Yvonne Vera’s abiding influence

The Zimbabwean novelist continues to inspire fresh perspectives, including an exhibition reflecting on Makokoba, the township setting of her most loved book.

The novel Butterfly Burning, by the Zimbabwean writer Yvonne Vera, came out in 1998, some seven years before her death at 40. Vera died in Canada in 2005, where she had initially moved to in the 1980s to study, obtaining a BA, MA and PhD in English at York University. A graduate of Hillside Teachers College in Bulawayo, she was an English high school teacher before she moved to Canada.

When she died at so young an age (not just for a writer), Vera had come into her own. She had found a voice: a poetic and unadorned writing style, which she used to render painful histories and difficult stories. This ability makes her death one of Zimbabwe and Africa’s greatest cultural losses of recent times. Her multidisciplinary approach to culture (even though trained as a teacher and literary scholar, she was the director of the National Art Gallery in Bulawayo) is now sorely missed in Zimbabwe, whose eternal slide into the abyss continues apace. 

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Perhaps of all her five novels written over a busy decade – which include Nehanda; Without A Name (winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Africa); Under The Tongue; and Stone Virgins – it is Butterfly Burning, her second last, which has had an afterlife and legacy like no other. 

The lingering influence is not just because it won the German Literature Prize in 2002 and was selected as one of Africa’s 100 Best Books of the 20th Century. Its shadow encroaches even into the terrain of academic historiography, as in Oxford University historian Terence Ranger’s 2010 book, Bulawayo Burning. And in visual art, it further extends into the exhibition by the Bulawayo-born artist Neville Starling titled Worlds Are Made and Unmade: I Hear the Music of Spheres, currently running at the Bag Factory in Johannesburg.


The novel, which Vera dedicated to Ranger – “To Terry Ranger: I could speak until tomorrow/ of a glorious friendship” – is about the tragic lovers Phephelaphi and Fumbatha, and is set in the mid-1940s in Makokoba. The township, Zimbabwe’s oldest Black township, was founded in 1894 on the edges of the city of Bulawayo. Makoboba, not without reason, has a certain notoriety: a fair share of the knife fights for which Bulawayo was infamous in other parts of the country in the 1980s, when I was growing up in another Bulawayo township, must have happened in Makokoba’s legendary shebeens.

Makokoba, sometimes referred to as Old Location, was easily the most cosmopolitan township perhaps in all of Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe’s former name). Men from Nyasaland (Malawi), Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) and other parts of Southern Rhodesia moved there throughout much of the early 1900s, to work in the construction industry, on the railways, in the factories and in the gardens of the homes of white families. 

When these foreign men decided to settle, it was usually with local women – MaNdlovu, MaNcube, MaDube, MaTshuma, MaKhumalo – from around Bulawayo and further afield. Of this migration, Vera writes: “One takes a bus from Mhondoro, where there is no train, and arrives in Hartley [now Chegutu], and has to decide whether to go to Salisbury [now Harare] or Bulawayo, each of them big and growing cities. Bulawayo bigger. The Rhodesia railways is housed there. Bulawayo is close to South Africa and that, by itself, is a full story.”

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Fumbatha, the male hero of the novel, is the son of a rebel of the 1896-97 war – Chindunduma in Shona, Umvukelo in Ndebele – against the British settlers. (Although later popularly known as the first chimurenga, at the time the Shona-speaking people called that war “chindunduma”.) He was born in the same year, 1896, when his father was hanged by Cecil John Rhodes’ occupation forces. “When a man falls free from the tree and still breathes the knot is slowly released. He is pulled once more off the ground and yanked back into the branches. A man can be hanged more than once. The first, he watches himself die. He dies several times,” Vera writes in the second chapter. 

The beautiful Phephelaphi, the hero’s counterpart, emerged from the Umguza River one day as Fumbata sat on its banks. “She rose out of the water like the sun and he looked at her in total surprise.” Not exactly a mermaid, but another strange hybrid: “She was an antelope. No. She was a being entirely from the water even though she reminded him of an antelope.” Instead of asking her name, he asked her where she lived. She lived on Jukwa Road in Makokoba, she told him. Her mother had just died. She lived with Zandile, her mother’s friend. She had been living with her for a few months. And then all was changed: “He never wanted to let her go, even though they were strangers. He could never free her, even if she rose and disappeared once more into the water. He would remember her. He would hold her. Fumbatha had never wanted to possess anything before, except the land. He wanted her like the land beneath his feet from which birth had severed him.”

Bulawayo burns in fact and fiction

When Vera died, Ranger had started writing Bulawayo Burning, the book about the social and political history of Bulawayo. Ranger set the book between the two literal and metaphorical fires that engulfed the city of Bulawayo, the ritual burning of the city in 1893, at the Ndebele king Lobengula’s orders, and 1960, when nationalist fires burned in what is known as the Zhii riots, when the second city was engulfed in violence.  

Of Butterfly Burning, Ranger writes in the introduction of his own book that he considered the novel a “challenge to me as a historian”. So inspired was Ranger by Vera that he “decided to make this book in many ways like fiction, though without inventing anything”. 

Ranger writes: “Yvonne was writing about a period 17 years before she was born – and 17 years after I was. She did no historical research but listened to her Luveve township grandmother’s stories and listened to the township music of the late 1940s and 1950s.” She also relied on the experiences of her mother, Ericah Gwetai.  

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“When I read the novel I decided that I would make Bulawayo and its townships my major research project and that I would write about them not from the perspective of political economy but from the perspective of moral economy,” Ranger writes in the introduction of Bulawayo Burning which, not surprisingly, is dedicated to Vera: “Mere prose for your poetry.” In the introduction, Ranger continues: “If Yvonne could plumb the experience of townsmen and women in the 1940s without doing any research, what might I be able to achieve if I did lots of it? Of course, I could not surpass Yvonne but I might be able to supplement her insights and put them in a longer historical context.” 

Reading Butterfly Burning, it is easy to see why a historian as accomplished as Ranger was enthralled by the grit, cosmopolitanism and charm of Zimbabwe’s most beautiful city. Ranger had spent large chunks of his career investigating and researching rural landscapes and its heroes and heroines before turning to the city and its characters. Vera writes, “The city is like the train. It too is churning smoke in every direction, and when looked at closely, it too is moving. There is something strange in that even if one has not dreamt of any kind of success in coming here, getting on the train to go back to an earlier safety feels like failure, like letting go.” So goodbye to the rural idylls, welcome to the hard pavements of Bulawayo (on which Blacks weren’t allowed to walk until the 1930s). 

Starling’s echoes of Vera

Likewise, it’s easy to see why Starling – whose exhibition comprising silver gelatin photographic prints, sculptural installations and video work opened on 21 November – is fascinated by Vera and the world she conjured in Butterfly Burning. In an artist’s statement, Starling says, “The work begins with this idea so eloquently and complexly articulated by Yvonne Vera at the onset of her novel Butterfly Burning, which is set in Bulawayo in the late 1940s: ‘The brow is perpetually furrowed, constricted against this action, and against another remembered; against regret for a possible inaction, and against each memory that dares not to be understood. A silence, perhaps, or something near and anticipated but not yet done. There is waiting.’”

Undated: The Disconnect of Memory #1 – 30 (2018, ongoing). The exhibition is inspired by Yvonne Vera’s descriptions of Makokoba township in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.

Starling was also born in Bulawayo but, as the scion of white settlers, grew up on the other side of the city. Starling, who is also a photographer, has six sculptures whose centrepiece is perhaps a meticulously constructed piano-like piece, made of wooden keys joined together by metal rods and belts and a motor. (Think of it as an ancient prototype of a piano-like contrivance, perhaps even a meta-piano, operated by electricity.) When we spoke about this piece, which when turned on has the chugging, clamorous percussive motions of a train, we segued to talk about the piano, the pianist Abdullah Ibrahim and his duet on the 1983 song Streams of Consciousness with the African-American jazz drummer Max Roach. Previously, Starling, I and two other friends have discussed how in Africa (or in the Black world) the piano is used as a percussive instrument. 

Then there is an intricate sculpture with criss-crossing planks, with bicycle chains, whose erect structure reminded me of the headgear of mining equipment. At the bottom of this mechanical structure, he tied reed brooms which, when he turns the sculpture on, make sweeping motions. “The sound of the broom is one sound that you hear every single morning,” he told me in an interview at his studio. “For me it has a few meanings: it summons a new day, but it also cleans an old day.” (Since I am speaking about bicycle chains and its pedalling motions, it would be remiss if I don’t relate a sad anecdote in Butterfly Burning: A man in Makokoba had sold his wife to another man for the price of a bicycle wheel but the woman would have none of it; instead, she had stood on the asbestos roof of their township house with no clothes on, “and announced loud and clear that she preferred two bicycle wheels to one, and if anyone had two bicycle wheels to give to her husband then she would leave not only the rooftop but the house and foolishness of her husband”.)

Undated: A New Day (2020), as seen behind Seeking the Shade (2020), makes two mechanical brooms move.

One notable piece is another wooden sculpture, made up of criss-crossing vertical and horizontal planks at whose centre are bicycle chains which power a walking stick that makes a ko, ko, ko sound. It is, perhaps, the most poignant reference to Makokoba in the show. In his artist statement, Starling explains that the township of Makokoba was so named after its native commissioner, a Mr Fallon, who used to walk with a walking stick. Makokoba comes from the Ndebele word “ukukokoba”, which means to bend over and walk with a stick, in the way of the old. 

Referring to the clamour these sculptures produce, Starling explains, “If you go to each one, you can hear each one individually, but it’s still connected to the chaos happening around,” adding, “if you listen long enough, there is a rhythm.” 

When asked if he has any engineering training, Starling said he has none, that he got his tutorials from YouTube and by repeatedly trying and failing: “It all started with this joke that to survive in Zimbabwe, one has got to be a renaissance man, that’s the attitude I took towards this body of work. I made everything myself, except for the walking stick.” His ingeniousness is shared by other Zimbabweans who effectively have had to make do with found materials, improvising, for the past 20 years, when Robert Mugabe effectively abdicated his position and decided his real job was to act out the theatrics of being an African revolutionary.

Undated: Heard on a Distant Hill, For the Caged Bird Sings of Freedom (2020). Neville Starling was born in Bulawayo, but on the other side of the city to those who live in Makokoba township.
Undated: In the foreground, Watch Out! Big Storm A’ Comin’  (2020). In the background, Fair, Monstrously Fair (2020), a digital video.
Undated: Seeking the Shade (2020). Neville Starling built all the sculptures himself, including those that run on motors.

In response to the question of how, as a white Zimbabwean, he relates to Makokoba, Starling was keen to emphasise that he could never possibly relate in the same way as the majority of the city’s Black residents do. “For me, it’s a celebration of what white history has denied a lot of white people from celebrating. It has always been this place over there,” Starling said of the township. The brilliance that happened at Stanley Hall, the community centre in the township, the “cultural manoeuvrings” that took place to overcome the impediments placed by the Rhodesian government were shielded from the view of white Bulawayo residents. This is tragic because, as Ranger writes, Makokoba was the site of virtually every significant African political event – and most social and cultural ones, too – which took place between 1920 and 1960. 

Vera worked across disciplines and probably wanted literary studies to speak to history and urban planning studies, and to interrogate visual culture and pedagogy. She would have approved of Starling’s fascinating show.

This is probably applicable in most other places, but Zimbabwe’s particular curse seems to be that whites never wanted to speak to Blacks; that the old have no time for the young; that the late despot Mugabe looked down on his fellow nationalist Joshua Nkomo; that we Zimbabweans are content to live in our sad, little, constraining boxes. If the ghost of that formidable talent that was Vera has a lesson for Zimbabwe’s many problems, it is that this has to stop. 

Worlds Are Made and Unmade: I Hear the Music of Spheres runs at the Bag Factory Artists’ Studios, 10 Mahlatini Street, Fordsburg, Johannesburg, until 15 December 2020.

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