Chenjerai Hove’s Bones and the dignity of land ownership

By Gracious Madondo

IT’S almost three years since the shock passing on of Chenjerai Hove, one of Zimbabwe’s literary figures, who succumbed to liver failure in Sweden in 2015.   

It appears many of his followers are yet to come to terms with the author’s death given the avalanche of eulogies and contributions about the author’s life and books that continue to dominate many literary journals and the media.

His 1989 NAMA Award winning novel, Bones, continues being the most widely referred to book in post-independent Zimbabwe that pioneered fictional discourse on the emotive land issue.

Well before the onset of the Second Chimurenga, Hove can be credited for raising the plight of farm workers who continued to toil under deplorable conditions despite the country attaining political independence.

Literary, Hove’s focus was not just on women as the end-recipient of an unrewarding independence but also on the generality of Zimbabweans who continued being “tenants” on their God-given land of birth.

The overriding message that a reader gets when reading Bones is the importance of land as the ultimate symbol of dignity, identity and belonging. The loss of that land equates to emasculation, alienation and oppression.

But Hove was not just writing for the Zimbabwean audience. His novel transcends the geographical boundaries of the country of his birth given the emotiveness of the land issue in Africa, particularly in the southern African region.

At just 112 pages long, Bones is thin in volume but loaded in the thematic concerns. It is a complex story that looks at both the present and future and uniquely employs the traditional ways of story telling where listeners have a chance to also contribute to the thread of the story.

Hove captures the pain and suffering faced by Zimbabweans during colonialism, paying close attention to farm workers of the 1930s and 1940s who were synonymous with the brutal exploitation of the time. Hove’s workers consciousness qualifies Bones as an African socialist text.

The novel’s most outstanding feature is that the story is driven by each of the characters’ life, attitude and behaviour. Each character represents a sovereign idea and this calls for a close character analysis because of the different sides each character tells through characters like Marita, Janifa, Chiriseri, Chisaga, Murume, the voice of Nehanda, among others to depict the relationship between the African individual and land.

Hove tells the story of struggles and frustrations through all the characters in the novel. We are given access to each character’s inner thoughts and feelings, making it easy to relate to each of the individual’s predicament associated with their loss of ownership and contact with the land.

Former University of Zimbabwe English Literature lecturer and now the Director of Zimbabwe Film School, Dr Rino Zhuwarara (1994) describes Bones characters as “defeated people desperate to adjust and survive in a harsh and colonial world’’.

There are two groups, that of African men who are anxious to be accommodated in the colonial dispensation and the other made up of African women whose outlook and sensibilities clash with those of their counterparts in their reaction to the white colonial system.

The representative of the white colonial system is Manyepo, the white farm owner who possesses the land, making him more powerful and superior to the average African folk who owns no piece of land.

It is not that Manyepo needs all the land to farm it. Rather, he has the vast lands for strategic reasons which is to assure that all the Africans own not even a piece of land so that they depend on him. 

Hove narrates that “there were farmlands which nobody farms. The owners are frenzied and vicious when they see anyone walking through these unspoiled farms” (p81).

As noted by one reviewer “the land was taken from the people to whom it was the focus of social, economic and cultural life”.

The usurping of the land by the white man meant the heralding of poverty, stolen identity and distorted self-definition on the part of the black man.

As a way of showing obedience to the master, the black man who worked close to the whites tends to be cruel towards fellow Africans and one such character is Chiriseri – the foreman.

Most significantly is Chiriseri’s role synonymous with what Frantz Fanon calls the “the collective auto-destruction” of the native.

This kind of brutality is the same inflicted upon fellow black men by the black Rhodesian law enforcers called The Black Watch historically referred in the Shona vernacular as “Bhurakwacha”.

It is also the colonial version of the Overseer associated with the slave plantation, a man whose job security depends on his ability to brutalise those under him as echoed in African American Literature by Fredrick Douglas.

The brutality from the foreman was both physical as well as verbal as depicted through Chiriseri when attacking the female workers particularly on Marita by taking the white man’s side to the extent of mocking the liberation struggle.

“You were not brought here to gossip with Baas Manyepo. He brought you here to work . . . as for that woman with a ‘terrorist’ son; she will one day feel the harshness of my arm.”

In the novel, Hove depicts how the farm labourers felt the injustices and the brutality of the colonial government first hand meaning that the revolution was to be sparked and fueled by those on the farms, automatically qualifying Hove’s Bones as an African socialist text.

Evidence of a brewing revolution is also depicted in the minutest details through Chisaga – the baas’ cook. Chisaga owns no portion of the land and suffers the frustration of emasculation by working in the kitchen, a role traditionally and culturally associated with women.

To the African, land symbolises masculinity and identity. Chisaga’s relationship to this land is greatly distorted with his job in the kitchen which is a mockery to his manhood and pride. Such distortion of roles as a way of mental conquest is also echoed by quite a number of African writers like Toundi in Ferdnand Oyono’s Houseboy and the character Moses in Doris Lessing in The Grass is Singing.

Chisaga silently revenges this masculinity by performing petty but disgusting acts of revenge as he adds nappy water or mucus into Manyepo’s food while preparing it. Muringi and Chitora also do this by feeding the baas’ dogs with their own faeces to prove they are at least better than the dog of the master. All this points to one thing. It is a microcosm of the workers’ consciousness against colonialism.

Hove also takes issues to a more gender sensitive level by his inclusion and acknowledgement of female farm workers as well as the historical figure of Ambuya Nehanda.

Hove uses the female characters Marita, Janifa and The Voice of Nehanda. On these characters, Hove takes the theoretical framework of Clenora Hudson Weem’s Africana Womanism paying particular attention to their contribution in the liberation struggle while at the same time continuously upholding their sense of motherhood well aware of the dangers associating with the freedom fighters.

Marita is one of the most prominent characters in the novel. She is the female protagonist and narrator. Together with her husband Murume, they are subjected to a childless marriage as their only child has left for the struggle.

As Hove notes, society usually blames the man, Murume, for lacking sexual virility as exemplified by the narrator who says: “How can a man marry and then sleep with his wife for long without making her pregnant?”

Just like land, children represent continuity and the future. Their failure to procreate symbolises the continuity of being a farm labourer and there is no better future in such a life. As represented by these two, children are the future, explaining why their only son went to war to secure the future.

As Zhwarara (1994) rightly points out “their desire to have children is a traditional demand but also to end up creating more youthful and stronger labourers for Manyepo”. This traditional patriarchal ideology is now working more to the profit of Manyepo as he stands to economically gain from their sweat.

Through these characters Hove depicts how colonial capitalism stands to gain from the practices and beliefs of indigenous people. Murume is one sentimental character whose name is a mockery of his manhood.

As for Marita, her failure to conceive makes her a target of humiliation. She is labeled a “witch”, and ‘’a hen that ate its own eggs”. When her son leaves for the war, she is reduced to near childlessness.

She is also a spokesperson at the farm and that puts her at the risk of losing her job explaining why she is subject to Chiriseri’s insults. Despite the insults Marita refuses to give away information about her son’s whereabouts.

The motherly image depicted by Hove is flawless and ideal and to this Zhuwarara says “she (Marita) upholds her conscience as a mother as if motherhood as a vacation is sometimes above revolution”. 

The voice of Nehanda cements the whole story and relates to the title in a more vivid manner. Historically, Mbuya Nehanda is the spirit medium Charwe who galvanised and inspired African forces to fight against the white settlers during the 1893 and 1896 uprising.

Just before she was executed by whites for her role in the uprising, she is famed for saying “My bones shall rise again”. It is a prophecy that lived and was fulfilled across generations of Africans.

As depicted in Bones, land is not merely a source of physical sustenance for the earth. It has a central place in the Shona cosmology. It is the bond between the ancestors and the living and generations to come. The displacement of the African from the land is equal to losing their identity and dignity. Hove artistically captures the bond between the land the people and as aptly noted by Emmanuel Ngara, Bones is truly the landmark of Zimbabwean literature. 

April 2017
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