Late writer’s undying legacy

M.C: Solomon Mutswairo the man, who was he?

M.T.M: He was son of Mutswairo family of Chiweshe and his father was Elija also called Mavhura. He was a soft-spoken man, would always put on a smile and had a high sense of humour. He was, however, very serious when it came to his work.

From his lectures, I discovered that he was a culturalist par excellence, obsessed so much with Shona values and cultural history and this reverberates in all of his Shona and English imaginative and even his academic works.

M.C: Could you name some of his prominent contemporaries in Literature and Nationalism?

M.T.M: In the literary field these include the pioneers of Shona written literature such as Wilson Chivaura, Patrick Chakaipa, Paul Chidyausiku, Joseph Kumbirai, Lawrence Vambe, George P. Kahari and many others. He had friends too among the founding fathers of modern Zimbabwe such as Leopold Takawira, Joshua Nkomo, Robert Mugabe, Herbert Chitepo, George Nyandoro, Michael Mawema, and Ndabaningi Sithole among others. He must also have met some regional nationalists like Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo when he was doing his studies in South Africa.

M.C: Some people might not know Mutsvairo’s literary output clearly, could you give a substantive inventory?

M.T.M: In terms of linguistic expression his imaginative works can be categorised into Shona and English. For the former they include Feso (1956), Murambiwa Goredema (1959), Ambuyamuderere (1967), Tagutapadare (1982), Mweya waNehanda (1988) and Hamandishe (1991). For the latter they include Mapondera: Soldier of Zimbabwe (1978) and Chaminuka: Prophet of Zimbabwe (1983).

He also contributed poems in the following anthologies of Shona poetry: Madetembedzo Akare naMatsva (1959) and Nduri dzeZimbabwe.

M.C: How many varieties are here?

M.T.M: Three of his novels are basically historical or legendary fiction; these are Mweya waNehanda, Mapondera: Soldier of Zimbabwe and Chaminuka: Prophet of Zimbabwe. Feso is a romance novel with a strong allegorical bent while Hamandishe is a split autobiography. Ambuyamuderere and Tagutapadare fall in the genre of children’s literature. Some of his literary work is in verse form, found in the already mentioned anthologies of Shona poetry.

M.C: What do you consider as the general value and slant of Mutsvairo’s works?

M.T.M: African literature in both colonial and African languages rose and grew in response to colonialism and Mutswairo’s works are quite significant in our understanding of the uneasy interaction between colonialism and the African people and their ways of life.

M.C: What do you mean by that?

M.T.M: Mutswairo’s works clearly show that Africans resented colonial oppression and the general colonial way of life since 1890. While celebrating the attainment of nationhood, his prose and verse written after independence yearn for cultural reconstruction as one of the key elements in the process of building Zimbabwe. You may know that the culture and history of any nation are some of its delicate material which when destroyed or deformed can be irreparable and consequently diverting a people from their focus. Mutswairo had the conviction that building the Zimbabwean nation, repairing the deformities and treating the wounds inflicted on Zimbabwe’s traditional culture by colonial oppression should be prioritised.

M.C: That brings us to Feso, his most prominent novel. Why is it considered to be central in both Zim Literature and Nationalism?

M.T.M: I must say that Feso is a powerful novel. The relevance to society of any work of art is measured against its reception by the audience and subsequently by its ability to influence people’s thinking and indeed their reactions towards anything prevailing in their society. Mutswairo started writing Feso when he was doing his studies in South Africa in the late 1940s.

In one of my recorded interviews with him, he said that he wanted to write directly about the land question in here that saw blacks being evicted from their ancestral land and forced to live in infertile areas called reserves under the Land Apportionment Act of 1930-1. His first chapter was openly denouncing this unfair and racially motivated land distribution.

M.C: The issue of that sensitive chapter in question comes up in nearly every discussion of Feso. You often talked to him, what really happened?

M.T.M: But the novel could not be published because of this first chapter. The Southern Rhodesian Literature Bureau, formed in 1954 as a government agency to ‘promote the development of literature in indigenous languages,’ rejected to publish the book unless the writer revised it and especially expunging the first chapter which was seen as politically subversive. Since there was no any other publisher, the writer had to comply. But writers are wise people; they know how to use complex imagery which may not be easily deciphered.

M.C: You mean that Mutsvairo gave in?

M.T.M: Not that! He simply omitted the first chapter and produced an allegorical work conveying the original nationalist message in a subtle way.

The editors at the Literature Bureau failed to detect the allegory carefully couched in Shona orature. It was only discovered due to the reception the book was given by nationalists and the ordinary people as they read particularly, the poem, ‘Nehanda Nyakasikana’. Feso is important not only in this regard, but also in the genesis and the setting of the trends of Zimbabwean literature in local languages. It was the first novel to be published in Shona and many other Shona writers like Patrick Chakaipa, were inspired by this novel. It was also important in the development of the Shona language since it became part of the school curriculum.

M.C: And the national anthem, there is Solomon Mutswairo and Fred Changundega. Between the two, who did what?

M.T.M: There is a difference between composing a song and singing it. Some people are good composers but not necessarily good singers. While Mutswairo wrote the lyrics of Zimbabwe’s new national anthem, ‘Simudzai

Mureza weZimbabwe’, Fred Changundega converted the lyrics into music. As you may know the musical and literary creative processes require different skills and expertise.

Mutswairo wrote the words of the anthem because he was a nationally respected scholar and writer knowledgeable about the nation’s culture, history and therefore maybe the best person to come up with lyrics which would embody and immortalise the Zimbabwean psyche and its aspirations. Indeed writing the lyrics was put as competition but Mutswairo’s lyrics were found the most appropriate. Changundenga’s role as a musician was to musicalise the words so that they are singable. He had to fit them into staff notation.

M.C: But I gather that Mutswairo was a singer in his own right!

M.T.M: He was! I still remember Mutswairo could sing (he would sing traditional songs in lectures), but I think he was not into western concepts of music such as staff notation and instrumentation, or he simply had no time for that.

M.C: You have here a nationalist and a writer/artsist. In your view, has it been easy for our society to appreciate such people as Mutsvairo?

M.T.M: As for Mutswairo I think the Zimbabwean society was quite appreciative of his works since they span a period of almost 50 years, i.e. from 1956 to the early 1990s when he wrote the lyrics for the national anthem. The recitation of the “Mweya waNehanda” poem in Feso during the struggle for Zimbabwe and also after independence by especially the late Vice President, Simon Muzenda, shows the recognition that the government of Zimbabwe and indeed everyone else had for this unique writer. Bestowing him with the “The Order of the Star of Munhumutapa” last year is again testimony for the appreciation the government had for Solomon Mutswairo. The provincial hero status conferred on him after his death was appropriate although a national hero status could not have been an exaggeration for a man who has awesomely contributed to the nation’s arts.

However, for other artists, in all the various genres of the arts (particularly music, literature, sculpture and painting) I think society needs to appreciate much more. Nevertheless, society will still appreciative because anything reduced to art has been immortalised and will be remembered forever.

Unfortunately, an artist may not be recognized as a hero/heroine during his/her lifetime, but society will always recognise him/her and elevate him/her to such a status after he had died.

M.C: You are putting together what might turn out to be the first ever book on Mutsvairo alone. What form is this book going to take? And could you clearly give details?

M.T.M: It will be an anthology of critical articles on everything artistic on Mutswairo and its significance to Zimbabwe as a nation in particular and the African continent in general. Zimbabwean scholars locally and in the diaspora and a few non-Zimbabwean international scholars will also contribute chapters for the book.

M.C: How would contributors reach you with their pieces?

M.T.M: For my colleagues at the University of Zimbabwe they can always submit their papers physically to me or even electronically but for those in the region and abroad they can contact me using the following email address: mtmickias@arts.uz.co.zw They will get more details about the project once they contact me.

M.C: Will all contributions that come necessarily be accepted?

M.T.M: As editor I will be in constant touch with the contributors regarding revisions and other issues pertaining to their papers if necessary.

Since quite some work has already been done, we will try to accommodate all interested scholars whether writing as co-authors or single authors.

All interested contributors who have handed in some work so far are quite reputable.

M.C: You highlight Nationalism in your title, was Mutswairo not more than that?

M.T.M: Of course he was more than that but clearly his artistic prowess was intended to nourish Zimbabwean nationalism, both during and after independence.

As you might be aware African nationalism developed and appealed to the people through its deliberate evocation of the African people’s glorious past and also their humiliation by colonial conquest. Mutswairo’s works largely play this role. However, since this is a project in its infancy, the title of the intended book is tentative. It may be altered at the completion of the project, if necessary.

M.C: Thank you and good luck sir.

June 2006
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