On 18 August 1987, Zimbabwe lost an illustrious intellectual — yet an epistemic dissident who became an intellectually acclaimed novelist and poet. His name is Dambudzo Charles William Marechera (1952–1987).
The great Dambudzo Marechera is famed for his ground-breaking and award-winning novella The House of Hunger (1978). This brilliant piece of literature predominated the African literary space at the peak of Zimbabwe’s independence and contributed immensely in the reconstruction of the personality of African literature. From Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Wole Soyinka up to Chinua Achebe, Marechera whose writings were girded on the general colonial question and the cross-cutting experiences of struggle across Africa.
However, Marechera went a step further and challenged this very status-quo of “African writing”. Dambudzo Marechera’s other famous writings include Black Sunlight (1980); Mind Blast (1984). This series intends to unpack the ontology of his subversive thinking and writing style as part of celebrating the 33rd anniversary of his passing on in August 1987. To avid followers of this column, I have always treated August as the Marechera Month.
Marechera acquitted himself as a writer whose style and content exemplified a human species questioning its existence — a being not defined in terms of a narrow racial positionality — though writing from a locus of race. At the centre of Marechera’s thought premise, one finds broad-based grappling(s) with poverty, violence, systematic cruelties, psychological/mental distresses of the oppressed and consequently their perennial under-humanisation by those who wield power and capital.
While Marechera did not define himself as an African writer, his writing speaks to the condition of the African’s oppression. His writing represents the African in poverty, the African exposed to the trauma of domestic and a wide range of national violence(s) having been born in colonial Rhodesia. In as much as he rejects the cocoon of writing for a specific race, Dambudzo Marechera’s intellectual propensity is a construct of his direct experience with racism. Marechera is an ultimate symbol of defiance to the colonial racial status-quo. His (mis)education in colonial Britain predicates his academic rationality in challenging the prejudicial assertions of race (Marechera, 1978, 1980, 1984).
It is through Marechera, that one Nathaniel Manheru (2015) once noted:
“I recognise two traits in our national personality: one which predisposes us to giggling through a tragedy which is eating us, a trait of clear, reckless flippancy; another which predispose us to stoutly deny our unseemly side whose fingerprints are marked right there on our foreheads, making us despicable humbugs. In the end, whether flippant or hypocritical, we slouch and succumb heroically to an engulfing silence of the cemetery yard, the yard where all are equal, none taller, none shorter.”
Manheru’s reading of Dambudzo Marechera and linking his philosophy to our body-politick signifies Dambudzo’s borderless relevance to all existence. In this instance, the Marecheran philosophy is deployed by Manheru to deconstruct the artificial moralities of our time bent on asserting what has kept us oppressed as a people. These have manifested through a plethora of violence(s) and symbols imperialist heterogeneous technologies encroached on socio-cultural and political-economy subjectivities of our presumed independence. On this occasion in which Manheru refers to Marechera coined an “indecorous contumely” which he is famed for to this day: ‘‘we are a se_xually active nation’’.
Metaphorically, Marechera was speaking to the most obscene side of our society defined by our pervasive “colonial power matrix” which actualised from primordial imperialism to neo-colonialism. As such we are afraid to question why we are what we are and who we are. Based on this experience of self-denial and fixated constructions of power, Marechera argues that his writing was influenced by no one or by any institution:
“In my own case, I have been influenced to a point of desperation by the dogged though brutalised humanity of those among whom I grew up. Their actual lives, the way they flinched yet did not flinch from the blows dealt out to us day-by-day in the ghettos which were then called ‘locations’.”
This “brutalised humanity” does not begin and end in his poor family home in Rusape. It is his exceptional intellect which privileges him for enrolment at Anglican St Augustine’s Mission School at Penhalonga. In 1972-73 Marechera took up an undergraduate course at the then University of Rhodesia majoring in English.
Thereafter, in 1974 he was enrolled on a scholarship at New College, Oxford. In March 1976 his exile journey in Britain began and he was of no fixed abode. In finding solace in the pedagogy environs, Marechera comes face to face with the empire.
The madness of Dambudzo Marechera
On his return home in 1982, after the fall of Rhodesia, his book Black Sunlight (1980) had been banned. He took his frustrations to alcohol and his typewriter.
He was known across the streets of Harare particularly at the Harare Gardens benches as a mere vagabond. Though perceived by many as a mad dreadlocked vagrant, the outcome of his madness was the publishing of his third literary piece Mindblast (1984).
He was later kicked out of his tiny apartment in the Avenues and became a permanent squatter all over Harare. This justified him being christened a mad man. Today his madness is a point of introspection of our political and socio-economic madness as a nation. This brings to life his exclaimed critique of our existence: ‘‘we are a se_xually active nation’’.
A hovering question: Who is our molester?
Proof to this literal sense of our abomination, in January 1987 Marechera was diagnosed with an HIV/Aids-related pneumonia. He died in August that year at the age of 35, the same way many nations are prey and dying to neo-colonialism. He is the Zimbabwean affirmative voice of the Frantz Fanon view of the “Wretched of the Earth”.
Surely his madness was without. He was a thinker-prophet-teacher and philosopher whom we failed to listen to his beckoning call. His quest for the colonially entangled and prodigal-self Dambudzo became an evangelist to all.
“(They) ranged from the few owners of grocery stores right through primary school teachers, priests, deranged leaders of fringe/esoteric religions, housewives, nannies, road diggers, factory workers, shop assistants, caddies, builders, pickpockets, psychos, pimps, demoralised widows, professional con-men, whores, hungry but earnest schoolboys, hungry but soon to be pregnant schoolgirls and, of course, informers, the British South Africa Police (BSAP), the police reservists, the TMB ghetto police, the District Commissioner and his asserted pompous assistants and clerks, the haughty and rather banal Asian shopkeepers, the white schoolgirls in their exclusive schools, the white schoolboys who’d beat us too when we foraged among the dustbins of the white suburbs, the drowned bodies that occasionally turned up at Lesapi Dam, the madman who was thought harmless until a mutilated body was discovered in the grass east of the ghetto, the mothers of nine or more children and the dignified despair of the few missionaries who once or twice turned up to see under what conditions I was actually living.”
Richard Runyararo Mahomva is a Political-Scientist with an avid interest in political theory, liberation memory and architecture of governance in Africa. He is also a creative literature aficionado.