In 1980, the strong hand of the Rhodesian censor had been seemingly lifted, and independence demanded artistic interpretation. Many musicians lent their voices to the national-building euphoria but few were as successful as Marshall Munhumumwe’s Four Brothers. Elsewhere, towards the end of British exile, his cousin, Musaemura Zimunya, was dancing to the songs of Thomas Mapfumo, their kinsman who had become a name much earlier along with another cousin, the novelist and statesman, Bernard Chidzero. As he soaked up the Chimurenga rasp, Zimunya also planned a memorable gift to newly born Zimbabwe.
A year after Munhumumwe’s “Makorokoto” won him Radio 2’s first independence-era number one song, Zimunya published And Now the Poets Speak, co-edited with Mudereri Kadhani, and set the tone for Zimbabwean poetry. Few years later, he had written well enough to be considered Zimbabwe’s foremost poet. What did it mean for him to grow up around Marshall Munhumumwe, who died in 2001, and how did turbulent Rhodesia shape his path? He holds nothing back in this long interview with Onai Mushava .
Onai Mushava (OM): How were you related to Marshall and how did your childhoods interact?
Musaemura Zimunya (MZ): Sekuru Munhumumwe, Marshall’s father, was my mother’s eldest living brother by a different mother but born of the same father, VaKufera of Masvaure Village in Marange.
I did not know about the Munhumumwe branch of the Kufera family until I was well into my teens when Marshall’s brother, Peter Munhumumwe, turned up in Zimunya to visit my mother, his aunt. We struck a good understanding and close friendship there and then and when he left, we would correspond through letters. But I was not able to see Marshall until I was doing A-Levels at Goromonzi High when eventually I visited Sekuru Munhumumwe in Mahusekwa. And because Marshall was a shy young man, though he was older than me, I was always closer to Sekuru Peter.
Then about 1975, when I was studying at the University of Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), we were to meet regularly at the Mapfumo house in Harare (National). It must be remembered that Thomas Mapfumo’s mother was accepted as the eldest child in the Munhumumwe family, though she was already born when her mother got married to Sekuru Munhumumwe. Thus, my mother was her Tete (aunt), according to Shona custom and she was my Mainini. By then Marshall was already a drummer playing with The Tutenkamen Band at Mushandirapamwe and staying with the Mapfumo family. Still, I found him difficult to hold conversations with because he was shy and withdrawn, to the point of being almost mysterious.
SM: What would you say were your memorable encounters?
MZ: As already mentioned, I recall my first encounter with Marshall at the Mapfumo homestead. It was a cold winter morning just before sunrise and so there was a fire outside for everyone to warm themselves. I had not seen Marshall the night before because he was playing drums at Mushandirapamwe Hotel. He was quiet, as though he was in his own world – a spiritual world.
Soon afterwards I left for my studies overseas. And although I came back in 1980, I did not get to see Marshall because he was no longer staying at the Mapfumo homestead. However, I followed him and The Four Brothers through their music on the radio and on television. I was astounded to think he could sing because there had been no evidence of this in his earlier life as an artist. I was also surprised that he could present a charming face in his videos, given his introverted character.
I got reunited with Marshall through Biggie Tembo, who had been following my literary reviews and occasional poetry readings on television and I had already met at Saratoga, under very odd circumstances. It was at Rufaro Stadium on a day Dynamos were playing Black Rhinos and I was somewhere in the middle of the Vietnam section of the eastern terraces. Biggie is the one that spotted me and invited me to sit with him.
Then he introduced Marshall to me and then he said “Mukoma Marshall ava ndimukoma Musa Zimunya and Mukoma Musa ava ndiMukoma Marshall Munhumwe.” There and then Marshall and I, delighted and embarrassed to be introduced by a stranger, rose and hugged and shook the energies out of each other. Biggie could not understand until we explained. We shared memories and forgot about the football match and exchanged contact numbers and addresses and Marshall invited me to Machipisa Nightclub to listen to The Four Brothers Band for free any day I chose.
Thereafter I was not only to enjoy free entrance to the night club but also keep regular company with Marshall. He would invite me to accompany him to collect his royalties at Gallo, after which I would accompany him to pay his bills, buy home gadgets and then we would go drinking at shebeens in Highfield. By this time I could see he was slightly less reserved than I had known him to be in previous times. And, of course, he was very popular on the streets of Lusaka.
I have many fond memories of Marshall, but two moments stand out in our interaction. One was when I invited him to go upon a trip to Mahusekwa during which I interviewed him for an article for Praise Zenenga’s Sunday Observer Magazine. What was special about this trip is that I spent the whole day with him, interviewing and discussing his artistic journey and creative methods while playing his music. To-date, I doubt if there was ever anyone who did as deep an interview with Marshall as I did then.
The second occasion was in 1998 during a break from performing at Kambuzuma Garden Party when I followed him to his car when he confided in me while he was reclining in his car that he had lost his appetite for everything – life, beer, music, women and food. And here I have used simple words to avoid offending readers. It was a singularly chilling message. A few months after this Thomas Mapfumo called me to tell that Marshall had been admitted at Parirenyatwa Hospital.
When I visited him I found him in the initial stages of a stroke. He could still speak. One member of his band was even pushing for Marshall to be released for the weekend’s show. No one had known that Marshall would never be the same again. After several days he was never to regain his speech faculty, let alone his melodious voice. My last memory of him is at his house, his body down to his bones, disabled and clinging onto my hands with tears rolling down his cheeks as his only means of expression and only his son to attend to his needs.
OM: Both of you are foundational cultural figures. You co-edited the seminal And Now the Poets Speak with Mudereri Kadhani around the period that Marshall earned the first number one song in Zimbabwe with “Makorokoto”. Through it all, future wins and everything, did you get to exchange notes as artists?
MZ: There were many times I felt obliged to compliment him on his compositions on account of the originality of his beat, lyrics and melodies. Of course he was once embarrassed about ignorantly using some of Mordecai Hamutyinei’s lines on “Vimbai” without seeking permission, but after admitting to copyright violation and paying compensation to the poet, he was never to use anyone else’s poetry for his music. He became even more determined that he did not need to plunder anyone’s talents to climb to the top.
What I also learned from him was that a lot of his music was inspired by voices on the street, what people said casually but was yet loaded with poetic and philosophical meaning relevant to all human beings and to society. So, poets do not have to invent everything. And he was one hell of a poet. He also showed me his song book, where his pen literally carved every line and every stanza of every song painstakingly with rigorous clarity “in the early hours of the morning” – in his own words.
OM: It has been suggested that you wrote songs for Marshall.
MZ: No. Let me state very clearly that my support for Marshall and The Four Brothers never went beyond attending their shows and encouraging every direction they took in their evolution since the mid-80’s. For which they fully appreciated. I never ever composed a single song for Marshall. The story is one of those flattering myths about oneself, but purely based on guesswork. It probably also comes from the fact that someone whispered to someone that we were related. Like I often hear some say Marshall Munhumumwe Muzukuru was Thomas Mapfumo, whereas the truth is that it is Marshall who is Thomas’ Sekuru because he is Thomas’ mother’s brother.
OM: What about the time you went to Marshal’s homestead to write an article on him for The Herald.
MZ: As mentioned earlier, I had been asked by Praise Zenenga (now The Herald editor) of The Sunday Observer to do an in-depth story on Marshall for his magazine series on Zimbabwean musicians. He knew I was close to Marshall and could get more about him and his family than most. So, I thought the best idea is for me to sponsor a drive to Chionana near Mahusekwa in Chihota which would really be one long and undisrupted experience. We had also purchased grocery supplies for the family who would also be part of the interview. It was a truly unforgettable experience culminating in that big article headlined: “Is Marshall also a Poet?”
OM: What do both of you represent in the Zimbabwean canon?
MZ: Well, there are people better placed to judge my poetry, prose and criticism than myself. All I can say without any arrogance is that I am proud to have been privileged to be involved in what I would call “The Golden Generation” of Zimbabwean literature in English in the ‘70’s who put Zimbabwean writing on the African continent and the world map. Thereafter, since the ‘80’s I have been in the limelight of the literary sector in various capacities as Secretary General of The Zimbabwe Writers Union and Chair of The Zimbabwe Writers Association of late.
Marshall Munhumumwe is already a legend in the music that straddles mbira/Shona traditional and Sungura whose legacy stands as a bright beacon in the history of popular music in Zimbabwe and the outlying region. His lyrics are mature and poetically moving whether you listen to “Rudo Moto” or “Rwendo Rwekudenga” or “Ndipe Uta Hwangu” or “Mudiwa Wangu” (“Rudo Chete”) while his voice has that unique brightness that carries beauty like a crystal wave.
SM: How did you become a writer yourself?
MZ: This is a question that requires an interview by itself. However, I can tell you that I was a singer in the Methodist Church choir and had already begun to lead quartets, trios and duos to entertain fellow pupils in primary school. I also had some compositions of my own at the time. That was my first experience as a composer. When I was a student at Chikore Secondary School we had a demanding culture of reading poetry and prose in Shona and English.
The school also had a publication called Young Voice in which my first poem in English appeared when I was in Form Two. Thereafter, the late Toby Moyana, our English and English Literature instructor took a keen interest in my work and loaded me with books of poetry and prose to read for my own development. He was such a mentor that up to the time I was at university in England his voice would always caution, condemn, command, advise and reassure me in whatever I did – including my attitude to the world.
OM: We have seen your pictures with a guitar? Are you a singing writer? How does music intersect with literature?
MZ: My father was a great mbira player who was murdered just when I had made contact with Gramma for him to record his songs. He used to put me on his lap and play the mbira in my ear. The sounds of the mbira gave me a tremendous spiritual and imaginative vision of the forests, mountains and rivers that linger on in my head to date. The tragedy is that my mother would not entertain my daring to learn to play the mbira for fear I would become a “rombe,” (vagrant).
But in the comfort and isolation of my days at the mission school I learned to play the guitar. I entertained fellow students from about Form Three all the way to the University of Rhodesia via Goromonzi. My greatest success was playing at Kent at Canterbury University for fun – either solo or with Olly Maruma or white students who shared our idea of fun. The pictures you refer to were taken then.
I have composed my own songs and deep in my heart I have an undying wish to record some of these and perhaps show the world how poetry and music – and I mean music, not hohoho – belong together.
OM: What are rocks doing in your poems? Do you approach them from sculpture or lived scenery? Is there an influence from sculpture on your work?
MZ: My fascination with rocks began in my childhood, just fascination with what they are, how they came to be and their powerful presence in the form of boulders atop mountains or hills. Some of them have animal shapes, others human or strange forms. Their inability to speak confounds – their silence. We climbed rocks when we were young with my brothers for the fun of it. But Great Zimbabwe was to transform my perception of rocks into something mythical, mysterious as well as a tool with which our ancestors built an impregnable legacy – footprints to inspire all future generations to remember there once treaded on this earth great African leaders and architects and cultural visionaries.
OM: And Now the Poets Speak was so much of a landmark. How did you coordinate the project?
MZ: This collection was the product of an evening I shared with Mudereri Kadhani in Kent in the United Kingdom when we were exiled students back in 1979. We had both been jailed for taking part in the 1973 “Ports and Pants Demo” at the University of Rhodesia. We were looking for a cultural role in the Revolution and were determined to fill a void in our literature, that of poetry focusing primarily on the war of liberation.
As it so happened, once back in the country in 1980, we were the first to do poetry readings on television in the newly independent Zimbabwe, but by then we had already sent out a call for submissions of poetry for the collection. The response was so overwhelming in terms of numbers of manuscripts, but also in the quality of hitherto unknown poets such as Chenjerai Hove, Carlos Chombo and Killian Mwanaka, Hopewell Seyaseya, Solomon Mahaka, Pathisa Nyathi, Lazarus Dokora, Vitalis Nyawaranda and Emmanuel Ngara. It was an amazing experience just sifting through the submissions. And if you take a close look at this list, you can only agree that ours was an inspired vision.
OM: What were the high points to follow this feat?
MZ: Briefly the following is an outline of the major key moments in my creative writing career:
1970 Received the Special National Poetry Award for the best folio of five poems in a multiracial competition run by the Poetry Society of Rhodesia.
1970 Had some of the poems published in Chirimo poetry magazine.
1971 Some of the poems from that folio were published in New Coin poetry magazine (South Africa).
1971-81 Regular contributor to the Poetry Society magazines, Two Tone (quarterly) and Rhodesian Poetry (annual).
1979 First poetry publication Zimbabwe Ruins.
1981 Published And now the Poets with Mudereri Kadhani as co-editor.
1982 Published Thought Tracks.
1983 Published Those Years of Drought and Hunger (Criticism).
1993 Published Nightshift (Short stories).
1993 Conducted poetry readings at … and University of Washington.
1987 Attended the Contemporary African Writers Conference in Rome.
1989 Appointed to Panel of Judges of African Poetry for the BBC collection, The Fate of Vultures published by Heinemann.
1996 Awarded distinguished Poet of Smederevo, Yugoslavia.
2000 Invited to the Medellin Poets of the World Festival (Poetas del Mundo), Colombia.
2003 Invited to the Durban International Poetry Festival.
SM: You were a popular columnist with the “Scribe’s Scroll” in The Herald. Can you share something of this experience, and what “public” criticism means for our book sector?
MZ: I am not certain as to who was the brainchild behind the long running Monday book review column entitled “Scribe’s Scroll”, whose first editor was Tonic Sakaike who invited me to write the first article for it and I obliged, published in two parts. I think it was entitled “The Birth of Zimbabwean Fiction” or something like that. The column itself was subsequently to run for more than a decade under various editors, among whom included Davison Maruziva and Stephen Mpofu. Throughout the period it ran, it provided a forum for book reviews, literary news, articles and information on books and the Zimbabwe International Book Fair.
As for criticism, there is no doubt that from time to time writers and books deserve scrutiny from expert readers and scholars who, at their best, open the eyes of the public to the treasures hidden within the covers of books or expose literary pretenders or charlatans. All writers, new and old, need to be reminded of the good service they provide to the public as well as the disservice – in some respects. Of course, some of the contemporary book reviewers have no clue what a book review is. But, ultimately, there is no such thing as “bad publicity,” though not all writers agree with these views.
OM: I want to come to Zimbabwe International Book Fair which you have chaired and led for some time. What have been the book fair’s highs and lows?
MZ: During my first term as chairperson of ZIBF, the organisation experienced vibrant growth, culminating in the re-launching of the ZIBF Bulawayo Book Fair and the ZIBF Mutare Book Fair in 2012, followed by the first launching of the ZIBF Masvingo Book Fair in 2013. All of these projects were aimed at spreading the benefit of the book fair and its related activities such as exhibitions, workshops (mini-indabas), Children’s Reading Tent and Live Literature to far-flung cities across the land in order spread the access to books to members of the public across the land.
In due course, we created The Digital Zone, an IT booth for, as a permanent feature to provide a guided digital experience for young and mature visitors to all our exhibitions. From 2013 onwards, we also ran an event called The Literary Evening at all our book fairs in order to give a platform to writers to come together and read and discuss their works. Even most positively, my two terms at the helm of ZIBF saw a gradual process of integrating the book through cajoling and an inclusive approach to all our activities so that no sub-sector was marginalised from our programmes. One of our projects, the All Stakeholders Anti-Book Piracy Workshop (2013) was a product of this vision of integrating the book sector to recognise that we are stronger together than as separate sub-sectors vying in opposite directions. Of course, there is little one could do should some sub-sectors choose to stay away as ours is a voluntary association of willing players.
One could say the biggest challenge ZIBF experienced came in the form of the severe depression that has affected the book sector over the first two decades of the millennium. Of course, it may be apparent to the public that for decades, our publishing sector has been the mainstay of ZIBF because when the going is good, it has greater financial wherewithal than all the other sectors. When you see empty bookshelves at the Book Fair, you can trace that to the depression in the industry.
It should be restated that this depression is a consequence of many underlying challenges, not the least of which are, the national economic meltdown at the turn of the millennium, the death of the reading culture triggered by the low purchasing power of the of the public or the downsizing of priorities by the buying pubic together with the rampant and vicious book piracy which has created a ready alternative market for books. Critically, when the international monetary crisis forced our major cooperating partners to drastically reduce funding for our activities, it was perhaps the lowest point of my time at the helm of ZIBF.
OM: Growing up and finding a voice in turbulent Rhodesia, what were some of your memorable encounters with the system?
MZ: In August 1973 we engaged in a big demonstration called “The Pots and Pants” Demo on the Campus of the University of Rhodesia in protest against sentiments that had been voiced by an RF backbencher called Simington (I think) who attacked black students at the university for being dirty, drunken and being a nuisance for the white students and challenging their legitimacy in the institution. I remember the next day seeing a picture of myself on the front page of The Herald, epitomising the headline “University Students Run Riot” or something to that effect.
About 157 of us were subsequently arrested and detained for 21 days while we attended trials culminating in various sentences ranging from 9 months mandatory prison with hard labour without the option of a fine. Among that group were Witness Mangwende, Henry Dzinotyiwei, Andrew Wutawunashe, Dambudzo Marechera, Rino Zhuwarara, Cadmiel Wekwete, Stanley Kazhanje, Gwanzura, Misheck Nyamupingidza, Arthur Borerwe and many others. Following release at the end of the prison terms, we were served with orders banning us from entering within a 10 kilometre radius of Salisbury (Harare) – which effectively meant we could not resume our studies. That is how come we eventually ended up in universities across Africa and the United Kingdom.
OM: Why did many of Zimbabwean legends hang their pens early? We have not seen your byline for some time now, and some of your contemporaries were no longer writing by the turn of the millennium. In many places, writers have died pen in hand.
MZ: It is not true that I have stopped writing. Those who spread the rumours that one is no longer writing do so for their own self-serving ends. There are many times I have felt the impulse to write about many ills affecting our society and found that voices of intolerance rendered in pathetic essays have choked the public space like the (Lake) Chivero weeds. Any fisherman knows what I mean by this metaphor.
Further, for your information, I have quantities of unpublished poems, short stories and even opinion pieces. Sometimes when you have achieved a certain degree of accomplishment, you hesitate to publish things you are not completely satisfied with and you wait for precisely when you feel you have reworked everything to your satisfaction. Sometimes when one is starting out, one is more preoccupied with one’s ego at the expense of perfection. Sometimes it is also a matter of timing. And temperament plays its part as well. It is a complex thing.
People do not read. Books do not make sense if they do not find their way into the hands, minds and hearts of readers. So, on the one hand, we have all this talent, at the same time, we have no readership to nourish it
OM: Does the current scene move you?
MZ: I am eternally amazed at the literary talents our small country is endowed with, talents that are eternally blooming from every possible nook and cranny. The pity is that our book industry is down on its knees. People do not read. Books do not make sense if they do not find their way into the hands, minds and hearts of readers. So, on the one hand, we have all this talent, at the same time, we have no readership to nourish it. It is a situation which could easily lead back to the drought and hunger of earlier times – or a variation thereof.