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The literature of Southern Africa

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Two years ago, a friend in a college in California, US, wanted me to cross over to that part of the world and talk about the character of Literature in the Southern African region. That never materialised because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
But the idea of talking about Literature in what has grown to be the SADC region is a challenging and daunting idea for many reasons. First there are too many countries, too many languages, too many themes and too many phases to contend with. One wanted to be impressive and exhaustive too.

But my friend saying in his emails, “Keep it simple and go for the works of established authors of fiction and poetry from the region and assess how successfully these authors express the experiences and common aspirations of the people in the sub region.” He also added “and for convenience, work with those works written only in English and those that have found themselves in the English language through translations.”
We were agreed that although that would be very limiting, the project would come out with at least the essentials as had been seen by coming out with the courses called African Literature for universities, colleges and schools across the continent.

I still agreed with the view that it was doable but daunting. I immediately remembered a photograph on my Facebook page from the now defunct SADC Poetry Festival of September 2010 in Gaborone, Botswana, at the National Arts Council of Botwsana.
The SADC Poetry Festival was organised by Artsinitiates-Southern Africa funded by Prince Claus Fund for 2009 in Namibia and 2010 in Botswana but it quickly fell apart for various reasons. At that festival, the aim was to have poetry-art where poets and visual artists work together, either basing on each other’s art work on the poem or a piece of visual art.

The festival attracted a visual artist and a poet each from Zambia, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Swaziland, Mozambique, South Africa, Angola and several from the host country, Botswana. It was a beautiful idea that was worth funding.
In the photo above, I am sitting down doing group work with Lesotho’s Sheila Khala Celeste (jotting down notes of our deliberations) Tania Tome of Mozambique (looking into space and lost in thought), Mandisa Mabuthoe of Botswana (looking at me and making a contribution.)

For me, that picture represents the diverse pot of the literary arts in our region and something that the man in California wanted me to talk about.
All the poets with me in that picture have actually grown from strength to strength within their respective countries. Sheila Celeste of Lesotho published her first widely celebrated book of poems called Formula. Her other book of 2012 is called My Pen Is a Socialite. She writes about the spiritual relationship between God and man in all its varieties and has been very active in the performing poetry sector of Lesotho and South Africa’s Free State Province.

Tania Tome is known in Mozambique as a public speaker, entrepreneur, author, life coach, economist, TV personality, poet and lyricist. She has released various musical albums.
Mandisa Mabuthoe of Botswana is a poet and vocalist. With her unique style and passionate delivery the multitalented artist has had growing success over the recent years. She has performed her poetry on various stages in the SADC region and was winner of the Shoko Festival’s Poetry Slam in Harare, Zimbabwe 2011. Her well known piece ‘Dragonfly,’ mirrors the captivating and enchanting style of her poetry that takes us on a journey through vivid metaphors and colourful images.

I started to think deeply about our literature and noted that if you came from Southern Africa, you surely are aware of the over-powering presence of the farm. The endless stretches of wheat, cotton or tobacco lands that go from where you are “until you wonder whether the vehicle you are travelling in is still moving or not.”
It might be legitimate to argue that “the farm” in Southern Africa constitutes a socio-geographical “type.” The “farm novel” or “plaasroman” is a special novel form in Southern African literature (in both African and non-African languages.) This is generally a novel partly or wholly set on a commercial farm.

The farm novel of Southern Africa is vibrant and it reproduces itself with minor variations. Rhodesia produced Doris Lessing’s great novel, The Grass is Singing, while South Africa produced Olive Schreiner’s breathtaking novel, The Story of an African Farm, and JM Coetzee’s various novels.
For the settler farmer the farm is perceived as a personal property and space that should be mastered in order to eke out a living. For Slatter and Dick in The Grass Is Singing, the farm is a potentially viable alternative to working class life of the metropolis. However the fact that the farm is a later-day acquisition, long distances away from one’s indigenous country and environment is an idea that remains at the back of the settler’s mind.

The farm remains psychologically external to the settler’s nature.
For the black farm labourer, the farm is a lived irony. It is a familiar but perverted territory. Although the farm is situated in a familiar territory, it remains external to the black man’s nature because it is organised for purposes outside his indigenous philosophy. The black labourer on the farm is consistently uneasy with both the farm and the white-master.
Another key feature of writing from the region explores the black person’s mental colonisation after white occupation, such as Charles Mungoshi’s Waiting for the Rain.

That novel is a story about Lucifer Mandengu who has been to a mission school and is considered elite and very educated. He has just been offered a scholarship to go abroad and train as an artist. Before he leaves, he boards a rural bus towards home to bid his people farewell. His return becomes occasion during which the author tries to capture the extent to which African society in general, have been influenced negatively by the colonial set up. It is a moment of stocktaking, a moment to assess the damage inflicted.

Mungoshi’s novel resonates with other novels outside the SADC region, like Ferdinand Oyono’s Houseboy, Cheikh Hamidou Kane’s Ambiguous Adventure and Mongo Beti Mission to Kala, in showing the connection between despair and colonialism in Africa.
Another very interesting literary feature in the region, is writing about the war of liberation. This is common from countries like Angola and Mozambique, where political independence had to come through the barrel of a gun. One very prominent piece of writing is the novel from Angola called Mayombe, written by an MPLA ex-combatant called Pepetela. From a participant’s viewpoint, the novel Mayombe is centered on a group of MPLA guerrillas operating on the Northern Province of Cabinda.

Led by Commander Fearless, Pepetela uses the group to reflect on various issues which affected or was rather a threat to the progress of the war and also which posed to be a destabilising element to an independent Angola, if not corrected. These issues are hinged on conflicts among guerrillas – ethnic, ideological and motives which further invited prejudices and suspicion.

In Mozambique Jorge Rebelo and Jose Craveirinha were leading war poets whose poetry continue to be read long after the war. Craveirinha has one such poem called “I want To Be A Drum.” The persona here wishes he were just, of all the things, an African
drum!
“Let me be a drum
body and soul just a drum
just a drum in the hot night
worn with its cry in the full moon
of my land…
I want to be a drum
and not a river
a flower…
nor even poetry
Let me be a drum
just a drum!”

Craveirinha gave his all to the struggle. He began as a journalist but got heavily tortured for supporting the struggle in 1966. As secretary for information, Rebelo will be remembered for his poem called “Poem.” A work of genius, “Poem” is important for arguing on why and how revolutionary poetry should be simple and useful. Jorge Rebelo said he would “forge simple words” that “even children can understand and:
“Words which will enter every house
like the wind
and fall like red-hot embers
on our people’s souls.
For in our land
bullets are beginning to flower.”

Rebelo above was responding to why his poetry seemed simple and rather pointed. He said it was the war itself that gave birth to such a literary tradition. Written on the move or at the spur of the moment and between battles, there was here the pressure to record a thought, a philosophy about the struggle. Yet the seeming simplicity and innocence of Rebelo’s poems were the diamond-hardness of this poet’s vision.
Literature from the region has also indicated that independence or self rule tended to give birth to tyrannical rule and lack of democracy and human rights. The poetry of world renowned poet, Jack Mapanje of Malawi tended to dwell on this.

Mapanje did not take any particular party line in his criticism of the rule of President Kamuzu Banda in Malawi but his poetry attempts to speak on behalf of the downtrodden, using a simple language often imbued in the rich orature of Malawian traditional culture. One good example is his poem called Song of Chicken:
Master, you talked with bows,
Arrows and catapults once
Your hands steaming with hawk blood
To protect your chicken.

Why do you talk with knives now,
Your hands teeming with eggshells
And hot blood from your own chicken?
Is it to impress your visitors?

In that part of the poem, the persona is cleverly asking why the President, who once fought for the independence of ordinary Malawians from British rule, is now openly hostile to the people. In this kind of writing, he was joined by fellow poets Frank Chipasula and Steve Chimombo. In turn, the Kamuzu Banda system tended to punish the poets severely for this kind of criticism.

Women’s voices have been paramount in the Sadc region too. They tend to write about women’s troubled conditions in an African patriarchal setting that has been itself overtaken by colonial modernity. These are women having to deal with both colonial oppression and the predicament of being women in colonised modern African society. This is the issue of double burden. Tsitsi Dangarembwa and Neshani Andreas have been prominent in this area. In her novel, The Purple Violet of Oshaantu, Namibia’s Andreas’s novel seeks to open up and expose the anti women violence imbedded in Namibian beliefs and culture within the institution of marriage itself.

The material above would be my general outline for my talk on a SADC regional literature. Of course it would leave out literature in many of the region’s indigenous languages. It would also leave out much of oral and children’s literature because it would merely be an outline, a thin path across the forest. But thanks to Covid-19, my paper is still not done! I have lots of time to rethink it again and again! I can still take in this book and take out that poem…. There is time to think about literature of migration too because that body of literature is growing very fast within the region.

Memory Chirere

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