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Andrew Chatora on the faultlines of nation-building

Andrew Chatora’s 2023 novel, Harare Voices and Beyond, interrogates land, race and nationhood in Zimbabwe. Literary journalist Onai Mushava picks apart the allegorical layers of the book.

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Andrew Chatora is a storyteller who hides his stakes in plain sight. The UK-based Zimbabwean novelist gives away the combustibles of his story at the earliest convenience but only names them as they go off in the endgame. Chatora’s books end with a twisted insight that questions our sense of detail and reflows what was already in our face from the beginning. In his debut novella, Diaspora Dreams, we cycle back from the kicker to make sense of the revelation, somehow hinted all along, that the narrator is writing from a mental asylum. Literary critic Tariro Ndoro insightfully characterizes Chatora’s 2023 crime novel, Harare Voices and Beyond, as a why-dunnit rather than a who-dunnit. The novel’s narrator, Rhy Williams, all but confesses to murder in the beginning: “There is no way the courts will let us off for the murder of my brother, Julian – Mother’s son gone rogue.” Going on, we suppose the narrator will now psychoanalyze a family saga and walk us through Harare’s mean streets. While Rhy’s opening confession holds up in the final analysis, the big reveal is that he was not so much the accessory to his mother’s murder of Julian; she was, in fact, his unwitting accessory in the murder. Just like the evil genius, Chatora, to switch the game from the unshuffled card of his deck.

Harare Voices and Beyond is remarkable as a black writer’s handling of Zimbabwe’s land reform from a white perspective. It is a counterintuitive gambit literary critic Memory Chirere associates with Chatora by now. After all, the Mutare-born writer’s first book is unusually about an African man who goes to Britain to teach English to the English. In Harare Voices and Beyond, the land resettlement programme extends, by default, into the questions of race and nationhood in Zimbabwe. With black and white writers usually playing their part to expectation, it is a rare writer who will imagine what it is to be on the other side.  Different sections of Zimbabwe come together uneasily as the book further juxtaposes drug abuse, usually associated with poor urban communities, with the elite underworld of organized crime. For a book packed with as many questions, Chatora wedges his unlikely nation with layers of suspense approaching Dostoyevskyan mindfuck. 

Harare Voices and Beyond is remarkable as a black writer’s handling of Zimbabwe’s land reform from a white perspective

Chatora’s main achievement in this novel is not his journalistic  faithfulness to the faultlines of Zimbabwe’s nation-building. The novel can be better appreciated as an allegorical deconstruction of nation as such. The story follows the narrator’s mother, Mrs. Doris Williams, watching helplessly as the physical and psychological violence of the fast-track resettlement programme claims the lives of her husband, her daughter-in-law and finally her son, Julian. The eternally intoxicated Julian overreaches himself when he sets his mother’s house on fire. Mother fatally knives son in self-defense and falls under the charge of her eldest son who must instruct her in hiding the crime and keep her going. As a mother, Mrs. Williams is the symbol of the nation; as the killer of her rogue son, she embodies the power of life and death a nation administers in the name of justice. In this case, she is in league with her dutiful firstborn son who could do no wrong. Only, we learn in the end, that narrator firstborn, Rhy, is, in fact, masterminding, sponsoring and profiting from the drug and sex rings Julian finally falls prey to so that he is, by moral judgement, his brother’s killer. 

“Doris now has longstanding insomnia,” we are told in the opening passage. As we learn from Fight Club, “When you have insomnia, you’re neither really asleep, and you’re never really awake. With insomnia nothing is real.” Apart from insomnia, Mrs. Williams is “now on chronic restorative medication.” In the Persian classic, Soraya in a Comma, the comatose girl waited on by a cynically detached diaspora is a figure of the country Iran. Chatora’s figure of Zimbabwe, Doris Williams, is not just a black widow type but is herself undead: not quite dead but then not quite living. Chatora is deconstructing the notion of nation itself. There is a part of Zimbabwe that still exists and a part of Zimbabwe that does not quite exists. On yet another scale, distributive maybe, Zimbabwe exists for part of the population but not the rest. The idea of patriotism that is constantly rammed down one’s throat with ideology schools, propaganda curricular from primary to tertiary education, commandeered churches, arts, media, civil service and so on for narrow partisan designs in the name of nation building merely avoids the question: Who is Zimbabwe still working for and who is Zimbabwe no longer working for? 


In the family allegory, the dutiful firstborn and the rogue lastborn personify state capture and ideological whiplash, by turn, in their contrasting relationship with their mother. To translate this to an actual lived picture of everyday Zimbabwe, the party in power is represented in office by alleged drug dealers, alleged bankrollers of forex trade, alleged gold mafia, alleged untouchables whom the criminal justice system simply doesn’t exist for. Like the dutiful son, Rhy, beating around rogue Julian, these are also the people preaching patriotism and propriety on television and ideological cost centers every day. On the other hand, we have the Julian, traumatized and intoxicated all the time. Here is a local exile for whom a mother-son relationship simply does not exist. He almost never calls her mother; only Doris. These are local exiles for whom the nation-citizen relationship  simply does not exist, just as narratives of belonging no longer translate to actual lived inclusion. These are poor Zimbabweans, young Zimbabweans throwing away their lives to drug abuse, disenchanted Zimbabweans un-Zimbabweanizing themselves at home and abroad, chameleon Zimbabweans changing all the time just to avoid change – changing the material of their laughter, changing party colors, changing lines of petty crime and small-time corruption and so on just to avoid addressing the question of fixing their dysfunctional relationship to Zimbabwe. 

Chenjerai Hove Photo: Wiki commons/Perijove

The undead mother-figure as she walks through Chatora’s novel calls to mind Marita in Chenjerai Hove’s Bones. If Marita and Doris are heroines in the respective novels, then they are no superwomen. The nation waits on a revolution to come, when the bones of Nehanda will awaken to break all manner of chains, colonial, postcolonial and patriarchal. But the revolution conceived by Hove and Chatora for women constrained by “egregious disempowerment, exploitation and violence by colonial and postcolonial masculinities” as Kizito Muchemwa puts it in his preface to the Weaver Press edition of Bones, is not a revolution marshalled comic-book style by a superwoman from someplace. It is the revolution of the broken, pictured by Hove as the revolution of “the black bird with broken wings.”

In deconstructing the national mythology embodied by Nehanda, historian Ruramisai Charumbira (2008) revisits two Nehanda traditions, “Musoro waNehanda” (the head of Nehanda) and Makumbo aNehanda” (the legs of Nehanda). From here, it’s one step to imagining a Freudian twist where the head represents the sublime tradition of Nehanda, whereas the legs represent the profane tradition of Nehanda. Not a compartmentalization of spirit and sex given that Nehanda dually represents fertility and memory. On the sublime level, the national matriarch is embodied among the living by celibate guilds, rainmakers, royal oracles and freedom fighters. But there is a profane and unofficial level, freely interpreted here from Charumbira’s book, where both Nehandas are abused, outnumbered and condemned in the courts of men. Nyamhita is raped by her brother while Charwe is denied by her male co-accused, Kaguvi, and put to death by a colonial and patriarchal court. 

The connection made by Muchemwa between Hove’s Bones and the prophesied awakening of Nehanda’s bones is not immediately obvious. Hove and Chatora’s matriarchs come across in vegetative, scatological and traumatic trappings. In her disembodiment, Nehanda’s head is spirit to come while her legs are the censored unconscious. A detour through Imagining a Nation, where Charumbira picks apart grand national mythology and imagines Nyamhita and Charwe outside their superhero capes, helps bring the dream of freedom down to earth, within the reach of Hove and Chatora’s “little women.” A solution cannot be better that its subjects, just as an intellectual cannot be better than her people. So, we start thinking about Zimbabwe beginning with the damaged life, with the abused, the jaded, the dismissed and the forgotten. Until they are the answer, freedom is not the question.

“My bones will rise again…” Nehanda and Kaguvi before execution (Photo: Wikipedia Commons)

 Besides Doris being white, a demographic rarely ever associated  with emancipatory ambition outside Chatora’s novel, she officiates in the bloody stakes of a sibling conflict. She is closer, in this sense, to Nyamhita’s mother presiding over her son’s rape of her daughter to fulfill the fertility tradition of ritual incest. In “BLOOD.” the opening track for Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer-winning album, DAMN. the narrator goes up to help a visually impaired woman who is apparently in search of a lost object on the sidewalk. “It seems to me that you have lost something, and I wanna help you find it,” the narrator accosts the woman. “Oh yes; you have lost something. You have lost your life!” the woman responds as her gun goes off. In this allegory, we are confronted with a figure of justice, a woman who must embody the saying that justice is blind. While the metaphor is meant to represent impartiality, in the case of Kendrick’s encounter, it represents failure to look into the nuances of the album’s most repeated refrain, “Is it wickedness or is it weakness?” Going back to the question of what is wrong with Mrs. Williams’ family, what is wrong with Zimbabwe as a nation and as a purveyor of justice, we find that Zimbabwe and her kind of justice kills the weak and pampers the wicked. 

Chatora was this year’s silver recipient of the Anthem Award for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, held in New York, for his 2023 novel, Harare Voices and Beyond.  “Fellow creatives, together we can keep the momentum, reflect the iniquities of our societies! Yes, we can!” he said in his filmed acceptance speech. 

Andrew Chatora is a prolific Zimbabwean novelist noted for his counterintuitive approaches to diversity politics. He has written Diaspora Dreams (2021), Where the Heart Is (2021), Harare Voices and Beyond (2023), Inside Harare Alcatraz and Other Stories (2024) and Born Here but Not in My Name (forthcoming). Amid polarizing reception, the UK-based writer continues to distinguish himself as a distinct voice in African diaspora literature and implacable champion of the marginalized. Chatora was recently awarded the 2024 Anthem Silver Award for Harare Voices and Beyond. 


This review was first published on Zimbabwe’s leading digital investigative reporting, breaking news and analysis platform: The News Hawks on 16th April 2024

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