Zimbabwe’s Novels of Reckoning; Writers Explore Despair and Violence Under Black Rule
Every year after the dry, hungry winters, old women pray for the spring rains to cleanse the earth and revive parched fields. The first rains, known as gukurahundi in the Shona language, are usually hailed as a symbol of life, fertility and prosperity.
But here the term gukurahundi is also a symbol of blood and violence.
It is the name given to the killings that began a few years after white rule ended in 1980. Just as blacks were beginning to enjoy their newfound freedoms, their newly elected leader, Robert Mugabe, sent soldiers to cleanse the land of rival black insurgents. By 1988, thousands of people had been killed here in the province of Matabeleland.
The years of terror left many people traumatized, fearful and silenced. Public discussion of the violence still remains taboo in many places, which is why Yvonne Vera’s new novel, ”The Stone Virgins,” has attracted such attention.
Ms. Vera, one of Zimbabwe’s most prominent writers, describes the violence through two sisters whose lives are shattered by the battle between soldiers and dissidents. Thenjiwe is decapitated by a black insurgent. Nonceba survives, but the attacker slices off her lips. Her struggle to heal reflects, in many ways, this nation’s struggle to acknowledge and come to terms with its raw, self-inflicted wounds.
Government officials often chronicle the suffering endured by blacks during decades of white oppression, but they speak little of the blood spilled by black soldiers and guerrillas. No one knows how many people died in Matabeleland. Some say more than 3,000; others more than 10,000. And some book critics here are already comparing the troubles of the 1980’s as depicted in Ms. Vera’s novel to the political violence that batters this country today.
Over the past two and a half years, President Mugabe’s militant supporters have killed scores of black opposition party members, human rights groups say. Journalists, writers and artists who have criticized his government have been harassed, arrested and jailed.
Ms. Vera, 38, who runs Zimbabwe’s National Art Gallery here, is not a political activist, and her novel is not a political tract. She loves Zimbabwe, she says, and spends her time nurturing young artists and huddling over her computer, constructing the haunting imagery, dense narratives and lyrical language that characterize her novels.
But she could not ignore the violence swirling across the country. She was frightened at times that the government might take action against her. But she wrote the novel anyway, believing that Zimbabweans must confront the troubled past to move forward. ”I asked some friends and they said, ‘Don’t write it,’ ” Ms. Vera said as she sat in her art gallery, describing the warnings she heard whenever she discussed the violence of the 1980’s.
”It has been a silenced subject,” she said. ”There has been an absolute fear of even talking about it. For two years I did not write it. But it was not possible for me to have that self-censorship.
”I wanted to say, This is how it was. Just that. These destructive people were created, and they roamed the land. I cannot pretend to have been unaware of the relevance now. We weren’t past this violence; we have remained in that.”
By confronting the troubles of the past and acknowledging their continuing relevance, Ms. Vera is following one of Zimbabwe’s most striking literary trends.
Black writers here have written eloquently about black suffering under the white government and the jubilation that followed Mr. Mugabe’s election in 1980. But since the late 1980’s many writers who were in their 20’s when white rule ended have focused on the damage and disillusionment experienced by blacks during and immediately after the struggle for self-determination.
In ”Shadows,” Chenjerai Hove, 46, describes how some black guerrillas commandeered homes from their supporters and abandoned the children they fathered in rural villages. In ”Harvest of Thorns,” Shimmer Chinodya, who is also in his mid-40’s, depicts the brutal public killings of blacks who were viewed as collaborators with the white government.
In her collection of poems, ”On the Road Again,” Freedom Nyamubaya, a poet and a former guerrilla, describes how many female fighters, including herself, were raped by their commanders.
And Ms. Vera — in her first published work, ”Why Don’t You Carve Other Animals?” a collection of short stories released in 1992 — describes how Chido, a female fighter, returns from the war and finds herself jobless and misunderstood as the country celebrates its new freedom.
Irene Staunton, who has edited and published many of these books, including ”The Stone Virgins,” calls them Zimbabwe’s unofficial truth commission. Eva Hunter, an associate professor of English at the University of the Western Cape in South Africa, agrees.
”Yvonne Vera is very concerned about recapturing some of the truth of the liberation struggle, the truth of the past,” Ms. Hunter said. ”Her emphasis is on the communal suffering, what happens to the people who are not in uniform. She sees recapturing that past as important for individual and national healing.”
Ms. Vera, who grew up here and earned a doctorate in literature at York University in Downsview, Ontario, has never shied away from controversial subjects in her novels.
”Without a Name,” published in 1994, tackles infanticide. ”Under the Tongue,” published in 1996, deals with incest. ”Butterfly Burning,” published in 1998, deals with abortion. All are still available in paperback. The liberation struggle, the constant backdrop, sometimes spills into the lives of her main characters, mostly women on the sidelines of battle. The man who rapes his daughter, for instance, has returned home from fighting the white government.
In ”The Stone Virgins,” the people of Kezi are celebrating the end of the war and the arrival of the country’s first black government. Triumphant guerrillas gather with their supporters at Thandabantu Store. Villagers are giddily envisioning the day when the government will bring running water to their community.
But a few years later, violence explodes across the land. Thenjiwe is killed by a black dissident. The shopkeeper is tortured and burned to death by soldiers. The hospitals are full of silenced, broken people with psychological wounds that may never heal.
It would be easy to demonize Thenjiwe’s killer, but Ms. Vera chooses not to. Instead, she steps inside his mind and finds an ordinary man, like many of the sons, brothers and neighbors who went to war hopeful and returned numb, damaged, forgotten. In her novel, both killers and victims are battered by war.
Sibaso, the insurgent who kills Thenjiwe, complains that people have forgotten the sacrifices that guerrillas made to win the country’s freedom. ”They remember nothing,” he says of his countrymen. ”They never speak of it now, at least I do not hear of it.”
Then he speaks of the damage within him.
”The smallest of my fingers no longer bends,” Sibaso says. ”Something went quiet inside my head. I heard it stop like a small wind . . . I bit my thumb and felt nothing. I bit hard and reached the bone. This is how I lost the flesh there. I wanted to reach something, to restore feeling.”
Hope and despair intermingle throughout the novel. Mutilated and battered, Nonceba tries to rebuild her life in a country where government officials move steadily to expand access to education, health care and jobs to blacks even as they send soldiers to the battles that terrorize the countryside. Amid the violence, there is still some sense of progress.
”You see her taking her own steps toward independence,” Ms. Vera said of Nonceba. ”We don’t see her heal. We see her extremely wounded, but we certainly see her looking ahead.”
Ms. Vera was determined to describe that kind of damage and healing, but she also seemed careful to avoid language that might outrage the government.
Her violent character is a dissident, not a soldier. She does not apportion blame to either side in the conflict, even though most people attribute the majority of killings to the government. The explosive word gukurahundi, which evokes such emotion and anger here, never appears in ”The Stone Virgins.”
The novel is expected to be released in the United States early next year. It was published here in May and Ms. Vera has had no trouble so far. But she still admits to a lingering sense of unease. Some artists and journalists who have criticized the government, including Mr. Hove and the musician Thomas Mapfumo, have left the country after reporting threats by government supporters.
She wonders, sometimes, whether she will be next.
”I shouldn’t panic, but I panic,” Ms. Vera said. ”The subject is taboo. Am I seen as a government critic? I don’t know. I don’t want to be embroiled in politics.”
”One thing is for sure: I don’t want to leave Zimbabwe,” she continued. ”But I don’t want limits, barriers to my creative energy. What I like is to make someone witness what is occurring in my work. If they can do that, it’s a big step in breaking silences.”