"Promoting reading, donating books, opening worlds"

Zimbabwe: SOS for Literature in Indigenous Languages

21 Jan 2014

by Stanely Mushava, for the Herald

Zimbabwean literature has a wealth of indigenous narratives which merit greater appreciation and a durable shelf life. At high tide, local languages cross-fertilised proverbial lore and individual creativity to create one of the proudly Zimbabwean success story in local arts. There was a time when the writers kept the reading public posted with accessible and engaging stories often espoused to a didactic function.

The mother tongue seasoned literature with a conservative outlook, ideological potency and the nostalgic flavour of periods elapsed.

Major exponents such as Mordecai Hamutyinei, Ndabezinle Sigogo and Aaron Chiundura-Moyo excited popular imagination with texts which facilitated the dialogue of generations.

Stories in indigenous languages, perhaps more than any other medium, were a popular interface between the idea and the audience, with the benefit of first-hand attachment to the audience.

Artistes retailing their wares in home-grown mediums employed more direct identification and projection, without the problems of sophistication and mediation which inhere in a borrowed tongue.

Back then, enthused readers would rework Hamutyinei’s novels such as “Kusasana Kunoparira” and “Chine Manenji Hachimbasi” into folk songs like “Detective Chinovava”, attesting how popular Shona fiction was back then.

AC Moyo straddled the library and the studio, flaunting his story-telling prowess on television and radio stations. Moral concern for a generation assailed by modernity resonated from his popular novels to dramas including “Chihwerure” and “Madhunamutuna”.

Mutswairo’s “Feso”, the first black novel to be published by the Literature Bureau in 1956, was an instant hit and was underpinned with subtle nationalist fervour even after having a whole chapter struck off by Rhodesian censors.

Sadly, the stagnation of the book value chain has seen many of these seminal texts diminish out of print in the absence of back-up copies to sustain circulation.

The short-lived blossoming of works in indigenous languages is a somewhat underestimated death-knell to the sustenance and development of our peculiar identity and culture as nation.

On March 16, 2013 the people-driven Constitution ratified as Zimbabwe’s official languages, Chewa, Chibarwe, Kalanga, Koisan, Nambya, Ndau, Shangani, sign language, Sotho, Tonga, Tswana, Venda and Xhosa in addition to Ndebele, Shona and English.

How the development of these languages is going to be feasible with publishers who are neither preserving old authors nor publishing new ones staggers the rational mind.

Zimbabwe needs prolific authors, pro-active publishers, facilitative media, supportive government ministries and an interactive audience to grow this clause from a constitutional theory to a social reality.

I have before said in this column that failure to account for books published a few decades ago smacks of intolerable negligence and cluelessness by local publishers.

Other cultures who assign due esteem to their books, notably Greeks and Romans, have preserved their classics over the lapse of centuries.

Is it not an indictment that “The Iliad”, which antedates the 12th century BC, is still in circulation while we need an FBI crack team to locate us the last copy of Janfeck Chekure’s “Rudo Ndimashingise” or Patrick Chakaipa’s “Dzasukwa Mwana Asina Hembe”?

Whether, by any stretch of luck, these titles are still stacked in some obscure warehouse is neither here nor there because books are written to be distributed, read, studied, debated, translated and reprinted not to gather dust somewhere outside the public glare.

While libraries used to be the reliable sanctuary for endangered texts, they too are now an endangered enterprise.

I remember braving hour-and-half- long walks from a Gutu village to the library in Mpandawana Growth Point in 2008.

A rude shock awaited me when I returned to my beloved library, after a long absence occasioned by the reopening of schools the following year, only to discover that the library had been transformed into a fashion boutique or something just as disappointing.

I still wonder what happened to those rare Shona novels and poetry anthologies which had been given a further lease of life by the library having long disappeared from the market.

Of course, the story is by no means particular with Gutu. Countrywide, traders ride on brisk business; along expedient lines. As such, several libraries could have suffered a similar fate; many books unaccounted for, or at least pushed out of accessible domain to make way for new businesses.

An argument is clich├ęd that Zimbabwe’s depreciating reading culture can be ascribed to the poor performance of the economy. If a person is struggling to buy food, the argument goes, how can they be expected to spend on books?

While the argument used to hold both water and oil during the fiscally austere years, things have since changed and the economy has been on a varying, but overally ascendant, growth trajectory over the past four years.

Other sectors swiftly utilised the positive momentum but the publishing industry is still stuck with the anachronistic narrative and has done virtually nothing to re-engage with the reading public in a significant way.

It costs virtually next to nothing to digitise a book and market it on the trending platforms. These are the improvements which must occupy local publishers.

While the one-size-fit-all e-book model might not be compatible, considering that credit card transactions are not that much of a household phenomenon, publishers can engage mobile banking facilities to catch up with the digital migration of readers. That is where the people are.

National Arts Council director Elvas Mari once impressed upon me the fact that it is an exaggeration to say that Zimbabwe does not have a reading culture, especially in light of the traffic on social media. What is questionable, he observed, is the quality of what people are reading.

Local publishers must therefore explore ways of retaining relevance unless they want to be antediluvian residues of the looming digital holocaust. Tragically, terminal ineptness is rendering them an utter disservice to the nation and a smoke in the nostrils of who value our literary canon.

The last thing Zimbabwe’s book sector needs at this point in time are bureaucratic white elephants. Elsewhere, countries like Kenya are making headway with the promotion of their languages while we are retrogressing to ground zero and “twitteresque” myopia.

In light of this lethal deficit, I heartily commend the Zimbabwe International Book Fair executive board for picking as the theme for this year “Indigenous Languages, Literature, Art and Knowledge Systems of Africa.”

The organisers noted, among other reasons, in arriving upon the theme “the urgency to recognise African languages, literatures and art forms as creative media and repositories of knowledge deserving as much attention as languages and literatures conveyed in English and other Western language.”

The last confab hinted on combating book piracy in earnest, introducing national book awards and resuscitating the Literature Bureau. While the buck does not drop with ZIBF but a network of stakeholders, the fair must deliver, not recap, yesteryear imperatives.

The forthcoming book fair must not only stimulate sophisticated debates and flaunt academic abstracts but deliver tangibles for the sector.