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Charles through the eyes of David Mungoshi

Memory Chirere Blogspot


When I accepted the invitation to stand in for Charles Mungoshi, it was with the confidence of knowing that he would be glad to know that I had done so, but understandably, and in accordance with social etiquette. I shall, of course, have to report back to him what I have done in his absence and on his behalf. That is the only way to avoid an elder brother’s wrath! Fortunately, there is no real trepidation associated with this obligation. We have always got along just fine.

I am told that when I was a tiny little baby on my mother’s lap, Charles, then known as Lovemore, and a perspicacious little brat of some two years of age or so, insisted, for some strange reason, that I was a chicken that he could play with. It did not matter that I had no feathers on me! It seems to me now, with hindsight, that even in those tender formative years, Charles, or shall I say Lovemore, was already exhibiting signs of being a lateral thinker, seeing things somewhat differently from others. Charles, according to my mother, stubbornly refused to shift form his contention that ‘Dovoot’ (David) was a baby chicken. No effort to convince him otherwise made the slightest impression on him. Nascent creativity?

After attending lower primary school at All Saints Wrenningham in what was then known as the Tribal Trust Lands (TTL) of Manyene, somewhere on the outskirts of the ‘Republic of Enkeldoorn’ [present day Chivhu], Charles did his upper primary school at Daramombe Mission where he remained for the next three years. Daramombe stands in the brooding shadow of the mystic Daramombe Mountain, a place where people had to be on their best behaviour or risk punishment from the spirits of the land. Such punishment could take the form of confused wandering on the slopes of the mountain for days on end. The mountain also served a utilitarian purpose in that herdsmen could stand on its summit and scour the surrounding countryside for lost cattle. In later years when I became a student teacher at the College of Christ the King, Daramombe, I could not help but wonder about the import of what to me sounded like the gruff and somewhat apocalyptic but evocative bark of the great baboon that ruled the troops on the timeless Daramombe Mountain. Later, the renowned enthnomuscilogist Dumi Maraire was to compose a choral eulogy with a lilting melody and epigrammatic lyrics that left vivid silhouettes of the russet and gold of early summer and the youthful freshness of village beauties etched enticingly upon one’s mind.

January 1963 saw Charles begin secondary school at St Augustine’s Mission in Penhalonga. St Augustine’s, popularly known as kwaTsambe or Santaga, was a prestigious Anglican Secodary School for African Children. To date, St Augustine’s has remained so highly revered as to be the motivation for a joke about how the people of Manicaland do not consider that someone has had a proper education unless they have the good fortune to have been to St Augustine’s.

In 1964 when Charles was in Form 2 at St Augustine’s, I enrolled into Form 1 at what was then the only secondary school for black children in the city of Bulawayo, the Bulawayo African Secondary School (BASS). This school was known in township lingo as ‘eHigh School’. Predictably, those of us who had the good fortune to be ‘high-scholars’ could not help but walk around with a conscious little swagger. We probably had more than our fair share of attention. We were probably quite conspicuous in our blue ties and black blazers. The badge had the caption ‘vela mfundo,’ a Ndebele exhortation to aspire for a acquisition of knowledge and education.

At about this time, we began what was to become a veritable flow of correspondence between us, talking about everything and anything: music, girls, literature and, yes you guessed it, ‘writing.’

It was while as St Augustine’s that Charles discovered his creative urge and began to nurture the rich talent that we celebrate today. As far back as the Daramombe years, Charles had begun to furnish me with vivid descriptions of his schoolmates. I remember a boy with a unique and poetic name. At the time I was blissfully unaware of the semantic ambivalence of the boy’s name. The sexual connotations in the now late Zvokwidza Chirume’s name only occurred to me much later, after I had become a little more schooled in the ways of the world and its mosaic of discourse universes.

In some of his letters, Charles described people like Mr. Darling, the science master whom he appeared to be quite fond of and Father Pierce, his headmaster and teacher of English. Charles’s letters were packed with all sorts of ditties.

Often, when in Manyene during the school holidays, Charles narrated other anecdotes that made me wish I could join him at the illustrious St Augustine’s school. One such anecdote was about Mr. Darling, the science teacher, remarking enigmatically to some naughty boy, ‘Boy, if you wanna play the kid, I’m gonna play the goat,’ or words to that effect.

Borrowed pedantic phrases like ‘You are intoxicated by the exuberance of your verbosity’ became part of our verbal arsenal and our shared jokes. We were both enthralled by the sound of words and our letters to each other became more and more artistic and articulate as the days went by. Regrettably, none of these ‘masterpieces’ survived. I suppose we could not have known then that we might in future want to recall their content or that other people might wish to have access to them.

It was while still at St Augustine’s that Charles began to develop a liking for theatre. He was often to be seen participating in end-of–year school plays. Of note was his role as the rascally but immensely likable Mr. Toad of Toad Hall. Not surprisingly, as we now know, he was later to write lays and film scrips as well as take part in T. V dramas.

During most school holidays, Charles and I spent much of our time in Manyene, herding cattle, splashing about in the waters of the Suka River or fishing with primitive fishing lines and hooks bought at the nearby Chambara Township or some other such shop. Sometimes we just wandered around the wetlands picking and eating the fleshy and juicy hute, a wild fruit that came in all sizes, the biggest being about thumb-size. They also came in a variety of colours, from a light purplish colour to a sort of deep navy blue or black. If you squeezed or crushed the leaves of the mukute, they emitted a pleasant and rather exotic smell and if you chewed them, your breath would smell fresh. The hute juice left the tongue a little dyed and most children loved sticking out their tongues to show the colouring.

At times we indulged our fancies and went exploring the Manyene hills, where an old man accredited with rain-making powers lived. We were so attracted to these ancient hills that we never tired of going there. What with the mountain goats and the underground caves said to have been places of refuge for the locals whenever war broke out in the past. I must admit though that I personally never actually saw any mountain goats although sightings of their droppings often had us in a sort of frenzy, a frenzy based on the belief that we were getting warm so to speak.

The ageless but paradoxically surrealistic ‘bushman’ paintings imbued us with a strange sense of timelessness. In the right season we ate the sweet but cloying wild fruit called tsvoritsvoto, a fruit that grows on a tree with shiny hairy dark green leaves and when ripe, the bright yellow of the tsvoritsvoto is easily visible from a distance. If you eat too much tsvoritsvoto, the inside of your mouth would feel strangely acidic and your teeth would be on edge. But that is part of the fun!

As you might very well imagine, we constantly entertained ourselves with stories, things we had seen, heard or read. You could say that we were real chatterboxes. We talked incessantly, but sometimes much of our talk amounted to no more than just sweet nothing. We were, so to speak, just another pair of country boys enjoying the heat of life. Sometimes we sat on some flat rock (ruware] to weave whips form the fibre of the munhondo tree. We used the whips to drive and control the cattle of just for the fun of cracking them. How Charles could crack that whip, make it sing, almost! You could hear its lyrical echo across the forest. But try as I did, I never could crack the whip quite the way that he did, much to my disappointment. Sometimes we strengthened the whips with the entwined fibre [mukosi] of the mutsamvi tree. The bit made of mutsamvi fibre, the mukosi, would be at the tail-end of the whip. Those were days of rural innocence and children confidences.

Sometime around 1965-6, I met a girl called Rindai. She was a beautiful girl with an unusual name particularly when the name is viewed in the context of what was prevalent at the time-a time when it was fashionable to have so-called Christian names, names which, invariably, tended to be European or Biblical. I suppose that Charles must have been as enamoured of the name as I was of the girl, because many years later, he used it in his popular Shona novel Ndiko Kupindana Kwamazuva which has since been translated into French directly from Shona by the French Linguist and writer, Mishel Lafon. Ndiko Kupindana Kwamazuva is the gender-sensitive, completely original and fictitious story of Rindai, a sensitive woman through whom Charles executes a kind of psychoanalysis of his characters. In comparing and contrasting Rindai and Magi, Rex Mbare observes:

Magi was reminiscent of a benefactor who floods you all at once with wonderful gifts. Your happiness is, not unexpectedly, quite profound yet so fleeting. By contrast, Rindai revealed the depths of her bounty in small but delectable doses, surprising you in stages until you begin to wonder whether you can survive the onslaught. The sweetness just seems to go on and on…

In the 1950s through to the later 1960s and about the early 1970s, PARADE Magazine housed in Salaisbury (Harare) at Inez Terrace, published original short stories from aspiring authors each month. In those days, PARADE was more or less at par with South Africa’s DRUM Magazine in terms of content and patronage. Both magazines contributed immensely to the development of literature in the region. Later of course, Zimbabwean magazines like MAHOGANY and HORIZON, both now defunct and one or two others also played a significant role in the realm of creative writing. People like Leon Lambiris and Tinos Guvi, of PARADE, deserve a pat on the back for having encouraged and nurtured some of what in time became Zimbabwe’s foremost writers.

I first become aware of the magic and the power of good poetry through PARADE when I read Tafirenyika Moyona’s poem A God’s Error whose diction and imagery were riveting, poignant and evocative. In the poem, Moyana decries the paradox of dark beauties with a surfeit of ravishing beauty juxtaposed with abject ignorance. Images evoked by the ‘thin wasp waist’ and ‘screaming wild chest,’ lingered on my mind for years.

Lest you start wondering where all this is leading, let me tell you that the first ever story that Charles had published was called ‘Cain’s Medal’ and was published by PARADE sometime in 1966, perhaps earlier, while Charles was still at St Augustine’s. Cain’s Medal was a murder story, written in the fashion of thrillers. The biblical allusion created some mystery in the story, making the reader keen to find out its relevance. PARADE later published many other stories from Charles. In the PARADE stories he used the pen name ‘Carl Manhize’. My hope is that the PARADE stories can be published one day so that we can have a fuller view of Charles Mungoshi’s writing career.

PARADE also published my one short story, ‘But Not Very Complimentary,’ in 1967. Never having been published before, I was very excited indeed. All my friends soon knew who ‘Sunny Mupozho’ was. My PARADE story was about petty crime and romance aboard an overnight train. In those days of thrill-seeking, we were trying to come up with exciting little anecdotes in the fashion of western thrillers.

But willy-nilly, our literary journeys had begun!

I wish to make the instructive observation that Charles is a voracious reader and has always been. He has probably read most classics and more besides. Thinking about Charles the avid reader makes me feel that any writer who does not read has no business writing. This is as true of him today as it was yesterday.

In the early days, he and I and many other boys of the time read a lot of literature cowboy stories, romances, detective stories as well as serious literature. It was also the fashion to follow the exploits of the rock stars of the day: Elvis Presley, Cliff Richard, Little Richard and others. Film too had its attractions. I remember Charles rhapsodizing about Tommy Steele’s The Duke Wore Jeans.

Our favourite detective story-writer at the time was Peter Cheyney. He created many colourful characters including Mr. Lemuel G.H. Caution, otherwise known as Lemmy Caurion, a tough, rough- and – tumble detective. We both found Cheney’s dark series comprising Dark Hero, Dark Interlude and Dark Bahamas, Dark Wanton and Dark Duet quite appealing. We read them again and again over the years.

In Dark Bahamas a black sailor on a fishing boat is always either whistling or singing a song whose naughty lyrics go:

Nut-brown baby
Yo got rovin’ eyes
Yo don’t day nuttin
Wi’ dem honey lips
But yo sure say plenty
When you swing dem hips
An’ I feed de knife in me breeches.

We still find much joy camaraderie in these words!

However, and more importantly, I believe that it was in Peter Cheyney’s books that Charles and I first encountered the technique that Charles later perfected in Ndiko Kupindana Kwamazuva, a technique that made it possible for the reader to experience vicariously but vividly nevertheless, the intensity and immediacy of introspection in the lives of the characters.

Each chapter in Ndiko Kupindana Kwemazuva is named after a character. The story is then narrated form that character’s angle of vision. The final chapter ties up all the threads and makes the plot more artistically coherent and effective. Ndiko Kupindana Kwamazuva epitomizes the use of internal monologue, which Charles employs in a sort of running commentary comprised of the tension between reality and appearance. While the characters say one thing aloud, what they say silently is quite another! This technique reaches fruition in his enigmatically entitled novel, Kunyarara Hakusi Kutaura? (You also Speak When You Are Silent]. We see the likes of Chenjerai Hove in his own novel, Bones having recourse to this same technique.

So much has happened over the years that Charles may now only vaguely recall that his first attempt at writing a novel in Shona was when he wrote the manuscript entitled Handina Mwana Anozochema (No Child to Tie Me Down) which never saw the light of day.

All his manuscripts in those days were written in long hand using the fountain pen, an all-time favourite of his. At the 2003 ZIBF Writers Workshop, Charles read an extract from a story written in ink using a fountain pen in long hand in an old coverless exercise book. If you want to put a smile on his face, give him a fountain pen and a bottle of ink on his next birthday, sometime in December.

Perhaps the greatness of Charles Mungoshi’s writing lies in its deceptive simplicity, its incisive vision and its witty dialogue. The maxim ‘to write is to read’ applies aptly to Charles. He is probably one of the best-read authors anywhere in the world. He reads, reads and reads. Then writes, writes and writes. In the course of all this, Charles has developed his innovatively distinctive style, a style that depicts the world in a uniquely memorable way. May view is that his reading is at once his motivation and his tutor.

+Edited version of a speech delivered by David Mungoshi at ALLIANCE FRANCAISE at the launch of Michel Lafon’s French translation of Charles Mungoshi’s Ndiko Kupindana KwaMazuva, Harare, Friday, 17 September, 2003. The speech eventually got published in a book, Charles Mungoshi: A Critical Reader, pp273-78, 2006.