial Zimbabwean poet Dambudzo Marechera has often been considered as un-, or even anti-African by politicians and narrow-minded intellectuals alike, writes Brian Chikwava in this essay. Yet, "Instead of a grand public voice articulating an African reality, he chose a private, often anarchic, voice that magnified his personal experience and ideas and cast the grand visions of the African experience into the shade."
You may not be way off the mark if you consider Marechera’s poetry a form of mental banditry: for here is a poet who shook his mind in order to shake other minds into awareness. In the process he left many overawed and several shaking their heads in disapproval. Marechera is, on a sunny afternoon, one of Africa’s first products of the post-modern condition; but on a damp morning, black Africa’s first intellectual aberration. Such is the ambivalent effect of his work on his readers.
One can also be forgiven for supposing that Marechera lived in an era when large creatures roamed across Africa’s post-colonial scene who felt compelled to marshal all African thought into a combat position against the whole edifice of colonial philosophy. Naturally both aggressive and guerrilla tactics were used to undermine and infiltrate colonial institutions of power and authority. A great deal of effort went into creating a new African reality that would become the benchmark of the African experience.
“Here we have a deliberate campaign to promote Zimbabwean culture: everyone is talking about it, building it, developing it. When politicians talk about culture, one had better pack one’s rucksack and run, because it means the beginning of unofficial censorship,” Marechera is said to have once remarked, feeling the weight of the discourse around him and the pull it was having over African arts.
Marechera’s fears were not confined to politicians, however, but extended to all the intellectuals who felt that his work was largely un-African if not anti-African. It was un-African because it did not fit within the post-colonial project that everyone was busy constructing. It was anti-African because its fraught existential nature, and its reliance on Eurocentric techniques went against the grain of post-colonial discourse, and the sensibilities that everyone culturally or intellectually inclined was supposed to pay obeisance. While the baggage of cultural obligation weighed on the African cultural worker’s spirit, Marechera skipped on to the scene lightly wearing the cloak of individual experience, which he can toss over his shoulder like a prince.
Within the context of the post-colonial African intellect interested only in creating an African perspective of social and economic realities while simultaneously de-colonising African minds, Marechera’s life and work infused a disquiet and discord. This was so because he refused to surrender the authorship of experience and reality to the ideal of an African grand narrative. Instead of a grand public voice articulating an African reality, he chose a private, often anarchic, voice that magnified his personal experience and ideas and cast the grand visions of the African experience into the shade.
The Bar-Stool Edible Worm
I’m against everything
Against war and those against
War. Against whatever diminishes
Th’ individual’s blind impulse.
Shake the peaches down from
The summer poem, Rake in ripe
Luminosity; dust; taste. Lunchtime
News – pass the Castor Oil, Alice.
‘The Bar-Stool Edible Worm’ is a poem that, while defiantly indulging in what one could call existential hedonism, also demonstrates Marechera’s disdain for co-option into collective perspectives. Maybe he read a lot of Groucho Marx, who was once quoted as saying “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member.”
Perhaps it is not surprising that the disdain for individual experience, which the African post-colonial project has assumed, should naturally progress into disdain for the individual’s rights. Today the African’s reality is in the safe ownership of governments, perhaps nowhere more so than in Marechera’s own home country, Zimbabwe, where the individual has been squeezed out by an obsession to force the “African experience” into the liberation movement’s interpretation of what this should be. What is revealing is that most African states have also found it necessary to close ranks with the Zimbabwean government and ignore the brutal experience of the individual at the hands of the state and ruling party. No doubt this is because the individual is perhaps the single most alarming and self-sustaining threat to a liberation project that has metamorphosed into an elite African club, who have realised that the ‘revolution’, nicely wrapped in anti-imperialist rhetoric, can earn them the political capital they need to safeguard their wealth and status.
The Lancaster House Dressing Table
Or perhaps plain Mrs Andy Capp?
I hear their
Gone with the tumult,
All that’s left to resign
Is this whirlwind role
This radioactive image
Of African mutants in transition.
Yes, a radioactive image and mutating Africans. Of course, the temptation is to fill in all the gaps created by poetry’s ability to condense, crystallise and juxtapose an experience or thought, but then meaning can be argued until the cows come home. What is relatively less volatile is the underlying tone of a poem, the colour and texture of its distilled essence. Perhaps I am now too accustomed to the smell of back-streets, but this poem smells to me like a liberal quantity of piss being sprinkled on the Lancaster House talks, the negotiations that gave Zimbabwe its independence. Why was Marechera so cynical? Perhaps his perceptions had already been coloured by events in other independent African countries. Nonetheless, the suggestion that post-colonial African governments might mirror their colonial forbears made intellectuals brought up on a Pan-Africanist diet uncomfortable. 1980 was not time to sow doubts in the minds of black Africans lest they slither down the slopes of doubt and reason.
The poems published here, chosen from Cemetery of Mind, represent Marechera’s anarchist attitude, his flair for keeping a finger on the pulse of changing social and economic fortunes in the newly independent Zimbabwe. Dry cynicism, poetic activism, and a desire to reach out and communicate were his ways of grappling with personal observation and experience. What is startling is just how resonant Marechera’s poetry is within Zimbabwean society today.
Blast the poet or let him blast your mind!
Brian Chikwava was born in Victoria Falls in 1972 and grew up in Bulawayo. After completing school in Zimbabwe he went to university in Bristol, Great-Britain, where he graduated with a B.Sc (Hon). Apart from writing, Chikwava is also a blues/Afro-jazz guitarist/singer/songwriter and a keen follower of the visual arts scene, and has spent a lot of time collaborating with some of Harare’s upcoming jazz musicians on experimental shows trying to fuse action painting and live music. Brian is currently working on short stories and a music album. His short story, ‘Seventh Street Alchemy’ which appeared in Writing Still, (Weaver Press, 2003) has been shortlisted for the 2004 Caine Prize.