The Political Characterization of Chisaga

Rino Zhuwarara, Ph.D., Chair, Department of English, University of Zimbabwe

This material originally appeared in Rino Zhuwarara, "Men and women in a colonial context: A discourse on gender and liberation in Chenjerai Hove's 1989 Noma award-winning novel -- Bones," Zambezia: The Journal of the University of Zimbabwe 21, No. i (1994): 4. Published by University of Zimbabwe Publications, P.O. Box MP 203, Mount Pleasant, Harare, Zimbabwe.


Next to Chiriseri in terms of social hierarchy is Manyepo's cook. Chisaga enjoys the dubious distinction of being knowledgeable about the domestic life of his master; he also enjoys the tainted pride of a house-servant whose role is far removed from the rigours and sweat associated with plantation work. For Chisaga, sheer proximity to the master constitutes an achievement of sorts. And his philosophy is that of Uncle Tom who is forever anxious to acquiesce and lie low for purposes of survival. Further, Chisaga believes in the gospel of silence as if in acknowledgement of the impact of the one-sided discourse represented by Manyepo and his boss boy.

Fascinating to observe is Chisaga's relationship with an oral tradition known for its capacity to distil the collective wisdom of the community through its proverbs, idioms of expression and general sayings. Chisaga reaches out for this wisdom in so far as it buttresses his sagging ego and justifies his acquiescence to Manyepo. 'A chief's son is a nobody in other lands', he intones for the umpteenth time, not realizing the irony that Manyepo is more of the stranger than he is. 'He has bad and good in all of us', Chisaga generalizes in his moralistic manner and justifies Manyepo's excesses as natural: 'One day is cloudy, the next is cloudy and rainy, but the next is plain and naked sky.' Hove succeeds here in showing how the Shona proverbs and idiomatic expressions are used by Chisaga in an unconscious way as a mask which obscures the hollowness of the man. In his attempt to rationalize his embarrassing and self-demeaning attachment to Manyepo, the Shona proverbs and sayings become a mere shell, part of the verbalism bereft of those insights which relate one to his environment in a creative and meaningful way.

Chisaga would like us to believe that his inferior position in regard to Manyepo is natural and God-given, as is reflected in the images of his language:

Seasons leave room for one another. Rain, dry, cold, rain, dry, cold, rain, dry, cold. Look at me now, poverty is like a stubborn friend. Always with me, but l look with the eyes of my own village and say,—the leaves fall but they will come back again one day. The stars die, but one day they will come back after the sun, thelr enemy, has left the danclng arena (37).

Chisaga harbours the illusion that his turn to enjoy the fruits of the earth will come one day. But how this is to be achieved remains a mystery!

In a sense his analogical reasoning which likens the cyclic patterns of the seasons to the changing of the old order in which Manyepo dominates amounts to self-deception, more so when his role continues to sustain the status quo. It is a glaring fact, however, that his job as a cook is traditionally associated with women and, as such, is a mockery of his pride as a man. Here we are reminded of the acute sense of humiliation Nnaife's wife feels when she sees her husband washing the underwear belonging to the wife of his White master in Joys of Motherhood. Being suggested in Hove's novel as well as in Buchi Emecheta's, is that colonialism brutally assaulted the egos of African males by offering them roles hitherto reserved for women in a traditional context. The feminization of the male in the new colonial dispensation is symptomatic of a society which has lost its capacity to hold its own and survive in accordance with the demands of its own values and beliefs. Circumstances have emasculated Chisaga so much that, should he be humiliated beyond endurance, his only recourse would be to perform petty and unhygienic little acts of revenge—such as adding nappy water or mucus to Manyepo's food. As if to underline the widespread feeling of impotence on the part of the African male, Chisaga cites the case of Muringi and Chatora who feed Manyepo's dogs with their own faeces to prove that they are at least better than the dogs of the master!

In regard to Chisaga, Hove has created a memorable caricature of an African male bereft of any noble principles or ideals to live by. Chisaga's critical consciousness remains rudimentary and ahistoricai: in fact, his mind is forever imprisoned in a wishy-washy and self-serving analogical reasoning which unconvincingly justifies his humiliating position as a permanent underdog. Even his dreams about the future are appropriately tailored, as not to disrupt the status quo. He sees change as a long-term evolutionary process about which he can do very little. As a form of compensation for thwarted growth Chisaga's life becomes centred around an almost infantile desire to gratify those basic appetites in man—a trait he shares with Gitutu wa Gatanguru in Devil on the Cross. As such he does not hesitate to prey upon his fellow victims, as is exemplified by his attempt to seduce Marita and his ultimate brutal raping of Janifa. Finally, there is also a way in which a satiric impulse simmers underneath the ostensibly serious tone, threatening to blow apart the solemn and platitudinous stupidities of Chisaga's ironic confessions. The contempt with which we respond to Chisaga's activities and justifications underlines, at the level of emotion, what a people should never allow themselves to be reduced to under any circumstances. The same applies to Chiriseri's significance in the novel.


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