2/19/2018 0 Comments
The Western history of Africa is full of aporiae.
“Africa has literature?”
I was working out at the gym a few weeks ago, during the local high school kids’ summer/Christmas break. That meant that a few conscientious, vain, and bored young men put in their appearance at the gym. One was a particularly serious specimen, and one day he tapped me on the shoulder. “How old are you?” he asked with the blithe confidence of privileged youth. “Older than you think I should be,” I responded.
“So, like, what, 28? 30?”
God bless you, child.
“And what are you doing here?” he continued, confident of his right to ask, and to know.
I’m teaching at NUST, down the road. The National University of Science and Technology, I clarified, since I’d ceased being surprised that white Zimbabweans were surprised that there was a legitimate university in town.
“What do you teach there?”
Well, I’m researching African literature, and teach that back in the States.
He looked genuinely puzzled. “But there can’t be much of that, is there? I mean, they’ve only known how to read for a few decades.”
I’ve gotten used to all manners of ignorances in all manners of places – at home in Tennessee, here in Zimbabwe. But that one still threw me for a loop. It occurred to me that a goodly number of white Zimbabweans receive little to no information at all about their fellow citizens, or their home’s long history. For many, history began with the arrival of the white settler column from South Africa. Because, fuck, Hegel said that Africa had no history, was outside of history. And because racism. And because privilege and private education. And because white people here, like white people everywhere, can live in absolutely conscious ignorance of their neighbours by pretending that they don’t actually meaningfully exist.
One of the wonders of the world is located here in Zimbabwe. A few, if you’re counting UNESCO World Heritage sites. There’s Mana Pools National Park – unspoiled wilderness tucked in the northeast of the country. Victoria Falls, one of the seven wonders of the natural world, thunders in the northwestern corner of the country. Khami Ruins, home to the diaspora cast out after the dissolution of Great Zimbabwe, near Bulawayo. And, of course, Great Zimbabwe.
Great Zimbabwe was “discovered” by Europeans at the end of the 19th century, by a man named Carl Mauch, which sounds like an awful lot like “Karl Marx” when a Zimbabwean says it. Zimbabwe, the country, takes its name from this site, whose name in Shona was “dzimbabhwe,” or house made of stone. (See Mawuna Koutonin’s remarkably thorough post detailing the history of the History of Great Zimbabwe: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/aug/18/great-zimbabwe-medieval-lost-city-racism-ruins-plundering).
Great Zimbabwe was settled between 1250AD and 1850AD, roughly, give or take a century or two. What remains lifts out of the plains of Masvingo Province, south of Lake Mutirikwe, among the great grey granite whalebacks that hump out of the surrounding plain and determine the flow of seasonal rivers. Great Zimbabwe was home to a settled culture of pre-Shona people, and inhabited three major complexes spread out at the site – a Hill Complex, where the King resided and the royal court was held; a Valley Complex, where more common people lived; and the Great Enclosure, the most complete set of ruins, home to the famous conical tower of Great Zimbabwe, and home to the junior wives of the King.
The architecture at the site is dry construction stonework. Granite was broken up when they set hot fires around an outcrop, superheating the rock before dousing it with cold water, creating almost instant exfoliation in the granite, which could then be hewn into roughly rectangular bricks. These bricks were carefully piled and arranged in thick walls without mortar, relying on design and gravity to keep the walls standing in place. In the Great Enclosure, the complete wall is 11 meters high – and more than a meter thick – and the small gaps in the carefully arranged walls reveal layers of other, carefully arranged stones behind those. There are drainage runnels carved into the stone flooring, and small pockets at the bottom of the wall to allow water to run out – showing tremendous foresight. The Conical Tower of the Great Enclosure is staunchly impressive, with a regular, bricked facade and great height.
For decades after the site was “discovered,” white European archaeologists discovered a host of well-made iron tools, delicate goldwork, blue and white porcelain, glass beads, Portuguese coins, Chinese jewelry, Arabic filigree. Great Zimbabwe was obviously a deeply cosmopolitan site – in spite of being located hundreds of miles in from the East Coast of Africa, it did heavy trade with a range of powerful mid-CE trading partners.
But for decades after the site was “discovered,” it became a pet theory of archaeologists that, given that these were the most accomplished and ambitious city ruins “discovered” in Africa, they were somehow exceptionally unAfrican, which is to say, not Black. It was initially thought that the ruins were of the Bible’s Queen of Sheba, or that it was built by far-ranging Phoenicians. These ideas retained currency in colonial Rhodesia well after archaeologists had proven the ruins the work of the forebears of the Shona people in Zimbabwe.
Susan Buck-Morss, the American historian, explains that “When national histories are conceived of as self-contained, or when the separate aspects of history are treated in disciplinary isolation, counterevidence is pushed to the margins as irrelevant. The greater the specialization of knowledge, the more advanced the level of research, the longer and more venerable the scholarly tradition, the easier it is to ignore the discordant facts” (Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History 22). Rhodesia was a defensive state to begin with, grounded in apparent dispossession and a quieter apartheid than its neighbour to the south. Rhodesia saw itself, like Kenya, and other Anglo-African settler colonies, as a besieged minority struggling valiantly to bring civilization to a place where there was none. So its national identity cohered around a rejection of the values of Black culture, history, aesthetics, architecture. Great Zimbabwe could not, therefore, be Black.
In the schema of white racism, the pyramids in Egypt must have been built by ancient aliens instead of by the real and darker, you know, historical Egyptians. The schema of white racism has turned the History Channel into a production that it is 40% ancient aliens, and 60% Hitler porn.
It’s hackneyed to say we need Black History Month because all of the other months are basically White History Month, even if it’s true. But we need Black History Month because for too long, whitefolk have imagined that History is their domain, a narrative of triumphalist, messianic progress that has erupted in Their Benign Supremacy. Lots of this is Hegel’s fault, and his Philosophy of History is a foundational white supremacist document that has paraded as a benign philosophical text for too long. It asserted that Africa was “outside of” History, untouched by it, and this casually racist shove-aside did a lot of labour in the defense of European colonialism and violence for the past couple of centuries.
Buck-Morss seeks to fundamentally challenge this Eurocentricity by arguing that the Haitian Revolution was not just a paradigmatically “modern” event (it is normally excluded from being so in narratives that prize the French Revolution and the American Revolution for their contributions to political science and philosophy), but that it was the very first such modern event. Because of the Haitian Revolution, she explains, “radical antislavery” became a universal inheritance, and as such, a foundational historical force. Thus, the Haitian Revolution was indeed the very thesis of universal history; “Universal history engages in a double liberation, of the historical phenomena and of our own imagination: by liberating the past we liberate ourselves. The limits to our imagination need to be taken down brick by brick, chipping away at the cultural embedededness that predetermines the meaning of the past in ways that hold us captive in the present” (149). Her organic use of the “brick by brick” metaphor accords powerfully with the materiality of Great Zimbabwe. Narratives of white supremacy – in all forms, especially in the teleological narratives of white triumphalism – need to be chipped away at through active labour. “Nothing keeps history univocal but power,” Buck-Morss reminds us (150).
A successfully polemical blog post [http://siliconafrica.com/terra-nullius/] went viral a few years ago, promising to detail the 100 African Cities that Europeans plundered, destroyed, displaced, refused to acknowledge, etc – and was handsomely compiled. It was an effective document, and remarkable in its fluency with panAfrican histories and historiographies. It sought to explain why there was so little evidence standing in the present of Africa’s great and tumultuous human history. After all, much of the justification for the colonizing of Africa was in line with Conrad’s Marlowe’s “blank spot on the map,” the presupposition of the absence of meaningful History in Africa. So much of this was cynically grounded in the apparent absence of proof of civilization in Africa – too few ruins of great cities, nothing like the monumental sprees of the Greeks and Romans, hewing everything out of stark stone, etc. But this impulse, to evaluate the value of a civilization by the permanence of their artifacts, or the endurance of their mythos, is ludicrous, Buck-Morss explains,
For the other great Hegelian inheritance with regards to history is his belief in its teleological self-perfection – that the progress of civilization as History is a narrative of rarification and advancement. This is a much-beloved and rarely-acknowledged bias of the present, to imagine with the aid of Faux Darwin that existence, presence, is proof of power and perfection/perfecting.
In other words, History needs to be fundamentally rethought. And we need to liberate ourselves from the blinders of History to the broader spaces of histories; recognizing multiplicity, diversity, variability and ingenuity, are all crucial to a reimagination of collective self-narrations. For this, Buck-Morss issues a call to action:
“The fight to free the facts from the collective histories in which they were embedded is one with exposing and expanding the porosity of the global social field, where individual experience is not so much hybrid as human.” (149)
[read more - Black Panther spoiler alerts]
In African Laughter, Doris Lessing recounts her visits to Zimbabwe after independence, and the tours and work she did with friends, family, and strangers to try to get to know the place after the protracted War had ended. She retraces the roads and byways that were familiar from her youth, growing up on a farm outside Mutare.
Mutare is really terrifically beautiful; it is nestled just over a pass in a fertile valley slung between green, tree-covered mountains. Smack in the middle of the valley is a rugged iselberg that insouciantly sits there, surrounded. Mutare is the gateway point to the eastern border of Zimbabwe at Mozambique. I learned from pioneer narratives that Mutare and its environs were won in a skirmish with the few Portuguese stationed that far from their trading coast, and then slapped onto the newly-settling Rhodesia. Between Harare and Mutare is a winding highway that cuts through increasingly taller kopjes that become hills that become mountains in a lazy but indiscernible gradient.
I visited Harare not long ago to do some work on and in the Doris Lessing Collection at the Harare City Library. (More on that in an upcoming article I’m submitting...) I had the opportunity to meet with Dan Wylie, a Zimbabwean scholar of literature who has been teaching at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, SA for decades. I love his work, which is frank and searching and smart. So I decided to take a couple days after Harare to go up to Mutare and visit the Vumba Mountains.
In between Harare and Mutare is a small town called Macheke. Unremarkable, probably, except that Macheke was Lessing’s old stomping grounds. “Macheke is so vivid in my mind because of the War,” she says, and it is Macheke that is the setting for a good deal of The Golden Notebook – her most famous work – where the Mashopi Hotel is the setting of the ‘Rhodesian’ narrative therein. So when I saw the sign for Macheke, I peeled off the highway belatedly, swinging back to the road through a dusty and abandoned gas station. I descended through a charmingly shaded road down to the main thoroughfare of Macheke, sitting on the lip of a valley, a one-road town, with the post office at one end, and garages at the other.
“Exhausted with our lives in the big city, Salisbury [Harare], we took ourselves down to Macheke at weekends, not every weekend, but often, whole groups of us, in the cars we owned or borrowed...Mashopi was painted over with glamour, as I complained in The Golden Notebook. When we see remembered scenes from the outside, as an observer, a golden haze seduces us into sentimentality. And what we choose to remember is the external aspects of events: sparks flying up into boughs lit by moonlight or starlight, their undersides ruddy with flame-light; a face leaning forward into firelight, not knowing it is observed and will be remembered. But what was I really feeling then?” (African Laughter 72)
When Doris Lessing first revisits Macheke, she calls to mind the Mashopi that seamlessly blended with it and her own memories. “Memories of Macheke came from different layers of the past, and the first was when I was still a young girl. From a car window I saw dusty blue gums by the railway lines, and under them two sad baboons with chains around their waists attached to ropes which were fastened to the tree trunks” (73). When one approaches the place that was mystified in one’s youth, but from the position of the aged, what does one see? Arguably, continuity/discontinuity. We are always ourselves, but each of ourselves is a lost standpoint in the face of what is, now, and what has been, since.
“As the sad black youth and I approached Macheke, I said I wanted to stop for a little, because I had been there during the War. But understood even as I spoke that he would think that I meant the Bush War, ‘his’ war.” (Lessing, African Laughter 73)
I pulled into the main drag of Macheke and continued off to a dusty shoulder that abutted the railroad tracks. I got out of Sheryl and stretched my legs, arched my back. Three young men walking past me gawked and giggled, so I waved theatrically and bellowed “Howzit!” Behind me there was a colossal granite Celtic cross, its inscriptions utterly scrubbed away, and its body exhibiting cracks. It was surrounded by a small plot of land with planters that only still had flowers by inertia and chance. It definitely seemed likely to be a World War II memorial – there were other such in a good number of places in Zimbabwe.
“Later, during the War, it was under these eucalyptus trees that we, the group from Salisbury, sat drinking white wine from Portuguese East Africa, and where ‘we’, the group at Mashopi, drank white wine, with the railway lines a few paces away on one side, and the main road, Salisbury to Umtali [Mutare], on the other.” (73)
I can’t remember if they were eucalyptus trees. I’ll be honest that I don’t quite know what an eucalyptus tree looks like; at least not if there isn’t a koala on it. This little square of land, the memorial, was situated where she says she sat, and the characters sat, in life and in fiction.
From that side of the road, I could glimpse down the hot, dusty street. My calves ached and lower back twinged and twanged; I’d come out of a paralyzing backache just before departing. I squinted around and across the street lay a low, dark building, with a singular sign on its corner, The Macheke Hotel.
“I had hoped to stop here, perhaps for a cup of tea, at the Macheke Hotel, for old times’ sake, but now knew that this must not happen...Now two landscapes were in my mind and I could not make sense of what I saw. The main road was in a different place. Yes, there was the garage, the post office, store, a bar... and a hotel. A hotel in that place? I asked him [her passenger], ‘Do you know if they have changed the route of the main road?’
I didn’t go in. I wasn’t sure what I would find, myself, that wasn’t already described in African Laughter or in The Golden Notebook. I had the same sense of paralysis when I saw Lawrence Durrell’s lemon tree in Northern Cyprus: I’d read about this place, was pretty familiar with it. It appeared more or less as described, but for the knowledge of the passing of time. And here I am, as there he was.
I fiddled in my pocket for my cell phone. The three young men had stopped some paces off under the shade and were unabashedly gawking at me, raised eyebrows, talking avidly. I put the hotel in the phone camera’s sights and clicked. A man poked his head out of the swinging doors of the hotel and peered up and down the streets before ducking back inside. I took another photo. I looked at my feet, which turned into stretching my neck, and rolling my back down and letting my arms dangle. I reached up performatively, like a mid-eighties calisthenics tape, and then shook out my hands. I stood, hand over face like a visor, and peered down the street, noticing only that a giant double decker bus was trundling up the wide and disappointing avenue, sending up a giant cloud of dust in its lumbering wake. The three young men were now perched on the granite corners of the memorial, still watching me.
“I turned off to the left, where the railway had to be, and there were the dusty, dispirited blue gums and the railway lines beyond. The same. I stopped the car. Where was the hotel? Surely that could not...it was derelict, unused... Yes, I had seen the wonders of the world since I was in Macheke or Mashopi, but surely this could not be the Macheke Hotel were through all those weekends we drank, danced, flirted and played politics?” (74)
This past weekend, my trainer and his fiancée invited me down to Ncema Dam. I’ve got a smattering of friends here, as I do in Chattanooga, but I don’t really belong to social circles, because social situations typically stress me out. But it was a small group, and I see them every day at the gym, and they had buddies down at the dam. They went every other weekend or so during the summer. It is The Thing To Do, at least within their circle – on top of braaing at the Dams, or drinking at the Clubhouse on a Friday night. White Zimbabwe!
We zipped out of town, taking the hills at the prescribed speed limit, something I normally spare Sheryl on account of her nerves, but she seemed to enjoy it. The dam is not unlike any given State Park in the US South: a lake with a recreational boating ramp; a green lawn section for tents and grills; a smattering of bathing houses and recreational rooms; a bar for “members only.” The club, for what it was worth, appeared to be the Bulawayo Power Boating club, established some time in the 1950s, and peaking, at least according to the plaques and trophies, somewhere in the early 1970s – that is, truly, before many or most of the men who might have powerboated went off to war, and came back scarred, if whole. That is the “Bush War,” or the Second Chimurenga, or the War for Independence.
We trekked across this familiar landscape to a houseboat waiting below – a caravan in the middle, flanked by two large asbestos platforms, all balancing on empty drums. A party was already in session, with the crew that had made it out first thing already a little drunk. My trainer and I don’t drink, so we had a few extra packets of cigarettes and dozens of little asides as those around us melted into their “sweaty selves, or worse” (apologies to Hopkins). The day was hot and long, the sun beating down, but towards sundown, we all split into three powerboats and scuttled off to the far end of the lake, linking together and drifting under the shade. The men drank and pushed each other off the boats, losing this (a cap) or that (prescription sunglasses) each time they emerged, sodden. We shouted across the boats and the beats, generating and dropping a dozen conversations, only to subside into whispered barbs and backbiting (“How much you want to bet she’ll sleep with him by sunup?”).
I am not a Lake Person. A lot of white people in the United States are Lake People. They aspire to own boats that collect dust in driveways until the season is ripe. They compare notes on the latest Yeti schwag. They also fish and or hunt and or camp and obviously they camp but and or all know each other. They sometimes buy houses on lakes. These houses can serve as second homes. In middlebrow middleclass white American literature, there are stories about lakes and houses and lake houses and house boats. I think it’s A Thing in Canada, too, given all of the Atwood and Munro stories that take place on lakes. It’s a global confraternity of sorts – a confraternity that is tan and louche and rowdy and bored.
“No people on earth are more kind, more hospitable, more resourceful than the whites of Southern Africa, when it is a question of one of their own kind. . . and what is the point of saying it again?” (Lessing, African Laughter 123)
“It is a fact!” Scott announced, waggling his eyebrows above his very bloodshot eyes. “It is a fact that this is the oldest dam in Zimbabwe!” I looked at him sceptically, cocking my head. The others hadn’t heard, and so the performance was repeated. Scott was sunburned in some places, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as Keith’s sharp red chest. But everywhere around me what was white was pink and tender and shot through with red. “It is a fact that this is the oldest dam in southern Africa!” he valiantly stretched.
“It was built before the war,” he stagewhispershouted. “In 1942!” he completed.
“That was several years into the War, man. If we take Czechoslovakia or Poland as a starting point. But by all metrics,” I smirked, happy to be a smartarse.
“Well, fuck, but it was begun before the War,” Scott eyerolled. “At any rate, gaze upon it, it is right impressive.”
And it was: it had the solidity that most dams I knew somehow lacked. And in the dusk, it loomed out of the water and sky like a water’s edge fort from Star Wars. A small cylinder is connected to the dam by a long, thin arm, its glassed top presiding over the surface of the water. Charming aliens could live here, I thought.
I got a nudge in the shoulder and was passed a cigarette with a flick of the head to Scott. “Scotty, take this,” I said, passing it over. He popped it into his mouth and took a long drag, spewing smoke as he pulled again before dissolving into a pool of coughing. “Eish,” I said, “be careful, I think it’s all pot, not spliff.” He clutched his pearls.
“THIS GUY!” Scott shouted melodramatically. Others craned toward us, bemused. “THIS GUY TRIED TO DRUG ME.”
“It’s all pot,” Scott said, needling Keith’s blazing arm, leaving self-vanishing white pressurepoints. “IT’S ALL POT, the Yank says, passing me what looks like a cigarette.” He expertly tossed an empty bottle of Castle Lite into a box below the motor, and gestured wordlessly and impatiently to Keith for another, which smoothly and soundlessly happened, a new beer appearing in his hand within seconds, perfectly timed to his script above.
“And NOW I AM GOOFED. I am fully goofed,” Scott pronounced before chugging the whole beer. He set it down and tipped himself backwards out of the pilot’s seat and into the water. A few onlookers smiled and laughed mildly.
Doris Lessing muses on the politics of race, and racial politics, when she observes wryly, “White farmers are villains – and that’s the end of it. It is true that some of them are not the most endearing people in the world. But what of the others, who are trying hard? Too bad about them....But I remember arguing with a black friend of mine who wanted to preserve a picture of white farmers as cruel savages: he retreated back and back until he cried out, ‘But they don’t love their homes as we do.’ But if there is one thing that has distinguished the whites, right from the beginning, it is love for the country.” (African Laughter 392)
We returned slowly from the far edge of the lake in a powerboat his father had made himself, Scott explained. They made boats, that was their business, at least as long as there was business to be had. He spent many weekends out here, draping himself over one surface or another, fishing, boating. Picking his way among campsites, taking a seat, taking a beer, and another. As we passed each boat on our way back to the houseboat, I was introduced all around – all the white people knew each otherwise, so there was no getting around it, “And who’s this guy?” – so Scott repeated with gusto the dramatic narrative: “THIS YANK DRUGGED ME!”
When we docked, the trainer’s fiancée had been busy at work preparing a lavish braai dinner: boerwors (spiced sausage), fillet, pork belly; avo salad; dinner rolls; chips. We ate, and chatted aimlessly; Scott and Keith shoved each other until both had tumbled into the lake and emerged, dripping and faux-mad, and then off--off on a bender. As night fell, we followed them up the hill to the member’s club, already sticky, and already crowded with sunburned white people speaking a little too loudly at each other.
One woman, with wild eyes, stood stockstill in the middle of the floor and shouted, “WILL YOU LET ME PLAY, GENTLEMEN? I JUST WANT TO PLAY?” She shout-whined, melting further into a loud pitched, plaintive pronunciation: “I WILL PLAY DARTS, I WILL, GENTLEMEN,” and so on, engaging no one, really, as she opened the darts cupboard. She threw darts at the board fitfully, shouting a number each time that never corresponded with where the dart actually landed. It was as if around this woman was a shimmering sphere of unreality. “WILL YOU AT LEAST WATCH ME?” she pleaded. This was all terribly sad, and I said as much to the trainer, who had been silent and averting his eyes, “Oh it is, isn’t it,” he said with wide eyes. “She’s going through a hard time. Watch out for the laities.” (Pronounced “lie-tees,” meaning--) Children peered around the corner at this, their mother, before whispering conspiratorially and darting back out into the night.
The trainer and I hung aloof, he participating in conversations about those passing through, or the unluckily absent, gossiping. I heard no fewer than a half dozen references to family violence. A half dozen or more split their time between Zimbabwe and somewhere where they made money. One, a publican, confessed that she did drink every night, a bottle of wine at least, but that was only because there was a good deal of time to fill, but that also, frankly, she was lonely in the UK. “It’s not like having all you people around, people are too busy there,” she said, screwing up her face. “Here, though, it’s nice,” she trailed off, gesturing toward the starry sky, her arm sweeping past a middle-aged man spitting up at the edge of the lake.
Two men came up to me at various points. “I was talking to Scott over there, hey? He said you might have weed? I’m just looking for me and my mate.”
“Sorry, mate, but that was a stupid story. I have nothing to do with that,” I said, shrugging and knitting my brows.
“Right, then, goodbye,” he said, pivoting drunkly on an ankle.
The other one made a go at conversation first. Where are you from? The States. How long are you here? Ten months. What do you do? Professor. Get outta here. You’re no professor. I am, though. A doctor, even. A doctor! And where do you live? Bulawayo, mate. Bulawayo, right, but which suburb. Not a suburb. I live in the city. Stop bullshitting me, bru, which suburb do you stay in? I live in the city, itself, next to the vegetable market. No fucking shit, the vegetable market. My father works down there – he brokers the produce. No shit, man. So my mate Scott was saying you had some giggle-toot? Giggle-toot? Giggle-toot. Giggle-toot?! For fuck’s sake man. Weed? Weed, naw, mate, fucking Scott’s responsible for that stupid story. He is drunk. That he is. But it’s just a story. Just a story. But you do live in the city? I do. Huh.
“On the way back from Mutare to Harare,” Doris Lessing reflects in a journey made years after her first return to Macheke, “I stopped...outside the old hotel, which was no longer boarded up and derelict but again recognizable as the hotel of those long-ago weekends. I asked to see the manager, who turned out to be a young black man orchestrating a team of enthusiastic helpers. I told him that in the old days this hotel was popular, always full. But this could only mean popular with whites, and he didn’t care about that. I said that in the War the RAF used to come out from Salisbury for weekends: sometimes there were parties that went on for days. But he thought I was talking about the Bush War, and had never heard of the RAF: the Second World War was over before he was born. I asked if I could look over the place for old times’ sake. He was polite, amused...In the dining-room, exactly as it was, I had lunch, and could have believed the door would swing open and admit ghosts brought back by this resurrection of old haunts. ‘You see?’ I silently addressed them. ‘It has all happened, just as we said it would...well, not just as we said...’” (300)
Time out of joint: the dusty plaques on the walls of the Ncema Dam Powerboating Club essentially stopped in the 70s. The bar has taken on the look of a sticky downstairs den in a 1970s suburban tract home. Everything, it feels sometimes, stopped in the 1970s. That there are young people at all can feel like the only proof that we’re not living in some deadened, dead-end end time.
The voices from the bar filter out across the lake, loud and jumbled, individual threads emerging. A few of us lay, stark sober or mad drunk, on the lawn gazing up at the sky. The drunk slur and marvel, giggle and point; we others are quiet, contemplative. The Milky Way here is like a gash through the sky, arising out of the cleft of the dammed valley, splaying out across the sky. Here, you can see that the sky is dimensional: it has depth, feels fractal, four-dimensional. Stars aren’t just slapped against a burnished brown sky, but reveal themselves to be enmeshed in a shimmering fabric of dimensional dark. The heavy drums of the pop music buckled in echoes across the lake and back, and my trainer mused, “Isn’t it cool how the drums carry so far away and come back? People have been using drums around here for centuries to communicate.”
“I know, right? Talking drums.”
Voices spill out of the clubhouse like tipped-out beer. A man is urinating unsteadily off the back porch. “When this is a colony again,” I hear a woman say with a pregnant pause, “I mean, when more of the white people come back,” she trailed off wistfully.
From the tilt of the lawn on which we lay, we can see the far side of the Lake. Sophie piped up, “Oh look, hey? They have a bonfire.” And on the far side of the lake, there were two blazes, sparks trailing up to the sky. All day, the terraced banks of the lake on that side – sheerer – sported distant spots of black boys, sitting patiently in the sun and watching the boats on the lake. The two bonfires blazed like eyes from that opposite bank.
The clubhouse’s DJ swerved to Toto’s “Africa,” apparently the agreed-upon ender-of-nights. A chorus of voices warbled along sentimentally, it seemed, although I couldn’t say.
Whose “Africa”? Whose Africa? Who’s Africa?
The nightbirds croaked.
Here, everything is what was and what is at the same time, and that can be disorienting.
The stars stay the same.
In The New Dispensation (proper name), there is a new regime with regard to Zimbabwe’s charismatic megafauna – under the previous dispensation (improper name), there was the invisible hand of Chinese demand only to determine the value of live or dead wildlife exports. Mnangagwa recently announced that he was banning trade in live elephants. Elephants are a live issue in Zimbabwe, as the linked article notes. There’s an ersatz-abundance of elephant, it seems, in Zimbabwe, leading to ambivalent politics of export and culling that waver between newly-staked arguments for and against hunting. So elephants are on the table, and they were almost splayed across the hood of my car when in the dark night I did not see the elephant standing there until it was well-nigh too late. Although, reader, it was not too late, as I live and breathe.
In terms of toppling megafauna, however, I would say that we are all hesitant, suspending judgment of The New Dispensation, which continues minor purges, waffles in its condemnations of the previous dispensation. At the moment, The Last Guy is entitled, still, to a shocking amount of Zimbabwe’s treasury. But, and this is important and telling, during the week of the Coup-Not-Coup, the United States of America took a strong stance toward Zimbabwe. No, not that it supported the rule of law and asked for a peaceful transition of power, although I’m sure there was a press release to that effect. No, it was that the 45th President steamrolled forward on a bill (reversing previous presidents’ policies) to permit the importation of “elephant trophies” to the US from Zimbabwe.
This was the same week. A hue and cry was raised (with quite a few hunters rigorously against iit) and it was immediately reversed, which as one official put it, showed how absolutely arbitrary it was. And of course, as with all decisions that the president makes, because he failed to erect any significant barriers or boundaries between himself and his private corporate interests, we must ask: was this just a whim to please his own family?
For pictures circulated throughout the run-up, the campaign, and after, that show the President’s two adult sons posing with dead Zimbabwean animals. In one, Trump, Jr., is proudly holding a (n oddly spotless) knife and a tail severed from the elephant slain behind him. (I thought about posting the pictures, but I figured I’d just post this link to the Snopes article that proves their accuracy.) These pictures, in some part, ensured that conservative gun rights groups, fearful of any challenge or change to their capacious reading of the 2nd amendment, trusted Trump when he claimed to want to protect their rights from liberals who were coming for their guns. So the whole picture crystallizes a fairly polarized American politics: a politics of outrage/empathy/”liberal tears” versus a politics of violence/absolute autonomy/rugged individualism. Of course, this is but one way to map the polarizing axes of American politics in 2018; our full reckoning with this era may end up being measured in half-lives. Already, this flare-up, the coincidence of the elephant trophy ban reversal and the ouster of Mugabe, has sunken away in the accelerating cycle of neck-breaking reversals and completely irrational movements.
But, in keeping with the overall Trump aesthetic – on display in any photo of his homes, his properties (Mar-a-Lago, Trump Tower), etc. – there is a 19th-century nouveau riche, new landed gentry striving that marks their fascination with gold, baroque ornamentation, lacquer, and yes, animal skins and prints (see: any of his casino properties). So, in a way, the junior Trumps’ enthusiasm for slaying African wildlife is perfectly in touch with the American leisured classes, and, as promised, we need look no farther (and, after this, no more) than William Harvey Brown’s morally repugnant narrative of his participation in the settlement of Rhodesia, having joined up after being (self-)deputized to collect animal “specimens” for shipment back to the United States, at least once at the behest of the Smithsonian. But Brown makes it clear in his narrative that the market for slaughtered exotica is a limited one, and there’s a lot of competition. Which renders ironic, then, his very first ‘naturalist’ assignment, wherein he was sent to the Rockies and Plains to collect whatever last specimens he could of the decimated buffalo for museums. This is a particular logic, one that oscillates between the late-19th-century and the present moment: the idea is that if there is a diminishing resource, the only possible logic is to exploit the resource until it is gone, trusting that experimentation and innovation will usher in a new era following. However, if it doesn’t, the system as such doesn’t particularly care about the effects of their terminal market: at the end, the prices will be highest, after all.
I DRINK YOUR MILKSHAKE. –Paul Thomas Anderson, There Will Be Blood
When William Harvey Brown makes his way from Cape Town, across the Cape toward Mafeking, he narrates his first real experiences hunting African game. He’s not good at it! He can’t manage to make relatively easy shots. In point of fact, this is one of the very few actual narrative threads that carries through the narrative. It is a narrative of his becoming more proficient at shooting and killing as he hunts more and more often and as he enrols to fight and kill Africans. It is the narrative of proficiency at murder.
He relishes the hunt. Early on, describing the capers of his camp mates in the column he belongs to as it marches upward through the hinterlands of South Africa, he says, “It is remarkable how the instinct for the chase, inherited from our primitive ancestors, is exhibited in small ways. I was one day greatly amused at seeing the entire camp, from officers down to Kafir servants, drop work of every description, and vociferously join in a chase after a harmless hare, which came running through our encampment.” (68) This is an appeal to a sort of evolutionary anthropology – one that argues that there’s a through-line from ancient hunter-gatherer behaviours, and remnant or appendage instincts that still describe our behaviour in modernity. This logic also sidles up to the same colonial racism that insists that there is a continuum of development and evolution, which regrettably, the racists say, explain the lower faculties of those-who-must-be-subjected. Nevertheless, it serves to justify his own relish of chasing and pursuing African animals, with blood always in mind.
In fact, for Brown, the Africans’ methods of hunting are also subject to his scorn; they are primitive hunters, scavengers of what he leaves behind in his negligent bloodshed. He works himself into a frenzy of hateful memory when he remembers one particular spoiled hunt. “I made a beautiful stalk,” he marvels, of tssessebe (the “most wary of antelope,” he coos ). “...but just as I was about to fire, the entire herd, sentries and all, suddenly stampeded. I was dumbfounded, and quite unable to determine the cause, until happening to turn around, I was startled by perceiving an armed savage not ten steps behind me” (116). Brown’s narrative reads exactly like a potboiler dime-store Western, and similarly carries with it the full weight of American racism. The African, as Brown admits himself, was simply curious as to what the white man was doing, and so followed him. But Brown is derisive that the locals don’t know, to a T, the Western way of hunting. “In his primitive simplicity he had followed bolt upright and close behind me, while I had laboriously crept along the ground, endeavouring to conceal myself from the game. Provoked by small occurrences like this, race antipathies often begin on short notice between the whites and the aboriginal inhabitants.” (116, emphasis added).
This statement is appalling, quite literally appalling. It’s the equivalent of saying, “Well, and that’s why you can’t have nice things, like” education or autonomy or self-determination or independence or treatment like a human being, like, because of this one time on a hunting trip. This is the exact logic: because someone different did something to me once that was irritating, I had no choice but to be a racist thereafter. (Curiously, I relayed this to a white Zimbabwean, expressing my shock at the cupidity and stupidity of this foundation for racism, but he relayed the story of his father: liberal white British, came because there were opportunities for white Brits, and within a year, was complaining vociferously about negligible things, essentially accumulating a profound racism on the basis of a number of minor irritations that frustrated his sense of entitlement to foreign ways and ideas.) Brown is also a compulsive, perhaps addicted, human being; his attachment to the chase – to the hunt – to killing – cannot be interrupted at any moment, for any reason. Lest it become “the one that got away.” This is his entitlement. Because he’s out for blood:
The irony here is that the talk of the pursuit of game is a long and old narrative in American culture, and in the early 19th century, at least, it calls to mind the Leatherstocking Tales of James Fenimore Cooper. Accomplished and lyrical novels, they are also responsible for some of the romanticization of the suffering/noble/ethical “savage,” that Last of the Mohicans whose wilderness praxis is attuned to Nature and takes no more than it can carry or eat.
Brown isn’t particularly shy about his indiscriminate entitlement to murder. “We journeyed down the right bank, and had not proceeded far when I saw an enormous crocodile stretched out on a sand bank on the opposite side. Its length I estimated at eighteen feet. Although there was no possibility of doing anything with the skin, this was too good an opportunity to miss, so I took careful aim at the animal’s head, and killed it where it lay.” (148, italics added) You know, because it was majestic, it must be slain.
And so, in 2014, in advance of the run-up to the current disastrous presidency, Donald Trump, Jr. echoed precisely the smug self-justification of the nineteenth century sporting gentleman when justifying the pictures of him with animal carcasses and “elephant trophies” (an elephant’s tail, as “elephant trophies” feels, every time I type it, to be more and more euphemistic).
In a tweet, Donald Trump Jr. replies to a critic of his hunting photos, as such:
“@exclamation I can assure you it was not wasteful the villagers were so happy for the meat which they don't often get to eat. Very grateful”
Oh, it was no problem that he left an elephant carcass to fester, the “villagers” were grateful. The tweet sounds exactly like his father’s estimation of the state of African-Americans in urban centers, who will be “thanking him” for his advocacy on their behalf, saving them from the American carnage to which they would otherwise be perpetually consigned. Or, as discussed previously, that Nigerians who came to America would never “go back to their huts,” preferring to remain instead in America.
It might be precisely this smug faux-benevolence of leaving the meat behind him that is the difference between him and Brown. Brown hates it when the locals, stumbling upon his uncollected dead, instead harvest the meat and body, leaving him without a trophy when he occasions to make it back to the site of the kill. Brown is particularly obsessed with bagging hippopotami, and narrates a number of slogs through rivers and marshes during the day, sniping at them in the water. He also becomes obsessed with tracking and killing a rhinoceros. Even when the animal had been more plentiful – indeed, in the days before sport hunting – I cannot doubt that an encounter with a rhino would have been thrilling – for scale and for potential danger, for rarity (they aren’t particularly human friendly). So obsessed is he that he includes a full letter from a fellow hunter who managed to be more successful. This hunter relays the “record specimen’s” measurements, and proudly reports that the rhino – having been shot more than a dozen times in the account, before being strode by the hunter and shot in the head – was indeed killed (230-231).
Brown, like his friend, revels in the sheer enumeration of his kills, the trophies (“a beautiful pair of horns” from one gazelle), the laundry list: “Indeed, it was a glorious six weeks with big game, but the details of all this hunting would only weary the reader. During this time I killed forty-nine head, and the Eyres had been equally successful in their efforts. My specimens enumerated in detail are as follows: one black rhinoceros, six buffaloes, two Burchell’s zebras, eleven elands, three water-bucks, three roan antelopes, two sable antelopes, one tsessebe antelope, one koodoo, six reed-bucks, one bush-buck, one oribe antelope, one lioness, five wild dogs, three wart-hogs, one bush-pig, and one baboon.” (239)
The catalogue of the dead is meant to be a tribute to his virility, as opposed to their vitality. The juxtaposition of impotent virility – virility engendered by the practice of exterminating vitality – with vitality itself – is a perverse knot at the center of American masculinity. It is part and parcel of the impetus to enumerate and number the victims of mass shootings; indeed, in the psychology of mass shooters, there is undoubtedly a romance with the enumeration, the trophy, the sheer numbers killed. We are living in an era when the current President tweets condolences about the wrong mass shooting after yet another mass shooting has occurred. We are also living in an era when the President boastfully quantifies the devastation and danger of the latest American hurricane – the most impressive, the most damaging hurricane, the best first responders, the most historic response.
I guess I’m just saying there are these uninterrupted thru-lines, that tie together political power and entitlement to violence, of disregarding vitality in favour of virility, of white supremacy and neo-colonial privilege.
The Books of Zimbabwe still stocks the Rhodesia Reprint Library, a series of these books of early Rhodesian pioneers, but as the elderly clerk explained, they’re out of print. He claims they are collectibles, although the value of these books (as determined by the market’s crowdsourcing on Abe.com, anyway) is considerably less than the now $40 he is asking me for them.
The only books of their series that are still in print – and so less expensive, he explains – are the hunting monographs. Many are 19th-century, some early-20th-century, and almost all bear the words “elephant hunting,” “big game hunting,” “hunter’s diary,” and I’ve picked a few up. Some are more grotesque than others in their descriptions, and the texts are not wholly without merit – tracking for study, observation, tourism isn’t too fundamentally different from tracking for hunting – so these naturalist tracts still serve a purpose. But it also shows the dark side of a culturally polarized politics: there is a swath that admires those who can bring down these huge beasts, who slaver to be able to do it themselves. And on the other hand, there is a swath of the population for whom the charismatic megafauna of Africa are nothing short of majestic, endangered, to be protected at all costs, a vaguely-conceived politics almost wholly affective in its composition.
On a completely unrelated note, an update. My new friend Zara informs me that there are precisely 52 Jews left in Bulawayo, down from a historic population of 4,500 in the 1970s. The current population is orthodox, for the most part. One of the previous Fulbright scholars, in fact, was compiling local Jewish histories. Fascinating!
1/17/2018 0 Comments
Before Christmas, I stopped by a small, but custom-built building, in the lower part of Bulawayo’s downtown. Books of Zimbabwe, it said. Its selection was miniscule – a few discarded tourists’ books, some in Spanish. There were wood and glass display cases on the walls, showcasing a series of books in and red papers: “The Library of Rhodesia.”
If you visit, and the older gentleman behind the desk deems you a serious enough inquirer, he’ll encourage you to visit ‘the back room,’ which has a few more bookshelves with a larger assortment of books – books that curiously crystallize the Rhodesian moment – almost forty years past! – that flourished in the 1970s after Ian Smith’s UDI (not a tract infection – the Universal Declaration of Independence), which severed ties to England, but refused to grant rights and self-determination to the black people of Zimbabwe. That was the state of affairs that sustained the long civil war for independence in Rhodesia.
A lot of things happened in the 1970s, all of it as a kind of last-ditch effort to define and consolidate “Rhodesian culture” (such as it was) in the service of a Rhodesian nationalism. Hence: The Library of Rhodesia. Books of Zimbabwe was, before, Books of Rhodesia, a local printing house that made admittedly beautiful new editions of late-nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century books. Nevermind that most of the books are deeply problematic from almost all contemporary viewpoints – treatises on missionary work; treatises on how best to kill an elephant; narratives of the evisceration of wild game on the African prairie; treatises on settlement and colonization and “pioneering.”
I found a particular volume that interested: On the South African Frontier, by William Harvey Brown. Although I knew the broad strokes outline of the settlement of Rhodesia – the staking of mineral claims and interest by the Rhodes corporation and the pioneer column that moved north from South Africa, cutting diagonally across Matabeleland and Mashonaland to what is now Harare (but was then Salisbury). But the broad strokes outline made me complacent to think that colonialism was the work, generally speaking, of the British. And it was – spoiler alert! – but like all 19th century endeavours, it was actually a multinational admixture of people, each of whom was there for their own personal reasons and personal gain. It is fascinating, though, that this American felt compelled all the way to the edges of European settlements, as if further enacting a pioneer impulse that may have felt stifled at the end of the American exploration of North America. Cool, I thought, at the bookstore – I’ll just read it and riff off it, go back and forth with my own experience interloping through Zimbabwe.
Except that William Harvey is, by all contemporary accounts, a true monster – an unrepentant racist and aspirational genocidaire.
Which led me to a consideration of our current president’s recent remarks, and in this text, I found some of the long-standing American ideologies and beliefs that continue to inform our President’s appalling racism.
If there is any indication of the pride of place of violence and racism in the volume, the title page, which replicates the original title page, is faced by a carefully pasted plate, black and white; a white man with a bandolier of bullets around his chest and a rifle in his left hand, leans forward with a revolver in his right. The plate captures him mid-firing, and in the receiving line of the bullet is a Christ-splayed ‘native,’ arms thrown out, head back, receiving death by bullet, dropping his spears and shield. The plate’s title is taken from the text itself: “Instinctively I pulled the trigger of the revolver, and discharged three shots so quickly as to spoil the aim of my assailant.” The justification of the murder so casually portrayed at the beginning of the book is theoretically self-defense but the sentence also obscures what the picture reveals – those shots didn’t merely make the ‘native’ drop his weapons but killed the ‘native.’ Because the picture depicts the ‘native’ with hands thrown up and out, the picture ironically captures a moment of surrender – “Hands up; don’t shoot” is a gesture with a long human history. The feeble justification – “to spoil the aim” echoes heavily with contemporary justifications of police violence: “He was reaching for a weapon;” “I couldn’t know he wasn’t going to attack.” Merely “to spoil the aim” effaces the existence of a mother and a family of this victim, effaces responsibility for moral accounting. Crime and Punishment perhaps erroneously taught me too early that anyone who takes the life of another must live a life haunted by the dispatched spirit, haunted by the moral wrong they’ve done, dogged by the sense of wrong that cannot be righted. Brown teaches instead that there are many cheerful murderers, and that murderers can happily become the Mayor of Salisbury, even. “I could shoot somebody in the middle of Fifth Avenue, and wouldn’t lose voters,” our President remarked before his election.
Who cares about life, anyway? Oh, right, Brown. Brown was a ‘naturalist,’ in the 19th-century parlance. Not zoologist, per se, nor any other specialist in the scientific study of life, but rather that great 19th century tradition of the gentleman generalist. The very outset of the book, however, renders clear the work of 19th-century science and culture, that even if the ostensible object of study is “life,” the best way to effect that study was to rain down death upon one’s objects of study.
Brown begins the text with a preface, composed in 1899, upon publication of the text, which covers the years 1890-1897, roughly. I am attempting to resist quoting from the text too heavily, but the preface does give a sense of what Brown thinks he’s doing:
“This work is a narrative of the author’s experiences and observations, partly as a naturalist of an expedition sent by the United States Government in 1889 to the west coast of Africa, but mainly as a collector, big-game hunter, gold seeker, landowner, citizen, and soldier, during seven years’ participation in the settlement and early development of Rhodesia. It treats variedly of travel, collecting, hunting, prospecting, farming, scouting, fighting. It throws a few side-lights on pioneer life. Two chapters are devoted to ethnology. The race problems which arise during the stage of transition from barbarism to civilization are discussed to some extent, as well as the agricultural and mineral resources of Rhodesia, and the possibilities of that region as a future field for immigration and commercial enterprise.” (vii)
Oprah Winfrey famously said, “When people tell you who they are, believe them.” When I read the above paragraph, itself one of the most carefully neutral paragraphs in the text, I see a lot of faults and slippages. First, the studied ersatz-neutrality of his tone: “This work is [with a silently humble ‘merely’] a narrative,” a statement that allows for personal expression and the simultaneous disavowal of authority. His sense of his own roles are clear: he “partly...a naturalist,” but “mainly” a “collector, big-game hunter, gold seeker, landowner, citizen, and soldier.” This list of shifting roles highlight what the 19th century took greatest pride and interest in.
To begin, the figure of the naturalist – science with commerce with an intentionally amateurish enthusiasm. The 19th century saw an explosion in the work of science – science became first a field, developing out of natural philosophy and other softer versions of the study of life, most of which intertwined that study with either philosophy or theology. Famously, I remember learning the novel Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell, which ends with the Earnest Young Gentleman off on a ‘scientific’ expedition to Africa at the end. Gaskell’s novel was one of the first that envisioned the work of science – outside of the academy, but not cloistered in a personal studio – as a viable economic enterprise.
In the Preface, Brown gives us a sense of what that means. He worked as a graduate student at the University of Kansas, and joined an expedition westward, “chasing butterflies and preserving the skins of grizzly bears and deer” (viii). After coming out well in that work of indiscriminate killing in the name of science, he was deputized to join an expedition run by the Smithsonian “to secure some skins and skeletons of the fast vanishing American bison” (viii-ix). The bison, you might recall, which were shot at out of the windows of trains for leisurely fun, the bodies left to rot on the prairies as the train pulled away. The great herds of bison which once sustained Native Americans on the continent for generations. The great herds, which, at the end of the 19th century, were already doomed to twilight. The phrasing here is crucially revealing: “fast vanishing.” The Smithsonian, eager to grab documentation of an ended era, unironically sent a man out to kill whatever bison remained. He did a creditable job at the bloody work, which earned him an invitation to an outing to the West Coast of Africa.
The technical purpose of the trip was to observe a total solar eclipse on the coast of West Africa. Africa wasn’t first in his mind; he had been tutored, after all, on American plains fauna. “...the idea of ever visiting the Dark Continent had not yet occurred to my mind as a possibility,” he explains, but “A moment only did I hesitate,” before eagerly signing on, “getting together preservatives, knives, guns, ammunition, fishing-tackle, seines, insect nets, vials, jars, copper tanks filled with alcohol – in short, sufficient collecting material, it seemed to me, to preserve two ship-loads of African animals” (2). Ship-loads of animal (carcasses): an anti-ark. Each piece of his equipment is designed to deal death and preserve it. The frenzied packing montage is a tableau of suspended violence.
Even if he is unfamiliar with Africa before going there, he nevertheless carries with him fully-developed preconceived notions. His innocence and ignorance and therefore always-already compounded by his faith in the precirculating racist narratives of Africa and her people. At the end of his Preface, Brown offers the following as a casual note, as if worthy of being noted, but completely unworthy of being commented upon or thought through rigorously – a defensiveness exhibited in his later racist musings.
“Following the method usually adopted in books of travel, I have for convenience and variety spoken of the native inhabitants of Rhodesia indiscriminately as savages and barbarians. As these people have organized society, posses domesticated animals, practise rude agriculture, and work in iron, they are ethnologically in the stage of middle barbarism, and hence, technically, barbarians.” (x)
The smugness of the language “technically,” his faux-scientific anthropological classification, and the offhanded violence of the terminology “savage” and “barbarian” all underscore the pre-existing justification of his colonial violences. In the manner of self-justifying hegemons everywhere, he is only ‘doing it for [their] own good,’ this violent trade in civilization.
Civilization itself, as we know, is a concept used with violence. The book at hand is a handsome one, but its first sally at this kind of epistemological violence comes with the facsimile of Rhodes’s endorsement of the book. It is “capital reading,” he says, and a “truthful picture of Rhodesia,” especially in the particulars around their suppression of ‘native’ ‘rebellions’ in the province. The jacket copy explains that the reproduction of the book is a “tribute to the parts played by the author, William Harvey Brown, and his fellow Americans in bringing Western civilization to this part of Africa.”
The “bringing” of civilization clearly requires that all luggage packed is designed for violence. And this luggage includes clear ideological baggage, too. When his ship arrives at the Western Coast of Africa, the first phrase that comes to his mind is that the West coast is the “white man’s grave” “on account of its deadly fevers” (3). The problem with 19th-century science, however, is that it is not yet understand that the pestilential visitation of malaria has nothing to do with the inherent degradation of the land itself, that it is not a moral failure of the people attending the land. Early science chalked malaria up to “miasma,” to certain landscapes and environments whose inherent health qualities were damning and damaging to humans.
“We found Africa,” he says, invoking “Africa” as a collating concept (as in the persistent misunderstanding that “Africa” is a “country”), “exactly as books of travel had led us to anticipate – a land of excessive heat, lofty palm-trees, gigantic baobabs, and naked savages” (3). A vision of Africa has always-already circulated before Brown, in his ignorance, arrived. But his ignorance preserved itself in spite of the nuance available upon first-hand witness. It is easier to preserve the fantasy of Africa than it is to confront Africa itself, materially.
These images of Africa as the “Dark Continent” and an exotically toxic land of savages persist vociferously and materially today. They persist in some more subtle ways – imaginations of Africa as indiscriminate Desert or Jungle; visions of Africa that are replete with wildlife and empty of people; beliefs about Africa as either poisonously fertile or inhumanely infertile; ideas about the landscape and people of Africa as being consigned to or embracing “barbarity.” Moreover, the language of finding/founding rings in this passage; he doesn’t use “discover,” but uses “found” in the same vein. The sense of the present progressive work of discovery is a constant current in Brown’s book – and almost all outsider writing (white writing, in particular) about Africa. “Found”/ing also accords with Brown’s sense of being there at the outset of the Rhodesian nation. For a man who became, briefly, the mayor of Salisbury (see the inset photo of the book of him in a fancy hat with a hunting dog winding around his feet, standing on the colonial verandah and surveying his land), this work of “founding” is crucial to his self-identity. Nevermind that there were tons of Europeans who went that way before – fodder for another, later post – nor any and all of the Africans who have transited across this swath of Africa.
For Brown, it was “travel books” that taught him this suite of hamfisted fantasies, the accounts of European “discoverers” like Stanley and Livingstone and Burton whose fantastic adventure tales ignited rounds of conquest and civilization under the aegis of saving wealth and beauty from a people who refused to appreciate either. I will speak more on this semper-colonial self-justification; I am currently at work on Doris Lessing’s critique of that salvific conservationism that animates white people in particular.
Brown’s colonial fantasies are ostensibly confirmed when his vessel was “immediately surrounded by boats filled with men and women, shouting, jabbering, laughing, quarrelling, and even fighting” (3). The range of behaviours the “natives” display are all crypto-animalistic and subhuman. He refuses to ascertain with any rigor what is actually happening amongst these people seeking his trade, but rather renders them loud but inarticulate, embodied but graceless, and in the paranoiac colonial fantasy (see Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant” or Lessing’s The Grass is Singing for deep explorations of this) – always laughing. The laughter of the native is never confirmation of their congeniality or amiability, nor of their happiness or pleasure per se. In the ears of the colonialist, the laughter of the native always harbours something darker – rejection, refusal, mockery, anger, ignorance, laziness, accusation. The native is always-already presumed to live a failed life, one naturally bereft of the real pleasures known to the colonial agent, pleasures derived from the simplifications of technology, the baroque mutations and evolutions of aesthetics, the exercise of exercises and pursuits and hobbies and vocations. If the native somehow thinks herself happy or content, it is a false consciousness, as she simply does not yet know real pleasure, real happiness, the roads to which imperatively travel through “development” and “progress.”
This fear of being laughed at – of being left out, and singled out – is a particularly powerful psychoaffective formation for white men. (Once more, see George Orwell’s careful deconstruction of it in “Shooting an Elephant.”) And no one signifies the effects of this traumatic formation more than our incredibly thin- (and orange-)skinned President. Like white Arizonans holding misspelled ‘English Only’ protest signs, this fear accrues to the nonwhite and the immigrant, in particular. It means these subjects are always-already marked by the fearful projection of white men, it is a symptom of their entitlement, and it is a structural strike against the foreigner, doing double damage.
President Trump was recently caught out saying brashly, and publicly, that he wanted to discourage immigration from “shithole” (or “shithouse,” as the administration has feebly argued was the actual language, as if that were in any way better) African countries instead of (white) countries like Norway. There is no debate about the rank racism of this remark. And much of our collective response to that remark has been, appropriately, horror. But it’s also an articulation of a complex set of racist ideologies that describe ostensibly milder manifestations of racisms, too. There is, in Trump’s scatologically phobic language “shitholes,” an invocation of impurity and degradation that adheres around poverty and race in the white imaginary. Such pathological fears already took the form of separate bathing and toilet and pool facilities in the Jim Crow South: sharing embodied spaces with those of other races was a direct vector of contagion and defilement. These fears of contagion have been largely supplanted by an ideologically impure fascination with sanitation and development that cuts through all of our liberal discourse. A particularly American fascination with bathing, cleanliness, and sterility no doubt also descends from these race-as-communicable-disease motif that cuts through American cultural discourse. The morality associated with wellness – those who are fit, eat healthfully, practice exercise-as-spirituality, refrain from overindulgence are morally superior beings – doubles back to bite the nonwhite, who are barred from the high cost of entry into this cult of wellness/morality by virtue of the persistence of economic structures that proscribe nonwhite employment and opportunity.
The anthropologist Mary Douglas long ago argued that constructions of purity and impurity, cleanliness and filth, healthfulness and neglect are fantasy constructions, ideologies that dovetail with colonial and racist imaginaries, and with class-based ideologies of morality inextricable from pathologies of hygiene. The President is a notorious germophobe, and the pathology of that anxiety is coterminous, undoubtedly, with his racism.
“Shitholes” do double duty with a previous statement the President made, when he claimed that Nigerian immigrants to the West would “never return to their huts” after witnessing the miracles of the advances and technological comforts of ersatz-advanced civilization. “Huts” is a deeply ideological word, obviously, as it describes the persistence of the belief in savagery and barbarity in spite of the advances of Western architecture and aesthetics. “Huts” also describes a previous form of human waste removal – huts and outhouses and latrines and shitholes. The oscillation between “shithole,” which could describe the anus itself as much as a toilet, and “shithouse,” which stresses the latter, is of no real concern, except in the mind of Trump himself, for whom genitals and waste production are simultaneously icky.
In catalogs of his racisms, mention is often made of the fact that he refuses to accept the innocence of the Central Park 5, the five nonwhite men accused of raping a white woman in Central Park in the eighties. They’ve long since been exonerated after a court of public opinion condemned them – helped along by a voluntary full-page ad Trump took out calling for the death penalty for the men, something he has not gone back on. William Harvey Brown, American pioneer in Rhodesia, presided over a foiled lynching that turned into a speedy trial ending in a public hanging, of one gentleman named “Zulu Jim.” Brown charmingly believes that there is an “inborn blood-thirstiness,” added to the fact that black Africans “act almost solely by impulse” (249). These things justify the hasty trial and execution of a man not at all proven to have committed any crimes, but was accused of the murder of several settlers. Foully, disgustingly, Brown narrates the hanging of Zulu Jim with relish, smirking “Justice had been done, and law and order had triumphed over lawlessness in Britain’s youngest colony (255).
Much as our current President advises the public that there are “good people” on “both sides” of the question of white supremacy, Brown defensively offers the following disclaimer to projected liberal readers back home:
“People in distant countries are prone to criticise the residents of African colonies for bearing what is termed ‘race hatred’ towards the black. If those distant and well-meaning critics might have brought to their doors the dastardly outrages and pitiful tragedies enacted by the blacks against the white in these frontier countries, there is not the slightest doubt that the white colonists would be regarded with more leniency than at present.” (248-249)
Indeed, this echoes directly the unwavering support the Border Patrol Agents’ unwavering support of Trump and their gleeful enactment of the tightening net Trump and his administration is drawing around immigrants – which recently culminated in a series of daylight raids on 7-11s around the country, arresting anyone with documentation and prepping them for deportation. The rhetoric of those loud voices crying out for the end to all immigration in the current moment brandish cases real, exaggerated, and imagined, that would seem to prove the coming multicultural hellscape. This accords with Bannon’s phraseology “American carnage” from Trump’s dismal inaugural speech. Consistently, Trump has worked overtime to argue that America’s cities, their sanctuary cities, their borders, their suburbs and small towns, all, all are a festering dumpster fire that is threatening to overwhelm white Americans once and for all in an orgy of lust and violence.
Because of course there was Trump’s opening presidential salvo, that rambling press conference in which he announced his desire to run, if only, it seemed, to stanch the flow of rapine and pillage streaming up from our southern borders. “Mexico isn’t sending its best people,” he bellowed; they are sending rapists and criminals and drug dealers. His fixation on immigrant rape, in particular, has continued without break from these earliest days. It is another barely-concealed variation on his fully-formed and historically-rooted beliefs in racial purity and white supremacy.
Well, inasmuch as America sent The Racist William Harvey Brown across the Atlantic to ship home literal shit-tons of animal carcases and skeletons, we’ve never really sent our best, either. Although British colonialism didn’t need much help from American racism, the unique constellations of American racisms wove their way into Rhodesian ideologies through vectors like Brown.
Stay tuned for the next episode, when I discuss the paradox of self-righteous white conservationism, climate change denial, trophy hunting, museums, and the Trump Sons right alongside WH Brown’s terrible pioneer tract.
This weekend, I went with my friends King Dee and Pinky, and their 3-year-old son Hunter, and Gogo, on a brief search for Gwayi pots. These are fairly standard issue red clay pots of various heights and widths and with varying geometric patterns adorning their rims. There are animal statuary vases, particularly one that shows a fish in mid-wriggle, the plants emerging from its mouth at a spilling angle. We also had the mission of picking up starter mango trees from the city park to take out to King Dee’s aspirational orchard out in the bush.
Gwayi is on the road to Hwange, on the Victoria Falls Road north out of Bulawayo. I passed it and marvelled at the sudden vista of fields of pottery, but failed to stop on the way up or the way back down to my infinite regret. For I’ve had plants sitting on my balcony in their plastic wrap since I moved into my apartment. The same roster, intermittently diminished by my brief absences – three small mints and a creeper; a jade tree out of which has also emerged elephant ears; a philodendron; a rusty orange bougainvillea; and two succulents, one plump, one spiky. They languish a little, because the sun never makes it over the lip of the wall of the balcony. I’ve been meaning to pot them for ages.
So we went to the Makokoba Market. A smallish market replete with small worked-iron goods; tons of cowbells, the likes of which I imagine are all tuned slightly differently; wire cages of sad chickens and guinea fowl, for sale for breeding, perhaps, or laying, or more likely, magic. The far corner of the market is taken up with a ring of stalls selling small clay beer pots (in which traditional beer is brewed, and served communally), but no Gwayi pots. But plenty of magick herbs and paraphernalia. I’ve been to voodoo markets in New Orleans (tourist and nontourist), Ghana, and Morocco, and now, I suppose Zimbabwe. Although “voodoo” is a stupid catch-all term for syncretic and animist religions. Morocco’s market was easily the most terrifying, but that’s because you also had to wade through the Djemaa el’Fnaa plaza full of charmed cobras to get to it. New Orleans’ are the most commercial and eclectic, evincing a unified aesthetic that is distinctly local and also generically commodifiable as folk kitsch. Bulawayo’s market was small and sedate.
Here, in Bulawayo, it would be a market for sangoma, one of the many catch-all terms for witch, faith healer, animist, spirit channeller, etc. There were no tourists here at all. In fact, King Dee and Co made a point to point out how many people were staring at me. Mukhiwa! The dried grasses and herbs and small bones and skulls and such were pragmatically displayed. But each stall also had a compliment of symbolic and ritual objects – fly whisks made with sable hair, or carved wooden sticks, or bangles or scraps of game leather. Which made me think, in an idle way, that even such durable spiritual goods must be bought on occasion, hey? I feel like there’s probably a website where priests order cassocks, or a wholesaler of chausibles in some northern Italian industrial city.
While I scanned the dangling ponytail whisks, Gogo Cynthia stalked off to find her spiritual pharmacist. She came back with a knotted plastic bag full of what looked like chamomile. I resisted the urge to ask to smell it. A lot of people here mix Christian beliefs with animist or localist beliefs. When you drive past almost any plot of bush in the suburbs of the city, there will be white-clad worshippers communing under trees, performing prayers. There are ‘greens’, too, who do the same in green. Plenty of people don’t mix them with Christian beliefs, too.
“She watches the woman’s hands; one grips a reused glass jar and a small leather patch wound with what looks like a blood-dampened thong, and the other a bunch of herbs. Tsitsi is perturbed by the jar’s contents: what looks like a shrivelled and pickled body part in some kind of oil. She narrows her eyes at the jar, trying to ascertain whether it really contains a body part. It looks like a hand. She suppresses a gasp...Maybe it is just a small hand of some animal. A small animal, yes. Yes, an animal—like a monkey. They’re quite human-like, aren’t they?...the n’anga places the jar in her hand. She is told that it is to eliminate her nemesis. As she grasps the cold glass, Tsitsi feels herself boil into guilty excitement.”
We drove out to King Dee’s place in Cowdray Park, far-far away from Bulawayo, a half-hour by gutted and rutted roads. The red clay and sand lay on top of sedimentary rock domes carved with runnels from rainwater. When we got there, the hunter green city trees mingled with the spring green bush trees, and King Dee spread his hands to demonstrate where he wanted to plant his mango orchard. Hunter ran around my car, begging for the keys to the mota, where like a certain president he wanted to sit, dwarfed by the steering wheel, and toot the horn and make vroom-vroom sounds. Pinky brought out a notebook in which she’d been writing stories since I started lending her books; they sound Victorian; she’s been reading Eliot and Forster. The neighbour, who it turns out Gogo knows from years ago, brought out his untuneable guitar and started crooning. Neighborhood kids walked in the dirt paths between homes and gawked, and the sky was absolutely larger than any sky I could remember, the sun sinking slowly over communal plots of maize growing alongside a trickling ditch, shooting the clouds through with gold, then peach.
I had to get home before dark, or I’d get swallowed in one of the car-sized potholes on the way back. I waved. Merry Kissimus to all, and to all a good night.
11/28/2017 0 Comments
Over the past few days, I have been reading Ngugi’s The Wizard of the Crow. A work of subtle speculative fiction, dense allegory, sharp satire, and socioeconomic observation, this novel follows a long-lived and long-ruling African dictator simply named “Ruler.” Ruler’s characteristics firmly overlap those of Mugabe – pervasive paranoia, a culture of unwavering sycophancy, consolidated one-party rule, control of all media, kleptocratic politicians, indignant anti-neocolonialism... the parallels continue. Even similar is the narrative that the Western media has been happily trumpeting for the past several weeks: “Once the world’s (or Left’s, or Africa’s, or pan-African politics’) darling, his reputation waned as he became ever more tyrannical...”
Around the Ruler are a swirling cast of a dozen continuously interlocking and overlapping characters – ambitious dolts, fawning sycophants, manipulative masterminds, suffering wives, Lady Macbeths. The contiguities and juxtapositions, the endless recombinations, make the novel feel like an endless unfolding of a interminable drama. This isn’t a criticism – indeed, perhaps one of the greatest accomplishments of the novel is its theatricality. The novel could be staged—granted, over many consecutive nights of unfolding permutations – and this shades the allegory of the novel, about ambition and corruption.
In the novel, the eponymous Wizard conducts his sorcery with no items other than a mirror. And the mirror is an acute figure for what mirrors do for us, psychologically (think here of Lacan’s mirror stage in particular). Using the mirror as a prop, the Wizard punctures the fictions maintained by those seeking his guidance, using psychological and social insights in their body language, their confessional language, their narrativizations. It is incredibly wise that, in a work of mild fantasy, the sorcery isn’t magical at all, but pragmatic and materialist – where material bodies, on the other hand, are manipulated and act and behave in some fantastic ways. The conceit of the mirror allows the afflicted to realize their own cure through the psychoanalytical back-and-forth with the Wizard – and that is true power grounded in its fake magic. Even though the Ruler is ultimately irredeemable, even he (or He, in the novel) is promised some measure of salvation through self-awareness and self-realization. That is, if he could set aside his narcissism long enough to reflect self-critically.
In one of the weirdest turning points of the UnCoup drama was when Bob took to live television to make a solemn announcement. Flanked by a dozen military men, he took the microphone and... talked for about a half hour. There was no indication throughout the speech what the thrust or import was, other than that everyone knew he was going to resign.
“Rumor has it that the Ruler talked nonstop for seven nights and days, seven hours, seven minutes, and seven seconds. By then the ministers had clapped so hard, they felt numb and drowsy. Some did not realize that they themselves had become hoarse and were now producing barely audible whispers of more, give us more, couldn’t agree with the Mighty One more. Some could barely complete a sentence, then a word, then a syllable.
But he got to the end of the speech, it seems – he flipped past a page, shuffled notes, muttered, ... and then concluded without resigning. Whatsapp was aflame with what the mic caught him saying after he finished the speech (“Asante sana,” for one). Whatsapp was also aflame with the rumor that he had foiled the generals by skipping over the paragraph or page wherein he was meant to announce his retirement.
For thirty-seven years, Zimbabwe has been ruled by one party, one leader. All of that changed quite suddenly, but to shouts of great joy and pleasure. An era was over! A new one...begun? The coup that wasn’t was ultimately an in-party impasse: warring cliques of politicians escalated a succession crisis exacerbated and accelerating daily with rumors of the untenable and universally unstomachable ascension of the former first lady to the Presidency. But no one who has survived the Purge hasn’t also been there all along – and so the joy of the downfall of the president has quickly given way to misgivings about the perpetuation of the Old Guard. Today a new cabinet is announced – a fact hashed out on ZBC (zed-bee-cee) Radio this morning on a call-in forum. Several callers in a row were anxious to stress that the horizon of the New President’s current tenure – he has promised elections as planned next year – the “at most eight months” – were more than enough for him to accomplish what he wants to accomplish and then step out of the way for a new establishment altogether. Three callers in a row stressed that he should not get more than those eight months – a stark contrast to the thirty-seven years of rule for the Last Guy. Given an inch, I’m pleased to report, Zimbabweans are increasingly demanding a mile – no less than their due for their patience.
This November, we Americans completed our first year’s lap with 45. It has been surreal to be living in a country with an all-consuming political spectacle (even well before the UnCoup un-unfolded) away from the political spectacle in which I feel daily more implicated and also distant from, at the moment. Diasporic Zimbabweans felt the same about the UnCoup.
Rebecca Solnit, a lovely writer and thinker, has a piece out on LitHub right now that suggests her own kind of “mirror trick” for 45. She describes, as if allegorically, the circumstances poisoning 45’s sense of self/righteousness. She cites a Pushkin fable wherein the insatiably greedy and self-serving are ultimately rewarded with their downfall and comeuppance – a familiar theme in literature, hey? But Solnit’s reiteration of the fable is meant to instill hope – even the darkest possible hope, as the thudding end of her essay:
“The man in the white house sits, naked and obscene, a pustule of ego, in the harsh light, a man whose grasp exceeded his understanding, because his understanding was dulled by indulgence. He must know somewhere below the surface he skates on that he has destroyed his image, and like Dorian Gray before him, will be devoured by his own corrosion in due time too. One way or another this will kill him, though he may drag down millions with him. One way or another, he knows he has stepped off a cliff, pronounced himself king of the air, and is in freefall. Another dungheap awaits his landing; the dung is all his; when he plunges into it he will be, at last, a self-made man.”
There’s a great Petina Gappah short story that seems prophetic in her 2016 collection Rotten Row. The book is an interlinked fugue of stories about crime and punishment in Harare; it is sometimes sensational, sometimes banal, often transcendent, but it’s her best work. In this acute short story – which was invoked for and by her in her newsshow punditing in the Wake of Bob – rumors of the death of a Mugabelike President begin in a diasporic internet forum by an exiled Zimbabwean man who angrily trolls any and all related to Zimbabwe. One of his online avatars dumps a rumor into the ether - and “the story is now feeding on itself, growing as it feeds...By the time Amai Bhoyi has her electricity reconnected, the news is now the top thread on the column: LATEST FROM ZIM, PRESIDENT COLLAPSES!!...As Fortune puts in his hours, all around the world, in every city where Zimbos have taken refuge, in every city on every continent, there is an ecstasy of typing on Twitter and Facebook and WhatsApp, in Washington and London, in Helsinki and Geneva, in Johannesburg and Gaborone, in Dallas and back in Luton, as his countrymen and women across the world join to discuss the horizons that are revealed by this news. Text message flash from Johannesburg and Leicester, Slough and Scotland.” (172)
While the UnCoup was happening, the two WhatsApp groups I belong to – and most here will belong to dozens covering a range of concerns or professional or social groups – were a permanent, ongoing discussion forum. It was a model of civil dialogue, even when it got heated. It is where, as we are slowly adjusting to dawning potential freedom for political speech (it’s so hard to tell), real live political talk happens all the time.
In Gappah’s story, the rumor builds over its circulation, gaining flesh and momentum until the Western press catches the story as the Death of the President.
“the words ‘BBC Reports President’s Death’ flash on Gift Chauke’s mobile telephone at eight in the morning. Gift Chauke is selling newspapers and airtime at Newlands shops, a few steps from Barclays Bank. He shows the message to his friends Biggie and Nicholas, whose business models see them as vendors and walking purveyors of everything possible. ‘This cannot be true,’ Gift Chauke says. ‘Otherwise it would be in the newspapers.’
The first news of the coup-that-wasn’t came to me, at least, in the form of a dozen or more Facebook messages or posts expressing vague concern over “what was happening,” and it took about a half hour of coffee, wiping the sleep nuggets out of my eyes, and squinting at the New York Times to suss out that we had had a coup. But for the first two days, the headlines of the newspapers plastered on the street corners (public libraries of a sort: everyone, literally everyone, reads the headlines habitually) reflected none of the ongoing “drama,” such as it was – the Western press, however, were coming through with photos of tanks and soldiers, and commandeered the narrative of the UnCoup.
One of the strange things about the newspaper headlines displayed on the corner is that they are never united – as if no two newspapers can compete with the same news (very different from the American context) – and instead, there will be five or six different headline-worthy stories. But if you squint and braid these headlines together over time, they represent a kind of plot arc and narrative periodicity – rises and falls, reversals. It is a complexly woven and highly responsive narrative structure, because as rumors circulate on social media and stories are debated and augmented, the news, too, morphs to accommodate these new realities. One of the major effects of all of this is that everyone here – with very few exceptions – has a deeply complicated narrative of Zimbabwe. In these narratives, personal advantage, family ties, decades of history and histories of conflict, as well as up-to-the-second developments and late-breaking scandals, all collate to form a unified narrative. Interacting with any three Zimbabweans elucidates the subtle differences in the wefts of their narratives, but it is fascinatingly near-universal. And perhaps more impressive is the fact that these narratives are less concretized than one thinks.
Indeed, the real coup was in the surprising plasticity of these narratives that themselves drove the UnCoup – in other words, that a ripple of unrest and suspicion could crest in a Greek drama that signalled the sudden reversal of fortune for a Patriarch that had been in place for thirty-seven years. One day, the narrative shifted for enough people to effect a sudden (even if elongated over a week) change in politics. It’s not a fundamental change – the New One is cut from the same cloth as the Dearly Departed – but it is an entire change of frame.
It’s like a mirror trick. Asante sana.
Wednesday, November 21, 2017
A week ago, a coup that was not be called a "coup" began. It began with hysterical foreign reports of tanks and armored personnel carriers in the streets of Harare. There were those, but they never fired their weapons. Soldiers replaced police officers at roadblocks, and a change of guard happened over night.
For a week, we all watched the news fervently. We shot each other messages on Whatsapp, the 100% pervasive social messaging app. Every vicissitude captured, every rumor circulated. We knew He was going to resign, had resigned. And then came the resignation speech that wasn't a resignation speech, and our spirits dipped lower. Was the Man so stubborn he skipped the paragraph that said he'd resigned?
So we resigned ourselves to the possibility of impeachment, carrying two irreconcilables in our heads: rule of law and expediency. Rule of law lost, but so did He. At 5:15pm on November 21st, I drove home from the gym and took an extra spin around the block, listening to Jacob Mudenda read out the Constitution, its section on impeachment, the charges against Him.
I showered, braced by the cold water, and heard a mighty honk. A mighty honk followed by another mighty honk. A car accident? Traffic? It was "rush hour," such as it is in Bulawayo.
And shouting. I hear shouting a lot: the men offloading crates of bulk groceries in the alley behind my apartment often shout. So, too, do earnest Pentecostals in a church two blocks away every morning, or the touts recruiting passengers at the kombi stand across from my apartment.
Honking, and shouting. Unbroken. I turned off the water, frisked the towel over my body and threw on clothes. The honking crescendo'd. I threw on slops and dashed down the stairs. Outside, there were whistles, shouts, beeps, honks, a chorus.
6pm. The news had broken, finally, that He had stepped. He who made political speech a near-impossibility, who had ordered the death of His rival but killed only His rival's wife, who had led the purge of the Ndebele after independence, who had ordered farms be given over to His party not His people, who had driven the economy into, through, and dragged along the bottom of a hyperinflationary crisis that cost Him the most successful of His citizens. He had married an unstable woman with an obsession with luxury. He had commandeered more than $1billion of His people's money in properties mostly abroad. He had fired successive VPs when it emerged that they might be more popular or capable than Him, the last of which outdid Him.
While He was in charge, we could not really mention His name; we feared being taken for critics, and critics were dispatched with harshly. Just recently, He had an American woman arrested, charged with attempting to overthrow the government because she posted a picture of Him with a catheter. He had been going to Singaporean doctors for years, seeking treatment for His ailments, which increasingly beset Him as he moved into his nineties.
When He was president, all speech critical of Him and His policies earned surveillance and attention at least, gruesome torture and death at the worst.
While He was president, all the news channels will tell you wistfully, the "Bread Basket" of Africa became a debtor nation, then a nation in shambles.
He was Robert Mugabe. (He still is, for however much longer his nonagenarian body can hold up to the demands of his erratic wife.) He was a complicated man. He was not always Bad with a capital 'B,' but just bad-with-a-lower-case 'b', like any complicated man. But there's no doubt that by the end, he was Bad; rotten; had overstayed his welcome.
We will never have to speak of him with a capital 'H' anymore - at least we hope not. But the road ahead is winding, and the champion uncritically welcomed home has a lot to prove. The Zimbabwean people got their first taste of political freedoms last week. And last night's celebrations - the toyi-toying in the streets, the flapping flags, the whistles and horns, the joyrides around the city and the suburbs just honking honking honking -- will burn off. It is my hope that enough hope has been ignited to keep this revolt in motion; it is my hope that not only will the Zimbabwean people hold their leader to higher standards, but that they will be allowed to. It is my hope that this isn't another iteration of the same, bad-old patterns that ruled for thirty-seven years.
This isn't the most eloquent reflection on the world-historical events, but it's a start, and I knew I'd be remiss if I didn't record some of my thoughts in the moment.
I came here, after all, precisely because this could have happened. Not what actually happened - no one predicted that, or even really understood it while it was happening. But I was hopeful that I might witness a change for the Zimbabwean people that might allow them to breathe better, think better, be better. And so it came to pass.
In the latest instalment of “Six Awkward Questions,” Bulawayo author Bryony Rheam offers thoughtful responses to the admittedly awkward questions. Rheam is the author of the elegant and acclaimed This September Sun, published by ‘Amabooks; a number of her short stories have appeared in anthologies, including ‘Amabooks’ latest, Moving On; her story of the strain of exile and the tensions it inscribes in families gives us the anthology its title. She describes herself below as the “number one fan” of Agatha Christie, and she is appropriately at work on a crime thriller, which is in the editing process and edging towards print – keep your eyes open!
describe your favorite novel or writer using synaesthetic terms
It has to be Virginia Woolf. I love her because I relate to her so well. She was deeply unhappy and, of course, famously committed suicide. Yet she has this amazing ability to see the beauty of the world and capture it so well. This trembling, transient beauty comes with the knowledge that nothing lasts; everything dies - but that is part of the beauty as well. The strength of her writing is that she illuminates those tiny, fleeting moments that most of us take for granted, but which make up daily life.
what are some metaphors for your relationship to African writing?
The first would be roadworks with lots of 'detour' signs. Another would be looking for the seventh floor only to be told that the lift only goes to the sixth and I'm not allowed to take the stairs. I don't really know where I am as an African writer. I was born in Zimbabwe and have lived most of my life here, but I am white so I don't fit in with the majority and people are also a bit suspicious of white writers. I feel sometimes as though I am muscling in on a space which is not mine. One of the criticisms of This September Sun was that weren't enough black characters, even though it was essentially a story about a family. Now if I was to write a book with mainly black characters, I would be accused of appropriation. Either way, I don't win.
But, on a more positive note, another metaphor would be a wide open space because I think there is a lot of opportunity, a chance to do something different because African literature is coming to a stage of opening up.
assuming a utopian arc, what is the best thing about Africa in the future?
I think it's expanding, developing and going forward in a way in which literature from the West is not. As long as African writers push ahead and challenge Western ideas of Africa - poverty, famine, disease - by writing what they want, then I think we will see great things. Many British and American writers have become very cynical about the world and this is reflected in the type of books coming out. I think, to paraphrase Scott Fitzgerald, we have a great capacity for optimism, for seeing a brighter future and not getting stuck in all this angst that the others are.
what habits aid writing most and least?
I love getting up early in the morning and just enjoying the silence if nothing else. Walking is great for getting ideas and sorting out problems! I think the staff at Hillside Dams might think I am slightly unbalanced as I walk round talking to myself. Taking the dogs with me helps me look a little more sane. I also enjoy meditation, both for the discipline and the peace of mind it lends me. The worst thing to do is to get onto Facebook. It's best left alone if you want to get anything done. You think you'll just have a peek, but suddenly a whole hour has gone by and really it's rarely very interesting.
how do you do it?
I start off with my trusty notepad and pen and just sit and write. I have another notebook for good lines that come to me, but I have no idea where they are going or what they are about. I can't say I have a set routine as some days I go and teach and some days I have something I have to do in town. I do have to write in the mornings though; I just can't think in the afternoon, especially if it is very hot. Also, the afternoons see me running around after my children and making supper.
what is the most exciting book you've read in the past six months?
Unfortunately, I don't read as much as I want to. At the moment I am reading an Agatha Christie - you know I'm her number one fan, don't you? - called The Secret of Chimneys. It actually begins in Bulawayo with two friends meeting after a while apart. One of them is running desultory tours to Matopos and is bored out of his mind and the other is a hunter/prospector of the Indian Jones ilk. The latter pays the former to take some documents to England for him and pretend he is him (hope that makes sense!). It turns out the documents are diaries of a Count from some weird Eastern European country with a fictional name. I am enjoying it because it is an early spy thriller, a bit like The Thirty Nine Steps.
I will be posting occasional interviews with Zimbabwean writers, all with the same six-question format.
Tariro Ndoro is an emerging Zimbabwean short story writer and poet, whose story “The Travellers” in ‘Amabooks’s most recent collection of Zimbabwean literature caught my eye. I had the pleasure of interviewing her as part of a panel on the collection at Intwasa Arts Festival in Bulawayo in October 2017. Her depiction of the economic and social end-of-the-road in the person of a bored Chicken Inn employee in “The Travellers” really humanizes the social and economic difficulties that Zimbabweans – and Southern Africans, generally - are currently facing. Her poetry and her prose alike explore scenes like this one from Cape Town in her poem “Transport”: “across from me, sleeping on the bubbling yellow foam / of the tattered prison grey seat, a tattered young man / and his tired sister both travel to their dead end jobs.” For every protestation that 2017 is not the new 2008 in Zimbabwe, Ndoro answers with another searching portrait of those whose minor suffering belies ongoing, everyday realities. Do I stay or do I go now?
describe your favorite novel or writer using synaesthetic terms
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. Definitely. This work was pretty revelatory for me. A warm, relatable book, and at the same time creepy and claustrophobic and painful. I love the different motifs Roy sets up and how they all tie up in the end as well as her several streams of consciousness.
what are some metaphors for your relationship to African writing?
A stuffy room, mainly because there seems to be this culture of having an elite few African writers that are the flagships for African literature, which means a lot of emerging writers feel like they have no voice at all or no story to add to the ongoing narrative.
A good meal that ended before I was done eating, when I find a story that's particularly fresh and good -- for instance, a lot of Lesley Nneka Arimah's work.
assuming a utopian arc, what is the best thing about Africa in the future?
Self actualisation. It seems we're going through an African Renaissance. The natural hair revolution, African literary ezines giving the ordinary African more access to African lit... If all goes well, ten years from now, we'll be an actualised continent and the stereotypes that hold my generation of POCs back won’t hinder my children (I hope).
what habits aid writing most and least?
Reading. Reading the classics for structure, reading the contemporaries for inspiration and reading outside of my forte to prevent stagnation. Daydreaming also helps and giving myself writing targets (eg 1000 words a day).
how do you do it?
I love it. I know this isn't really an answer -- but it is the love I have for stories and story-telling that drives my search for the greatest short story, my love for the word that makes me struggle with my own fear of the blank page and the discouragement brought on by rejection slips. On a practical note, though, I probably spend about one or two hours [a day] writing until I run out of steam, then I go back to reading and editing until I find some form of inspiration to write a new work.
what is the most exciting book you've read in the past six months?
This is a hard question. I haven't read a whole lot of books in a while. I feel like I've been reading short stories. The God of Small Things was pretty exciting. I read it this year but I'm not sure when. I've also started reading Kate Zambreno's Green Girl and that's pretty exciting as well; I love the pace of the book and also the streams of consciousness Zambreno constructs.
1. What the cleaners wanted
* time to talk to me
* tokens of appreciation
* to treat me like a hapless eldest son
* never to be spoken to like that again
* to tell me she used to be a teacher
* to tell me that all of her siblings moved abroad
* to remind me of the state of the economy, since I seem so aloof from it
* to get me to take better care of myself
2. Five paraphrases from a letter the hotel sent me
* Unfortunately, with the economic climate worsening, we fear more and more brazen thefts from our hotel rooms
* Regrettably, as the economy tanks, more of Us will steal from You
* We will do the best we can, but we hope you understand that with the economy like this, we shall have to steal from you more often
* Maybe because you're American and rich you don't understand this, but the economic situation here is frightening, and we are doing the best we can, which may or may not involve taking additional monies from our guests
* You couldn't possibly understand that 2017 feels like 2008 and that feels like death, because our families left, our money dried up, our industries died, as did our hope; and there's but scant hope left even now; and when you, and others like you, travel here, you come with reserves of hope, and bundles of US Dollars that you don't even bother to lock away, so rich are you, so carefree, when we, those who serve you, are suffering
3. Things they keep behind the counter at Choppies
* sweetened condensed milk
Fulbright Core Teaching/Research Fellowship to Zimbabwe, 2017-2018. Will teach at the National University of Science and Technology in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, and conduct research on the city's literary history, its cultural infrastructure, and its outlets for creative writing.