In Echoing Silences, horrific violence is visited upon an innocent and defenseless woman and her baby. The choice of weapon, a hoe, makes the murder unnecessarily brutal when a gunshot would have sufficed. A hoe being a tool that is used in efforts towards feeding a people, its obvious perversion here is a striking metaphor and perhaps a prophecy of Zimbabwe’s historical course, in the short to medium term. Munashe, the guerrilla and perpetrator of the gruesome violence, is haunted relentlessly by the woman that he has executed and the pernicious effect of this on his mind is evident throughout the book. Whilst the efficacy of revolutionary violence as transformative force was lauded during the Russian and Chinese revolutions and exported all over the globe, in Echoing Silences it delivers freedom but at a terrible moral and psychological price.
As a novel that comes out of a nation whose history has become embedded in violence, Echoing Silences is a supremely harrowing quest for redemption and the restoration of sanity. One can read the novel as an articulation of a past that the nation has shied away from confronting; in this way, the novel becomes a conduit through which tradition finds its voice to deliver a potent indictment of violence as a political tool.
Echoing Silences is a demonstration of the vast possibilities of the Zimbabwean novel; by employing the trope of ngozi, the deceased’s spirit that haunts the culprit, Kanengoni weaves a riveting narrative while simultaneously deploying a powerful Afrocentric critique of revolutionary violence and the need for the acknowledgment of its innocent victims.
If Munashe is read as an embodiment of the nation, then the nation’s task is thrown into sharp relief as ngozi as an insistent and destabilising presence in Munashe’s life, post-independence, becomes a neat literary encapsulation of the disruptive agency that must be addressed, at the level of the national psyche, in order for historical accounts to be settled properly and for redemption to begin. That such task has proved beyond the reach nation escalates the significance of Echoing Silences.
According to Tolstoy, one must only write when he/she can leave a piece of his/her flesh in the inkpot with every dip of the pen. If a writer’s success is measured in these terms, then Kanengoni, an ex-combatant himself, succeeds enormously.
A final point of note is perhaps the fascinating play between the moral and political stances of author and novel. Sure, the positions that a piece of work takes, on several issues, do not always coincide with those of its author, and when they do the author can emerge as an object of interest in the eyes of other writers and the general readership. Kanengoni, as a writer, does not need such overlap of positions with his searing novel in order to elicit interest.
Brian Chikwava, is a London-based Zimbabwean writer and a past winner of the Caine Prize for African short fiction. His debut novel, Harare North, was published in 2009 by Jonathan Cape, its French translation by Editions Zoe in 2011. He is currently working on a second novel.
I was born two years after the war, three years after the end of Zimbabwe-Rhodesia, which is technically four after the end of Rhodesia. Before that, we’d existed as Southern Rhodesia, The Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland and, before then, Rhodesia. I doubt that many countries have undergone so many name changes in less than a century.
Growing up the war was always referred to in hushed tones in contrast to the loud pomp of patriotic displays on national holidays. In school, history was factual, we crammed dates, names of significant figures and numerous acronyms for the various incarnations of the liberation movement(s). But we never learnt about the personal cost of war on people. My mother occasionally spoke of how her mother (my grandmother who I never met) died when she stepped on a landmine planted by the Rhodesians. This story is seldom told and when it is, it is usually brushed aside quickly for something lighter as though such memories are best forgotten.
The beauty of Chenjerai Hove’s Bones is that unlike conventional war novels that focus on gore and military encounter, this novel is subtle and centres on ordinary people; and in doing so, Hove lays bare the reasons why the war was fought in a profound way. A mother’s love and longing for her son who’s left to join the war lies at the heart of the tale. The farm where they live serves as a microcosm of everything that was wrong in Rhodesian society. The casual humiliation of the Africans by their White masters who put profit and power over basic decency and humanity. But even within this dynamic, Bones teaches that it is the oppressor not the oppressed who is ultimately stripped of their humanity. The White farmer, Manyepo, meaning Liar as he is nicknamed by his workers is portrayed as a victim of a system that has deprived him of the ability to distinguish between right and wrong, the very basic elements of what make for a decent human being. So strong is Marita’s pity for his condition that she even saves him from certain death when the liberation fighters arrive on the farm. This small act elevates her way above the man who has oft beaten and humiliated her.
The language of Bones is poetic and rich in Shona idiom. This subversive element gives it the feel of a work in translation though it was originally written in English. This demonstrates a richness of linguistic mastery among the oppressed, drawing on centuries of history inaccessible to their oppressor who views them as no better than ‘donkeys’. Indeed, the key strength of Bones lies in the way these voices are brought to life; voices that were otherwise were missing from mainstream culture.
It is ironic that Hove was rewarded for his efforts with the prestigious NOMA award, and by having the novel translated into Dutch, German, Swedish, Norwegian and Japanese but not into any African languages. Each time I dip into Bones, I access a world that was, a world that is past and shall never be again. I share in its suffering and its joys in a way that cannot be replicated by any other art form or dry historical text.
Tendai Huchu was born in 1982. He attended Churchill High School in Harare and from there went on to the University of Zimbabwe to study Mining Engineering in 2001. He dropped out in the middle of the first semester when he discovered that the math had more letters and symbols than it had numbers. Tendai has a great love for literature, in particular the nineteenth century Russian novel. He is now qualified podiatrist and currently resides in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Sekai Nzenza recalls war's atrocities through Alexander Kanengoni's When the Rainbird Cries (1987)
The war is at its peak. The people of Nyamutowa village in Mt Darwin have been massacred by the Rhodesian forces. There are few survivors. This tragedy could have been avoided if the liberation war fighters, the ‘comrades’, had cared to protect the masses. The novel begins with two of the comrades Mao and Hondo, on their way to stand before a tribunal of the High Command in Chimoio. They must present an explanation on the causes leading to the horrific massacre. We are taken back to the time before the massacre. Throughout the events leading to the killings, we hear the menacing cry of haya, the rainbird. Normally, the haya’s cry heralds the coming of the rains. But in this case, the bird is a messenger of the forthcoming tragedy. With When the Rainbird Cries, Alexander Kanengoni has written a remarkable book giving us an insight into the internal power struggles within three groups. The first is the disagreement between the liberation war fighters as they prepare to attach the Rhodesian soldiers. The second group are the Rhodesian soldiers led by Kruger, a man with some problems of his own. Kruger resents the number of black soldiers being conscripted into the army. He could never allow a black man, “an animal” with his “primitive instinct” to rise above him. Kruger is worried about the ineptness of Colonel McGee. He promotes Sergeant Dunn in preparation to attach the terrorists and their collaborators. The third camp involves power struggles at Nyamutowa School where Alexio, a junior teacher is determined to become the headmaster. Alexio forges a lie in order to eliminate the headmaster. He therefore tells the comrades that the current headmaster is a ‘sellout’ working on behalf of the Rhodesian forces.
We are taken to the ‘pungwe’ and witness the abuse of power among the comrades. Women are violated and abused as witches. The major weakness of the novel, however, is that women hardly speak except to ask the husbands where there are going and to defend them from false accusations. The women are subject to abuse and can only express their feelings in the way of dreams. Except in Mothers of the Revolution, (Staunton, Irene, ed, 1990) real life stories about women and the war have not been recorded. Another weakness is Kanengoni’s stereotyping of white soldiers. We are told that Kruger is “a man of thirty five with tattoos of naked women in all postures on his naked arms.” Apparently, Kruger’s favorite pastime in the bush is to read pornographic magazines. These descriptions of Kruger are less convincing.
The massacre of the school children by Rhodesian soldiers is violently grotesque but so is the killing of the headmaster by the ‘comrades.’ At the end of the novel, Hondo and Mao stand in front of the tribunal. Hondo is guilty of poor planning that resulted in the killings. During an altercation with another comrade, Hondo is killed. A sense of justice is restored. Unlike some of the war novels written about the Zimbabwe liberation war, Alexander Kanengoni has presented a story from all three players – the liberation fighter, the Rhodesian soldier and the vulnerable communities. He has also written about the violence instigated by the comrades at ‘the pungwe’. Kanengoni succeeds in highlighting the evil in human nature, regardless of race.
Sekai Nzenza is a writer and an international development consultant specialising in NGO accountability, health, microenterprise and human rights. She was born in rural Zimbabwe and trained as a nurse at Great Ormond Street in London. She holds a PhD in International Relations from the University of Melbourne, Australia. Her essays, fiction and short stories have been published in a number of journals including the UK Guardian Weekly. Sekai’s second novel titled, Songs to an African Sunset, a Zimbabwean Story, was published by Lonely Planet in 1997.