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Long Time Coming: Short Writings from Zimbabwe
By Morris Jane (ed.)
A man tries to find Z$5,000 for his bus ride home. A woman about to get married waits with her fiancé for the results of an HIV test. A defeated president gets ready to vacate his palace, but his wife refuses to leave until she has found her favourite pair of yellow shoes. In a powerful and timely collection of short stories and poems about Zimbabwe by 33 writers, Long Time Coming offers snapshots of life in a collapsed country. It is a collection straining with suspended hope; change has taken too long to arrive. "My country is like/ an empty but attractive/ plastic packet," writes poet Julius Chingono, "being blown by the wind/ along the road that leads to a rubbish dump/ by the cemetery." Zimbabwe's plight is perfectly suited to the short story and offerings come from both celebrated writers like Petina Gappah, Christopher Mlalazi and John Eppel, and a clutch of emerging talents from Zimbabwe and the diaspora. Political frustration, brutal violence and painful loss is met with practical resignation and grim humour. Despite the patient optimism in the book's title, little of this makes its way into the stories. Unpicking the loneliness she has noticed in everyone lately, in ‘Arrested Development' Sandisile Tshuma calls it a "pervasive and virus-like affliction" borne on glimpses of a life and future we can feel "slipping through our fingers". In a country, where Raisedon Baya writes in ‘Echoes of Silence', "silence became a way of life", Zimbabwe's writers are trying to incite its people against it.
Gemma Ware, The Africa Report
You don't have to be in Zimbabwe to know or experience what is happening in Zimbabwe. All you have to do is get yourself a copy of 'amaBooks' Long Time Coming and plough through it. At the end of your reading you'll, without doubt, have gone through the total Zimbabwean experience.
This publication pits together thirty three writers from different backgrounds, races, experiences and genres. Thabisani Ndlovu, Pathisa Nyathi, John Read, Monireh Jassat, Brian Chikwava and Petinah Gappah are some of the contributors to this anthology. Thirty three writers as different as their names, writers with their own individual voices and styles. Old writers who have done it all share this platform with young and new writers still trying to get on their feet in the literary world.
Thirty three writers painting their thoughts, feelings, dreams, fears and nightmares about Zimbabwe, a country Julius Chingono aptly describes as "an empty but attractive/ plastic packet . . . / that leads to a rubbish dump/ by the cemetery."
Old wounds refusing to heal, scars yearning to be scratched, fresh and open wounds begging for attention, diseases, drought, betrayal, and a lot of other issues afflicting the former bread basket of Africa are unpacked in this poignant anthology whose stories are connected by their setting, the interlinking themes and a shared responsibility by the writers to be the voice of those that are still searching for their own voices or too afraid to open their mouths.
Bhekilizwe Dube writes about an abusive relationship created around the squalor and ugliness of a township slowly being reduced to a village. City people are seen fetching water from boreholes like in the rural areas. It took Thandi "near death" to realize she has to get out of a violent relationship. There is obviously another layer of meaning to this story, some kind of political connotation. The writer is not just angry at his sister for allowing the abuse to go on for so long. He is also angry at his fellow citizens who have allowed politicians to abuse them to a state of near death. The story is, perhaps, a wake up call to say its time people changed their situation by getting out of politically abusive relationships.
King of Bums has the streetwise Chris Mlalazi examining post independent Zimbabwe and what it means to a new generation of born frees. It is a story of anger and betrayal where the young feel they are being held at ransom for not having been born or being old enough to take part in the liberation war. In this story post independent Zimbabwe is seen more as a living nightmare instead of the land of honey and milk promised during the war of liberation. Ian Rowlands, a casual Welsh visitor to Zimbabwe, comes face to face with the rape of innocence during a visit to a township in Bulawayo. At an Aids orphanage he comes across young orphans whose only crime is to hope and dream for a better Zimbabwe. And at the end of his visit Ian Rowlands can only ask: "What manner of man would allow such innocence to be destroyed?"
There is so much going on in Zimbabwe that sometimes it is difficult to maintain one's sanity. The pressures are just too much. Ignatius Mabasa explores the theme of temporary insanity in Some Kind of Madness. One of his characters wakes up to the realization that he has forgotten who he is. Although he can remember his hunger, the smell of hospitals where relatives are taken and never come back, of the colour of death on people's skins (obviously AIDS related), he can't remember who he is. A very worrisome experience.
But then all is not gloom and depressing. There are lighter moments in the anthology. Moments like the ones Mzana Mthimkhulu creates with Not Slaves to Fashion. A wedding and preparations for celebrations. Moments of hope. Like all citizens of Zimbabwe the writers know the importance of hope. A hope for a better tomorrow. This is explored by Judy Maposa in First Rain. In her story she wishes for "rain to wash away all the corruption in the land. A rain to cleanse and restore all that has been touched by the dark side of man." This rain is long overdue. It has taken a long time coming.
Long Time Coming: Short Writings from Zimbabwe is about hope, about resilience, and how the people have waited for so long to be delivered from their suffering. A fine read.
Raisedon Baya, The Zimbabwean
'"Bloody men. Bloody chicken buses. Bloody poverty. Bloody Zimbabwe", writes Linda Msebele in a tale where water supply fails, shoppers riot, and days fill with violence and repression. Yet even she manages to end on a flicker of hope. Light remains in the human soul."
Peter Finch, The Western Mail, Wales
It is little short of miraculous that, despite the disease, oppression and hyper-inflation that is the reality of today's Zimbabwe, writers are writing and publishers are publishing. With even the much-derided official inflation rate in the multi-million per cent bracket, I have no idea how 'amaBooks, who are based in Zimbabwe's second city, Bulawayo, have managed to raise the resources to publish this volume but I do know they deserve the highest possible praise for doing so. They describe these short stories and poems by 33 writers who live in or have a connection with Bulawayo as ‘snapshots... of a country where shops have no food, banks no money, hospitals no drugs, bars no beer.' Each piece here - and they are miniature marvels, with no story longer than eight pages - vividly illuminates an aspect of what it is actually like to live in a country that has been systematically looted and stripped of functioning organizations.
Daily life becomes a one-sided struggle against insurmountable odds; a recurring theme is the immense difficulty in simply getting from place to place when there is no public transport and petrol is scarce and ruinously expensive. Those lucky enough to have jobs earn less than the cost of their journey to work and those without work battle despair and hunger. There are odd glimmers of lightness and pleasure here, albeit tinged with gallows humour. It would be unfair to single out individual authors for praise but, taken together, these stories cohere into a panorama of Zimbabwe. Read Long Time Coming and remember the next line in Sam Cooke's song ‘...but I know a change is gonna come'.
The New Internationalist
Long Time Coming carries stories laced up with short poems. It takes variegated glances at what has come to be termed the Zimbabwe crisis for close to a decade now. The glances are thankfully numerous and this is the blessing brought by bringing together many writers under one cover. In most of these stories there is the outstanding view that what bedevils Zimbabwe comes from the inside and outside and from the unresolved Zimbabwe past. Then, sadly, there is the uncomplicated view by a few of the writers here that all Zimbabwe's problems are due solely to misrule or due only to the evils of one tribe over another. Even more intriguing is the view by some writers here that the Zimbabwean crisis opens up new opportunities and ways of viewing Zimbabwe, present past and future.
You come across the multi talented type like Pathisa Nyathi, Ignatius Mabasa, John Eppel, Raisedon Baya and Julius Chingono. Then you have the immensely fresh and very talented like Judy Maposa, Sandisile Tshuma Linda Msebele and Thabisani Ndlovu who leave you wondering, even crying: where have these gems been hibernating all along? Then there are visitors to Zimbabwe like Ian Rowlands and Gothataone Moeng who felt touched by what we do to one another and what has been done to us in Zimbabwe.
Judy Maposa could be the greatest find in this book. Her story First Rain is a transcendental piece. Here the world is solid, gas and liquid. I have only met the equivalent in Jose Saramago of the novel called The Gospel According to Jesus Christ. I read this story five times for the sheer opportunity of being transfigured. In the end Judy Maposa's dry Bulawayo has water gushing from every tap.
Sandisile Tshuma's Arrested Development can work as an example of how good stories can only come if writers ‘forget' form and structure and tell their story unhinged like you do to a close mate from the comfort of night and darkness when the door is shut. Pillow talk is how I could describe Sandisile's story. No wonder why the editor made this one the first story. In half a dozen pages she effortlessly takes you through issues of inflation, border jumping, tribalism, queues...
Linda Msebele is a writer of great courage. Her The Chicken Bus could be the most uplifting story in this book. Her characters ‘refuse to turn sour, the ones who won't let fear cloud their brows, the ones who still smile.'
Thabisani Ndlovu's Stampede can win a prize any day. It is a surrealist work of art about how body, spirit and mind engage in a wretched struggle against one another before the final fall. It is about working for systems in which one remains invisible and one can never dare rebel or think about it.
The more well known writers bring depth and experimentation to this anthology. You see it in the poetry of experienced masters like John Eppel and Pathisa Nyathi. They make Bulawayo come alive with both its beauty and ugliness.
The ‘Harare boys' cannot be outdone. Julius Chingono writes with a very well hidden tension that erupts from seemingly simple narrative. He begins with: ‘I had no bus fare to take me home and it was 4:45pm' and all hell breaks loose. Chingono's story is about the desperate levels to which people can sink in the Zimbabwean crisis. A grown up man finds suddenly that he not even a single cent to get him onto the bus back home.
Ignatius Mabasa's story is about the shifting identities during the Zimbabwean crisis. Although Mabasa argues that he prefers the Shona medium, his story here in English shows why he is fast becoming the leading Zimbabwean writer of his generation. His poem called Poetry is goes:
Poetry is a white child
Lost in the darkness of a cinema house
Holding my black hand
Calling me daddy...
You should not miss the stories of the three writers of the moment in Zimbabwe, Brian Chikwava, Christopher Mlalazi and Petina Gappah. However, be warned! You need to read their short stories with both your eyes and mind open. In the end you may laugh and cry at the same time.
The book helps to show that 'amaBooks could be fast becoming for Bulawayo what Weaver Press is to Harare. You see it in the very meticulous editing and inspired choice and arrangement of artists.
Memory Chirere is an occasional short story writer who lives and works in Harare.
Memory Chirere, University of Zimbabwe
An independent Zimbabwean collection reveals another side to this tragic country. By Clare Lanigan.
In recent years it seems the only news stories coming out of Africa are about poverty, corruption, violence and misery, so it's easy to forget that the continent is more than just the disaster zone of the world. Fiction, poetry and art continues to flourish, although even in this day and age, many European readers' knowledge of black African writing begins and ends with Chinua Achebe, despite the high profiles in recent years of notable writers such as Purple Hibiscus author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. However, collections come along every now and then to remind us that Africa's literary life is not in stasis, and Long Time Coming is a welcome addition to this list, presenting a view of Zimbabwe infinitely more nuanced than the typical media vision of a bleak, depressing place presided over by a tinpot dictator.
Not that the authors in Long Time Coming, published by independent Zimbabwean imprint 'amaBooks, gloss over the difficulties of life in the country today. Themes of deprivation and hunger crop up again and again, but the capacity for humanity to find hope in otherwise desperate situations allays even the bleakest tales. The poverty-stricken narrator of 'The Chicken Bus' by Linda Msebele is cheered by a smile shared with a stranger in a bus. Sisters draw strength from each other after abusive marriages end in 'Loving The Self' by Bhekiliwize Dube, and a young woman driven to prostitution after her family are rendered jobless by an unscrupulous businessman exacts an extreme, but still satisfying revenge in 'Justice' by Wim Boswinkel. The cultural identity of white Zimbabweans is not ignored, with stories like 'The Pencil Test' and '10 Lanigan Avenue' featuring sympathetic white and mixed-race characters. The only group that face universal, and deserved, opprobium are the corrupt political leaders and their business cronies, portrayed to a man and woman as venal, greedy and self-justifying. However, one of the best stories in the collection, 'The First Lady's Yellow Shoes' by Peter Ncube, gets inside the mind of a Mugabe-like dictator forced to flee his country in a fictional revolution and reveals the skewed, but real humanity behind the delusions of authority.
With over 30 stories and poems in a slim volume and some stories only running to a couple of pages, the collection has a somewhat unfinished feel to it, and certainly plenty of the stories count as little more than impressionistic sketches. But there is enough new talent here to keep the casual reader interested, and enough decent characterisation to provide context for the recurring themes of hunger, HIV and inflation that naturally crop up. There have been shake-ups in the Zimbabwean government since the collection was first published in 2008, but in other ways very little has changed. It will be interesting to see how the next 'amaBooks publication deals with the country's story.
"2 l8 4 crisis"
Who - among Brits - gives a shit about Zim? (Hello there, Zimbabwean Raconteur readers in exile! And hello to other readers with Zimbabwean roots and ties! But apart from you...?) During the campaign to kick out white farmers, in 2000-2002, British media were full of Zimbabwe. Now we just get occasional reports about cholera, and crazy inflation figures. The latest: 231 million per cent. And unemployment: 94%. And life expectancy: 37. Zimbabwe was a rich agricultural country. Now the people are mostly starving, and violence and disease are endemic.
A few do prosper, under what John Eppel calls "a government of the obese, by / the obese, for the obese". In his poem a roadside vendor offers for a sale "a cigarette, a handful / of peanuts, and a blighted onion. [...] Sick, her child is the colour of ash, / a rag doll of hopelessness, symbol / of the new Zimbabwe." This poem is in a remarkable, inspiring book published inside the country: Long Time Coming: Short Writings from Zimbabwe. It's a simple act of solidarity: buy it! You'll be repaid with some brilliant writing. The editor is Jane Morris, originally from Ebbw Vale. She co-directs the publisher ‘amaBooks in Bulawayo. Long Time Coming is one of about twenty titles they have published. It contains stories and a few poems, all of a very high standard, by 33 writers, most young. Some publish here for the first time; some are well-known (most of them in exile), such as Petina Gappah (here with a devastatingly detached story about AIDS) and Ignatius Tirivangani Mabasa; a few pieces are by Welsh and other international visitors, including Owen Sheers and Peter Finch. The writings are very varied - satire, domestic realism, fantasy, reportage, adventure - but all share a beating heart of political resistance. And the name of Robert Mugabe is never once mentioned: out of caution, no doubt, but also out of contempt.
In 1980, when Mugabe was sworn in as prime minister, Bob Marley sang at the ceremony: "Africans a-liberate Zimbabwe, yeah! / No more internal power struggle, / We come together to overcome the little trouble. / Soon we'll find out who is the real revolutionary. / I don't want my people to be tricked by mercenaries." Soon Mugabe fulfilled Marley's fears. Thousands died in civil conflict over the next years. Civilians were massacred both by government troops and by dissident militias and gangs. The red berets of the Fifth Brigade, directly controlled by Mugabe's office, were particularly feared. He called their task Gukurahundi, a Shona word: "the early rain which washes away the maize chaff before the spring rains". This metaphor of "cleansing" has ethnic implications: opposition is strongest among non-Shona-speakers.
In 1987, Mugabe became "executive president": in effect dictator. Conflict with the white farm owners came to a head from 2000, as "squatters" and "veterans" were encouraged to violently seize tens of millions of acres. The productivity of the land plummeted. International donors and banks withdrew support. Food, fuel, medical supplies, foreign currency, and all kinds of goods became scarce. The obese profit from the economic chaos (some of their tricks are detailed in Wim Boswinkel's story "Justice"). Infrastructure has collapsed: water and sewage, roads, health and other facilities. The usual methods of state repression are used: police and army brutality, disappearances, torture, extra-judicial executions, clamp-downs on independent media, educational and legal institutions.
A refugee who came from Harare to Swansea, William G. Mbwembwe, wrote a poem in 2005, "I guarantee": "I can guarantee that there is freedom of speech in Zimbabwe / But I cannot guarantee freedom after your speech [...] I can guarantee you long life in Zimbabwe / Just don't carry this poem around with you" (from Soft Touch, Hafan Books, 2005). That year, Operation Murambatsvina ("clean-up") began. Hundreds of thousands of people - mostly supporters of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change - were evicted from urban areas, and street markets were shut down, destroying the livelihoods of millions. Still, in January 2009 the MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai became prime minister, sharing power with Mugabe. The crisis might be reaching a climax. Surely, as Sam Cooke sings, "it's been a long time coming, but a change is gonna come".
William Mbwembwe was a charismatic community volunteer. Not long after getting refugee status, he fell ill and died in 2008. In Soft Touch we also published his story, "From the South South to the North West". He tells how his family decided to leave: "When the invaders invaded the farm across the road and started demanding food and water, I knew vamoosing was the best advice. We packed up all our stuff including the roaches (you don't leave those behind, they are family) and we headed off to live somewhere else (which I won't say coz I don't trust you)." Many stories in Long Time Coming have that chatty gallows humour, joking with the reader. Tales of suffering - but survival - are told with an engaging twinkle in the eye. The twinkle's also challenging, if you're from the global "North West": the rich, comfortable zone.
Up here, people protest if fuel prices rise. In Long Time Coming several stories are about travelling on overcrowded "chicken buses", or with people who still have cars, who sell rides to the highest bidder at the roadside, to pay for fuel. Sandisile Tshuma's autobiographical "Arrested Development" opens the book. She pays 800,000 dollars to get from Bulawayo to Beitbridge, on the South African border. First, she has to wait for a ride: "I had to wait two hours to get money from the bank to pay for my journey and now here I am waiting. Again. It's what we do. We wait for transport, for electricity, for rain, for slow-speed internet connections [...] but you know how hope is. It never dies. So we tell ourselves that there isn't anything yet. We'll find a way out; in the meantime let's wait." While waiting, she gets a text from a friend, joking that "since life expectancy in Zim is reportedly quite low, she reckons she is entitled to a mid-life crisis". But she has miscalculated. Tshuma replies: "Sori m8. In mid-20s nw so u hav abt 10 mo yrs left 2 liv. Thz r the sunset yrs. 2 l8 4 crisis."
Finally on her way, "as the kilometers go by I am struck by a loneliness that I have noticed in everybody lately." This loneliness is conveyed by many of the stories. Ignatius Mabasa perhaps captures it best, in "Some Kind of Madness". The narrator leaves home and waits for a bus, vaguely feeling he's forgotten something important. Through interactions with neighbours, passengers, the driver, and police at a roadblock, Mabasa gives a detailed snapshot of the social conditions, evoking both tragedy and hilarity. Someone at the back of the bus asks why they've stopped. Someone else shrieks: "What, are you blind?" The reply comes: "Actually I am blind." Into the embarrassed silence, the narrator laughs and quotes aloud from the Bible: Jesus telling his disciples that a man was born blind "so that the work of God might be displayed in his life." All the passengers look at him. One asks: "Who are you?" He answers: "I don't know." And then, he realises: "That's it [...], that's what I have forgotten." It's a brilliantly chilling final twist.
I don't have space to mention many of the good things in the book, but two extraordinary, visionary stories stand out for me: resonant visions of feminine hope and masculine horror, suggesting alternative futures. Judy Maposa, in "First Rain", recounts a dream of a proud, naked, goddess-like woman amid torrential rainfall which cleanses Zimbabwe of its traumatic history, flushing away Gukurahundi and Murambatsiva, feeding the turbines of Kariba, bringing a rich harvest and an end to power cuts. Finally the narrator is woken by her daughter - "The taps are coughing. Get the containers" - and smiles: "Everything is going to be alright." Here, visionary hope transcends everyday reality. By contrast, Thabisani Ndlovu's "Stampede" recounts the nightmare of a young soldier walking for days through moribund wilderness, to and from his mother's abandoned hut, in search of weapons he seems to have lost, to join an uprising against the regime of the "Great Leader". The uprising is is crushed before it begins, and he joins a terrifying stampede of faceless fleeing figures, stamping soft body parts underfoot, before collapsing in a dry riverbed. Torrential rain falls, only to bring more horror: he must take off his uniform to avoid detection as a rebel, but it sticks to him wetly. His mother appears, trying to help him, but is crushed in the stampede... This story ends with a bitter laugh and the deeply ambiguous question: "Was there anyone left with the Great Leader at all?"
Tom Cheesman, The Raconteur
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