Yvonne Vera on Historicity of Nehanda

George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University

In his August 1997 interview with Vera, John Vekris asked if she intended Nehanda to "dramatise specific facts that you have learnt about in historical texts?" and he gave the example of the battle scene and the English characters Browning and Smith, "who could well be actual historical figures," to which the novelist resonded:

They are completely fictitious and are not based on any particular historical figure that I have read about. But, the ideology that they represent certainly occurred. As for that particular battle scene, it is not from history at all, except that of course there was a battle where the Miicans were throwing rocks at the Europeans... So it is difficult for me to say it is completely fictitious or it is completely made up, because some of it is tentatively true.

Vera answered similarly when Vekris inquired about historicity of the scene in which "Kaguvi kills the bull and then drinks the blood and eats some of the heart? Now, is that again something that presumably doesn't happen nowadays but it could well have been a typical thing a hundred or more years ago?"

Yes, it could well be though I don't suppose Kaguvi actually did that. I have in my possession, not only as a writer but as a person, growing up as an Miican child the essence or self-consciousness of being African. I can't say this is what it means to relate to the land in a pre-colonial sense or to relate to death in a pre-colonial sense but, I am able to suggest it. I needed a vehicle to do that, in terms of actions, in terms of behaviour, in terms of ritual. I made up a lot of the rituals, which might very easily coincide with some of what happened though I'm not aware of what happened because I never really completely lived that life. And so I have my naming ceremonies which I made up to feel African. You know, the water that's been drank that's mixed with the earth, is not really what I can -- find verification for outside but it has the consciousness... I created it but I think the essence of it coincides with whatever happened. So I am free from what actually happened and I want to be able to be convincing. So l would say that it is true but it is not verifiable!

When the interviewer attempted "to establish to what extent you might claim that Nehanda is a historical novel," she responded that she doesn't claim it to be one at all, but then she added that she based her imagined ritual upon elements of traditional culture: "The bull was always important in Shona culture. The idea of blood is always important. . . . I had to make him cross a certain boundary like eating that heart etc. because he is an 'Other' figure. Something 'other' than the normal." Vera concludes this part of the interview by claiming that there's "nothing at all shocking, even if I made it up. Because it has all the requisite elements of being chosen or spiritually special in certain ways." Do you agree? What are the implications of the revelation that the author has imaginatively reconstructed myth, ritual, and other aspects of this foundational element in Zimbabwean political history?

Furthermore, given that Nehanda so stresses the importance of the printed book and the way it divides the literate and nonliterate, what are the implications of such recreated aspects of oral cultures?

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Last Modified: 21 March, 2002