Sharp Read | Zimbabwe’s faithful literary son

Charles Mungoshi did not work in exile and paid the price in bans and relative obscurity at home. Now many of his beautifully spare stories have been gathered in a fresh anthology.

The writer Charles Mungoshi, whose short fiction has been gathered into Collected Short Stories (House of Books, 2020), lived most of his life in Zimbabwe until his death in February 2019. To understand his life, career and relative obscurity, a secular (mis)reading of the biblical parable of the prodigal son is useful.

The tale is about two sons: one asks his father for a share of his inheritance, which he wastes in exile; the other, the faithful one, stays and looks after his father’s vast wealth and landholdings. On the prodigal son’s return, his father slaughters a “fattened calf” for his welcome party. “Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends,” is the plaint of the son who stayed. But the father glibly replies that all he had belonged to the faithful son. 

Compare the lot of the son who stayed at home with what happened when Mungoshi’s debut short story collection, Coming of the Dry Season, came out. When Oxford University Press published the book in 1972, Rhodesian censors banned it. The offending story, The Accident, about a white car driver who knocks down a Black vendor, was taut with Rhodesia’s racial tensions. As the driver waits for the police to arrive, a crowd gathers. “Most people took one look at the victim, covered their faces with their hands and did not look again but waited to hear the story. Without being told, they knew that the European had done it.” 

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When the police arrive, three witnesses, who had not seen what happened, step forward. About these three, someone in the crowd wistfully says: “But those three men have courage. If only we had 10 more like them – men who can stand up and tell them that they are wrong.” Someone replies: “It will be a long, long time before we have 10 like that.”

At the time, there were already thousands of such men and women in the guerrilla camps in Zambia, Mozambique and Tanzania, and such sentiments were treasonous, hence the ban. Because he was working as a clerk in Salisbury (now Harare) and recently married – another tie to the country – Mungoshi was within easy reach of the Special Branch of the British South Africa Police.  

This might explain why when the quietly subversive Waiting for the Rain came out in 1975, Mungoshi was wary of a second ban. The novel features a character who fought in the first war against British settlers of 1896-1897 and fondly reminisces about the uprising. Mungoshi was keen to play down the discontent in the novel: “There is a thwarted nationalist in the book whose rantings are contained in one chapter,” he told the Rhodesia Herald at the time. “But he is dismissed as mad and drunk by the family and I hope the censors judge the book as a whole, not isolate one part of it.”  

Mungoshi’s contemporaries in exile – Dambudzo Marechera, recently expelled from New College, Oxford, then at work on The House of Hunger, and Wilson Katiyo, also based in Britain, whose novel A Son of the Soil came out in 1976 – had no such concerns and could talk ill about their motherland without fear of the Rhodesian authorities. 

Probing tensions

Collected Short Stories brings together The Accident and 25 other stories published between 1972 and 1998. The collection contains nine stories from Coming of the Dry Season (only one story did not make it); his 1980 follow-up Some Kinds of Wounds (seven out of nine stories) and Walking Still, winner of the 1998 Commonwealth Writers Prize (Africa Region), whose nine stories are in Collected Short Stories. 

For me, the ballast of the book is in those extremely brief stories from Coming of the Dry Season, economic, suggestive and understated stories I first read around 1992. Take, for instance, the title story, just over four pages long, which begins: “One Wednesday Moab Gwati received a letter from Rusape. His mother was seriously ill. He decided to wait till he got his pay on Friday: Saturday he would go home.

“He had his pay on Friday afternoon, and, as always happened with his money when he had it, it seemed to fly in all directions. That Friday night he got hopelessly drunk with a girl he had picked up in Mutanga’s earlier in the evening. Her name was Chipo but he did not know it till Sunday.”

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On Chipo’s return a few days later, Gwati asks why she returned. “I just came back. You were so kind to me.” Gwati begins to make associations between his lover and his mother, whom he considers nagging. “He wondered what he had done for her. She was talking like his mother, suffering and saying things he did not understand. Why must they receive something else from what he intended to give – and then come back later to ask him for more of what he did not know how to give?” The story set down the template for his long-running trope of exploring conflict between the old and the young, the rolling world (partly used later as a title for a short story) of the countryside against the bleakness of the city’s ghettos, men and women, and Western “rationality” and African “superstition”.  

The contest of superstition and rationality is at the heart of the story The Mountain. In the piece, two boys walk along a mountain path in the early morning to catch the 5am bus. They grew up together but became distant when the narrator continued with schooling while his friend dropped out. “He knew so little and was afraid of so many things and believed so much rot and superstition that I could not be his friend without catching his fever.” 

Of the mystique of the land on which they walk, the friend tells the narrator: “Sometimes you hear drums beating up there and cows lowing and the cattle-driving whistles of the herd boys. Sometimes early in the hot morning sun you see rice spread out to dry on the rocks. And you hear women laughing at a washing place on a river but you cannot see them.” 

As in most of Mungoshi’s short fiction, the conclusion favours the old order, that of tradition. Other instances are Sacrifice, about restitution and the appeasement of a murder, and The Hare, about the emancipation of women in families.

The writer’s beginnings

The writer was born Charles Lovemore Muzuva Mungoshi, the first of seven children, in Manyene communal lands, near the town of Enkeldoorn (now Chivhu), about 150km south of then Salisbury, on 2 December 1947. His father had been a migrant worker in Cape Town from where he returned with cash he used to buy a small commercial farm in the Marondamashanu Native Purchase Area, not very far from Manyene. 

Compared to other peasants who had been driven off their fertile land into arid areas, the Mungoshis were relatively well off, but it was a precarious privilege. “My parents lived in fear of losing their farm because they were told that if they didn’t work hard enough they would lose [it]. So we worked hard. If we were not eating, we were working,” he told a reporter. Mungoshi’s father wanted to attain a master farmer badge, a status that came as a consequence of successive big harvests, but without the kind of support the Rhodesian state extended to white farmers, it meant extremely hard work for the family.  

As soon as he was old enough, Mungoshi herded the family’s cattle. Out on the pastures, his love for reading was soon apparent. A whip in one hand, a book in another, he often lost track of the movement of his herd, as he read cowboy stories and comics. By the time he went to high school at St Augustine, Penhalonga (where Marechera was also a student), he was already familiar with William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens. 

At the Anglican-run school, Mungoshi read so much of the Bible that he even considered becoming a priest. His father, who had little formal education, wanted him to become a lawyer or a doctor, but Mungoshi was set on becoming a writer. His high school – boasting a good library and the teacher and priest Daniel Pearce in charge of the theatre club – was a stimulating environment. Mungoshi’s influences at the time were William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway. His first published story came out in 1965 in the Rhodesian monthly magazine Parade. 

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When Mungoshi had read everything in the library, so the story is told, Pearce would travel to Salisbury to get him books from the city’s libraries. His grades for his Ordinary Level examinations were not “very good” probably because he was “too interested in writing”. (In a country in which going to university is fetishised, that Mungoshi never studied for a degree was said to be a source of regret and an inferiority complex.) After completing his O Levels, he found a job as a research assistant at the Forestry Commission near his former school where, in his free time, he wrote.

His first published novel was written in Shona, which would have shocked his teachers at St Augustine’s. At school, the priests had hammered into their charges that Shona was a doomed language and that their future lay in English, French and Latin. “Colonialism has done us much damage because our people shun reading in the mother tongue,” Mungoshi later said. “They have more pride in reading literature in foreign languages.”  

At the end of 1967, aged 20, he entered his manuscript, published as Makunun’u Mawodzamwoyo, into a competition run by the Rhodesia Literature Bureau. He won the first prize, $40, and a publishing contract. At high school, reflecting the priests’ biases against indigenous languages, Mungoshi had not studied Shona but, as a keen student of the tongue and how it was used, he had complete mastery of it. If the priests were disappointed that Mungoshi had published in a language they despised, he would make them happy when Oxford University Press published Coming of the Dry Season. By the time the book came out, he had moved to a Salisbury ghetto, Kambuzuma, where he worked as a clerk selling textbooks. 

Work in translation

Heinemann published his masterpiece Waiting for the Rain in 1975, a novel whose 65 000 words he wrote in long-hand before typing them on a typewriter bought on credit. Even though it was later translated into Hungarian, Bulgarian and German, the novel did not travel as far as The House of Hunger and A Son of the Soil, no doubt because he was stuck in Rhodesia. When Heinemann sent him his advance, they needed permission from the British government because the Rhodesian state was under United Nations sanctions. Compare this to Marechera who just had to turn up at 48 Charles Street, London, then the offices of James Currey, publisher of the African Writer Series, to demand advances for his books. 

No doubt Marechera did not need Mungoshi to get his debut published but it is significant that in the first letter the former sent to Currey, he mentioned his old school mate: “I first heard about you from the Book Centre in Salisbury (Rhodesia) and from my friend Mr Charles Mungoshi whose book Waiting for the Rain came out some time ago.”

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Independence in 1980 was a moment of joy and relief for Mungoshi, who wrote verse to commemorate the event: “First cockcrow: the rusty chains snap and drop / The moth-eaten yoke crumbles into powdery dust / We break into the song denied us these ninety long years.” But it was also a time of painful reckoning. His two siblings, Gilbert and John, who had gone to join the liberation war, were not coming back. 

Soon he got a job as an editor at the recently established Zimbabwe Publishing House (ZPH). ZPH had the mandate of acquiring the rights of books published abroad, but also of building new post-independence Zimbabwean literatures in Shona, Ndebele and English. 

Mungoshi boasts the honour of being the first Zimbabwean published in hardback when Heinemann published 18 of his short stories from Coming of the Dry Season, Some Kinds of Wounds and The Setting Sun and the Rolling World in 1987; but his real triumph in that decade was the publication of his Shona translation of the Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s novel A Grain of Wheat, also in 1987. Published as Tsanga ye Mbewu by ZPH, it was a revelatory exercise for him: “I strongly felt Zimbabweans would easily identify with the experiences depicted in A Grain of Wheat mainly because of the similarities of the colonial experiences of the two countries.” Comparing the peasant world Wa Thiong’o created to his own in Chivhu, Shona country, Mungoshi said, “People do not realise how similar our cultures are until they see it in A Grain of Wheat.” 

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“Of course, much material is lost in the process,” Mungoshi said of translation, “but if the original author communicates well, it helps the translator to live the work he is translating.” So transformative was the experience for Mungoshi that he even contemplated translating into Shona the works of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin, then in vogue in Robert Mugabe’s make-believe socialist utopia. Imagine how empowering it would have been for those who spoke Shona had he done it. For one thing, it would have exposed that socialism in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe never went beyond slogans and the use of the term “comrade” for those who held high office.

As Mungoshi worked on Wa Thiong’o’s text, he also saw something else: the need to rouse the Shona novel from the staid and constraining paradigms the Rhodesia Literature Bureau had set. A statutory mind-control body formed to control and vet what Africans read, the Rhodesia Literature Bureau mostly published works that evoked a pastoral idyll before the colonial moment, or the fiction served didactic, moralistic purposes in which the city was portrayed as a dangerous, corrupting place. Not surprisingly, not much innovation could be expected from the fiction it published. “Shona authors have not experimented with flashback, introspection and other techniques, so I hope my translation of this great novel brings in that new element,” Mungoshi said in 1987.  


Mungoshi’s later work, which was published in 1998 as Walking Still, suffered from overwriting, as if he had forgotten the economy he probably learned from Hemingway. “Earlier on I suffered from the problem of overwriting, now a few words used wisely can convey what I precisely want to tell the reader,” he told a reporter in 1993. Now, the reverse seemed to have taken root. Going through some of the stories from Walking Still that are in Collected Short Stories, one gets the sense of a diminution of talent, that the older Mungoshi got, the wordier he became. Some of the stories are tiresome, seeming to go on forever, and the resolutions – for instance, of the story Sacrifice – are those of a writer who is not willing to break with an oppressive Shona patriarchal tradition. 

Mungoshi’s widow, Jesesi, an accomplished actress but no writer, wrote the plodding preface to Collected Short Stories. The accepted practice when one issues a book of this kind is to commission a writer, preferably younger, to write the introduction, explain to readers why the republished  writer is important, and even select what goes in. I can think of several writers better equipped to choose and edit these stories than the Mungoshi family. The publisher, House of Books, could have approached Tendai Huchu, the Scotland-based Zimbabwean novelist; Zimbabwean scholar and poet Tsitsi Jaji, who is based at Duke University; or Zimbabwean scholar and writer Robert Muponde, who works at the University of the Witwatersrand, to name only three, all part of a new generation of exciting Zimbabwean writers. 

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Coming of the Dry Season, Walking Still and Some Kinds of Wounds, the three collections from which the anthology is gathered, have long been out of print and are hard to find. Mostly, this is a result of the sustained assault the Mugabe regime made on culture and publishing over the past two decades, which makes the publication of Collected Short Stories a welcome development. New readers will discover an extremely talented writer, who was not sufficiently feted at home or abroad and who existed in the shadow of his more famous compatriot, Marechera. 

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