Fictioneer, decoloniser, seer: Charles Mungoshi

Charles Mungoshi likely entered this world with an affinity for words. He leaves it having spent his life writing, editing, publishing and translating – in English and Shona.

Waiting for the Rain is the classic 1975 novel by prizewinning Zimbabwean writer Charles Mungoshi, who has died at the age of 71. Reading the book again last year, its poise, the precision of its prose and the maturity of the voice of its author – he was just 28 when it came out – stuck out.

The title neatly captures the parched state of what was then Southern Rhodesia, the existential angst and unrequited longings that not even independence since 1980 has done much to resolve. In 1975, when the novel came out, the nationalist war against then prime minister Ian Smith’s Rhodesian Front government was in its third year.

Smith wasn’t the only enemy though, for the sword was also fratricidal. That year, Zanu chair Herbert Chitepo was killed in a car bomb in Lusaka, most likely planted by his own comrades in the liberation movement. It is an unsolved death and Zimbabwe continues to suffer from its ramifications.

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It is The House of Hunger by Dambudzo Marechera, published in 1978 to critical acclaim and winner of the Guardian Fiction Prize, in whose shadow Waiting for the Rain has lived for so long. It was Mungoshi’s particular misfortune to be judged not on the basis of his prodigious and diverse output – plays, novels, short stories and translations – but as a foil to Marechera, whose literary style, personality and life fitted neatly into Europe’s bohemian traditions. (That we are talking about Marechera in a tribute to Mungoshi shows how deeply the malaise runs.)

Mungoshi went to St Augustine’s Penhalonga, the same school as Marechera, and there stood out as a keen bibliophile who read, literally, everything that was on the Anglican institution’s library shelves. It is said that, during his regular trips to Salisbury (now Harare), a priest at the school would borrow books from the bigger libraries in the city for the young Mungoshi.

The dictum that it’s impossible to become a good writer without being a reader is especially true for Mungoshi. Chatting to Zimbabwean publisher and editor Irene Staunton a few years ago – who despite her shy demeanour couldn’t hide her astonishment and excitement at Mungoshi’s exacting reading habits – she told how, in ordinary conversation, Mungoshi would recall to her how a sentence or turn of phrase had been used in a particular tome.

Unusually for many writers, not only in Zimbabwe but throughout the Third World on which European languages were imposed at the moment of colonisation, Mungoshi wrote brilliantly in Shona and English. You could say Mungoshi, without fanfare or penning the poetics of decolonisation (I’m thinking of Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Decolonising the Mind and his decision to write only in Kikuyu), had already figured this out at the beginning of his career.

When Mungoshi had to write in Shona, he did, and when he thought English was better suited to a certain narrative, he wrote in English.

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Incredibly, Waiting for the Rain appeared in the same year as Ndiko Kupindana Kwamazuva. Not only did he write other Shona works, such as the novel Makunun’u Maodza Moyo and the play Inongova Njake Njake, he was also a translator and his 1987 translation of Ngugi’s classic A Grain of Wheat came out in Shona as Tsanga Yembewu.

Before all this, he had published Coming of the Dry Season, his 1972 debut collection of stories. They are of such depth, beauty and brevity it’s not an exaggeration to say that every time you go back to them, you discover something new.

But Mungoshi will probably be most celebrated for Waiting for the Rain, his second work in English. The novel stars three generations of the Mandengu family: the Old Man, a veteran of the 1896 war against British settlers; his wife, Old Japi; and their son Tongoona, who has two sons of his own: Lucifer, an alienated artist who is about to go and study in Britain, and his brother, Garabha, who is better at playing the drum than the ancients who inhabit him. The Old Man tells Garabha, “Your great-grandfather who, if I know anything, sits in you, couldn’t handle the drum the way you do.”

Of the bond between the Old Man and Garabha, Old Japi says, “If my husband were dead, I would say his spirit sits in that boy.” In his youth, the Old Man was a drummer who later become a drum maker. His main ambition is to make Garabha “five big, skin drums that he can only play standing high up on a pedestal”.

Garabha, a musiyadzasukwa (don’t leave the bar until the pot has run dry) and bohemian, is wont to disappear for days on end as he follows the drum, beer and women. This exasperates his mother and father, who want him to settle.

The fact that, when Garabha has the drum between his knees, he becomes a “strange animal” who connects the ancestor-dead and the living is of little consolation to his parents. Garabha isn’t just an “African postman”, to use the title of a Burning Spear song, whose purpose is to bridge worlds – this one, nyikadzimu (the abode of the ancestor-dead), and other worlds we don’t even know exist; for him, the drum is everything.

“Only the sound of the drum can counter this sudden feeling of helplessness in the face of the shortness of time and the futility of laughter. Only the drum will help him understand this thing he hasn’t got words for.”

It’s not just drum, song and dance. The Old Man’s disquisitions on the land are useful as South Africans try to resolve this age-old question. In the Old Man’s monologue about the British settlers and the land, he anticipates some of the contemporary debates on the environment and the disaster wrought by western capital: “We said [to the British settlers]: build there, the land is the Earth’s, there is enough for everyone. But their greed reduced them to something less than men. We couldn’t understand this desire of theirs to call everything mine, mine, mine.

“What they didn’t know, which we knew, which made us survive, was that we owned nothing and it wasn’t our own cunning that made us live. Everything was the Earth’s. But they went about destroying everything, and claiming things for themselves. Nothing was sacred to them. And they wouldn’t respect what was sacred to us. What else could we do but fight them? We fought them and here we are today. For those of us who saw those battles, our homes and granaries are still burning.”

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And in many ways Waiting for the Rain was already correcting, back in 1975, the colonial myths that equated being white with being a lover of animals and the protector of the environment. Who can forget the cameo appearance in the novel of Samambwa, Shona for “he who has many dogs”, the mythical, iconoclast wanderer-ancestor of the Mandengu family?

“He was a giant, red-eyed, wild haired, without family or friends, having lost them all in a battle with some other tribes in the north. He was a terrible hunter, with over 20 dogs and he lived on meat which he cut into strips and hung in the sun to dry, to be eaten later without salt. For years he wandered about in the great jungles of the north, and being alone, he soon forgot how to talk, even forgot who his parents had been, or where he had come from. And so he found himself among people again, on the shores of the Great Northern Lake. They didn’t like him…

“He came to another country where the chief of that land asked him to live with them and help them fight their enemies. He stayed long enough to be given two wives, make several children with them and then one morning, he wasn’t there…

“You see, he couldn’t live with people any more: he was a hunter and all he had were his dogs and nothing more: no family, no tribe, no law except the law of survival and the family of wild animals, trees, rivers and mountains. He had nothing at all but his wanderer’s heart and his dogs.”

Mungoshi’s death is particularly sad, because it comes just a month after musician and raconteur Oliver Mtukudzi’s, so our cheeks are still wet. Mungoshi’s death is also a forlorn event because it takes away one of the most complete “fictioneers” – to misuse a neologism by American theorist Fredric Jameson – that Africa ever produced, for Mungoshi was at once an editor and poet, short story writer and novelist, playwright, publisher and translator.

We are poorer, not only because he is no longer here but also because the school curriculums that the Robert Mugabe regime established cannot produce people like him (Mungoshi didn’t go to university), so we’re not likely to see more of his ilk any time soon.

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