Green revolutionist Chris Magadza on Zimbabwean poetry and non-reading UZ students

01 Dec 2012

reprinted from Poetry International Web

Franziska Kramer of Weaver Press interviews poet Chris Magadza, “a man whose life has served as a barometer of Zimbabwe’s more recent history.”

FK: Your personal and professional background is multi-layered: you are an academic working at the Department of Biology at UZ, and you are well known for many environmental studies in zoology and climatology. What motivated you to write poetry? 

CM: First, just to clarify something people assume again and again, I’m not a climatologist by profession. It just so happens that I wrote an invited paper in the 1980s about climate change in Africa, which was published and then became internationally known, as it was the first of its kind.

Now to the second half of your question: I wouldn’t say I wrote poetry. I’m rather lost when it comes to any kind of formal literary structure. I think I’d rather say I write verses. And I think I write because there are things that need to be expressed very personally. The verse ‘In Memory of a Danish Volunteer’ is about a friend who died, and I wanted to write that incident, that experience down.

FK: I’ve talked to various other authors about the reading and writing ‘culture’ of Zimbabwe. Why is reading important for you? Why is it important for your students – do they read enough? 

CM: [laughs] Who reads enough? My students definitely do not read enough. They only read what I’ve asked them to read . . . I’m not sure if they just don’t care or just don’t make the opportunity to read more – but I’m not going to lie: our bookshops are bad! When I went to Uni, I went because I could and because I was interested in my subject. Today everyone studies whatever it is to become skilled, get a job and get out.

FK: While reading your poetry, I found again many multifaceted emotions or themes as well as sources of writing. It was a pleasure to read positive, negative, critical and admirable verses with particular attention to your fascination for nature. What do these different angles represent? 

CM: The critical sources [of my writing] are our politics. In 2008, you know, there was a great chance for this country to change its direction and history, but these hopes were dashed within weeks. The poem ‘Killing an Infant’ mirrors this violent period. It stands as a metaphor for the glimpse of hope for democracy we had then, one that was killed as soon as it was born.

I was really hoping back then [that] things would change. There was a great chance – but now we’re being raped by the Chinese and nobody cares anymore. And they’re professionally dishonest to nature and the environment wherever they go; that I think bugs me the most. It’s tragic, but our greed will lead to the extinction of this world one day.

FK: I also felt that sense of hope while reading ‘Not far from here’, a poem where everything is dreaming in the future tense. ‘One day . . .’ you write. What do you think will happen to Zimbabwe ‘one day’ – one day when? 

CM: Something has to happen. How and what, I don’t know. In 1992, I wrote chapter in the book Beyond Hunger in Africa for the African Academy of Science, to respond to the World Bank warning that ‘Africa is going down the drain and the world has to be prepared to feed it.’ In the chapter, I outlined a scenario in which Africa was a fully democratic continent by the middle of this century. It’s very complex, so you have to read the book [he smiles] but people – especially people in Zimbabwe – have to think beyond the liberation struggle and its many entitlements. But this probably won’t happen – not in my lifetime . . .

FK: Last but not least, I would want to ask you about your admiration for nature, the ‘Old Tree’ poem for example. Do you remember where this admiration for nature comes from? 

CM: Well, I think my times outside, within nature, have been my most fortunate. In school I was taught by nuns about flowers and I got a connection to these things. In secondary school we had a biology teacher, Douglas Sagonda (he wasn’t a biologist), who went out in the field with us, exploring and smelling our surroundings. I really enjoyed that – and furthermore, I know that my father loved planting and my grandfather, who has never been to school, loved rocks. I guess my admiration was more or less inherited.