The Burdens of Creativity in Africa – reflections
A Brazilian writer told a stunned audience in an international writers conference in Rio de Janeiro that writers should not worry too much about the Ministry of Culture imposing its interpretations of culture on them. ‘What we, as writers, should worry about is the culture of the Minister of Culture.’ Ask any African minister of culture which African novels he or she has read recently and that is enough to earn yourself a secret agent file. A haunted poet from West Africa told me that he was afraid of four people in his country. He feared the Minister of the Interior because the man was in charge of the police who arrest him. He feared the Minister of Justice because he made the laws under which the writer is arrested. He feared the Minister of Culture, who wants to impose his definition of culture on the writer. He feared the Minister of Information, who has the tendency to think that writers are his unpaid public relations officers.
The Italian novelist Italo Calvino once said there is a danger to literature if politicians concern themselves too much with matters literary. There was also a danger to literature if politicians show a total lack of interest in literature. The ideal, he speculate, was a healthy tension in which each respected the others province and left it alone. As far back as 1987 I challenged the Minister of Culture to produce his own example of what he publicly demanded writers produce: ‘socialist novels and plays’. I argued that since the minister knew what these socialist literary works were all about, he should go ahead and write one himself which we could use as a model. It is writers who should be in the business of telling the minister what novels it is possible to write and how to write them, not the other way round.
Ironically, the current Zimbabwe government, in power since 1980, perfected the laws of fear from colonial times. Before a writer sits down to write a poem or a book, he or she has to think whether the material is likely to endanger public security and threaten law and order. So, the burdened writer sits at home with a manuscript, afraid to take it to the publisher since publishers are required by law to submit to the secret service any creative works likely to endanger public order and security. Not so long ago, mysterious figures broke into my house and stole my two computers and diskettes. When I reported the theft by phone, the police had no car to visit the scene of the crime. I drove to fetch them but when one officer saw me, he asked if I was the writer and journalist. ‘Are you sure this is not a political crime?’ he asked before they left. From then on I knew there would no investigations of the matter.
Before the thefts, I had been offered a farm on condition that I stop criticizing government policies. When I turned down the offer because it was stolen property, I was offered lots of money, which I was not obliged to account for, in order to travel the whole world persuading all PEN centres to agree to the governments invitation to host the annual PEN annual Congress in Zimbabwe. ‘The governments image is bad internationally. If you bring writers here, the government will pamper them so they can write good things about our country,’ the government emissary had said to me. Knowing the futility of such an enterprise, I refused to take the money under the pretext that if the writers agreed to come to Zimbabwe, I could not guarantee what they were going to write about the country. From persuasion and the lure of money, they went for other alternatives, including incessant death threats against me and my family. The most bizarre was when four armed policemen tried to arrest me at my house alleging that my car had been found in Plumtree, over 700 kilometres away, with a load of 23.5 kilos of marijuana. The numberplates were of a car which I had sold through a garage five years before. Finally I left under the pretext that I was visiting the United Kingdom and returning after five days. I have never returned.
Zimbabwe has been classed as one of the worst countries for the profession of journalism. Police in the country called it the crime of practising journalism. Journalists in prison cells are not allowed anywhere near pen and paper. But as a writer, a poet, a playwright, one wants to create new metaphors and symbols of our collective and individual identities. The urge to write is like the urge to live, to fight the silence that suffocates the human soul, especially in Africa. I try to write in order to fight the decay called silence, to communicate with myself so as to search for the ‘other’ in me. I see my writing as defiance of the fear instilled in our society by the cruel laws as well as a ruthless police force. When I take up my pen to write, I feel the strength of standing up and refusing to be silent. No one has the right to deny me the right to deny me the right to describe the colours and scents of the flowers of my dignity or the lack of it. Under a dictatorship, even flowers belong to the state. Even clothes, what we want to wear, belong to the state.
An oppressive system depends on a massive programme to make all citizens imbeciles. A writer has to fight that, especially on the African continent. In the process, new symbols of our collective identity are created against those offered to us by government praise singers and flatterers. What keeps me going is that every new word and metaphor I create is a little muscle in the act of pushing the dictatorship away from our real and imaginative existence. When citizens are not allowed to participate in the affairs of the country in all possible ways, they are in exile. You do not have to be out of your country to be in exile. After all, the very act of creativity is an act of exile since one sits alone in a quiet corner clinging to a vision, writing it down on paper, removed from the day to day activities of other mortals. Six months of total seclusion while one writes a novel, that in itself is exile. Let alone clinging to a vision which those in power refuse to see.
I remember many years ago being accused of being too critical o President Mugabes leadership style and economic and social policies. The usual accusation was: you are being too harsh with this government. If Mugabe goes, there is no one intelligent enough to take over. To which I responded that were over twelve million Zimbabweans capable of running the country since that is the only job for which one does not need any formal qualifications. The writer has to survive if his or her work is to last longer than political regimes. A repressive political regime forces energetic writers to create new, visible and invisible metaphors. When repressive laws were passed, including a ban on criticising the President, I decided to go back to the traditional folk tale as a device to fight the law. African folk tales are a massive tool and device to beat the system creatively. Like in southern Africa, there was always the praise poet, a free spirit who was not only praising the king but used his harsh tongue and poetic skills to chastise the king publicly. And traditionally, the praise poet was never arrested or imprisoned because most African civilisations did not have prisons.
Once upon a time, in the land of animals, the monkey used to boast about its ability to climb the tallest tree in the land. He invite other animals to join him so they could look at the beauty of the landscape from above. The sheep, Monkeys good friend, said he would rather not venture up trees. He preferred to be on the solid ground to see and touch reality. Some animas tried to join Monkey but they could only go so far and not as high as Monkey. So, they gave up, while warning Monkey on the dangers of climbing too high. One day Monkey found the tallest tree. His climbing skills urged him to show the rest that he was the best tree climber in the world. Refusing the warnings of the other animals to desist from the temptation to climb on, Monkey went up higher and higher and higher until he felt he could touch the sky.
All the animals were under a tree, admiring Monkey as he climbed. ‘Stop! It is enough!’ the other animals warned him. But he would not listen. When he had climbed to the top of the tree, he celebrated and danced on the branches, shaking all the leaves and flowers up there. But when he looked down at where he had come from, every animal was in fits of laughter. Every one of them, including sheep, his friend. The cows, the goats, the elephants, the lions, were all dying of laughter. As Monkey returned to the ground, he asked why all the animals were laughing so much. ‘The higher the monkey climbs, the more it exposes its bottom, ‘Sheep said, in between outbursts of mirth. So it is with power of any kind, political or otherwise. The higher one ascends the tree of power, the more the public have a chance to observe and scrutinize ones political or economic bottom.
Adaptation of these innocent looking tales, the use of provocative proverbs and other wise saying – these are some of the devices we inherited from the ancient storytellers, which the writer in oppressive situations finds useful. Only recently a Zimbabwean musician was in trouble for singing an innocent song which celebrates old age. The song was called ‘Bvuma,’ meaning ‘acknowledge,’ narrating the natural cycle of birth, maturity and old age. One has the duty and responsibility to acknowledge ageing as a natural process which is inescapable. When the song came out, the political interpreters were sure the song referred to Mugabe. The musician was haunted by the presidential youth militia and barred from performing publicly in one of our small towns. The song is just a celebration of ageing, it had nothing to do with any politician, the musician argued. They stopped it being aired on radio and television.
Despite the censorship of bad economic policies depriving people of the money to buy books, despite the burden of illiteracy deliberately inflicted upon people so that they are not able to read their own constitution and learn about their basic human rights, an African writer continues to write. Despite the fear instilled in the hearts of the people, an African writer continues to search for the hidden smiles which linger in the hearts of the oppressed. The politician was elected by thousands of voters, so he says, despite the rigging and the writer was elected by no one, so has the right to speak out against abuses which border on the bizarre. With the political madness of our continent, Africa, there is never a shortage of creative material to use in art.