Chinyoka on Tuesday: We need to tell our own stories (response to Chamisa documentary)
By Tinomudaishe Chinyoka
“Chamisa premiers on Hollywood box office!” announces The Zimbabwe Mail, speaking about “The President”, a documentary by someone called Camilla Nielsson, about Chamisa’s doomed 2018 Presidential election. She is not Zimbabwean, this Camilla. This, is relevant. The Zimbabwe Mail says, at one point:
With standards so low, a complete overhaul is needed, and it’s not about to arrive via the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC), one of the villains of the piece. Mnangagwa appoints Priscilla Chigumba to head the government-run body, and Nielsson’s camera presents her as a silent Maleficent-like presence, her face surrounded elaborate coifs as the ZEC presents its version of a “free, fair and credible” vote with a stony-faced brazenness that would challenge any Disney villain. It’s also clear that Mnangagwa literally doesn’t know what the word “transparent” means. (sic)
You get the drift. (I suspect that the bit obscured by the inadvertent typo was a dig at Justice Chigumba’s hairstyle, something you will never see in any piece about a white Judge but, who am I, I am not telling that story, someone else is.)
variety.com did their own review, titled “‘President’ Review: Camilla Nielsson’s Extraordinary Documentary Traces the Alleged Theft of an Election”. While the headline’s use of the word “alleged” suggests some balance, the sub-heading painfully lays bare what this is about: “The Danish doc maker follows up 2014’s ‘Democrats’ with another essential chapter in Zimbabwe’s long, endlessly sidetracked road to democracy” (sic).
And there you have it. The history of Zimbabwe’s road to democracy, is being told by foreigners.
Of course, when you have intimate knowledge of every single document that Chamisa filed in Court to prove his “win”, then you know that this is, in fact, the codification of a lie. Chamisa did not win the 2018 election, not by a long shot. He lost. Every single argument he raised lacked merit, and most of it was based on lies, fabrications and deliberate mistruths or ignorant incredulity.
For example, a large part of his case relied on something called “inconsistent voting patterns.” His Kenyan sugar cane and bird migration expert, completely without knowledge of Zimbabwe, theorised that because Chamisa was doing very well in some wards and very badly in others in Muzvezve Constituency, it meant that he was cheated.
What the sugar cane guy did not know was that Muzvezve Constituency has some wards contiguous to Kadoma, and others deep in resettlement areas. The MDC does well in cities, and very poorly in areas populated by former war veterans who have been given free fertile land and who see Chamisa as a threat to their continued tenure. But, we digress.
How we tell our stories matters. It informs the public discourse, and our memorialisation of the past, people and events. The same period when these stories were published coincides with the deaths of, among others Dr Ellen Gwaradzimba, Gen. Paradzai Willings Zimondi and Gen. SB Moyo.
It is only in their obituaries that some of us learned about their lives, their work. The media had created the caricature of a land grabbing usurper out of Gwaradzimba, a carpet beggar who was not even Manyika, who was busy grabbing farms and continuing with the Third Chimurenga. Zimondi was painted as the army man sent to run prisons in order to help militarise a department of the Ministry of Justice, and SB Moyo was allegedly nothing but a TV presenter for one day.
That, is the history that the majority knew. The histories that we were fed, until these heroes’ deaths, so much so that many joined in the mindless celebrations of their deaths that certain sections of the opposition initiated. It is never right to celebrate a death but, perhaps to these people, these were insignificant people after all.
That Dr Gwaradzimba was a PhD holder who had also worked as a principal lecturer at Mutare Polytechnic, dean of students at Africa University and a senior lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe were never mentioned. Would they have celebrated her death had she been known more for that than for the alleged land grabbing I wonder?
Knowing nothing about Zimondi’s command of the ZANLA forces in major successes in the battles of the Ruda, Gandayi, the attack on Mutare and Mavhonde or that he was the military governor of the ZANLA occupied areas of Manica Province of Mozambique and adjacent areas in Manicaland Province during the liberation war, might those who took joy in his passing have thought differently had they known that they owed their freedom to this gentle hero?
SB’s training of other soldiers, his peace keeping assignments in Somalia (where the ZNA won many commendations) or his education and the stellar work he did as Minister of Foreign Affairs, would it have helped if they had been known more?
Clearly, when a Danish person comes to make a documentary about our election, it says that we do have stories that are worth telling. But, that person will not tell our story as we know it, as it enriches our history, but will tell it from their own point of view and for their own purposes.
That is why the film’s premiere is not in Muzokomba but far away Hollywood. We did not inform the narrative, and our voices were selectively chosen to suit a narrative that suits the story teller and her audience.
We are not telling our own stories. It is not even that I do not support Chamisa, but even opposition supporters will find problems with this documentary. The a-historicity of the documentary is unwittingly laid bare by The Zimbabwe Mail:
“Nielsson has a slower burn in mind as she follows Chamisa in the run-up to the election. She decides to opt out of covering internal rivalries within the MDC following the premature death from cancer of Tsvangirai.” The story of 2018, or indeed the story of Chamisa, cannot be told without a single mention of his unconstitutional power grab and how that has resulted in the veritable dog’s breakfast that is the edifice called the “MDC” today. But, Zimbabweans are not telling the story, so it is.
When we do not tell our own stories, we risk having other people telling them for us. When others tell your story, it ceases to be your story, but their story. And, it is obvious that what others see, especially foreigners, can oftentimes be very different from the reality. To illustrate, I will quote a cricket joke, complete with its unfortunate colonial era language about Africa and Africans:
There was a long drought in Central Africa. The witch doctor had tried all his rainmaking dances, imprecations, but to no avail.One of the elders observed that rain was never a problem in England, so why not send the witch doctor to London to learn the secret.
Off he went to England, learned the secret, and returned to the tribe. He informed the leaders that these crazy white men had a big paddock of grass enclosed by a white picket fence.
In the middle were two lots of sticks driven into the ground. Two men, each with a club, stood next to these sticks and waited for a lot of other men to spread themselves all over the paddock. Then two more men, wearing black trousers, four sweaters and six hats, came out to keep a close watch on the men with the clubs. Then one man got a red rock and threw it at one of the fellers with a club. AND DOWN CAME THE RAIN!
We cannot, as a nation, create a place for ourselves and a future for our children if we do not have our own stories recorded correctly. Our children will be told of witchdoctors, no matter how pejorative or outrightly wrong that is. Our history will tell of tribes, while those telling our stories speak of nationalities and ethnic groups in their lands of origin. We will be told of “black on black” violence in Africa (complete with its cannibalistic overtones) while they tell stories about how they have a “sectarian strife” in Northern Ireland or a “border dispute” in Armenia.
And, the only way to avoid this tragedy, is for us to tell our own stories. Yes, I believe 100% that Chamisa lost the election in 2018, and I should tell that story. However, he or those around him (like his lawyers for example) probably believe that he won it. They too should tell that story.
No matter our political views, we do not benefit in any way when foreigners tell our stories, because no matter how well meaning, it will never be our story. It will instead be the story through their eyes, and that, is never truly representative. Like our “witchdoctors”, they will see rain dances when all we are doing is playing a game.
Evolution has programmed us to be both consumers and creators of stories. That is why we have had Solomon Mutsvairo, TK Tsodzo, IM Zvarevashe, NM Mutasa, Shimmer Chinodya, Chenjerai Hove and others, and why their names immediately evoke something in you, the reader.
We have had a protracted history on our road to democracy. From the dissident era, the UZ students riots led by AGO Mutambara and their fight against the one party state, the ZCTU strikes that led to the founding of the MDC, the UK’s refusal to honour pledges made at Lancaster regarding our land, Claire Short’s unfortunate letter, the country’s fight against retaliatory sanctions, the referendum that failed and, 2008.
These stories need to be told. To paraphrase what Professor Ngwabi Bhebe said about telling important stories in the preface to his book “The Zapu and Zanu Guerrilla Warfare & The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Zimbabwe”: after listening to all the blood curdling and awesome experiences which have been other people’s lived experiences, we must be left in no doubt that the full story has not been told and we must one day put aside time to make a contribution by telling those stories.
If we do not, we are bound to learn nothing from our history. We cannot learn our history from a Danish person whose interests and motives we do not know. No matter how well intentioned she might be, she is not telling our story. Only we can tell our story. We need to tell our own stories.
There will always be an appetite for stories. Good and bad. And the person that feeds that appetite gets to write history. And as long as we are not telling our stories, others will fill that void and create our history in their telling. The result, as this documentary promises to be, is that what is told is never our stories, but how our histories look in foreign eyes.
That, is a tragedy.
Tinomudaishe Chinyoka is a qualified lawyer and social worker, living in Harare where he practices as an Advocate. He is a member of the ruling Zanu PF. Follow him on @TinoChinyoka