Born in Violence

Review of Chenjeerai Hove, Bones: a Novel Baobab Books (Harare, 1988) & Isheunesu Valentine Mazorodze, Silent Journey From the East (Zimbabwe Publishing House.

These two books, the first an elegiac prose-poem, the second a novel of bald action, continue the enquiry which has preoccupied Zimbabwean literature since the mid-Seventies into the struggle for national liberation. It has been an enquiry into violence analysed morally and psychologically in terms of its rationalisations and its consequences. Ironically, it is the heirs of the former ‘terrorists’ who are conducting the enquiry rather than the heirs of the custodians of ‘civilised’ values for whom Wilbur Smith remains compulsive reading.

Tim McLoughlin has distinguished “two poles” in Zimbabwean writing, “the one that manifests historical, social and political forces in external action, the other an exploration of internal awareness” with violence being seen as a “necessity and inevitable” in both. There is a further distinction worth making, this time at the level of language. Consider the following extract from Silent Journey From the East :

Donald listened carefully as the man continued. “It is very important, therefore, to look back at those times when we suffered, when we lost friends and relatives without emotion so that we can extract the very important lessons delivered to us by such incidents. The ability to look boldly into the past without remorse or emotion is, I think, one of the ingredients of success in life Whether you like it or not, you are part of the war and you should never try to fight against that reality. Bow yourself down to the rules of the revolution in the same way you have to bow down to the rules of life.

The language here derives from the English-language politics of the liberation struggle – a language of speeches and semi-theoretical debate supplemented by the educational and bureaucratic English which has become the medium of Zimbabwe’s official culture. It is obviously capable of analytic insight, particularly in the public arena, but it tends when deployed in literature to depend on regular supplements of ‘feeling’ or analogy which are essentially sentimental glosses on the ideological content. Its inadequacies appear most exposed in poems about the liberation struggle, such as these overloaded lines by Chenjerai Hove:

Limping hearts leapt sky-wards
and sore throats blackened
as thunder boomed roared
to cleanse defiled tribes
Of human desecration
In camouflaged hearts
Licking bare soles of torn souls
seeking to pay in lead
the debt owed by so few to multitudes

It’s not the poet’s impulse that has failed here, the desire to honour the hopes of oppressed people as the war rages on their behalf, but the language — too many adjectives, sensationalised verbs, metaphors which don’t work (the debt is being paid the wrong way round, and why “licking”, why the sudden capitals at the beginnings of lines 5 to 7?)

But there is another Zimbabwean English used in this literature of violence, represented again by Chenjerai Hove in this extract from Bones:

Did people not get sad when Rukato was stabbed to death? They did — but they said too that they hated his way of boasting about having slept with so-and-so’s daughter or so-and-so’s wife the day before Yes, what can you do to me? I am Rukato the tree of many hooked thorns. Who can tackle the tree of many hook thorns without dying? Try to tackle Rukato and only the neighbours will be able to tell their neighbours what a real corpse looks like But when Rukato’s corpse lay there like a bag of mielie-meal dropped from the tractor by Manyepo’s driver, who did not hear their heart beat with sadness? Death is like that. Even if you wish it on someone, you may not be the one to see the corpse before anyone else.

I am no Shona speaker and must be careful about asserting the Shona sources for this English. It is obvious at once, however, that the doctrinaire message of the first passage could not be conveyed by the language of the second.

There was a time, following the publication of Aaron Hodza and George Fortune’s Shona Praise Poetry (Oxford University Press, 1979), when there seemed grounds for scepticism about the sheer lyrical beauty of Shona poetry in translation. The Shona Praises seemed so unlike the contents of companion volumes in the Oxford African Literature series and Hodza,who did most of the collecting and translating was plainly a very fine poet in his own right. Was he using the oral praises as the inspiration for rhapsodies of his own? His death and the disappearance of his papers to Cape Town does not quite resolve some of these doubts. But there has been abundant evidence since of the ability of Shona writers, even in English translation, to express dimensions of Zimbabwean experience which bureaucratic Zimbabwean English cannot match. Colin and O-lan Style’s Mambo Book of Zimbabwean Verse in English (Mambo Press, 1986) contains approximately 240 poems by Zimbabwean Africans. Fully half of these are in fact translations from Shona (or Ndebele) written sources and much of the remainder reads like the translation of poets, like Musaemura Zimunya and Eddison Zvogbo, operating easily between Shona and English. The richness of the volume derives for the most part from the number of these poems rooted in Zimbabwe’s living languages as they in turn are rooted in the landscape and culture.

Bones is a marvellous book, drawing on this Shona lyricism to create an English idiom which persuades, more completely than anything else I have read, that this was how the war was experienced in rural Zimbabwe. It is a difficult book to get through not, as has been suggested, because the narrative is confusing but because the writing is so eloquent, such a sheet delight to read, that the eye keeps pausing to re-read and relish instead of proceeding. Its success in winning the 1989 Noma award restores faith in literary competitions.

On first reading, there appears to be a number of different narrators — Janifa (Jennifer) the girl, Marita the mother of her “boyfriend”, Murume Marita’s husband, Manyepo the white landowner, Chisaga his cook, an Unknown Woman who accompanies Marita to the city, and the Spirits. By the end, however, it is clear that all these voices exist in Janifa’s disturbed mind. She lives in chains in the local asylum, reliving the tragedy of a war which destroyed her and the women she most cared for though neither of them witnessed any fighting.

The story is straightforward. Marita married Murume, the son of a chief, but they were unable to have children, and after years of suffering from herbalists they leave home to become labourers on the farm of the white settler nicknamed Manyepo. There, at last, Marita has a son who, in his adolescence, writes Janifa a love letter. He disappears to join the freedom fighters and Marita and Janifa become friends, joined by the letter in a relationship which stops just short of mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. Because of her son’s action, Marita is beaten and raped by the security forces.

She decides to go to Salisbury for news of her son and pays for the journey by persuading Chisaga, Manyepo’s cook who has long wanted to sleep with her, to steal from his boss in return for sex — and then leaves before completing the bargain. In Salisbury where she is again ill-treated, Marita dies and an Unknown Woman who travelled on the bus with her and who is herself compensating for her husband’s betrayal of a group of freedom fighters tries to claim the body for a proper burial. Chisaga claims Janifa as Marita’s substitute and when she refuses him he rapes her. Her own family disown her as she refuses to marry Chisaga and she becomes insane.

There are events that are recreated in Janifa’s disordered mind, the voices crowding her head asserting their separate claims. The voices blend, overlapping with each other, creating a haunting elegy for the sufferings of rural Zimbabwe and especially of the sufferings of women. They reach backwards in time to a vision like Ezekiel’s of the bones littering the landscape after the first Chimurenga, and they reach forward into the first years of independence. When the Unknown Woman persists in trying to give Marita a proper burial, staging her personal protest outside the morgue, the new Zimbabwean officials complain about the mad people in rags who are allowed to spoil their nice city: ‘this stubbornness couldn’t have been heard in the time of the white man’s rule: the women would be sitting in prison now, waiting for tomorrow’ (p.94). Meanwhile, back on the rural farm, Manyepo declares ‘I rule here If your government wants to run this farm, let them bloody take over. Then we will see if they can run a farm’ (p. 120).

For the poor of this novel, nothing has been changed by the war. For mad Janifa, conjuring with visions of alternative endings, there is none that would bring comfort or happiness, none that would be right.

In an interview with Flora Wild, Chenjerai Hove described teaching near Masvingo in 1977/78:

You always found yourself there with the people, you don’t look at it from a Rhodesian soldier’s point of view or a guerrilla’s point of view, you look at it from a peasant’s point of view. When you are with them you see their problems, you attend a funeral of some who have been massacred and so on. And then you begin to understand what it is to be without a gun between two people who have guns.

This is not neutrality. Later in the same interview, he praises the poet, Wilfred Owen, for recognising “the absurdity of war, how wasteful it is of youth, young people going to war to be butchered”, and this vision is present in Bones in the description of children being massacred in a righteous cause. But the perspective is that of the peasant caught between two sides with guns. “You people of the city”, says Marita at one point, “do not know what war was all about” (p.88). What Hove has done wonderfully is to give a voice to the powerless, creating an idiom which makes available not only their experiences but a strong sense of their values.

The experiences are vivid — the schoolteacher’s bullying over the love letter, conversations behind the ant-hill, the overseer’s obscenities, the feel of sweat and hunger. But what resonates most strongly is the bed-rock of rural charity. Marita, for instance, refuses to testify to the guerrillas against Manyepo insisting ‘his badness is just like any other person’. When challenged in this by Janifa she explains: “Child, what do you think his mother will say when she hears that another woman sent her son to his death.” Like Homer, these villagers know that the death of one’s enemy is tragic too.

No such insight mars the complacencies of Silent Journey From the East. Incompetently plotted and ineptly written, it tells the story of three boys from Waddilove school (‘loud cheering from the jovial crowd as the young men scrambled to earn points for their houses’) who cultivate the habit of visiting the local compounds where they are “touched’ by the villagers’ ‘rural simplicity and straightforwardness.” But they also get drunk and in a scuffle injure a girl friend’s father and then kill the girl herself. Fleeing towards Mozambique, they are implausibly accepted by the freedom fighters as recruits. They take new names, undergo many hardships, go through a period of physical and political training, and then make their silent journey from the east towards the war zones. In the heat of the battle, their different characters are confirmed.

At one level, this book is a Zimbabwean version of the oldest white settler myths. Three callow adolescents go into the bush and emerge as men, initiated by the disciplines of violence. There are curious echoes of Rider Haggard and even, in the laboured humour, of Three Men in a Boat. At another by no means incompatible level, it reflects accurately Zimbabwe’s current political atmosphere, the double-think of socialism and personal advancement, patrician politics with a revolutionary face. The novel’s opening anecdote preaches that the people must be helped but it is dangerous to help them for they are “primitive animals” not to be trusted. The solution lies in submission to the “rules of revolution” and to the “rules of life”, incorporating presumably the rules of one-party rule.

The novel has one interesting passage, describing the moment the guerrillas re-enter Zimbabwe and the rituals of their dealings with the spirit mediums. These appear to be based on experience (the author is an ex-combatant) rather than on a reading of David Lan and the passage (pp. 143-7) deserves attention. Elsewhere, the quality of the writing is best illustrated by this grotesque passage introducing the girl killed in the compound:

The girl was indeed a lovely testimony to the infinite artistic capabilities of nature. One could look at her for hours on end, imagining the skilful hand of nature running carefully through the deep grooves which formed her eye sockets. One could sit and imagine the skill invested in placing the eyes so deep into the skull and still avoid depriving them of the gift of sight and beauty. It was indeed equally amazing how her large jaws (on which her yellow teeth stood) remained attached to her skull, having been delicately hanging for a staggering period of seventeen years.

Are there no editors at Zimbabwe Publishing House? Silent Journey From the East is a sympton of Zimbabwe’s disease. Bones, in complete contrast, is part of the cure.

First Published Southern African Review of Books, Issue 13, February/May 1990

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What’s in Six Names

Review of Alec Pongweni, The Oral Traditions of the Shona Peoples of Zimbabwe: Studies of their folktales, songs, praise poetry and naming practices (Centre for Advanced Studies of African Society, 2012)

For scholars at African universities, life continues to be tough. The pay is wretched, the workload in both teaching and administration beyond the wildest nightmares of AUT members in Britain. Facilities are cramped and crumbling, and libraries starved of publications. Even for those who have negotiated the political minefields of states where neutrality is not an option, there remain the hazards of inadvertently giving a bad grade to a student with important connections, or of simply being from the wrong part of the country. Meanwhile, our putative scholar has to watch his compatriots, exiled by compulsion or by choice, flourishing at foreign universities, with access to proper libraries and opportunities for publication. The most visible research on African themes has long been conducted in the United States and in Europe.

Scholars at universities in southern Africa have had to contend with another problem. The best regional resources are found in post-apartheid South Africa. Yet universities there were seriously damaged by the academic boycott over three decades, which left much scholarship “provincial” in the worst sense. After 1994, researchers at the universities of Malawi, Zambia or Lesotho could find themselves patronized by colleagues from the south, who actually knew less about the key issues than they did. The balance has yet to be fully restored.

Alec Pongweni is Professor of English Language and Linguistics at the University of Botswana, which has itself over the past three decades offered internal asylum to scholars in trouble (Pongweni formerly lectured in linguistics at the University of Zimbabwe). His Oral Traditions of the Shona Peoples of Zimbabwe is characterized by clarity of expression, generosity towards other scholars, a deep love of Shona culture and a concern for the state of the language. Versions of each chapter have appeared before, but in small editions, not easily located. Cape Town’s Centre for Advanced Studies of African Society was amply justified in combining them in this volume.

The longest is a monograph in itself, a humane and richly entertaining study of “Shona naming practices”. People may acquire names in six different ways: two at birth as personal and lineage names, a third conferred by the diviner, a fourth descriptive of character, a fifth marking an important event, and a substitute replacement name, such as those of guerrillas fighting during the war of independence. Their linguistic structure is described and analysed. But “any list of Shona names is a palimpsest … one cannot but be struck by the wealth of information, historical, merely descriptive or picturesque, or social”, contained in a telephone directory or a graduation programme. The essay is exemplary in teasing out examples.

A similar social focus informs his analysis of advertising in Zimbabwe. Beyond linguistics, Pongweni shows up the casual racial stereotyping in the marketing of skin-lighting creams (“for beautiful women”), Bata shoes (“a new style walking our nation”), and urban furniture (“no one wants to eat sitting cross-legged”). Typically, he links this with the decline of the extended family. Whereas a schoolteacher was formerly expected to meet school fees for his third cousins, his own children now demand “Bata bush babies” and Fanta that “freshivates” (Pongweni adds, “who can blame them?”), making wider responsibilities unaffordable. There are essays on Figurative Language, on Gender and Sexuality, and on Text and Context in Shona Folklore, including Stereotypes of Women. But the most substantial ones, following on from the concern with naming practices, are on Shona praises and resistance songs, patently his first love.

Much oral poetry, clan praises included, is not readily accessible. References can be obscure, even to the performer, and when the metaphors refer to movements between settlements, or succession disputes, the history can be lost in the poetry. Pongweni is meticulous in teasing out the meanings of dense texts, paying particular attention to linguistic forms. This is invaluable. But in decoding the poems’ alternative history, he skimps rather why they are valued as poetry. About one construction, describing a totemic lion, he notes how the “low tones and affricative and plosive consonants onomatopoetically imitate the guttural, seemingly subterranean roar of the lion”. On lines from one of the Chimurenga songs, about “women possessed of indolence / Who spend their time sharpening fingernails, / Fingernails for scratching the people of Zimbabwe”, he comments that nzara (fingernails) also signifies famine, while kwenya (scratch) doubles as the word for lighting a fire. One would like more of this, demonstrating the performer’s riddling ingenuity.

Attempts to express the sheer power of the material can misfire. The line Ndopatigere pano from a song by Jordan Chitaika about forced relocation is translated variously as “This is where we live”, “This is now our home”, “We have to call this home”, “Whether we like it or not, this is our home”, “That’s home for us”, “But now we find ourselves here”, and “How fickle fate is”. The linguist’s anxiety to capture the line’s rich nuances is manifest. But the song’s poignant economy is dissipated, as Chitaika is made to sound garrulous. This niggle comes from a reviewer who honours the material as Alec Pongweni does, without a fraction of his expertise.

First Published Times Literary Supplement, 13 December 2013

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Going to De Beers

Review of David B. Coplan, In the Time of Cannibals, The word music of South Africa’s Basotho migrants (University of Chicago Press, 1994)

Hurry quickly people,
You know, those of Mojetla’s should take dry grass stalks:
Now you fold them double,
Now each one dig out the earwax,
And listen to the wonders and evils of the world.

Marvellous things are happening in the study of African Oral Literature. The days are gone when the subject was dominated, in Ruth Finnegan’s words, by the “study of detailed stylistic points or formulaic systems leading to statistical conclusions”. Students have dug the wax out of their ears and begun to attend to the intellectual content of performance. Thus, hard on the heels of Karin Barber’s superb study of Yoruba Oriki (I Could Speak Till Tomorrow, 1991) and Isabel Hofmeyr’s eloquent account of South African oral narrative (We Spend Our Lives as a Tale that is Told, 1994) comes David B. Coplan’s loving analysis of Basotho migrants’ sefela.

The Basotho have been selling their labour to South Africa first on the railways, then in the diamond mines of Kimberley and the gold mines of Johannesburg since the days when Moshoeshoe successfully repulsed attempts to absorb his mountain kingdom. Today, labour migration is the pervasive reality of Basotho life, involving 80 per cent of men and an unknown number of women for long periods of their working lives. Sefela, or to use the full name, sefela sa setsamaea-naha le separloa-thota, “songs of the inveterate travellers” (or as one of Coplan’s singers put it, “songs of those who have seen the places and the spaces in between the places”), are the poetic autobiographies of these adventurers. Coplan has recorded performances from both men and women, mainly in the shebeens of the lowland border towns where the recruiting offices are located, following up the recordings with interviews to elucidate points of meaning and form. Proving the appropriateness of the name sefela, he never found a single performer in the same place twice.

No sefela were recorded before 1975, and the history of the form is uncertain. The name links it with the self-praises of initiates on the day of their graduation (and hence to the name missionaries gave their hymns, operating on the principle that the devil has the best tunes). But Coplan shows persuasively that sefela are related to the non-chiefly self-praises commonplace throughout southern Africa, and he offers riveting exegeses of two comparable texts published by Hugh Tracey in 1959 and by H. E. Jankie in 1939. Internal evidence suggests origins in the late nineteenth century. Singers boast about walking to Kimberley. Hardly any work at Kimberley these days, and none of them walk there, but “Going to libere” (De Beers) is still shorthand for working in South Africa, and it was 1906 when the first rail link reached Lesotho. Further internal evidence is the common “set piece” describing the train journey south. Most migrants these days go by taxi, taking the diesel from the border. But sefela are full of loving descriptions of centipedes panting and belching smoke as they carry the workers south.

A typical male sefela will be 500-900 lines long, performed before a noisy shebeen audience and containing (in no special order) descriptions of his origins, his herding days, his complicated journey to the mines and his experiences there. The women, who have made the journey as brewers or prostitutes (or both), are equally resolute and individualistic in their self-praises, singing of boyfriends and gang fights and defending their life-style as useful and positive. An English poet can only envy the comprehensiveness of the form and the variety of tone and diction as the singer “shakes the nation with a song about his own experience”. Sefela can accommodate this: “These clouds cradle on their shoulders the dawn / This moon cradles on its shoulders the stars”; and this: “What do I say to you, gamblers (poets)? / I was the clerk of the toilet / Man , I was serving toilet papers / I was forever viewing the backsides of people.” One singer describes how the train taking him back to the mines passes another decorated with karosses (a chiefly prerogative) carrying a gift of oxen from South African Prime Minister Verwoerd to Chief Leabua Jonathan. In this exchange of “cattle”, he sees the whole predicament of his country and his people.

Most impressive is what sefela tell of the gold mines. It is rare for Southern African songs to take us down the mines. Chopi migodo stop at “the door of the cage”, talking of the courage needed to enter, while a popular song in Malawi considers all the possible destinations of the labour migrant but balks at “ku-Joni (Johannesburg) where there are ladders going down”. These sefela singers are bolder. One graphic poem describes a mine accident in which a hundred men died: “It’s me who survived, a cannibal of a man, / I was pulling corpses from under rocks, / People’s children have rotted; they smell, / They already swarm with maggots, / No, but these mine affairs, you can leave them.” Another, in an astonishing turn of trope, uses the paraphernalia of mining cables, ore-buckets, bad food and infested clothing, the unexploded charge left in a drill hole as metaphors for poetic composition: I (recite) as long as the cable pulling ore-buckets around the scotch-winch. I refuse (to empty) into the collecting drum, Even back down to the diggings still full . . . .
<p class=”poem”>What do I say to you, gamblers?
I am a dog’s stomach; I don’t get cooked.
I am skin with lice; I am not worn.
I am nest of mites; I am not entered.
I am like a charge that remained in the ore-face (unexploded).</p>

Coplan is an anthropologist and a former professional musician. He is very good on the popular culture of shebeens, gang warfare and prostitution. His descriptions are vivid and he packs his text with fascinating detail such as that “No17” is slang for something out of control because that’s what the label on a bottle of Lion lager reads as, when drained and upside-down. In one startling passage, he gets migrants to perform for him the dance at which handsome new recruits are distributed to the older miners as their compound “wives”. On the poetics of sefela he is less agile. His approach is thematic, but the themes are anthropological (birth, herding, initiation, migration), the songs being raided for insights into these life stages. Though his quotations are generous, it is a little disappointing that he offers only two complete texts (if the University of Chicago Press is responsible for this, then shame on them; they should be urged to publish an edited selection of the “dozens of recordings” Coplan made). In his comments on the making of sefela, he is too dependent on the rather wooden comments (wooden in contrast to his own lively style) of earlier experts, to the effect that metaphors have “both emotional and ideational content”, or that games are classified by “the perceptible qualities inherent in those modes of production”. Throughout the text, he tends to insert adjectives like “intertextual”, “hypertextual” and “metapoetic” into sentences which work perfectly well without them. These over-the-shoulder glances at postmodernism seem unnecessary in the discussion of a genre in which, if the author is dead, there’s no performance and the audience goes home disappointed. What is needed is an aesthetic which has the author alive and kicking and which gives full weight to the authority of his or her language, an authority which Hugh Tracey was the first to label “poetic licence”. It is not for nothing that these singers are known collectively as “the eloquent ones”, or individually by such sobriquets as “Wheels” (because of his rolling style of delivery) or “Mr Worldly” (because of his deployment of several languages).

Coplan concludes that “the continuing development of Sesotho as a living culture guiding autonomous social action has passed in large degree from aristocratic retainers and praise singers to the inveterate travellers”. It is hard not to have some sneaking sympathy with the Mosotho professor who complained to Coplan that “these things . . . bars and prostitutes . . . were never in Lesotho, they have been brought in from South Africa”. But with this book the ball is in the professor’s court. It is in the imagined world of sefela that Lesotho’s future, whatever it may be, is contained. As for African studies, may the gods send us many such books.


First published Times Literary Supplement, 2 June, 1995.


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Walking a Step with Soyinka

Review of Wole Soyinka, The Open Sore of a Continent: a personal narrative of the Nigerian crisis ( Oxford University Ptress, 1996); Collected Plays (2 vols., re-issued Oxford University Press, 1996); and Kole Omotoso, Achebe or Soyinka? A Study in Contrasts (Zell Publishers, 1996)

When Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Nigerian novelist, playwright and President of the Movement for the Salvation of the Ogoni People was hanged on November 10, 1995, following a rigged and rushed trial, the machinery of execution had rusted from disuse. As he was being led away from the gallows after the third or fourth botched attempt to kill him, he cried out “Why are you people doing this to me? What sort of a nation is this?” It is the question that haunts Wole Soyinka’s newest book.

Despair and anger about Africa are commonplace. Writers who address it need a rare eloquence if they are not to lag far behind what is said openly in streets and bars and market places. What can a mere author add to the raging scorn, the inventive scatology, the cackling contempt for corruption and brutality that are the substance of today’s “oral traditions”? Or when the people have been bombed or hacked into silence, or herded into refugee columns, criss-crossing borders with their pathetic possessions and their trail of corpses, what role is there for African writers agonizing in their enforced exiles?

Soyinka’s title echoes, perhaps unconsciously, an earlier despairing comment on Africa, when the dying Livingstone, himself haemorrhaging, confided to his journal the prayer that someone would abolish the slave trade, “this open sore of the world”. It was a plea that played a part in the colonizing experiment, recruiting philanthropy as well as greed and authoritarianism, to the partition of Africa. The boundaries created in that scramble have, with minor adjustments, given birth to, or been aborted as, the independent “nations” that are the object of Soyinka’s present enquiries.

I write “enquiries” advisedly, because whatever questions Soyinka puts to his readers, he puts equally urgent questions to himself. If he demands with Ken Saro-Wiwa “What sort of a nation is this?”, he asks himself what he is doing as a Nigerian writer, or as a writer from Nigeria. The latest twist in this long saga is that the Nigerian junta, having detained and exiled their Nobel laureate, have charged Soyinka (and eleven others) with the capital offence of high treason.

The Open Sore of a Continent is framed by a personal account of events in Nigeria since the annulled election of June 1993, and is valuable on that account alone. Chief Moshood K. O. Abiola, who won that election, remains in detention, and his senior wife Kudirat has been assassinated. The military junta, which has misruled Nigeria effectively since 1966, has succeeded in convincing some friendly governments that it acted to preserved Nigeria’s “unity” against the threat of Yoruba dominance – despite the fact that Chief Abiola is a Muslim and that his Social Democratic Party won a majority of the votes in northern and eastern Nigeria, as well as in the western region where most of the Yoruba people live. Meanwhile, in the defence of that same “unity”, the junta has targeted the hapless Ogoni people in their struggle against the depredations of Royal Dutch/Shell, executing Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight others. It is this taboo issue of ethnic nationalism that Soyinka, a Yoruba, tackles head on.

On Nigeria, his case is simple. The military, and the world outside, should accept the results of the 1993 election. But the larger issues loom. What constitutes nationalism, and what are its territorial implications? Soyinka’s pursuit of these questions makes The Open Sore a book of significance.

To Africanists of the 1950s, the State was not a problem. Recaptured from colonialism, it could be made the means of raising African living standards to those of the developed world. Some even argued that state formation in Africa had occurred independently of European rule, that colonialism had been no more than an interlude in Africa’s long history. Faced with evidence of the widening gap between rich and poor nations, aggravated by the first oil crisis, the argument of the 1970s was that the State should be recaptured from the petit-bourgeois nationalists who were looting it for their own ends, and made to serve a revolutionary agenda. The claim of more recent studies, as diverse as Jean-Francois Bayart’s The Politics of the Belly (1989) and Basil Davidson’s The Black Man’s Burden (1993), is that the State is itself the problem. An alien imposition, owing nothing to African culture or skills, the ex-colonial African State with its constitutional, bureaucratic, educational and linguistic inheritance, is a violation of African history. Its disappearance, with the politics of “state-collapse”, need not be bad news.

Kole Omotoso’s Achebe or Soyinka? contributes to this debate with a fresh accusation. It has to be said that his book is flawed, riddled with inconsistencies and judgments that are patently untrue. He charges Achebe with refusing to write of the “middle” generation of Christian Nigerians whom, Igbo-fashion, he regards as “traitors”, preferring pre-colonial heroes or contemporaries. Can Omotoso have read Things Fall Apart, with its wholly sympathetic portrait of Mr Brown the missionary, and of Nwoye, Okonkwo’s son, alienated by his father’s rigour, appalled by the abandoned twins wailing in the forest, and lured irresistibly by the music of evangelism? For all his neo-traditionalism, Achebe is far too fair-minded a writer not to recognize the social and aesthetic reasons for Christianity’s success in Africa.

The contrast addressed by the title is the claim, much touted in Nigerian criticism, that Achebe writes “simple and easy to read” narratives which “the people” can understand, while Soyinka’s sophisticated obscurity is elitist and neo-colonial and designed to impress foreigners. Omotoso describes this as “premature and superficial”, noting that some oral forms, such as divination songs, can also be “obscure”. But having rejected one type of xenophobia as a means of contrasting Nigeria’s most distinguished writers, he sets up the equivalent charge that Achebe sees the world as an Igbo and Soyinka as a Yoruba and that neither has anything to say of northerners or of minorities.

Soyinka came to prominence young, and it is true that a few poems in his first volume are cluttered and dense. But what he demonstrated very early, especially in his plays, was a mastery of metaphor, of linked images unfolding until the moment when the drama is consummated and the whole radiates as myth. He has testified generously that he learned this studying Shakespeare with G. Wilson Knight at the University of Leeds. But this is also the main characteristic of the Yoruba ijala or praises (not just divination songs) which, with their wit and wordplay, their transcendental toughness and complexity, have always been Soyinka’s most immediate inspiration. It is Nigerians educated in the stilted bureaucratic English that passes for a national language who have trouble with this, not the so-called “masses” (nor indeed foreign audiences).

Yet Achebe or Soyinka? contains one central argument of troubling importance.

The first African writers, says Omotoso, were pan-Africanists. They were concerned with the liberation of the continent rather than of the territories defined by colonial boundaries. When, like Achebe and Soyinka, they turned to themes and images more authentically and explicitly “African”, they found their materials in their own backgrounds, making the transition from the pan-African to the local and the ethnic without pausing to consider the new “states” which were coming into existence. “Few African writers”, charges Omotoso, “have attempted to understand the kind of pressure that African politicians have had to bear.” By the time poets, dramatists and novelists discovered “the State” in the first years of independence, they were already concerned with its failures, writing their satires on incompetence and corruption. At the core of the “literature of disillusionment” were the very ethnic metaphors that were tearing states like Nigeria apart.

One of Omotoso’s examples is Soyinka’s Kongi’s Harvest (1967), included in the welcome reissue of his Collected Plays (though it is misleading of Oxford University Press to continue calling these “collected” volumes, when they contain nothing more recent than 1973). Kongi’s Harvest opens with a drum roll, coaxing the audience to rise for the national anthem, and then mocks them by raising the curtain and chanting instead the official praises of the Oba Danlola, the play’s hero, currently in detention. From this point on, two rival systems of authority are acted out. Kongi has the trappings of a national flag and anthem, an organizing secretary, Right and Left ears of state, a Five-Year Development Plan, a Carpenters’ Brigade of young thugs, a Women’s Auxiliary Corps, and a “reformed” fraternity of elders charged with the task of formulating the new philosophy of Kongism. Danlola has the religious authority of an Oba. The land’s fertility and the prospects for harvest are vested in him. He is associated with song, dance, warmth and a language rich in symbol – as well as (through his heir) with the city’s best nightclub and the new agricultural station. The marvellous thing about the play is the internal consistency of its harvest imagery, culminating in the moment when the year’s first yam is presented to Kongi who is supposed to sample it on the people’s behalf, but who passes it to an official taster in case it has been poisoned. These images are Yoruba in origin, invested with Soyinka’s favourite myth of Ogun, but the play is in English and entirely accessible.

The problem for African writers of the 1960s was not that they ignored the State – how could they when it was banning their works, or detaining them or dispatching them into exile? It was, rather, that everything to do with the colonial and ex-colonial states seemed utterly banal compared with the social and religious hierarchies they had supplanted. The argument of The Black Man’s Burden is already reflected in the literature of three decades back.

Soyinka denies that The Open Sore is a requiem for Nigeria, or that he wishes the federation to collapse into ever-diminishing components. The heart of his book is an extended survey of “national questions” in Europe, the Middle East, North America, Africa and the former Soviet Union. If this sounds absurdly ambitious, the fact remains that he pulls it off. His analysis of the predicaments of Kurds and Rwandans, Bosnian Muslims and French Canadians, Basques and Kuwaitis (not forgetting the “miracle” of Mandela’s South Africa), is an intellectual tour de force, enriched by his experiences as a traveller and his unfailing gift for language. Who but Soyinka, strolling through the market at Samarkand, would record “It did not require your tragic-romantic recollection of James Elroy Flecker’s verse play Hassan to make you aware you were plunged into a different culture”? Or, noting the Republic of Ireland’s periodic doubts about incorporating Protestants, would characterize the IRA as “a national longing that has nowhere to go”?

Acknowledging, with Omotoso, that for most Nigerians, Pan-African visions have contracted to the exigencies of salvaging the “colonial endowment”, Soyinka concludes with a sober and dignified statement of where he stands:

For the moment, I am able to claim that I accept Nigeria as a duty, that is all. I accept Nigeria as a responsibility, without sentiment. I accept that entity, Nigeria, as a space into which I happen to have been born, and therefore a space within which I am bound to collaborate with fellow occupants in the pursuit of justice and ethical life . . . I accept that space as a space of opportunities and responsibilities that must extend beyond its boundaries . . . I accept that space as one that is best kept intact.

In July 1994, Tai Solarin, the septuagenarian educationalist long known as the “conscience of the nation”, joined a march for justice organized by Soyinka with the words, “Ah Wole, I thought I would come and walk a step or two with you.” He died the following morning. Today, as he confronts his would-be executioners, Soyinka has more readers and admirers walking with him than he can possibly know.

First published Times Literary Supplement, 13 Junes, 1997.


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A New Start for Stone

José Saramago, Journey to Portugal, A Pursuit of Portugal’s History and Culture. Translated by Amanda Hopkinson and Nick Caistor (Harvill, 2000). 

José Saramago, off form, is fatally easy to parody. At his best, as in O Ano da Morte de Ricardo Reis (1984), he is as good as any European novelist now writing. His loose but subtle style – those long, unpunctuated sentences reading like the transference of thought itself to paper – is as receptive to ideas and impressions as a wire touched by a insect’s wing. Here, though, in what for such a late-maturing writer must count as an early book, he has yet to make it work for him. At one point he mocks Dom Joao VI for saying things like “His Majesty has the stomach ache” or “His Majesty would like pork scratchings!” But he does the same throughout, referring to himself up to eight times a page in the third person as “the traveller” (or occasionally “we”). It is a sad miscalculation, making him appear (as he is emphatically not) arch and portentous.

Journey to Portugal dates from 1979 when, at the age of fifty-seven and after various jobs and several minor works, Saramago became a full time writer. It was not published in Portugal until 1990, after the huge success of his novels of the 1980s. Presumably, his Nobel Prize- winning status has brought it into English. As a guide to Portugal, it fails. Saramago spends far too little time in far too many places, indulging far too many idiosyncratic whimsies, for anyone but a Saramago buff to want to retrace his steps. As a guide to Saramago, though, it is invaluable. For those already hooked on the major novels, Journey to Portugal is a must.

Looking back from a vantage point of twenty-two years, we can see two projects here. The first, over and above the wish to learn about his country, is to find himself as a writer. His six-month quest for material pays off handsomely, for many of the seeds of his later novels are here. In the family that lent its oxen to haul stones to build the church at Vimioso, is surely the inspiration, in Memorial do Convento (1982), for those oxen dragging marble slabs from Pero Pinheiro through the deep valley of Cheleiros to build the convent at Mafra. On his dispirited visit to the convent, he is unimpressed by an architecture speaking of only absolutism and the Inquisition. The very randomness of his journey suggests something of the picaresque wanderings of A Jangada de Pedra (1986). His fascination with ruined castles and with the tiles in the church of Sao Vincent de Fora depicting scenes from the conquest of Lisbon, looks forward to Historia do Cerco de Lisboa (1989). His admiration for an anonymous crucifix in the museum at Aveiro (“a back that must have borne heavy weights”, a face “the most human the traveller has ever set his eyes on”) anticipates the working, questioning Christ in O Evangelho Segundo Jesus Cristo (1991).

Particularly interesting is his fascination with the miracles of folklore – the child Christ of Cartolinha who led the people of Miranda into battle against the Spaniards, St George of Braga who disgraced the priests when the rats ran out of his belly, the cockerel of Barcelos that, after being oven-roasted, crowed aloud from the carving dish to proclaim the innocence of a traveller unjustly accused. He retells these legends with a relish that makes it plain the fashionable “magic realism” of his novels has nothing to do with Latin American models but has a very local source.

The second project, in the aftermath of the carnation revolution of 1974, is to seize back Portuguese culture from the monarchy and the Inquisition and the Salazar dictatorship, and restore it to the people who carved stone and terraced the valleys and trod grapes and lived out obscure existences. A Marxist design, then, but there is nothing simple about this patriotic Marxism.

Portuguese Communism is a deeply ambiguous phenomenon – antediluvian Stalinist in its official postures, but attracting the allegiance of the most cultured, inventive and artistic talents of a whole generation. Here, for instance, is Saramago, the Communist, on a pair of lovers unable to point out to him the Chapel of Our Lady of Refuge in Romarigães: “Had the traveller not been so apprehensive, he would have rebuked these two ignorant lovers with little future ahead of them if they didn’t learn more about love than its earthly manifestation.” I lost count of how many churches, convents and shrines he visits. The index lists 250, but these are only the sub-entries for his visits to towns with more than one, and the final figure must be at least double that.

Journey to Portugal is more of a book of churches even than the 1963 classic by Ann Bridge and Susan Lowndes, The Selective Traveller in Portugal.

But with important distinctions. Saramago is in ecstasy over the tiny, weathered Romanesque churches he encounters in Tras-os-Montes and Minho, and he is prepared to accommodate the Gothic. But with rare exceptions, he draws the line at the Baroque, is normally a little bored by anything Renaissance, and finds most Manueline architecture too much a matter of external decoration. He loves granite, but hasn’t a good word for marble which doesn’t respond with roughness to the hand. Even with the Romanesque, he draws a distinction between the churches and the Church, the former carved by the labour of masons, whose individual marks are still visible, the latter “a joyless thing”, its only pleasures being “celestial and contemplative or mystical and ecstatic”.

The difficulty with this is that it sets what went wrong with Portugal so very far in the past. It is not just rock and roll Saramago detests, or the adverts in Porto, or the disco music he has to put up with over lunch in Penamacor. It is not just that he never once mentions football stadiums or bullfighting or cycle racing, or that he is scornful about American millionaires and German tourists and the despoiling of the Algarve. He is equally uncomfortable with the university at Coimbra, where he doesn’t visit the great library. He finds no challenge to the mind in the palace at Queluz, while the magnificent double cloister at the monastery of the Jeronimos is “beautiful but overloaded”. To conclude this catalogue of epic clearances, he reverences the houses of the writers he most admires – the novelist Camilo Castello Branco, the neglected poet Afonso Duarte, and Almeida-Garret whose own Viagens na Minha Terra he quotes. But he visits Povoa de Varzim, birthplace of Portugal’s greatest novelist, without mentioning Eca de Queiroz. I was reminded of that moment in The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis when Fernando Pessoa is rebuked by the statue of Camoes for not mentioning him in Mensagem (“it was jealousy, but no matter”).

Ideally, one feels, Saramago would like to start again with this landscape. Not just before the dictatorship of “the hypocrite” (his only mention of Salazar), but before the earthquake when “a cultural bond” between Lisbon “and its inhabitants was broken”, before Philip II, before the Inquisition, back in the days when stone and miracles stood against the Moors. Visiting the castle at Monsanto with its astonishing piled boulders and ruined chapel, bare to the elements, he tries to imagine the lives of those who worshipped and took refuge there. As he walks back down to the village, the old men and women are sitting at their doorsteps, in the Portuguese way:

Take a man, take a stone, man, stone, stone, man, if there were time to take them and tell all their stories, to tell them and to listen, to listen and tell, once you’ve learned their common tongue, their essential I, the essential you buried beneath all the tons of history and of culture, so that just like the boulders in the castle, the entire body of Portugal would emerge from the ground.

So Jose Saramago began, in his mature style, with Dom Joao, the fifth monarch so named in the royal list, visiting the bedchamber of the Queen, and with the maimed Baltasar Mateus, otherwise known as Sete-Sois, crossing the Tagus for his encounter with Blimunda and the flying machine of Padre Bartolomeu. The rest has become history.


First published Times Literary Supplement, 3 August 2001


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“My Dear Osagyefo”

Letters between Dr Banda and Dr Nkrumah

Dear Dr Nkrumah, “This is my usual periodic letter to you. It brings nothing new of importance.” So begins, evidently in mid-course, a fascinating correspondence between Dr Hastings Banda of Malawi and Dr Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana (the original files are held in the Ghana National Archive in Accra, with photocopies in the Southern African Archive, University of York). The date is February 1956. Dr Banda is in his late fifties, and is writing from Kumasi in the Ashanti district of the Gold Coast, where he has been living since 1953.

His companion is Mrs French, former receptionist at his practice in North London, at whose divorce he had been cited as co-respondent. Dr Nkrumah, at forty-six, is prime minister of a territory that within fourteen months will become the first colony in sub-Saharan Africa to gain its independence.

Banda’s professional life as a general practitioner in Britain was over. His long political campaign against the creation of the Central African Federation had apparently failed. His lonely quest for acceptance in the homeland of that Presbyterian mission where he gained his first schooling and which set the standards he had lived by for thirty years had ended in scandal and flight. So he writes in some frustration from the fringe of great events, compelled to play courtier to a former protege. (“I doubt if there is any other person who takes a keener personal interest and pride in your achievement . . . . Nothing I can tell you will be new to you . . . if at all possible, let me hear from you.”) There are five letters from this early period, four of Banda’s and one of Nkrumah’s. Banda casts himself as elder statesman, congratulating “his friend” on this or that initiative and enlarging on his public speeches in a manner that flatters with judicious advice. Nkrumah is right not to be “too rigid” in negotiations over independence. But whatever concessions are necessary, and in politics concessions are often necessary, over the Volta Lake and River Project, “I would not give in if I were you”. He explains: “as you have, at least once or twice said, the economy of this country is weakened by too much dependence on one crop, namely cocoa . . . . How I wish it were possible for you to recruit labour from Nyasaland and Portuguese East Africa for your vast development schemes.”

Nkrumah’s reply, dated February 22, 1956, is so enviably ebullient it can only have been received with mixed feelings:

“I am very glad Mrs French thought I looked well. I must confess that I feel very well. Many people marvel at this, especially during the rather troublesome time we have been going through lately. I think they feel that I should, according to the book of rules, have a furrowed brow, an anxious eye and sunken cheeks though sleepless nights and loss of appetite. I have long known I am not true to type, but that I should flourish at such times is something that staggers even me! The whole answer, of course, is that I never brood once I have solved a problem to my own satisfaction. While I am busy solving it, however, I am told by my staff that I am as savage and unapproachable as a lion in his den!”

Then comes a small disaster. Nkrumah has written asking for advice on whom to invite from southern Africa to Ghana’s independence celebrations. The letter never reaches Banda, but the reproof does, conveyed through a minor trade union official. “Such a letter would never have been delayed in being answered”, he insists, commenting at length on the carelessness of postal clerks in Kumasi.

He is delighted that Colonial Secretary Lennox-Boyd has been invited (it might result in “the saving of faces”) together with Welensky of Southern Rhodesia and Strydom of South Africa, but does not think they will attend. He does not recommend inviting anyone from Northern Rhodesia, but he suggests three names from Nyasaland: James Chinyama of the Legislative Council, Manoa Chirwa of the Federal Parliament, and T. D. Banda of the Nyasaland African Congress. All three were later to become victims of Banda’s own rise to power.

Yet for all the frustrations of his position and the ironies of hindsight, Banda’s early letters are often deeply moving. “My Dear Dr Nkrumah”, he writes in April 1956, “please allow me to tell you what a joy it was to me to read the proposals for the independent Ghana. A lump came up into my throat and only with difficulty did I restrain myself from shedding tears of joy.” The passions of that generation of African leaders, bruised by their long contact with colonial racism, are too easily forgotten in the turmoil and horrors that have followed. There is innocence in Banda’s joy, the perfect foil to Nkrumah’s exuberance in power. “The birth of a truly independent Ghana cannot fail to arouse deep emotions of joy among all Africans, no matter what tribes or where they live. Because it means that at last, we have one truly independent African modern state, to which we can all look with pride.” Time and again he comes back to this theme: “if you succeed, the whole of Africa is redeemed. It may not be in my time, but it is redeemed. If you fail, the whole of Africa is doomed and doomed for centuries.” He recalls their meetings in London and Manchester. “Can you still remember that big map? It seemed a wild dream then. It does not seem so wild now, does it?” His marginal gloss explains, “I mean the dream of the redemption of Africa.”

But there is also a warning, increasingly ominous in their subsequent correspondence: “it has been a constant source of worry to me that through the action of some stupid and idiot fanatic . . . your great work might be cut short, that is, by their attempts on your life by one means or another”.

No further letters are available for the next five years. Banda’s career in Ghana was not a happy one. The relationship with Mrs French collapsed in acrimony, and she left for Britain with their son. There were rumours, perhaps malicious, about schizophrenia and illegal abortions. Then in 1958 his political career is revived when he is invited home by the new leaders of the Nyasaland African Congress to head the revived struggle against the Central African Federation. He is detained by the federal authorities, released by the British, and wins an election campaign. When his corres-pondence with Dr Nkrumah resumes in 1962, he is himself about to become prime minister of a territory on course to independence.

Between February 1962 and Malawi’s Independence in July 1964, thirteen letters exist. Ten are Banda’s, eight of them written from his private address in Limbe where he maintained a small practice. It continues, in short, as a private correspondence, though the letters are now addressed to “The Osagyefo”, and later “The Osagyefo Dr Kwame Nkrumah President”. This praise name he was later to copy and elaborate.

Banda’s letters share three concerns. The first continues to speak of Ghana as the pattern for African development. The ideological implications of this need not be taken too seriously. Banda was never the man to write off his Ghana years as irrelevant, and his habit of lecturing young associates on the lessons to be drawn from his own experiences continued into his old age. Nkrumah was offering aid from Ghana’s cocoa wealth to fund political parties in Southern Africa, together with personnel for development projects. It is fair to add that no other model existed of five years’ standing of how (or how not) to govern an independent African country. So Banda misses no opportunity to send his parliamentary supporters, party members, members of the Women’s League, and personal associates such as Cecilia Kadzamira his “secretary” to study “the progress Ghana has made under and through your wise leadership”.

Linked with this is his personal admiration for Nkrumah. “To me you have long since ceased to be a person or an individual. You are the symbol or personification of Africa and all that Africa means to true nationalists . . . No single African leader has done more for Africa: no single African country has done more than Ghana.” It is the kind of flattery Nkrumah was already demanding of his own supporters, but Banda’s words are not flummery. Nkrumah is cast as the man with the vision of a united, modernized, non-aligned African continent. Banda echoes this vision and supplements it with political gossip.

He regrets that other countries are not following Ghana’s example (“Independence seems to drive us Africans apart, instead of bringing us together”), and he blames Nigeria and Tanganyika for “trying to isolate Ghana and diminish the influence of yourself in inter-African affairs”. Increasingly, at this period, Banda’s letters invoke a world in which the righteous (Nkrumah, Banda himself) are surrounded by implacable enemies -the British press, all Americans, and a host of upstart, ungrateful Africans.

The bulk of these letters, then, are horrified reactions to threats to Nkrumah’s safety, specifically to the assassination attempts of August 1962 and January 1964, separated by the actual killing of President Sylvanus Olympio of Togo in January 1963. “Make certain that you surround yourself with trusted, tried and proven friends,” he writes on September 2, 1962, “both in the Government and the top layers of the party.” Then, on January 12, 1964:

“The news of yet another attempt on your life, through (sic) me into a frightful sense of horror from which I have not yet recovered. And this sense of horror was made worse by news that the man involved was, in fact, a policeman attached to your personal entourage. This worries me greatly. It worries me because I do not know, my dear Osagyefo, to what extent the whole Police Force is infiltrated by the enemy . . . . You have great work to do in Africa. Any attempt on your life, is an attempt on Africa itself.”

He reports on policemen “like those I knew in Kumasi” who were once Nkrumah’s opponents, yet now hold high office. Everyone must be investigated “preferably secretly”, even the intelligence services. Self-evidently, the horrors expressed here touch Banda in more ways than one. The measures he proposes were very soon to become his own practice.

Only three of Nkrumah’s letters from this period are in the file. Two are brief responses to the attempts on his life, again notable for the stylishness of their sangfroid (“This was certainly a very unpleasant business, but bad as such things are, very often good comes out of them”). The third, dated April 15, 1964, less than three months before Malawi’s independence, is a carefully argued document demonstrating a new concern.

The bearer is John Tettegah, dispatched by Nkrumah on a trip that took him to Kenya, Tanganyika, Uganda, Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland to promote the latest of his panAfrican initiatives, namely, the all-African Trade Union Federation (and, incidentally, to field complaints about the non-arrival of Ghana’s promised aid). Nkrumah was sponsoring this Ghana-based federation, of which Tettegah was first secretary, as a rival to the existing organizations (the Industrial and Commercial Federation of Trade Unions and the World Federation of Trade Unions). He had recently experienced renewed labour unrest and was inclined to put the blame on “foreign interference”:

“The ICFTU and the WFTU are only interested in promoting their respective claims for recognition in Africa, whereas our interests lie in insulating our labour groups from the hostilities that have torn foreign labour organizations apart and created labour and industrial unrest among them for so long. For us in Africa, it should be clear that we cannot indulge in expensive industrial strikes and lockouts. We must concentrate our efforts and exert all enemies towards the urgent tasks of national reconstruction. The welfare of the African worker is therefore our first concern. This is the language which the capitalist power-groups in Europe and America have yet to understand.”

“Unfortunately”, he continues, the Nyasaland TUC continued to be affiliated to the ICFTU “which has been known to incite strikes against African leaders whose policies are not acceptable to the Western bloc”. Even “more embarrassing”, Yatuta Chisisa, one of Banda’s parliamentary secretaries, had recently attended an ICFTU meeting in Addis Abba. The letter ends subtly with an appeal to Banda to give Tettegah “sound advice and guidance”.

Banda’s response (in Tettegah’s report to Nkrumah) was that the contents of the letter were “true”, but that Trade Unions were “insignificant” . . . . “Dr Banda, I must mention, tends to under-estimate the power of Trade Unions completely.” It was the first hint of doubts in Ghana about the direction of Dr Banda’s Government, and the first time a direct appeal from Banda’s mentor was to be ignored.

Ghana was lavishly represented at Malawi’s independence celebrations with a delegation of five ministers, thirty-two members of the police band, twenty-seven members of the Institute of Arts and Culture, and the Uhuru dance band.

However, reports Krobo Edusie, Minister of Foreign Affairs, who led the delegation, “It became very clear to us that Dr Banda is not well grounded ideologically. In most of his speeches, save one, he never mentioned African Unity, etc. The stress was on the Commonwealth and on the United Nations.” Part of the blame lay in Malawi’s “land-locked problem” that, in Banda’s view, necessitated co-operation and good relations with the Portuguese in Mozambique, and with the United States who already had “about 3,000 Peace Corps” in Malawi. Interestingly, in the light of what was to follow, Edusie also blamed Tanganyika’s influence on Malawi’s young Cabinet ministers, in particular Kanyama Chiume, Minister of Information, for Banda’s “change of attitude”.

Four months later, in November 1964, Edusie was back in Malawi on a secret mission from Nkrumah with personal letters to Banda and to Julius Nyerere of Tanganyika. The context was the aftermath of Malawi’s Cabinet crisis, that defining event in the new nation’s history, when the most talented members of Banda’s Cabinet resigned in protest. Though Banda’s social and foreign policies were given as the cause, the real issue was his autocratic, increasingly messianic, style of leadership. New to power, the ministers were easily outmanoeuvred, overlooking the importance of the Malawi Congress Party, and losing a confidence vote in a parliament packed with Banda’s nominees. When violence erupted, several of the exministers, including Chiume, were given asylum in Dar es Salaam. In Nkrumah’s letters, Banda was “advised to visit Ghana during his U.N. trip so that he may have the benefit of Osagyefo’s counsel . . . and advised about the dangers of friendly overseas overtures to the Portuguese”. Nyerere was warned “that Banda would not tolerate any interference in the internal affairs of Malawi”.

By 1964, Nyerere, at forty-two, wielded more influence than Nkrumah in Eastern and Southern Africa, and Dar es Salaam was the principal base of the nationalist movements later to achieve power in Angola, Mozambique and South Africa. His response to Nkrumah’s assertion of seniority was cool: “He would obviously like a complete rapprochement with Osagyefo”, Edusie reported, “provided in his simple view Osagyefo would leave Africa alone and stop causing trouble”. But it was Banda’s response that caused heart-searching. His style of leadership was “unpopular because he was following Ghana . . . he used what he described as ‘his Ghana methods’ and he gave the impression that his actions had the support of the Ghana government”. This had caused, noted Edusie dryly, “some confusion in African nationalist circles”.

The file contains eight more letters and one telegram, and they bring the sad story to a swift conclusion. Two, from Banda, concern mundane matters -a visit by his security officer, a new High Commissioner in Accra. Nkrumah responds on April 24, 1965, with one of his last political statements. After promising that he has been “able to arrange some financial assistance from our limited resources for you”, he rebukes Banda for “compromising over Portugal”:

“Our only hope for survival against this deadly encroachment on our political and economic freedom is our ability to stand together against the imperialists and colonialists. As soon as we stand together in this way, the colonialists will be at bay, and we will not go to them cap in hand or be subjected to undue subservience to them. In my view we can protect ourselves best in Africa by uniting under a continental Union government which alone can help us solve our mounting problems in Africa. You should therefore proclaim this at the top of your voice on every suitable occasion.”

Banda’s next letter is stiff and formal, regretting that, with the change of date for the OAU summit conference in Accra, he will not be able to attend.

Warned by his High Commissioner that this is being interpreted as “a break”, he writes again personally with all the old warmth. “As you know, Kwame, you and I have been together for over twenty years now . . . . Whether I agree with you or not, I could never gang up with anyone against you.” He attends the conference in October, and is flown to Kumasi for a private visit.

The next item is a telegram from Nkrumah to Banda, sent in cipher through T. K. Owusu, Ghana’s High Commissioner in Malawi, and appealing for clemency in the case of Silombela, sentenced to be publicly hanged “for subversion against your person and government”. In the aftermath of the Malawian Cabinet crisis of 1964, Henry Chipembere, one of the dissident ministers, launched an abortive raid on the government capital Zomba from his base at Fort Johnson. It was an ill-considered revolt, ending for Chipembere in permanent exile. Silombela, one of his lieutenants, remained in the Fort Johnson area, organizing low-scale guerrilla activity until his capture in 1965.

Nkrumah continues, “I would like to make this special appeal to you to commute the public hanging to a sentence of imprisonment . . . on purely humanitarian grounds.”

Owusu’s return telegram describes Banda’s and his own reactions, not omitting to note the young pioneer connection. “He read through, held his chin up and replied he could not reconsider his original decision. Silombela should be hanged . . . . The inhabitants in Fort Johnson district are predominantly Muslim, and their belief in absurdities is profound . . . . I want to give them a practical demonstration that Chipembere and his henchmen are not superhuman beings.” Owusu’s telegram concludes, “It will be a horrible execution.”

On February 16, Banda wrote to Nkrumah requesting the closure of Ghana’s mission in Malawi. With deliberate cruelty, he chose March 6, Ghana’s Independence Day, for the break in relations to become effective. Nkrumah is unlikely to have seen this letter. He was on a state visit to China and on February 29 was overthrown by a military coup. In July 1966, Hastings Banda became President (later Life-President) of the Republic of Malawi with the praise name His Excellency the President, the Ngwazi, Dr H. Kamuzu Banda.

First published Times Literary Supplement, 17 August, 2001.

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