From Rhodes to Zim, Samkange bares it all

By Gracious Madondo

STANLAKE Samkange’s “The Mourned One” (1975) is classified as a historical novel. It factually depicts Zimbabwe’s struggle against colonialism and the road to independence.   

Samkange’s timely publication in the midst of the liberation war may be the reason why quite a number of youths mobilised and joined the war.

Zimbabwe’s struggle for independence is regarded as the heroic act to liberate the nation from colonial oppressive rule, a rule that brought agony and pain.

As Irene Staunton notes, “There was no one in Zimbabwe whose life was not disrupted and changed by the war, no one who did not suffer its psychological consequences and no one who did not lose either friends or family”

“The Mourned One” captures the life of the black man in colonial Rhodesia. It is a tale of injustice and racial prejudice in the 1970s and its major thrust is on silent souls incarcerated by in Rhodesia’s jails because of their political activism.

Samkange effectively does this by tracing the life of a war prisoner from his birth to his untimely death based on the prisoner’s diary written while in prison awaiting execution for allegedly raping a white woman.

Stanlake William Thomas Samkange (1922-1988) is a renowned writer, based on his political and academic background. He produced some of the most compelling and significant writings on the history of Zimbabwe. His writing is both nationalistic and Afrocentric; he aims at giving the African soul a base and re-account for stolen history.

“The Mourned One” (1975) is his second novel after “The African Saga” (1970), among various others such as “On Trial for My Country” (1966), “Origins of Rhodesia,” (1968) “Year of the Uprising”(1978) and “Hunhuism or Ubuntuism” (1980).

“The Mourned One” epitomises the life and thoughts of Lazarus Percival Ockenden later known as Ndatshana, whose mother called Muchemwa, ‘’the mourned one’’, hence the title of the book, referring to him as the  victim of the political and racial injustices of Rhodesian.

On the road to independence, the black majority suffered quite a number of racial injustices. In the history of Zimbabwe, the black man was subject to imprisonment, from the leaders of the revolution, to the elite and even the common men.

Reasons to imprisonment were many, regardless of whether there was substantial evidence against the accused and Samkange embodies this historical fact through the character Muchemwa.

Muchemwa “the mourned one’’ is put behind bars for the crime of rape. It is, however, not very clear whether he actually committed the crime, the fact that he was discovered in the white lady Miss Dobbs’ bed was evidence enough hence the death sentence to hang by the neck.

Efforts for a thorough investigation are on the minimum or even considering the slightest chance that Muchemwa might be innocent because of the racial prejudice characterising the Rhodesian government. In short it is simply an abomination for a black man to have some sort of sexual involvements with a white woman.

This is a phenomenon that Ndabaningi Sithole echoes in his autobiography “Roots of a Revolution: Scenes from Zimbabwe’s Struggle.”

A narrative written during his years in prison telling a story of a black man in prison whose crime is of loving a white woman. At this juncture Sithole and Samkange seem to be writing against Doris Lessing’s portrayal of Moses and Mary Turner’s relationship in her first novel “The Grass is Singing.”

Lessing seems to ignore the most obvious fact that there were deeper feelings between Moses and Mary Turner. Unlike Lessing who presents a typically racial image of the black man as nameless and without rationale or feelings, Samkange presents Muchemwa as a sentimental and thoughtful being who sees beyond the injustice and scribbles it in a diary.

“The Mourned One” sets to re-write Rhodesian literature, writing from a black man’s perspective with both a cause and an aim, which is to expose the racial prejudices that many black men and women with their lives in colonial Rhodesia.

Samkange in “The Mourned One” paints a very clear picture on the issue of interracial relationships, more clearly that of black men making intimate contact with white women, an offence punishable by death. The prejudice and hypocrisy was even worse because the white man could cohabit with as many black women as they desired both as house maids as well as sex objects to satisfy their sexual ego.

Samkange’s passion with war prisoners is remarkable. He tells the story of a liberation fighter who contributed to the struggle while behind bars, writing memoirs that founded and pushed forward the struggle for independence.

Chronicling his life and trial, Lazarus Percival Ockenden son of Mudyandife also known as Muchemwa, presents a political statement calling for a revolution to liberate Zimbabwe.

Samkange goes an extra-mile as he discusses the root cause of the mental alienation of the black soul colonial education hidden under the guise of religion.   

Samkange gives a critical evaluation of African traditional religion and culture. He gives a clear depiction of some of Africa’s ritualistic tendencies that Christianity and Western education often refer to in their justification and of note is the ritual killing of twins just after birth as he narrates; “Custom decree that they should be killed by being deposited in two big pots sealed so that they are air-tight. Before long the children will be dead . . . for children born in pairs were abnormal – and what was abnormal was evil, and therefore had to be destroyed.”(pg16)

It is such cultural loop-holes that the colonialist used to infiltrate the mind of the Africans especially those closely affected by the cultural practice.

Muchemwa himself narrowly escaped death through a missionary who took him in when he was going to be ritually killed in infancy because he had a twin brother. The missionary acted saint and in the same manner Muchemwa owed his life to the man who saved his life and followed both his beliefs, education and culture abandoning his own, regarding himself as a new person symbolised by his previous namelessness under his people to being named Ockenden after Reverend Percival Ockenden who had send him to Waddilove.

As one goes through the novel, there is a feeling of wandering with the greater part of the story dwelling on the adventures of two other characters, namely Gore and Kahari at Waddilove. This is, however, deliberate and done in order to show the time and effort put into attaining the white man’s education which in turn proves to be futile. According to Samkange colonial education only made the black man the “fool’’ meant only to serve the “wise”, the white colonial master as he rightly notes, “Fools are the tools of the wise…let the black man sleep so that we can use them” (pg146)

Through religiously facaded schools young Africans are pushed to acquire colonial education to the extent that the black man finds no dignity in being black and aspires to be white.

The education system provided by the Rhodesian government abandons everything traditional and makes the African way of life and belief system seem barbaric and savagery as illustrated by Samkange through the ritual killing of twins.

It then naturally becomes the black man’s ultimate goal to be white, a mental condition that Frantz Fanon discusses in Black Skin White Mask, saying that “for the black man there is only one destiny and it is to be white”.

It is therefore Samkange’s aim of writing to expose and do away with this racial complexity, that European ways are superior to the African way of life. In cementing this idea, Samkange;’s authorial voice is audible in Muchemwa’s outcry for black cultural realization, “There are many things in African culture that are superior to European ways. We must not lose them for the sake of turning ourselves into white man” (pg146)

Such a deep spiritual yearning of the black man to live like a white man is echoed by a number of African authors.

Charles Mungoshi is one such author, through the famous character Lucifer Mandengu from Waiting for the Rain, an educated young fellow who believes that being born in the small village of Manyene in Africa to black parents is both a geographical and a biographical error as he aspires to have been born elsewhere with white parents. That assimilation syndrome is also echoed by Cameroonian author Mongo Beti in Mission to Kala through the character Jean-Marie Medza who just like young Muchemwa later comes to the realization of the futility of colonial education in the day-to-day life of an African.

In the “Mourned One,” Samkange gives a glimpse of the mental and psychological trauma that the Africans succumbed to leading to the fight for independence. Writing on how colonial education affected the young African soul Samkange appeals to the young audience awakening them to the ills of the colonial education, an element that enriches his work as Ngugi WaThiongo says, “Literature is the honey of a nation’s soul preserved for her children to taste forever a little at a time’’.

Samkange’s concluding words are that of a true nationalist – a call to the rest of the masses to see beyond the racial prejudices and injustices and fight for equality, justice and freedom. Samkange basis his appeal on the real-life experience of pain and injustice of Muchemwa who represents all the known and unknown war prisoners of the then Rhodesia with the ending remark-“I trust that the Mourned one’s hope and wish that others may benefit from his experience and thoughts and he better able to understand ‘this society, this culture, this civilization’ has been fulfilled.

I also hope and pray that not only individuals but people of our lands, as a whole, will read, mark, learn and inwardly digest the reflections, life and thoughts of Muchemwa, which is to say: “The Mourned One.”

At this point Samkange successfully achieves his primary goal and the story ceases to be of a single war prisoner, Muchemwa, but of all those who faced such injustices and suffered behind prison walls, with their stories going untold.

Samkange tells a story of a gradually brewing revolution and the struggle for independence and justice, highlighting that Zimbabwe’s struggle for independence was no event but a process that gave birth to today’s free Zimbabwe, as Cheikh Anta Diop says that, “Humanity’s moral conscience progresses, slowly yet surely”, a sure sign that “not in a thousand years” was Zimbabwe going to remain a colony.

April 2017
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