Thursday, 21 July 2016

No.30 - Hope rekindled?: A Zimbabwe episode

The pale cream of my university’s clocktower glows in surreal smoothness in a slightly chilly evening sky.  The hands of the clock have been stuck for months now at twenty-to-four. Around the moon-globe lights a pair of drongos hawk for insects, oblivious to the highly charged human event happening below them.  I have driven into town to attend, the richest sunset of violent scarlet I have ever seen here backing the slowly-turning blades of the ridge-top wind-turbines.  In a moment of uncharacteristic superstition, I hoped it did not presage blood.

It did not – or not directly.  The event is one of many gatherings around the world of the so-called #ThisFlag movement in Zimbabwe.  We are all here to express support for a peaceable transition to a caring and responsible government in the country of our birth or domicile or affection.  Candles have been lit, endowing our globule of darkness with a certain sanctity.  Indeed, the whole thing takes on a Christian air – not, the organisers hasten to assert, to the exclusion of any other beliefs – with opening and closing prayers to the Almighty to bless the congregation.

The Zimbabwe national anthem is sung – very tentatively, it seems – and it’s a recent, ZANU-PF-created one, not the “Ishe Kumborere Afrika” I used to sing with our school-kids in the halcyon days of the early ‘80s.  It evokes ‘Chimurenga’, its ideals now in tatters; only a line about the probity of ‘our leaders’ is emphasised with ironic force and answered with cheers.

The lanky organiser – a co-ordinator, not a leader, he insists; this is a leaderless movement – and his supporters are draped in Zimbabwe flags.  (There is also, oddly, a Ghanaian flag waving above the moderate crowd, and even an ANC banner.)  With charming self-deprecation he recalls the role of pastor Evan Mawarire, who seems largely to have coalesced the #ThisFlag movement in its spin-off of trader- and taxi-operator shutdowns in Beit Bridge, Bulawayo and Harare.  And he reads the movement’s six fundamental principles – dignity, accountability, democracy, non-violence... – like Mosaic pronouncements from on high.  They are compact, they seem unarguable – like a distillation of core liberalism, ubuntu, the Freedom Charter and satyagraha – so unarguable that it seems momentarily mystifying that any government should respond with brutal oppression and random terrorisation of the general populace.

But of course, they – gangster governments everywhere – do exactly that, over and over again.

The intermittently blaring bullhorn changes hands.  An exegesis of the colours of the Zimbabwe flag is undertaken, interpretations to suit the new tenor of peaceful resistance to abuse and destitution.  Says one student, she had lost all pride in this flag, it had become so associated with state terror and corruption, but here we are, renewing its national validity and charge and pride.  The association of the red star with international Communism is quietly omitted, as is the question of how and whether ‘Zimbabwe’ should ever have become a ‘nation’ in the first place.  Too intellectual for this occasion: this is about solidarity and grief and tentative hope.

And tears.  After the more formal brief speeches by three or four organisers, the floor – or step – is opened to spontaneous contributions.  One after another student comes up, almost all climbing out of depths of shyness or hesitancy, in a variety of skin-tones and clothing and accents.  They are intensely moving.  One young woman can scarcely deliver her story  for weeping – a story of how her mother, herself and a 3-year-old broke down near a Zimbabwe military barracks and were unnecessarily terrorised by soldiers.  Another burly young man visibly overcomes his fear, both of the occasion and the general situation, and asserts the mantra ‘Enough is enough’.  He mentions a recent discovery of 60 bodies beneath a soccer field, legacy of the Gukurahundi massacres of Ndebele in the 1980s.  Another laments how his family was destroyed by the hyperinflation of 2008.  So many wounds.  A white lad unselfconsciously describes himself as African, says how pessimistic he was just a week ago, driving back to university from Zimbabwe – but now he sees hope again.  Again and again, the speakers assert their peacefulness as well as their impatience, tired of the corruption, the hypocrisy, the failures.  ‘We were always told,’ says one, ‘that education was the key; now I have the key, but when I go back home, they have stolen the door!’

And there is a final sobering and necessary warning, also delivered in a sudden flood of irrepressible tears, for everyone to be careful, not to tag photographs or say anything unwise on social media.  ZANU-PF agents are everywhere, poised to harass and even kill.

It’s only too true.  More than a decade ago now I attended another such gathering in the lee of the cathedral in solidarity with the disappeared, the displaced, the exiled, and hurt and starved of Zimbabwe.  For a while we fasted in suitably-labelled black T-shirts in a frail gesture of solidarity with the destitute.  I was asked to speak then, and did.  I began by saying the purpose was not about party politics, or regime change, and certainly not about violence.  A week or so later I was ‘reported’ in the Zimbabwe Herald newspaper as being an ex-Selous Scout (wrong) bent on fomenting violent revolution in order to resurrect British colonialism (wrong again).   I wrote a letter back, couched in heavy irony, pointing out that this was precisely the opposite of what I’d said.  Surprisingly, they published it.  Still, in subsequent years I have been twice detained by Zimbabwe officialdom for nothing more than being in possession of a camera.  Though ultimately harmless, the arrests were salutary reminders of the vulnerability and helplessness that so many experience at the hands of authoritarian governments everywhere.

And as this small but robust and beautifully polite gathering closes with a minute of silence in honour of the disappeared, the maimed, the exiled, that is a final impression: something warm, fragile, and indescribably precious.

The drongos – nhengure, in Shona, an epithet once given to hypocritical whites, after their forked tails – go on flitting about like bats, feeding.


Saturday, 16 July 2016

No.29 - Our language/s: constraint and creativity

Brueghel's famous imagining of the Tower of Babel
“I gotta use words when I talk to you”: so grumbles a character in (I think) a story by Raymond Chandler.  Whose words?  In what language?  With what level of understanding and intelligibility?  Embodying what hidden power dynamics?

In the welter of current debates about education, cultural diversity, and curricula, from primary school to university, these questions are inescapable.  Hardly a week goes by without the print media fielding an article about language.  To take just two recent headlines: “Othering SA languages stops here”, and “Language can be a powerful cohesive tool”.  The first article laments the destructive influence on ‘minor’ languages of world-dominant languages (pertinently, English); the other reminds us that language, in the broad sense, can bind us together, too.

We have recently commemorated the 40th anniversary of the Soweto uprisings, in which the imposition of Afrikaans on certain school subjects ignited deeper embers of dissent.  Also recently, schools in Thembisa demonstrated because Afrikaans as a teaching medium was being threatened.  The country’s African languages are almost all feeling beleaguered  to some degree.  Another newspaper columnist a few weeks ago lamented that she was losing touch with her original isiXhosa, because she used English more in her working life; she even described her isiXhosa as “corrosive”, which – if she meant what I think she does – is a terrible shame.

World-wide, unhappily, from the Amazon to Australia, dialects and complete languages, only ever spoken by tiny groups of people, are becoming extinct at almost the same rate as natural species.  Some feel this is tragic, others that it’s just the course of things, the ‘natural’ progression of a kind of Darwinian ‘survival of the fittest’.  Throughout history, ‘imperial’ languages have usurped or snuffed out others.  As Nicholas Ostler details in his wide-ranging book, Empires of the Word, these languages have included  Aramaic and Arabic, Greek and Russian, Bantu and Austronesian, Chinese and Egyptian.  Sometimes the process is imposed by conquest , at other times it’s more willingly accepted or assimilated.  Mostly there’s a complex mix of motives and cross-influences.  While the ‘Nguni’ languages such as isiZulu and isiXhosa can be said to have had an ‘imperialistic’ role in marginalising San/Bushman communities and their multiple dialects, the reverse influence of Bushman language on isiXhosa is obvious in the clicks and in certain vocabulary.  Nothing is static in language, yet we cling so tenaciously to notions of purity!

My university has been debating and re-formulating its language policy for years.  The bottom line is that (despite it being the first language of only some 10% of South Africa’s population) English is apparently unassailable as our lingua franca.  This is obviously firstly due to our imperial-colonial history, secondly to the global dominance of American media.  It has gone beyond mere forcible colonisation, though: when a Moroccan umpire oversees a tennis match between a Serb and a Spaniard in Beijing, he uses – English.  So while we might deplore the violent aspects of colonial-language dominance in certain places and phases in the past, and continue to deplore the decline of other indigenous tongues in the present, the current mantra of ‘decolonisation’ is likely to prove an unattainable chimaera.   Colonisation is not something like the common cold that we can just exorcise or get over, returning to some former state: it’s more like an amputation, something whose consequences we will have to live with forever.  We just have to get on with it, finding creative ways of responding to the current state, in whatever languages available to us.

I have travelled enough to understand the frustrations and feelings of disparagement suffered by the ‘second-language’ speaker – the Xhosa person obliged to use English in new contexts, for example.  (I don’t even have a competent second language – only a slew of more or less dodgy ‘third’ languages: Shona, French, bits of still others.   My most recent efforts to learn isiXhosa are bedevilled by uncontrollable spasms of French or German or Spanish which pop up instead.)  At the recent National Arts Festival, the conceptual artist  Lerato Shadi fielded a video of herself (?) wrapping her tongue round and round with red wool, then taking the whole bundle into her mouth – a vivid representation of the muffling, even choking experience of having to use another language.  She eventually works her tongue free and spits the bundle of wool out: ‘decolonisation’, I guess.  But I think we all know it’s never going to be so simple.

In our local Tower of Babel, I don’t know how to navigate all the splits and dilemmas.  I don’t want any language die out or be demeaned: I find all languages equally fascinating and valid and beautiful.  Time, resources and unstoppable global forces make it hard to implement equality, though.  At the same time, it’s unthinkable that we devolve into another form of conflictual apartheid – languages in silos.  We have to talk to each other.  Learning one or another local language can take us only part of the way, but it’s a start.  Translation studies should be a much more fundamental part of education curricula than they are.

Most of all, I think, learning another language – even if it’s one with a problematic colonial history – is best seen as an expansion of oneself, a fund of new opportunities.  It doesn’t automatically demean my home language to learn another.  Moreover, there is no longer a single ‘English’ anyway – and never was.  Even in England, Standard or Queen’s English is only spoken by a minority: the rest is a patchwork of dialects and accents, many of which even I have experienced as almost unintelligible. (I felt hardly more at home in Putney than in Patagonia!)  And English is so successful partly, perhaps, because it seems to be unusually flexible and able to assimilate local influences and varieties. 

Hence writers globally have been able to reinvent ‘English’ continually to their own purposes.  The late Russell Hoban, for example, reinvented a rural English dialect for his post-apocalyptic novel Riddley Walker (still one of the very best of the genre).  It opens like this:

On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the las wyld pig on the Bundel Downs any how there hadnt ben none for a long time befor him nor I aint looking to see none agen.  He dint make the groun shake nor nothing like that when he come onto my spear he wernt all that big plus he lookit poorly.  He done the reqwyrt he ternt and stood and clattert his teef and made his rush and there were wer then.  Him on 1 end of the spear kicking his life out and me on the other end watching him dy.  I said, ‘Your tern now my tern later.’

Once you tune your ear into this, it becomes quite bewitching.  Never mind what Scots writers and poets, from Robbie Burns to Hugh McDairmid and Kathleen Jamie, have achieved in Scots English.

And writers across the globe, from the Caribbean to Kenya, have set about reinventing the language of their oppressors for their own ends.  Nigerian writers have been especially inventive, it seems.   This is the opening of Gabriel Okara’s little novel, The Voice, a kind of metaphysical search story which deliberately uses indigenous Igbo grammatical and idiomatic constructions to lift English into a distinctly new register:

Some of the townsmen said Okolo’s eyes were not right, his head was not correct.  This they said was the result of his knowing too much book, walking too much in the bush, and others said it was due to his staying too long alone by the river.
            So the town of Amatu talked and whispered; so the world talked and whispered.  Okolo had no chest, they said.  His chest was not strong and he had no shadow.  Everything in this world that spoiled a man’s name they said of him, all because he dared to search for it.  He was in search of it with all his inside and with all his shadow.

Even more inventive is Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Sozaboy, related through the naive viewpoint of a youngster caught up in civil war.  It draws on Nigerian Creole (or Krio) – creoles are themselves astonishing inventions – as well as on highly individual quirks and neologisms.  No one on earth speaks exactly this language, yet we as we read we get to comprehend it entirely.  Again, the opening:

Although, everybody in Dukana was happy at first.
            All the nine villages were dancing and we were eating plenty maize with pear and knacking tory under the moon.  Because the work on the farms have finished and the yams were growing well well.  And because the old, bad government have dead, and the new government of soza and police have come.
            Everybody was saying that everything will be good in Dukana because of new government.  They were saying that kotuma ashbottom from Bori cannot take bribe from people in Dukana again.  They were saying too that all those policemen who used to chop big big bribe from people who get case will not chop again.

At perhaps no time in our history has such creativity been more necessary.  And with all our global media resources, never have opportunities for fruitful interchange been more available.  Precisely because the clashes of established identities and historical grievances bedevil our desires for peace, we have to have faith in the endless human gift for inventiveness.  Such acts of the imagination are acts of respect, empathy, possibility and connection.


Saturday, 2 July 2016

No 28 - "Swim-the-Seas": An inconvenient history

Shaka statue at Ulundi
On the wave-pounded beach at St Lucia, north of Durban, a boat overturned in the surf.  A punch-up ensued between the drenched occupants, one English, one Xhosa.  The Xhosa was a prisoner of sorts; he knocked the white man down and ran, disappearing into the interior.  It was 1823.  The man was taken by locals to Shaka, leader of the amaZulu.  Because he had apparently emerged from the ocean, the man was named Hlambamanzi, or ‘Swim-the-Seas’.

Writing about Shaka in my previous post reminded me of a long-standing but dormant possible project on Hlambamanzi.  From time to time I’ve talked about him with local historians Hazel Crampton and Julie Wells, both equally intrigued by his turbulent career; and recently KwaZulu-Natal amateur historian Roger Gaisford sent me his own notes, hoping I might ‘do’ something.  But I have so many projects on the go already...

This week I saw the Sibikwa Arts Centre’s play Ilembe, playing in Grahamstown at the National Arts Festival.  “Ilembe” is an axe – one of Shaka’s praise-names.  It’s a visually vivid and conceptually adventurous play, escaping from clich├ęs into puzzlement.  It’s gratifying to see Shakan history presented as a set of contesting stories, rather than someone’s blinkered propaganda narrative, either of heroism or monstrosity.  Cannily, Shaka himself never appears in the play; stories of him are told by a set of ‘minor’ characters: his ‘bodyguard’ Mbopha, the white trader Fynn, Shaka’s sister Nomcoba – and Hlambamanzi.

Why is he so intriguing?  He is one of the many in-between characters of history, defying borders and classifications, inhabiting different worlds at once, an inconvenient figure for those who like things etched in clear divisions.  He was a “misfit in the margins”, to quote Malvern van Wyk Smith’s recent article (in English in Africa) on the sundry such personalities in African history.

Our man was born Msimbithi (or some such) not 40 km from where I write in Grahamstown, under headman Botoman, in the territory of Xhosa chief Ndlambe.  Boer traders and British military invaders were already warring with the Xhosa, and the young Msimbithi quickly got involved in a series of frontier skirmishes and cattle raids, learning to play sides off one another, and learning some Dutch in the process.  Eventually he was arrested for cattle theft and transported to Robben Island, where he almost coincided with another Xhosa chieftain, Makhanda (or Makana, after whom our present municipality is named).

He sailed to the Cape Colony under an ex-Navy chancer named James Saunders King, who was allegedly kind to him in his seasickness.  Hence Msimbithi (now dubbed by the whites as Jacob, sometimes Jakot) was picked up as an ‘interpreter’ by an acquaintance of King’s, Captain W F W Owen.  Owen was surveying the south-east coast, and took Msimbithi with him.  He was supposed to be grateful, apparently, but he was still only too glad to take the gap when he got the chance at St Lucia.

Henry Francis Fynn
A year later, in 1824, other white adventurers of King’s circle, including the (in)famous Henry Francis Fynn, managed to make their way from the coast near Durban to Shaka at kwaBulawayo.  Imagine their surprise when they discover, amongst Shaka’s coterie, none other than Jacob Msimbithi.  Complete with an umuzi settlement and wives of his own.  He had ingratiated himself with Shaka, he told them, by repelling a faked attack by bewitched wildcats.

He had also evidently told Shaka that the whites were violent, rapacious and deceitful, and not to be trusted.  They would take his land.  Shaka seemed nevertheless disposed to give them the benefit of the doubt, and provided them with many of their needs.  While they manoeuvred behind Shaka’s back to move guns, slaves and ivory, he tried to use them to provide firepower in his raids and to open up trade with the Cape.  In a mish-mash of plots and counterplots, betrayals and suspicions, Jacob Msimbithi acted as ‘interpreter’ and escort. He accompanied expeditions sent by Shaka both to Algoa Bay (Port Elizabeth) and Delagoa Bay (Maputo).  Alternately valued and suspected by every party, he played his own ambiguous game.  Just how competent an interpreter he was is open to question: at least, there must have been ample room for both inadvertent and deliberately manipulative mis-interpretation.  (Ilembe has some fun with this.)  

It was all bound to end badly.

We can’t believe much of what Fynn and Co. said of him, but we don’t have much in the way of other sources.  I’m not sure we have enough to write a substantial history of him.  I’ve thought of writing a novel; it would make a great novel.  But I’m daunted by the mass of research that would have to be done to bring it to life.  The textures of everyday life in all the places he visited, the whole length of the subcontinent; the appearance and demeanours of all the other historical personalities he crossed; the necessary invention of explanations to fill the gaps in the record.  Think of what one would have to do to flesh out just this little extract from Fynn’s account of machinations unfolding in 1830, when Dingane, Shaka’s successor, and the whites were at serious loggerheads:

The following morning he requested me to go with 4 of his chiefs and Jacob to argue over the report Jacob had brought from the Colony.  Jacob began by stating that he had been sent to the Colony by Dingan with a present to the Governor and to bring back what might be sent.  The Governor refused the present.  Met a man of the Indwandwo nation on his way to the Colony who mentioned to him [Jacob?] he had heard of an attack being intended upon the Zoolas, and that the 4 principal Kaffir chiefs Gaika, Slambi, Vosanie and Dushani were dead and a consultation was about to be held by the remaining chiefs as to the best way of freeing themselves from the white people.  A servant called in by Jacob repeated the same statement, and another man who had been with Ogle to the Colony repeated the same.  Col. Somerset came unto Cane and asked who Jacob was.  Said it was Jacob, when Col. Somerset replied: ‘Oh, it is the villain?  I will send him back to his chief Botman’!

It’s hard to know what was really going on.  And how did the exchanges summarised here unfold?  With what tones of voice?  What did each personage look like?  What clothes, what gestures, what motives?  How would one tell the story overall?  Through a third-person omniscient narrator who could tell the back stories?  More dramatically through Msimbithi himself (surely a Xhosa writer would do that most successfully)?  Through a medley of different voices?  Each strategy would offer strengths and limitations.

As I said, Msimbithi’s career was destined for a sticky end.  Not long after the exchange quoted here, Dingane colluded with the whites – or simply ordered them – to get rid of this stray and problematic Xhosa.  The man delgated to do the deed, John Cane, couldn’t, and passed the job on to one Henry Ogle.  Ogle invited Msimbithi to his umuzi on a pretext, took him round the back and shot him, or got his retainers to do it.

Yet there is something very telling in Msimbithi’s career, something more common than we might expect.  In the current atmosphere of hardening racial and political lines, it can be forgotten that very many southern Africans are not ‘pure’ this or that; they have mixed ancestries, tangled allegiances, multiple identities, mingled cultural influences, bundled languages.  One way or another, we are almost all ‘in-betweeners’, potentially bridging rather than dividing communities.  I certainly am – and I hope this inner cosmopolitanism will ultimately prove to be fruitful, rather than fatal!