Hove's Style, Shona Oral Culture, and a New English

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): 17-19. Published by University of Zimbabwe Publications, P.O. Box MP 203, Mount Pleasant, Harare, Zimbabwe.


Hove's style, which draws upon Shona oral culture, excited the imagination of international readers. In his essay entitled "The African writer and the English language", Chinua Achebe wrote:

I feel the English language will be able to carry the weight of my African experience. But it will have to be a new English still in communion with its ancestral home but altered to suit new African surroundings.15

In this statement Achebe was alluding to the paradoxical situation in which African writers using European languages to express an African condition find themselves. They have to rework the language in such a way that while remaining accessible to the outside world it also attempts to do justice to the African experience. Such an exercise can arguably be called indigenization -- that is, "when a writer attempts to convey African concepts, thought patterns and linguistic features via the European medium" l6 In Bones there is a refreshing and daring boldness in the way Hove captures the rhythms of thought in a poetic language distinctly rooted in Shona vernacular expression. For example, here is how the anguish of Marita's disciple, Janifa, is rendered just at the point she is about to go insane:

Tears are not water. They must not be seen everyday. They are not water. The well of tears Is not visited by anyone. No one knows the colour and shape of the well of tears. If tears are seen everyday, things are bad inside Marita. Things are bad. Dark things that eat you from inside until you grow as thln as me.l7

Fiora Veit-Wild Is Indeed correct when she says that the novel reads like a long prose-poem, and is lyrical and entranclng. She continues: ". . . It mesmerlses the reader with Its frequent and Intense repetltions, slmple vocabulary, repeated questlons and exclamatlons and the Intlmate second- person style" l8 Apart from the poetlc evocativeness of the language, which is not, one must admit, evenly sustained in the novel, Hove also relies on traditional proverbs, maxims and sayings which are transtiterated from Shona. For instance, Chisaga and Murume seek to justify their subservient roles and the obsequious manner they relate to Manyepo by citing the traditional Shona proverb "Mwana washe muranda kumwe", which he translates as: "A king's son is a nobody in other lands." Chlsaga also attempts to make excuses for the outrageous behaviour of hls boss by citing a traditional saying, "Musha wega wega une benzi rawo,—Every village has its own fool." The impllcation is clear—the worker, as tradition demands, should tolerate his boss's behaviour as natural. Furthermore, Manyepo's abusive tantrums as he berates the workers for their supposed laziness are aptly summarized by Chisaga when he says, "He eats fire and vomits the embers." This is creatively translated from the well-known Shona saying, "Anodya marasha." The objective of Chisaga is to urge his fellow Africans not to be so daring as to disappoint or challenge Manyepo. Subverting the "gospel" of subservience and conformity preached by Chisaga, Chiriseri and Murume are sayings from the same Shona language but this time used by women: for example, Marita keeps on repeating to Janifa that "Men are like children" and it is all the more surprising they want to rule the whole world. The statement is based on a Shona saying, "Va~;me vanenge vana vadiki." As such, women should be wary of them and safeguard their bodies from 'sexploitation". Implicit in the meaning is that men may not be all that suited to exercising authority. In the same vein Janifa questions the wisdom of her mother who quietly proceeds to arrange a marital relationship for her with Chisaga so that she can be given the left-overs which Chisaga collects from his master's table. She asserts: "My mother told me to eat of my own sweat, not to beg like that." The statement is based on a Shona saying; "Idya zvedikita rako kwete zvekupemha." The idea is that one should be self-sufficient and independent and not depend on others. In a way most of these sayings and idiomatic expressions may come across as being more novel and exotic to international readers than to the Shona reader. Fascinating for the latter is the way Hove is either transliterating or modifying the original Shona expressions so as to suit his contextual purposes.

Unlike Marechera, who is very dependant on an innovative but standard English, and Mungoshi, who is meticulously adept yet cautlous In hls rendering of Afrlcan experiences in English, Hove allows the rhythms and thought patterns of a Shona speaker to register much more forcefully in his writing. One is reminded of the language in those of Achebe's novels set in the pre-colonial past and the way in which their very mode of expression is designed to capture the process of thinking, philosophizing and image-making which takes place in peasant societies inhabiting a specific rural locale. In her criticism, Flora Veit-Wild argues that the language used by Hove in Bones "recreates a world of sayings and proverbs and registers and a sense of oneness with the land and with tradition. It celebrates a form of Africanness which does not exist anymore." She goes on to accuse Hove of presenting "a monolithic view of African society" (317). Such criticism is misdirected and unfortunate, particularly when we see that people like Marita, Murume and other workers are a displaced people alienated from their traditional lands as well as from the fruits of their labour on the farm.

Furthermore, as has been shown in this article, their perceptions of their situation are far from being uniform. In fact, they are divided and therefore easy to exploit and discard. One could perhaps complain legitimately about there being an insufficient differentiation of the registers used by the various characters on the farm. Apart from that, there exists a strained relationship between oral tradition and the individuals who try to use it to justify their roles in the colonial context in which they find themselves. There is definitely no 'sense of oneness with land and tradition". One needs to take into account the contexts in which these proverbs and sayings would be used under normal circumstances in order to appreciate the degree of fragmentation and rupture that is being signified in Hove's narrative.


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