An Introduction to Zimbabwean Fiction in English

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

THE YEAR 1980 has gone down in Zimbabwean history as a watershed which marks the end of ninety years of White settler rule and the beginning of a new era, a time when the long-suffering African assumes the responsibility, at least politically, of shaping his own destiny. It is a time when the Black man who has been maimed by ninety years of exploitation and oppression limps to the finishing line and claims his trophy -- independence and freedom. For the Zimbabwean writer this belated freedom offers boundless possiblities since the censorship and other shackles of the past have been swept away. This essay review attempts to assess the quality and orientation of the new novels which have been published since Zimbabwe attained its independence. But in order to ascertain whether this recent fiction is, indeed, new in terms of content and orientation, a brief outline of the main features of pre-Independence fiction written by Blacks is necessary.

In many ways the birth of Zimbabwean fiction in English has been influenced largely by the peculiar history of Zimbabwe and the various crises which Blacks experienced between 1890 and 1980. Essential to underline here is that the abrupt and brutal intrusion of the White settlers into the land between the Zambezi and the Limpopo rivers was part of a larger imperial vision which sought to subjugate the African continent in order to exploit its economic and human resources. Therefore, on their arrival, the White settlers embarked on a systematic programme of dispossessing Africans of their rich ancestral lands and resettling them in crowded and infertile areas. The material deprivation which ensued was also compounded by the relentless assault on African culture by White missionaries and other educationists. Native life was seen as primitive, and, as such, had to be wiped out and replaced by a more civilized Christian culture. Here is how one of the missionaries proposed to solve the "native" problem:

"Father Biehler is so convinced of the hopelessness of regenerating the Mashonas," wrote Lord Grey from Chishawasha in January 1897, 'whom he regards as the most hopeless of mankind ... that he states that the only chance for the future of the race is to exterminate the whole people, both male and female, over the age of 14! This pessimistic Spencer Tizora's Crossroads', Grey continued, "I find it hard to accept." [Quoted in T. 0. Ranger, Revolt in Southern Rhodesia 1896-7: A Study in African Resistance (London, Heinemann, 1967), 3.]

While the radical and unchristian solution proposed by Father Biehler was never considered seriously by most of the missionaries in Zimbabwe at that time, it underlines the depth of hostility which some of them harboured against African religion in particular and African culture in general. Consequently Africans found themselves not only deprived of their land but also condemned culturally. They became an endangered species, hence the theme of identity crisis which preoccupies almost all the Black writers whose works were published before 1980. The cultural crisis was deepened further by the gradual but inexorable process of industrialization and urbanization.

Spencer Tizora's Crossroads (Gweru, Mambo Press, 1985) is one of the novels that explores the experiences connected with the Zimbabwean struggle for independence. But, unlike A Fighter for Freedom and The Contact which place heavy emphasis on the actual physical combat which takes place between the Rhodesian army and the freedom fighters, Crossroads is mainly concerned about the impact of the larger historical conflict on the lives of ordinary individuals. The fate of these individuals is explored against the background of mounting guerrilla pressure on White Rhodesia during the latter part of the 1970s. Caught up in the crisis are several individuals who have planned their lives without taking into account the fact that the struggle for freedom will affect them in a fundamental way.

For instance, here is how Priscilla, who is married to David Moyo and who finds herself compelled to supply drugs to guerrillas, perceives her role:

True, she had started off as a kind of non-believer, an agnostic who had not quite been saved from the sin of non-commitment. Not exactly a fence-seater [sic], for there was no fence to sit on. No one had the time to erect it. (93)

The tide of events is so strong that Priscilla does not have the opportunity to choose sides. Similarly, David, after much soul-searching, is compelled to forgo his role as a teacher and join the struggle, thus sacrificing his marriage in the process.

What ensues is a tale of woe as Priscilla gets imprisoned, humiliated, and tortured by the Rhodesian security personnel. After imprisonment, Priscilla cannot bear loneliness; she falls in love with a student teacher, Nwabu Zhou, who impregnates her but is not keen to marry her. She gives birth to a son, but as the harrowing pressures of existence increase she loses her grip on reality and becomes insane. She has to be separated from her son. After hospital treatment she lives as a tramp, desperate to find her son who has been adopted by a White woman named Betty. Yet the irony is that at the end of the war David is keen to re-establish contact with Priscilla. The central question raised in the novel is, Can the national policy of reconciliation be extended further to affect the manner in which individuals come to terms with very private and painful experiences? Priscilla is a casualty of history who needs an enormous amount of sympathy and understanding. Can David overlook all that has happened in his absence and relate to a deformed Priscilla and her illegitimate son? His dilemma is more problematical than that of Gikonyo in A Grain of Wheat.

This novel also tentatively explores the theme of reconciliation between Blacks and Whites. Betty is a White woman who has experienced loneliness and lived insecurely during the war. She is glad the war is over and is anxious to reach out to Blacks:

"My husband taught me about the world. That's why I go out the way I do these days. He taught me about the outside world, about other people's needs and I brought up quite a few African boys and girls.

"They grew up in my home ... as if they were my own children; and, mind you, they were my servants, but I treated them like my children."

The difficulties that have to be surmounted before Blacks and Whites understand each other are great. To the African audience Betty is a superficial character, clutching on to liberal credentials. Her mode of perception as well as her speech idiom reveal a patronizing attitude characteristic of liberals. Yet, as the story in the novel unfolds, it becomes clear that the woman has actually looked after Priscilla's son notwithstanding the opposition from her husband.

The novel also explores the national problems which confront the new African government immediately after the attainment of Independence. As ZIMCORD money starts pouring into the country, Nwabu Zhou, who is now part of the government security machinery, wonders how the profit motives of foreign companies can be reconciled with the original aspirations of the Black majority.

On a personal level, he also wonders whether the role he is now playing, as he drives his smart-looking Bluebird car, can be reconciled to his original visions of serving, with dedication, his own people in Mwauya Reserve.

As a whole, Crossroads is a sensitively written novel which poses serious questions throughout, and it does not pretend to offer answers at all. its limitation, perhaps, is that it tries to do too many things at once, and none of the fundamental issues raised in it are followed up in the end. Also the life-history of Priscilla and Nwabu Zhou sometimes degenerates into sheer melodrama which distracts the reader's attention away from the serious issues being raised. It is a novel whose vision is delicately poised between hope for a better future and fear of betrayal.

This essay first apeared in Zambezia: The Journal of the University of Zimbabwe (1987) 14 (1987): 131-3.
  1. An Introduction to Zimbabwean Fiction in English
  2. Novels of Cultural Conflict and Protest
  3. Zimbabwean Cultural Malaise of the 1960s and '70s
  4. Samuel Chimsoro's Nothing Is Impossible
  5. Edmund Chipamaunga's A Fighter for Freedom
  6. Garikai Mutasa's The Contact
  7. Spencer Tizora's Crossroads

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