by Chenjerai Hove
There are the so-called war-poets, and I don't think I am one of them. I happened to be in a place where no one was immune to the whizzing bullets and the brutalities of war. But from experience, I have also come to wonder if it is true that war breeds poets or poetry feeds on war. Wherever war has sprung up, poetry too has mushroomed. Maybe we can find out together what it is about war that makes it fertile ground for poetry.
When British poet, Wilford Owen, wrote his famous 'Anthem for Doomed Youth', he did not know that as a soldier, he was predicting his own death:
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them: no prayers nor bells;
No any voice of mourning save the choirs,
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.'
(Wilford Owen, Anthem for Doomed Youth )
Owen wrote these lines in uniform during World War 1, and he perished like all the other youths he saw 'die as cattle' in the slaughterhouse war amid 'the monstrous anger of the
In a war, right in the midst of the war zone, what does a writer do?
Nigerian Christopher Okibgo took armour and joined the Biafran war. He too perished, and his death excited many minds and hearts. Professor Ali Mazrui wrote his novel, 'The Trial of Christopher Okigbo' in which Mazrui was putting the poet on trial for deciding to join the war and die in it. Mazrui argued that it was not the task of the poet to make himself cannon fodder instead of cherishing his artistic talent and be an onlooker while his own people 'die as cattle.'
Our own Nobel luminary, Wole Soyinka, once seized a radio station and forced the broadcaster to play the tape of what he deemed where proper election results. As usual, elections had been rigged and the poet knew the proper results, and he wanted them announced, by force. Owen's 'anger of the guns' had been translated into the 'anger' of the armed poet. Months of imprisonment would follow, and the poet also realised that in him was a citizen who happened to have the artistic skills of a wordsmith called a poet.
From 1972 to 1979, the war of liberation reached its climax. I was in high school in 1972, and by 1977, I had graduated from teachers' college, distinction in Shona language and literature. I did not realise that the real education was still to come. After the speeches of the professors, the Rhodesian Secretary for African Education, I was ready to face the world, to teach, to bring light to the African child. For, every Sunday afternoon, there was the famous programme on radio: 'Kudzidza Kwakanaka', which urged Africans\blacks to rush for education as the only beacon of progress.
Charles Mungoshi, the Zimbabwean novelist, has a character, Lucifer Mandengu, in his novel, 'Waiting for the Rain', who claims to be a 'geographical and biological error, born here against my will.' Lucifer yearned to leave the countryside, the God-forsaken rural areas which he was ashamed to call 'home.' Education was the driver which would take him away from this place which he was too ashamed to call home:
the aftermath of an invisible war
A heap of dust and rubble
White immobile heat on the sweltering land
The sharp-nosed vulture
already smells carrion -
the ancient woman's skirts
give off an odour of trapped time
Return science to its owners
The witch demands a ransom for your soul
Your roots claim their rightful pound of clay
(Waiting for the Rain, p.52)
During those years of a ruthless war, our novels carried revealing titles;
Waiting for the Rain, Charles Mungoshi, 1975
Coming of the Dry Season, Charles Mungoshi, 1972
House of Hunger, Dambudzo Marechera, 1978
The Unbeliever's Journey, Stanley Nyamufukudza, 1978
A Son of the Soil, 197-?
As I took my first teaching post at Pamushana Seconday School, the backdrop of war was like a nightmare during which you wake up sweating as you realise that it was not a nightmare. Life was staring at you with several, thorny eyes. The school is located on the side of a massive hill. There is a highway on the northern side, and the caves and other hills are on the southern side. The highway side was as far as the Rhodesian soldiers could go, including the school. Beyond the mountain, it was a no-go area, a 'semi-liberated zone,' as we called it. It was also a death zone for anyone who ventured there without permission from the sons of the soil. That is where we spent most of our weekends, singing and dancing to those chimurenga songs that told us that even if death ambushed us, at least we were going to be free corpses.
Then one afternoon, as we sat right there on the mountain top, huge boulders staring at us like hungry baboons, a local elder, Mr Shushine, arrived to alert us of the imminent arrival of women with food. The young men ran the information service, surveying the surroundings and reporting back without fail. The young girls, including my own students, came back from behind the boulders and the caves, giggling in the arms of one or other commander. And as I looked down the slopes, a chain of women were painstakingly walking up the steep slope, with baskets laden with plates of food on their heads.
It was then that I noticed an elderly woman, with the load on her head, walking, crawling, to come and feed the fighters. And I wrote this poem, 'The Way We Fed,' in memory of that woman:
Granny forgets the blunt, rupturous pain
and takes to her load.
Ah, there! sinewy arms, clawed fingers,
straps of muscle; and courage.
Yet an eagle's grip there is.
She sighs, ancient lips mutter
some prayer to Nehanda
and forward she trudges,
trudging to hope itself - - - but the pain!
maybe she is late,
but she suffers not with time,
time ticks her way
and she crawls
like a slave,
godly forward, heroic as the wind:
But unheralded by stately choirs,
Forgotten by national anthem makers!'
('The Way We Fed,' Up In Arms, 1982, p.12)
It was in the midst of this scene that I realised how fragile I was. I was as fragile as the old woman, the hero who will never appear in anybody's national anthem, the one who will die and be buried by the anthill near her old homestead which has nothing anymore except memories of those days.
Without a gun, in times of war, one realises that all is nothing, those caught in between are nothing. The grass that suffers when two elephants fight, that grass is where poetry resides. Equipped only with words, what does a poet do? What does a poet learn? Fragility! Hope in a hopeless situation! Human resilience in a situation where your tomorrow is in another person's hands or another person's gun.
During those years, the figures of 'terrorists' who had been killed were less than one third of those killed for 'assisting' or 'running with terrorists.' I could have been killed, and my epitaph would have been just like anyone of those who had died 'running with terrorists.'
When one day a Rhodesian soldier wanted to shoot me, I could only look him straight in the eyes as he prepared his gun to shoot me. He was sweating. I could already see in his eyes that I was one of those dead 'terrs'. As the soldier's commander came and disarmed him on discovering that I was the local English master at the school, the man shouted that I would not be alive the following day. He would come for me in the night. And as I walked into the night to escape, I wrote a few lines in a poem called 'The Armed Man':
Look, he is armed,
the rude gun
mates with his hunchback
and his face is armed
with smoky hate,
(the flower is withered)
that gnaws at inner wells
of wild pure hate.
He is armed, this man,
and his sinews stretch
like the hangman's rope
as he cowers to the grim gun...'
('The Armed Man', Up In Arms, 1982, p.16)
How else could I, as a poet, make the reader understand hatred. I decided to focus on his face, on the veins of the man who was going to be my assassin. Statistics have no meaning for poets. The individual fate, the tragedy of being trapped in this one place with a would-be assassin makes the essential metaphor that might make the reader understand the feelings of both victim and victimizers, the armed man and the man who is waiting to be shot.
Oh, words, how deficient of meaning words are. There those events which no poet could name: the scene of a man, a so-called 'sell-out', a businessman and medical orderly. Up in the mountains, he was brought before the 'bush tribunal' and found guilty of questioning some of the happenings in the mountains.
The verdict: he had to die. A big fire was made on a Sunday afternoon. Bayonets were brought out, sharp and shiny and the man was sliced slowly, beginning with the ears which were thrown into the fire and roasted for him to eat. A man eating himself!
As he bled to his slow death, one fighter asked him about the taste of his own flesh:
'It is good, but has no salt,' the numbly bleeding man said as his arm was
chopped off too. And that river of blood coming out of the human body, that is no stuff for poetry. It is only witness to what war is all about: the burning of all the flowers of human love and compassion.
What can a poet write about such events, such pain. Words have their own limits. I have never written about this incident. All I know is that war a poet fragile in the realisation that only human memory is fit for such incidents, nothing else.
At Pamushana, we never taught much. Thursdays to Mondays we were in the mountains. Maybe we would come back Tuesdays.We never knew, and we did not even know that we were still alive.
June 1978, on a Sunday afternoon, the commander, one Shelton Chidoro, calls me aside and warns me that he has a feeling that there could be an ambush. He suggests that the teachers should leave. But other commanders refuse. A compromise is reached. Only male teachers should leave. The female teachers and students would remain.
Monday morning, around 09.00 hours, I am in front of my class, teaching good English. A helicopter lands right in front of my classroom door. A Rhodesian soldier jumps out and orders me to go beyond the mountain to collect the bodies of 'the prostitutes of the terrorists.'
I could only stare at the empty chairs of my missing female students, woken to the reality of the death of the girls. It would be late afternoon as we ploughed through the undergrowth, putting together the bits of flesh that were my students. Of this tragedy, I wrote:
I saw the green leaves
which swish-shash in stormy days
to whisper to my sunken heart
which hops and kicks in me.
His stench harangued my bowels,
mixing my nostrils with the long dead
whose bowels have been embedded
deep in the glooms of the earth.
Sure, he died, no doubt.
Graveless, ditched, he went: ....'
('Death of a Soldier', Up In Arms, 1982, p.29)
At the funeral of one of the girls in Gutu, I could only record poetically the red earth as the grave was dug, and the tears of realising that war takes away words alongside the weak and defenceless. War takes the unarmed and makes them the victims of decisions made by the powerful whose job it is to declare wars but not to fight them.
In times of war, the poet can only dissects, like a surgeon, the small details of what it is to be a victim. The soldiers have no time for that. The politicians have only a vision of power.
In 1978, when we could stand in the same supermarket queue with whites, I was standing behind a pregnant white woman at the till in a shop. Without intending to do so, she her fingers brought out a loaded revolver. She looked at it, cast a wink at me, and returned the revolver where it came from. A few days later, I was imagining what it is to carry a gun in her handbag, alongside the money. I knew that young as she was, her young husband was probably on military call-up. Poetic lines came to my pen:
I am tired
of a husband who never sleeps
guarding the home or on call-up,
Maybe inside him he says
'I am tired of a wife
who never dies
so I can stop guarding.'
('A War-torn Wife', Up In Arms, 1982, p.9)
Victims, me and her. She was as much a victim as me, carrying a gun instead of flowers. And to think that Rhodesia that time had the highest number of divorces and suicides among the white population! While they carried guns and sang 'Rhodesians Never Die,' they were already dead inside, their lives shattered by what ex-Rhodesian soldier, Bruce Moore-King reminiscently described in his memoirs as:
'. . . a war that was a glorius adventure, an easy test of manhood, a war that was right and always honourable, a war where the good were white and the evil were black, a war as simple as that.'
(White man Black War, Bruce Moore-King, 1988, p.3)
At the same time when the white woman was pregnant and carrying a revolver, my own wife was also pregnant. I wrote a poem titled 'A War-Time Wife' in which I tried to visualise what it was to be pregnant during this time:
'...Till one day, maybe night
raids rupture hope in expectancy:
Fertility perishing in thatched graves
to drive lead-like tears
Down slippery times
and swallowed by history's gorgons.'
('A War-time Wife', Up In Arms, 1982, p10)
As wars end, the victims refuse to go away, like a shadow that waits for me at sunset, besides me, my eternal friend ready to go even into the grave with me. Many years later, when the war had ended and people still sang songs glorifying battles which they had not even seen, I wrote of one of the remnants of the victims of war, Johana's mother, in my novel Shadows.
After her husband had been killed in a war that she did not understand, she tries to get government compensation so the remaining children could live. But she realises that everywhere she went,
No one knows Johana's father......Johana's mother hears the echoes of the new lullabies from the lips of the mothers carrying silent children. She hears them sing about the read moon is blood, the eye of the bull is a bullet, the girl's long neck is a needle. She hears it all in the silence of this house of death where life would have to start anew, like the dead leaves that would have to rise again from their death.'
(Shadows, 1991, p.108)
War and violence create new images and metaphors in the heart of the writer, the poet. Through war, a new language is created in all its beauty and ugliness. War creates new ways of mourning, new ways of searching for that which makes human beings sad. But above all, it is the vulnerability of all that surfaces and reminds the write that the only task left for words is to dissect the sorrow, pain and sadness which can come from the human heart in times of war. At the same time, the poet celebrates the capacity of human beings to develop a new form of human endurance and resilience.
Hove, chenjerai. Shadows. Harare: Baobab Books, 1991
Hove, Chenjerai. Up in Arms. Harare: ZPH, 1982
Moore-King, Bruce. White Man, Black War. Harare: Baobab Books, 1988
Mungoshi, Charles. Waiting for the Rain. Oxford: HEB, 1975
© 2006 Chenjerai Hove