Presence, Information Technology, and Political Resistance

In Waiting for the Rain, Charles Mungoshi, who refuses to sentimentalize either modern or the traditional ways, creates complex portraits of the gap between generations as the second Chimurenga, or war of liberation, begins. When the young would-be revolutionaries approach the Old Man in hopes that he will tell him what he recalls from the first uprising against British colonial oppression, he refuses to pass on his knowledge, in part because they badly misread his character, in part because he feels their acceptance of Western ways dooms them at the start.

Mungoshi presents his refusal as fundamentally related to his rejection of modern information technologies, which he sees as inhuman, though he first presents this rejection as a matter of moral values. Because the young men made the mistake of telling him that they would put what he tells them in a book, the publication of which might make him "rich and famous," he first focuses on that, since he claims that "by the way he said it to me it seems that's all he is interested in. Riches and fame. As if that were everything. As if we haven't seen enough destruction through those two things." Although his rejection at first seems to derive entirely from a kind of a moral superiority, what he says next immediately complicates our judgment of him and his interpretations of political and cultural reality, since the Old Man in part seems merely defeatist:

And even if I were to talk to them, what can he and his friends do? Take up arms and fight the white man? They will be defeated before they even fire the first shot. They are already defeated. What kind of fighting is it when you are clutching and praying to your enemy's gods? I don't know what he was talking about but he is certainly playing someone else's drum. Each time I see my wife Japi take in a handful of sugar, I know how complete and final the white man's conquest has been.

According to the Old Man, then, any modern rebellion would fail since the rebels have adopted Western ways. Given that Mungoshi wrote his novel after the war for liberation had been won, the reader has to question the speaker's views. Does he mean that any rebellion would fail, or that any rebellion, even if apparently successful, would only produce a pseudo-victory since traditional culture would have been lost?

The Old Man then next boasts how his generation fought the good fight, remaining loyal to their own gods. Nonetheless, he immediately admits not only that they lost the war and their liberty but also that some of "our own people. . . led the white men in their hunt for those of us who had escaped."

Now we -- we were defeated but ours was a clean fight. We still had our own gods of whom we were proud. And because these gods meant the same thing to all of us, we rose like one man to fight the white men. And we didn't fight them just for the sake of fighting -- no. They misunderstood our hospitality for stupidity. We received them with food and they thanked us with guns. . . . So we fought them. We fought hard. Four days and four nights we harassed them at Garapo's Hill. But they laid us low.

That year there was no rain. The Earth was angry with so much spilling of blood. We were hungry. Most of our people gave themselves up. And these were the same people -- drunk on whatever new kind of beer the white men had given them -- these were the same people -- our own people -- who led the white men in their hunt for those of us who had escaped. I heard the news before the gun echoed it -- and with two other friends we slipped out of the cave where we had been hiding and made for this country where we are now.

Although the Old Man admits that "Whether it's true or not, I can't say," he tells his listener "that our people's heads were cut off, kept in medicines and sent to the white men's land. The same fate befell our chief, Ishe Maromo. And it was out of his head that the white men made the powerful medicine that has reduced us to what we are today." According to this voice of traditional wisdom and belief, the victorious British employed magic similar to that used by indigenous healers, but Mungoshi immediately undercuts, or at least complicates, this claim by explaining that adopting the enemy's culture is the really destructive "magic:"

Today we ask: Where are we? Who are we? What wrong did we do? How many stories do we hear of the white men humiliating our people? Again and again and again. We hear it, but do we see it? We might be blind. We hear it, but do we listen? We might be deaf. And why? Playing the enemy's drum, that's why. Making so much noise with the enemy's drum that we can't even hear the beating of our own gullible little miserable hearts. Each time you drink that tea, to whose god do you give praise? Each time you listen to that talking box, on whose altar are you making the sacrifices?

In one sense, or at one level, this statement appears the simple xenophobia of the defeated: anything from outside the group is bad, dangeorus, destructive. Thus he finds his gluttonous wife's love of refined sugar, like the widespread habit of drinking tea or listening to radios, equally dangerous because each represents something from outisde his culture, though he does not mention that many of his people's basic foodstuffs, such as maize, also come from outside -- in this case from the Americas.

In another sense, however, the Old Man raises the basic political issues implicit in different information technologies: he accepts the value only of speech within a small group, and any technologies of cultural memory that permit thoughts to be recorded or transported out of the presence of the speaker seem to him fundamentally wrong. Whether in the form of handwriting, book, or radio, modern information technology removes the need for one person to be in the presence of another for them to communicate. Like Socrates (as Derrida reminds us), the Old Man emphasizes the human costs and not the benefits of such technology. What does the appearance in a printed book of this rejection of modern technology imply about Mungoshi's attitudes toward the speaker? Those interested in comparing different postcolonial literatures might wish to investigate how this Zimbabwean presentation of the clash of information technologies differs from the way Philip Jeyaretnam, a Singaporean novelist, presents the relation of books to time.

Postcolonial Web Zimbabwe OV Charles Mungoshi Overview [Science & Technology]