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The ‘return of the native’



Regardless of some of the dramatic and painful things that have happened in Zimbabwe in recent times, the sub-region cannot ignore that on April 18, 2023 Zimbabwe marked her 43rd anniversary of Independence. It is modern Zimbabwe’s biggest day.

In many ways, Zimbabwe’s independence came through the cooperation that the sub- region gave to the guerrilla war of the 1970s that culminated in Zimbabwe’s independence on 18 April, 1980.

Zimbabwean guerrillas, affectionately known as freedom fighters, filtered into the country then called Rhodesia, from Mozambique in the east and Zambia in the north. Many Zimbabwean nationals were domiciled in these two countries including Botswana, Lesotho and Tanzania. In Zambia and Tanzania, they shared the same bases with uMkhonto we Sizwe of South Africa and Swapo of Namibia.

However, last week my own family in Zimbabwe had a painful coincidence with Independence. In the hive of activities of the independence eve, my own brother got run over by one of the service trucks that were ferrying items to the main national event in the little town of Mount Darwin. He died on the spot.

We were all shattered and as we sat at the funeral, we could hear sounds of joy and celebration a few metres away from the Independence venue. Mount Darwin had seen the earliest action of Chimurenga, the war of liberation in the 1970’s and pushing this venue from Harare to the little town was an honour because the national event had never been allowed to leave the capital to such smaller venues beyond Bulawayo, the second largest city of Zimbabwe.

So we sat there and wallowed in our sorrow. However for me, a family member in the business of fiction, Zimbabwe’s Independence Day offers an opportunity to sit back, pick at random and read a book or a short story based on the miracle called independence. I often want to settle on Olley Maruma’s novel, Coming Home and Stanley Nyamfukudza’s collection of short stories, Aftermaths.

Olley Maruma’s Coming Home, published in 2007, is about the return of one Simon Nyamadzawo to Zimbabwe Rhodesia after an eight-year exile in the United Kingdom. It is set during the last few months before the attainment of Zimbabwe’s independence.

Maruma has chosen a subject and circumstances that he understands very well because he went through more or less the same experiences as his major character.

The ‘return of the native’ is a subject that has fascinated writers for generations because the returnee is a man or woman who looks at home from the point of past-present, doing a mental and emotional audit. He sees what those who have always been here can never see. Sometimes, as in Chekhov, he asks for people who are long buried at the local cemetery.

The very dramatic few months before Zimbabwe’s independence have tended, ironically, to occupy a blind spot in literature. Coming Home is very unique and useful. It captures the troubled mood of Zimbabwe Rhodesia that emanates from the uncertainties of the internal settlement, the breath-taking Lancaster talks and the subsequent ceasefire.

Simon comes back to a shell-shocked Salisbury, where one thinks twice before making a single step or statement. The beer flows easily but beneath every gulp lurks the unknown. There is a huge calm before the storm and the newcomer is torn between defiance and submission.

There is the distant dissatisfaction emanating from coming back home to pursue individual agendas when the forces that one fled in the first place are still holding forte. This is not the return of a hero. But Simon is well redeemed because at least his nationalist-leftist sentiments are on the side of history. For instance, his open clash with a hard-core Rhodesian journalist in front of timid black journalists places him on a higher pedestal in the bars.

He represents the new breed of black men; cosmopolitan, well read, articulate and ‘cheeky’.
Simon boasts of a good understanding of the lopsided relations between the north and the south and already he anticipates the new neo-colonial struggle that will come through attempting to open a minority economy to the povo.

The easy availability of beer and the occasional white female international journalist who throws herself at his feet leaves him wondering whether he is moving forward or backwards.
Maruma employs a laid back narrative, not hurrying to prescribe or taking obvious sides. In many ways this is a film-maker’s novel. The narrator has the eagle’s eye, seeing without being seen.

Here as in Sembene Ousmane’s The Last Of The Empire, you are being invited to think along, rest, and make a cup of tea before you can quarrel or agree.

But has the character come back home, you ask. Well, there are suggestions in this book that coming back home is complex. Nobody really comes back to the same home after long exile. The last days of Zimbabwe Rhodesia provoke a sense of shock whose waves cause questions that demand hard answers. This novel is a good alternative to the usually tortuous biography.

On the other hand, Stanley Nyamfukudza’s 1983 collection of short-stories called Aftermaths explores various emotions, expectations and some anxieties of a freshly independent people and one may settle on it for such reasons.

In the title story “Aftermaths” a “returnee” goes down his boy-hood street in the location trying to reconnect. He takes a mental register and inventory of the township houses and folk. The signature of time is plastered on the walls of the township although there is an air of carefree, a sense of tension is discernible.

The “return of the native” is generally a fascinating theme in literature. Ngugi employs it in his short-stories about the end of the Kenyan Mau-Mau war of resistance. Often the returnee has no home to return to. His wife is already married to some other man. Often, as in Chekhov, he asks after people who are long dead and lie buried in the local cemetery.

Maybe Nyamfukudza’s most dense and poetic story of the new 1980’s era is “Settlers.” It is based on the earliest Zimbabwe’s resettlement programme. A young man and his pregnant wife find themselves clearing up dense bush to set up home and field.

“Settlers” is a story that follows the great Ernest Hemingway’s “theory” of short-story writing: “Easy writing makes hard reading. Hard writing makes easy reading.” Hemingway’s images are like objects of nature themselves; evoking sights, sounds and smells that assault the reader’s senses with their freshness and immediacy.

“Settlers” describes the young husband intensely and sees the bush, the wife, earth and sky from his point of view.

Looking at his own circumstances, the man is overwhelmed by the sense of plenty and virginity of his new environment. The Zimbabwe revolution had delivered a first, offering virgin land to the formerly dispossessed peasants:

“Sometimes, in the morning, standing there with
his pick, shovel and axe on his shoulders, it
seemed pointless, mad even. How could one
man and woman fight against all this thick
forest, sustained only by the dream that if
they kept at it, they would in the end claim
some room…”

One cannot escape from the “garden of Eden” feeling evoked by this story. The whole metaphor extends to the new nation state of Zimbabwe. There are references to the heavy rains of the first Independence summer season and the subsequent bumper harvest. The phrase “Zimbabwe the bread basket of Africa” stuck as people flocked from “tired” territories in Masvingo, Madziva, Chiweshe, Gwai… to open up heavy virgin tracts of fields in Muzarabani, Sanyati, Gokwe… Indeed “swords turned into plough-shares.” All of a sudden people wanted to settle, to dig a hole in the earth and rest like some kind of veldt birds.

As the title “Settlers” suggests, one got lost in one’s new forest. Sleeping, working or walking, husband and wife “felt they were intruders, fenced in by a forest which just stood there, as if watching and waiting…” Colonialism, as Fanon would point out, defamiliarises and raptures spiritual connection between man and his heritage.

But the fecundity overflows into the human world in this subtle short story. The man likes to sit by the fire-side “watching her (wife’s) by now faintly swollen belly as she moved about in the small, smoke filled kitchen, preparing the evening meal.” The young wife’s pregnancy creates a sense of continuity and celebration which typifies 1980.

Physically and spiritually this is a place that leaves the individual with a feeling that he has been here before. Only one does not know exactly when and why. As the husband wanders in the bush he finds it “strange” that “even in an isolated area such as this, you still found footpaths, sometimes already turned into shallow gullies…” Also “now and again he thought he heard voices passing by, but he had seen no one.”

The connection between the present and the past physically and spiritually, is central to this short-story. You feel that Nyamfukudza is teasing the mind for failing to see that colonialism is only recent. The paths and voices of our ancestors are still in these forests, asking us to reclaim them.

Nyamfukudza also dwells on the other part of the miracle of 1980: the massive journey back to school. After the war old schools reopened and new uncountable ones sprouted. They were called ‘Upper-tops.’ Old tobacco barns became schools. Old churches became adult literacy spots.

Under the big Baobab tree, a black board was erected, a teacher was hastily identified and a school was founded! Someone thought the old Rhodesian camp could be put to some good use and yet another school was founded. Men with beards and women with protruding breasts put aside the war memories and went back to school! Minister Mutumbuka travelled the length and breadth of the country preaching, coercing and opening schools.

In “A fresh start” there is captured a small school in the middle of a rural community that is emerging out of war. Everything about the school is small, makeshift and experimental. One classroom block, three teachers who stay in thatched houses and pupils who wore neither shoes nor uniforms. Everything has the magical touch of “a fresh start.” The major character in the story is a teacher from the urban areas who happens to have a soft spot for the rural and the pastoral. For him “the lack of amenities, basic books even, seemed hardly important.”

The scene, typical of the rural Zimbabwe 1980, is set for adventure. After the war, communities tended to be inward looking. The basics first, seemed to be the dictum. A people had to have at least several shops, a bar and a grinding mill at the “growth point.” Then people needed a deep tank and a small school for a start. The teacher in “A fresh start” is part of the spirit of educating the nation.

His pupils are his family. They keep a respectable behaviour as he shares with them his knowledge and sometimes his own food. They respect and revere him and he knows it. The parents fraternize with him, always using the word “teacher” before his name.

But part of the fresh start here is that the teacher stumbles into a very beautiful woman who has sadly been maimed mentally during contact in the just ended war. As the new teacher takes in the wonder and the beauty of the river, one day, the demented beauty strays onto his hideout and he cannot believe there could be such a beauty out here.

The teacher goes through a restless panic. The ugly side of the just ended war is typified by this very beautiful young woman who will neither have her mind again nor be able speak.

The message that the war was a give and take and not romance gradually descends on the teacher. In that reawakening, he is first “sad and thoughtful” and later settles on the seemingly personal but national project. “The school children looked up at him expectantly. He cleared his throat…”

Nyamfukudza captures the feelings of time with a touch that is very personal and eternal. However underneath his gaze is a whole national agenda unfolding into a drama of peace and promise.

Aftermaths is a natural sequel to Nyamfukudza’s war-time novel, The Non-Believer’s Journey. He has a certain sympathy for people that does not allow him to easily paint them right or wrong. Nyamfukudza leaves you feeling that individuals in their private endeavours represent the scattered conflicting sensibilities that make a nation.

Memory Chirere

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