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On my shelf: A vision of history that liberates

2017-05-18 13:02

Late Zimbabwean novelist Yvonne Vera (1964-2005) writes, in her debut novel, Nehanda: “We walked in wisdom with our shadows, in search of the dead part of ourselves, which would be our shelter.”

I am reminded of these words as I contemplate the seemingly auspicious date of her untimely death at 40 from meningitis on April 7 2005.

The month of April presides two other auspicious dates in Zimbabwe’s history: April 28 marked the 51st anniversary of the bloody Chinhoyi Battle (the first military action against Ian Smith’s illegal Unilateral Declaration of Independence, leaving seven members of the Zimbabwe African Nationalist Union’s military wing dead, but sparking the flame that would become the Second Chimurenga or liberation war).

That day also marked 70 years and a day after the execution of a certain Mbuya Nehanda by white settlers mandated by Cecil John Rhodes’ British South Africa Company in 1898 for her role as a spiritual leader in Zimbabwe’s First Chimurenga.

Critic Percy Zvomuya reminds us “the poetic justice of her death cry, mapfupa anguachamuka [my bones shall rise again]”, served as the inspiration for the resistance of the Chinhoyi Seven.

It is hard to overstate the centrality of history in Zimbabwe.

The contestations through indigenous-oral, settler-colonial, nationalist, and what we now know as “patriotic” histories, are more than a contest over the past.

They are a struggle over the definition of our present and future realities.

It is also hard to overstate the centrality of history in Yvonne Vera’s literary works, which include the short story anthology Why Don’t You Carve Other Animals?, and the novels Without a Name (1994), Under The Tongue (1996) and Butterfly Burning (1998).

The historical sweep of Vera’s literary corpus begins in pre-colonial Zimbabwe as Mbuya Nehanda and her people begin their resistance and ends in the immediate post-independence period as the protagonists of The Stone Virgins (2002) grapple with the destruction wreaked by the Gukurahundi massacre.

Vera begins her novel-writing career setting out to challenge history: “History begins in 1896 when the Europeans came here, and it continues like this: the spirit medium Nehanda did this, in such and such a year, in such and such year she was hanged on April 27 …

"And I realised, No, no, no! Our oral history does not even accept that she was hanged, even though the photographs are there to show it, because she refused that, she had already departed …

"What was the nature of that departure, and why we believe in it so much as a nation, when the history books say something else, were questions that were very important to me.”

And so, moving beyond the “official record” and the masculinist obsession with the political events of the First Chimurenga and Nehanda’s subsequent encounter with the noose, Vera summons a history that is simultaneously matrilineal and spiritual from the repressed truths of colonised women.

True to her distrust of “official history”, Vera is not bound by maintaining a fidelity to the places, names and dates of the written record.

Instead, she creates a nonlinear narrative through which she portrays Nehanda in her life within dreams, at birth, as a young woman entering a political and spiritual consciousness as the turmoil of white presence begins to unfold around her society, and her communion in the realm of the ancestors.

In so doing, she allows Nehanda to transcend her physical death.

Beautifully, Vera subverts the masculinist tradition of exceptionalising Nehanda as an “honorary man” by reimagining the gender relations within her society and locating her within a matrilineal lineage of women who occupy multiple roles in Shona society as diviners, traders, travellers, midwives, storytellers and more.

Vatete, the midwife who birthed her, for example, has a higher status, and “was also among the shapers of wisdom, who determined the future of the village”.

In charting what may be deemed her feminist, spiritual nationalism, Vera employs a poetic prose that is lyrical and symbolically charged, as she foregrounds language, voice and presence in a way that creates a sense of an orature reconstructed from memories of unheard women’s utterances.

Dense and opaque at times, Nehanda is certainly one of the more “accessible” books by a writer deemed by critic Memory Chirere as “probably the most successful woman writer in Zimbabwe to this day in terms of output and intense experimentation with prose”.

Vera’s drive to experiment may be embodied in the sentiment she expressed in her editorial foreword to Opening Spaces, the 1999 anthology of African women’s writing:

“A woman writer must have an imagination that is plain stubborn, that can invent new gods and banish ineffectual ones.”

In the end, the result of Vera’s expansive vision of history is an art that reimagines the interconnectedness of the personal and political, past and future, physical and spiritual, life and death, in a way that does more than shelter; it liberates us.


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