Reading Chenjerai Hove’s Ancestors

Part One: Ancestors: A background Blurb: In this article, which will run in series, we will discuss Chenjerai Hove’s novel of 1996 called Ancestors. In doing that we realize that Ancestors is currently a set book on the Zimbabwean Advanced Literature syllabus. I have had opportunity to chat widely with teachers and students of Literature, establishing various ways of reading and interpreting Ancestors. Some students were sad that their teachers were asking them ‘to do such a strange novel!’ They wanted to know if anyone in his or her right senses could ever understand Ancestors? Why were we not asked to do Bones, they complained. At least Bones is easy, they reasoned. The more rude ones wanted to know if I understand Ancestors at all. Was there a plot in Ancestors? Could I identify the major themes in Ancestors for them? I told them: Let us read the novel first and talk later. We realize that, to date, there is no commentary or study guide to Ancestors. That is indeed a setback. Teachers and their students usually need ready-made critical material to augment their own criticism. But sometimes the absence of ready-made notes is a blessing in disguise! We should be prepared to ‘open up a new path in the forest.’ We must not be afraid to be the very first voices on the meaning of literary texts from our own authors. Study guides should not be worshipped. They are written by people like us who have their own subjective views on literary texts. We must read the text and develop our own ideas. In one interview with the local press, Chenjerai Hove revealed that Ancestors “is the nearest to a family biography that I have written.” And in a poetic introduction to his latest poetry collection called Blind Moon, Hove volunteers that he once developed fears and dreams akin to Mucha’s in Ancestors. His actual words are: “I used to dream that I was flying. And my father used to think that I needed a traditional healer to cure me of that. I refused the attention of the healer. Young as I was, I said, ‘Why should I not dream like that? It is so beautiful to fly.” It might mean that some aspects of Ancestors are the author’s own ‘fictionalised history’. In saying that, care should be taken to stress that Ancestors is not necessarily Hove’s life story and history, blow by blow. Fictionalised histories couch up only the essentials in the writer’s life with other material. Ancestors is not Hove’s autobiography. Chenjerai Hove was born in Mazvihwa area in Zimbabwe some forty kilometers outside Zvishavane, about fifty years ago. Theirs was a family of two sisters and seven brothers. Around 1964 their family moved to Copper Queen farming area in Gokwe East and here he completed his education at Ungwe. This is important as it helps us appreciate the panoramic descriptions of rural landscape and the sensibilities of an African countryside in Ancestors. The migration of Mucha’s family from a Tribal trusts Land to a Purchase area has very close echoes to the same migration in Chenjerai Hove’s family in search for better farming lands and other fortunes. The author is therefore working with very familiar people, environment and issues. Hove began to write at school. He went to Kutama Mission and Marist Brothers Dete. Maybe that is why there is a strong interface and conflict between traditional African life and Christianity in Ancestors. You realise that the main character, Mucha, like Hove, spends nine months every year at Mission school reading books and worshipping God the white man’s way. He comes back for three months every year and resorts to the ‘traditional regime.’ He suffers from some kind of confusion in that ensuing cultural conflict. He also wonders whether he goes to school in order to move away from the village or to understand the village and his people. Such contradictions are well captured in Ancestors. Hove trained as a teacher at Gweru Teacher’s College in the mid seventies. By then his appetite for books and writing had already grown remarkably. He taught for two years before joining Mambo Press in Gweru as editor. In such a literary environment he became prolific, writing and publishing his love poems in Shona, alongside other poets in books like Nduri DzeRudo and Matende Mashava. Maybe that explains those long passages in Ancestors that dwell on what it means and feels like to fall in love or to woo a girl. Hove is at his best when describing the pains and follies of lovers, especially secret lovers. Of all Zimbabweans writing in English, Hove could be one of the best at describing the emotion called love. Hove became chairman of the Zimbabwe Writers Union from 1984 to 89. He enrolled with the University of South Africa and graduated in Literature and English Language. He furthered his studies in the same area with the University of Zimbabwe. In 1991 he became Writer-in Residence at the University of Zimbabwe, a position he held until 1994. Although writers like Dambudzo Marechera, Musaemura Zimunya and Charles Mungoshi became prominent much earlier than Hove, he only became known after Independence. He has fourteen poems in ‘And Now The Poets Speak’ (1981). Hove has published a number of poetry anthologies that include ‘Up In Arms’ (1982), ‘Red Hills of Home’ (1985), ‘Rainbow in The Dust’ (1998), and ‘Blind Moon’ (2003). Coming only second to Zimunya, Hove is one of the most anthologized Zimbabwean poets in English. He is a poet through and through. This explains the indugent poetics one finds in his prose. He has written a number of novels: Masimba Avanhu (19), Bones (1988), Shadows (1991) and Ancestors (1996) Bones won the “Noma Award for Publishing in Africa” in 1989 and has remained Hove’s most prominent publication. One might suggest that Chenjerai Hove is one of the more prominent voices in Zimabawean Literature after 1980, alongside Shimmer Chinodya and Yvone Vera. As seen in Bones and Shadows and his poems, Hove writes about the powerless of society ‘ women, children and the poor. He speaks passionately about it, sometimes in abstraction: “Poetry is a way of laughing and crying. Humanity is a queer mixture of laughter and sorrow. It is in the songs and dances of my birth that I drink the waters of poetry’in poetry I am part of other voices in other hearts, but I am also part of the voices that are ignored . . . ” There has been debate on what kind of vision Hove has beyond crying for and with the weak. Is he a blind humanist whose duty is only to cry with no social agency? Could his crying be his important contribution to the human struggles? There has also been hot debate in the local media about why he is currently in self-imposed exile in Europe. Is he a champion of Human rights or he blindly panders to the whims of the Neo Liberals? Married in 1978, Hove is a father of five. l To be continued next week

March 2006
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