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Mungoshi: Remembering the master of metaphor

By Elliot Ziwira

Gentle reader, imagine the exuberance of meeting your idol in the flesh for the first time. In your excitement you express your views on his works, and he blows your bubble in the presence of your mates, reminding you of the futility and vanity of it all, just like “grasping the wind”, as embraced by the Philosopher in Ecclesiastes.

This picture collage shows the late novelist, playwright and poet Charles Mungoshi with covers of some of his books
This picture collage shows the late novelist, playwright and poet Charles Mungoshi with covers of some of his books

That is the feeling I had when I met Charles Mungoshi for the first time when I was in Form Two.

Having read his books “Coming of the Dry Season” (1972), “Waiting for the Rain” (1975), “The Milkman Doesn’t Only Deliver Milk (1981), “Makunun’unu Maodza Moyo” (1970), Ndiko Kupindana Kwemazuva (1975), “Some Kinds of Wounds and other Stories” (1980), “Inongova Njakenjake” (1980) and “Kunyarara Hakusi Kutaura?” (1983), my chance to meet Mungoshi was availed when our headmaster invited a group of luminous writers to apprise us on the art of writing.

Having been accorded a chance, I told him about my feelings on the portrayal of Lucifer in “Waiting for the Rain” (1975), and how I thought the conclusion of the story leaves him as alienated from his society as he was introduced. Having not yet started studying literature as a body of knowledge, I was unaware of the concept of ideology, but I felt that his portrayal could not possibly inspire confidence.

To my utter disbelief and chagrin, he told me something to the effect that I should write my own book and end it my way.

Ironically, “Coming of the Dry Season” was one of my set books when I started studying Literature in English at Form Three and “Waiting for the Rain” was one of the texts I looked at in further studies.

Although my understanding of literature has since developed, I believe the ideas I raised then still hold water and Mungoshi has not lost an admirer as a writer of repute.

Such was his frankness, such was his candidness, but to a mere boy still cutting his literary teeth it was a huge pill to swallow, especially coming from your hero.

It is not our culture at the Bookstore to write obituaries, neither is it our way to sing eulogies; we simply state facts, which to our understanding do not lie. Charles Mungoshi, who was promoted to the other side of life on February 16 at the age of 71, and interred on February 19 at his rural home in Chivhu, is a hero, a national nay global hero.

He is to Zimbabwean and African Literature what Oliver “Tuku” Mtukudzi is to Afro-pop music. There is no aspect of life could escape Mungoshi’s telescopic gaze, and metaphor remains his forte.

The Bookstore is poorer, though enriched, without the blessings of one of the literary world’s greatest luminaries, whose chosen path remains thorny in the absence of resilient and courageous likes of him.

For us at the Bookstore Charles Mungoshi is not dead; he lives in the depth of our literature; the literature of combat which resonates with yearnings of a world that we wish to live in, and yet seems to be ever receding to the horizon.

He lives among us today, tomorrow and forever, just as he used to do yesterday. The master of metaphor cannot be silenced because he never uses his mouth to speak, for his words are not meant to be heard. Their silent screams will echo from the millions of pages cutting across the universal landscapes of the oppressed; even after his body and soul partake their inevitable separation.

He cannot be gagged because the stifled muffles of the wretched escape in millions of decibels from his silent mouth, giving voice to their suffering through metaphors and symbolical elements that only he, Mungoshi, could give meaning to.

The metaphors of drought, wounds, waiting, streams and hunger that Mungoshi effectively uses in “Waiting for the Rain”, “Coming of the Dry Season”; “Walking Still” (1997) and “Branching Streams Flow in the Dark” (2013), capture the spiritual, cultural, intellectual and creative crisis at the centre of the national psyche.

Drought in all its forms — psychological, moral and intellectual — depicts the general neurosis which is the bane of the Zimbabwean society in perpetual waiting today.

It is the metaphorical meaning in the exploration of Mungoshi’s works which enhances the understanding of thematic concerns raised. Waiting, as pointed out by Muchemwa (2001), implies existence in limbo where everything is in abeyance.

But it also suggests expectation and anxiety; that kind of feeling explored in Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” (1953) and the “Enigma of Arrival” (1987) by V.S Naipaul.

Waiting is predominant in the metaphorical representation of the individual and his location in the national psyche in “Waiting for the Rain”.

Rain, another metaphor in the novel, is symbolic of life giving energies that are absent in colonial Rhodesia; of political and socio-cultural freedom as well as intellectual regeneration.

Rain is therefore, symbolic of abundance. In the novel, characters, themes and plot gain meaning when read against the metaphors waiting and rain.

The Mandengu family waits anxiously for the arrival of Lucifer to bring “glad tidings” from the city. Lucifer, because of his Western education, is supposed to deliver his family from the limitations of colonialism, and its oppressive and violent inclinations.

However, this waiting, which is juxtaposed with the waiting for the rain by the entire community and the nation, seem to be in vain.

Lucifer, who is supposed to be the voice of his people, fails to grasp his roots and identity. Deplorably, he is unable to locate himself either in the colonial discourse as epitomised by the transistor radio or the national discourse as embodied in the “drum” discourse.

The chronological plot and realistic details find their metonymic dimension transformed by the metaphorical titling of the novel. The chronological plot is superimposed into the gathering of the Mandengu family at the rural home, to solve family problems; recharge cultural batteries and seek bearings into the future.

Therefore, the malaise and paralysis of the Mandengu family and their failure to find a lasting solution is a culmination of Lucifer’s struggles to identify himself. Lucifer lives in us today, in the Diaspora of our struggles, where knowledge, in its inadequacy or excess, fails to navigate the community out of a persistent quagmire.

There are so many shadows that pursue humanity; shadows that permeate the wounds of the past, the present stupor, the yawning future, shadows everywhere; that it becomes tasking for the individual to locate himself in the many shadows that reflect on the walls of his/her existence.

These shadows are so persistent that they implore you to question the reasons for existence in a world where survival is a game in which the weak and vulnerable scramble for crumbs from the tables of the mighty, and there are no medals for the infirm.

All the characters in “Shadows on the Wall” in “Coming of the Dry Season” are victims in one way or the other, what is paramount, however, is how they find an elixir out of their conditions and the starting point is for them to identify themselves in the many sites availed to them through imagery and symbolism. The family unit remains central to Mungoshi’s works as is portrayed in “Waiting for the Rain”, “Branching Streams Flow in the Dark” and “Walking Still”.

Having battled illness for nearly a decade Charles Mungoshi reminds one of Saidi, the protagonist in “Branching Streams Flow in the Dark” (2013), his latest novel.

The book does not only venture into the presumed murky waters of the stigmatisation and stereotyping associated with HIV/AIDS, but it poignantly pokes at the tragic outcomes of whimsicality and individualism on the family unit, which reflect on the national discourse.

The tragic hero, Saidi, is aware that he is dying; that there is hope in another world where everybody tolerates everybody else regardless of their afflictions or foibles; where there is no pain, emotional or physical; where a Big Conference awaits them; that there is so much hope in death, not as the end, but the beginning of a better life.

Saidi is happy to catch the flight to that world beyond the stars, having played his part in finding a common flow for the different streams that flow in the darkness of neglect, ignorance, disillusionment, frustration and whimsicality.

Saidi’s family of entertainers, like Mungoshi’s, and fans kindle his hope as they cheerfully encourage him to blow on the horn, the instrument that gave him fame. Like Saidi’s, Mungoshi’s family kindles hope through publication of his latest book “Branching Streams Flow in the Dark”.

Pictures of the iconic writer holding a pen beside his sweetheart, Jesesi of “Neria” fame, will remain etched in the hearts of his faithful fans.

Holding the pen in his shaky hand, Mungoshi seems to be reflecting on Saidi, who, with the horn of his fame in his hands, prophetically tells his exuberant fans: “Today I am wearing blue, tomorrow I will be in white, and you will be in black.”

As in the words of his cousin Dr Geoffrey Chada, Charles Mungoshi, who by “Grade Seven, was almost an accomplished writer on articles, and an accomplished one by the time he did his Form Four”, is “the Shakespeare of Zimbabwe”.

Indeed, Mungoshi remains Master of the Pen, and one of the greatest writers to have graced our shelves at The Bookstore.

May his dearly departed soul rest in eternal peace! The Herald