AFRICAN WRITERS’ CORNER
Unforgettable ordinary people
Thoughts on ‘Together’ by Julius Chingono and John Eppel
2011-01-27, Issue 514
Readers across the continent will relate to the characters and imagery conjured up in a jewel-filled collection of stories and poems by Zimbabwean writers John Eppel and the late Julius Chingono, writes Philo Ikonya.
’amaBooks is set to publish ‘Together’, a wonderful collection of short stories and poems written by Julius Chingono and John Eppel. The assortment, which in an equal share includes 24 poems and 11 short stories by Eppel and 25 poems and 8 short stories by Chingono, will be published in early 2011.Two contemporaries look at the same reality in ‘Together’. These are powerful and well-chosen pieces. They include pieces written at different times. We get unique vistas, but these are linked. Each of the writers is absolutely singular and yet there are similarities. This affects details.
There are fine jewels here. For example the two conjure up images from small things, turning them into icons and vice versa – great things… into ordinary. Chingono writes a short poem about ‘20-044L’, a motor car number plate which is now part of a door that is just holding together. Eppel writes about many little things, including an Ingrid Jonker award in an un-burnt pot. An award in a pot!
The word 'together' is metaphysically about much more here than two men – one white, one black – writing in a collection titled ‘Together’. And, yes, there are racial tensions in some pieces that one feels have boiled over. Will they injure us or heal us? Racial, ethnic roots, politics and wealth have fuelled endless divisions.
This book ‘Together’ is for me a picture of Zimbabwe, a country that attracts much attention for many reasons – but it is also about other countries of Afrika. It makes us see Zimbabwe through two mindsets, almost simultaneously. The rest of Afrika is so near. There are many similarities with different countries but Kenya is the country outside of the Southern Africa region with which there is almost complete resonance in governance concerns.
The writing immediately communicates the great geographical space that Zimbabwe and many parts of Afrika are. Afrika is so rich. But our eyes are for much more than The Big Five, which you are used to hearing about in wildlife; in this book, animals are incidental. Instead the book explores how vehicles and nature relate to governance. Why are cars so important in terms of brands or makes? Can we have a remake – as with the un-burnt pot and the door with a car number plate – and succeed?
People are tortured by power here, and also by traditions of reverence for old age and chosen leaders. ‘Together’ deals with unforgettable ordinary people caught up in power games of different types. Look at Gore in ‘Leave My Bible Alone’, one of the many moving stories that Chingono contributes here. Gore may not die this Sunday afternoon but I am sure MaMoyo's thoughts and heartbeat are centred on losing him.
I love the church as depicted on a Sunday – how couples struggle to get there and impress the social classes, how some can only take that for a few hours. The scenes resonate with many African Christians. Sunday, rest and drinking seem to go hand in hand... and still the Bible in hand. I wonder how many Gores have lain in the mud or dust on Afrikan paths this Sunday on which I write. These poems and stories are submerged in such realism. You have to be strong! Death laces all life – everything here, including the imagination of Chingono, who pens ‘No funeral’.
We go back to the same questions. What constricts Afrika's big space? Who steals her un-burnt pots and her scrap metal that can make doors? What is Afrika's real identity? What makes me feel so much compassion for the many Reverends – the many ordinary and gullible people who believe that things are being done, and well, for them: ‘The Reverend Benate Jojova was thrilled that he would be playing an active role in Zimbabwe’s constitution-making process…’ People move towards formal and legal institutions of liberation but they do not get there fully. Some argue for traditional solutions in Afrikan governance but others warn that it leaves too much free space for abuse.
In the meantime, we suffer pain as they negotiate governments of coalition in suits. Suddenly, people’s lives hang up – the way a computer does – choking growth, long before they die.
‘We waited.’ What threatens to steal Chingono’s boundless humour and why does he guard it so zealously in spite of tremendous suffering? Who mocks us this long? The songs of Chimurenga forced on the lips of a people who are betrayed are killing all. The waiting is explosive. I have been in this kind of waiting. The dust that rises from the dancing is a sign that soon things will change. And yet, why are the people of Afrika held in the grip of those to whom they give power and who would reduce them to beggars? These questions are relevant from Tunis to Harare, Nairobi to Yamoussoukro.
The open and vast space in Afrika contrasts with the narrow political restriction and the stolen space of the whole cast: Women, men and children. For Chingono, you – and many in Afrika – may be in the photograph, and yet not be in the picture.
‘In the photograph
I was so drunk
that I would stagger
out of the picture.’
Chingono’s humour again. Once you finish reading his funny bone that nothing can bury, and are inclined to amusement (‘Candy Mercenaries’ and ‘I lost a verse’), the huge and challenging context jumps at you, sometimes with bare fangs.
The Bible. Life and death. Alcohol. Life and death. Votes. Life and death. Rape and abuse in dimensions that one would hope a million times rather never existed. Death. AK 47. Life. Death. Waiting. Life. Dancing. Death. Support MDC. Death. Coalition governments. Life and death.
You can feel the strength of the writers' pens impressing the paper. The energy rises up to you from the pages. The images of lives that are tragically imbued with a spirit of freedom that seems to be all the time overcome by oppression is deeply moving. It persists. It keeps coming out in many stories and poems. Images in the stories are painfully etched on one's mind.
It is quite clear that Zimbabwe is dealing with the need of a liberation that is fully home-grown, rooted and yet aware of legal justice. We cannot afford to be at the Humpty Dumpty and Winkelyn and Broren level. It is also obvious that the vote never translated into what the democracies of the world expected. AK-47 rifles and ‘No Opposition here’ operations are too strong.
In my view, Eppel makes it clear that we simply are not who we think we are. It makes one think that Afrika made a huge mistake in negotiating its modes of governance after colonialism. Western democracy has not worked and does not look like it will work in some Afrikan countries – but we had our democracy, or the possibility of negotiating for one. It is clear that the people were never allowed to own their lives and politics after colonialism. The space shrunk far too fast. President Mugabe and Zanu PF kill for votes and power. Rape, murder going hand in hand with the most base of tortures, and everything is used as the stick with which to hit the opposition. Rape and the level of dehumanisation seen here would not fit in a traditional setting. The ancestors are frustrated. The people are not themselves.
Eppel’s story, ‘The Floating Straw Hat’ is a very unique story in a class of its own, as is Chingono’s ‘Murehwa’. Both stories stand out not because the others are weak, but because they appeal very strongly to purity and innocence. ‘Murehwa’ will be new to younger generations and to Afrikans. It surely should remind many to pen some of the practices that are still on or that are dying in some places. And if that is how people still believe in what is traditional, how will they access these formalities such as elections and not see them as from the West? Yet, might the dead man not be Afrika that someone needs to undress and sing to?
In both the stories mentioned above, there is the persistent existence of something physical: It is the person who is gone that arrests people’s attention. This also happens in ‘Two Metres of Drainage Pipe’. The two writers have great mastery of mood and tone, not just language.
Eppel gets technical on religion and literary ways, as well as on philosophy as taught in the West. Yet, he is the one – even if quite clearly immersed in Christianity – who hits hardest at colonialism and the role of developed countries in what is going on in Zimbabwe. He is the one who had my breath held because I thought he would say that writing in Afrika with a 'k' as the first step in de-Latinising Afrika was of no use – when he endorsed it to my great joy, for I believe in that. Rome was not built in a day. Afrika has never been herself after colonialism. She lost her languages that still hum and sing like choirs in this literature. She lost. She needs to recover and have full confidence that before colonialism, she was Nubia that civilised the world.
The satire and irony in some of the stories may not make this easy reading for the ordinary street person but Zimbabweans are serious readers, save for the hard times they have endured in the recent past.
However, I need to say that ‘Charles Dickens Visits Bulawayo’, ‘Via Dolorosa’ and Pulcherrima – so much Latin – reminded me of our friend and Zimbabwean writer who died of rage in 2005, if I may say because of his originality and complete rejection of the West, in some ways. Dambudzo Marechera. The question of identity asking himself who he is, is key in Dambudzo. No one can forget the energy of his ‘House of Hunger’. He tore the barriers of belonging that we Afrikans often hide in, the family, because he felt he did not belong even at that level. He believed in his mother's muti, a type of witchcraft. Dambudzo was calling on all of us to see that we have the solution if we have a vision and that we can do things on our own even when the immediate environment does not make sense. Can Afrika ask herself who she is and do the same?
But as Ngomakurira writes in the newspaper The Zimbabwean, we failed to hear Marechera, whose agenda is still on the table. Are we going to fail to hear both Dambisa in ‘Dead Aid’, a non-fiction work, and Dambudzo in ‘House of Hunger’? We have to shake off the thick layers of dehumanisation and loss of ourselves to find our way Together.
But, at this moment, I would not pick poetry that is asking WOZA. WOZA (Women and Men of Zimbabwe Arise) has been screaming for freedom. Jestina Mukoko, Muzvare Betty Makoni and Tsitsi Dangarembga to mention but a few. Many women – as Eppel shows so clearly – and men too, have had the worst that could have ever happened to them, and so it is time to acknowledge and congratulate those who would still write and act without fear for change. Eppel and Chingono deserve every attention. I know a book that is meaningful and interesting on Afrika links to many thoughts. It makes us laugh. It shows you how true fiction is as it sits proudly among scientific and non-fiction books. This is one such book, and it challenges too.
BROUGHT TO YOU BY PAMBAZUKA NEWS
* We heard the sad news, that Julius Chingono died on 2 January 2011 after collapsing on New Year's Eve. Born in 1946 on a commercial farm near Harare, Julius Chingono spent most of his working life as a rock blaster in the mines. He wrote in both Shona and English, and won awards for poems written in both languages.
* ‘Together’, a collection of poems and stories by Julius Chingono and John Eppel is published by ’amaBooks Publishers, Bulawayo, and The University of New Orleans Press: 2011.
is a Kenyan writer, journalist and human rights activist, and currently Oslo City of Refuge's Guest Writer. Africa and Kenya within the context of power, women, freedom of expression and other rights concern Ikonya greatly. Her forthcoming novels "Kenya, Will You Marry Me?" and "Leading the Night" express these themes, as does her anthology of poems in English and German "Out of Prison: Love Songs". Philo Ikonya recently released "This Bread of Peace", a book of poetry published by Lapwing, in Ireland.