If Oliver Mtukudzi is singing with the angels, it is not hard to tell which song the winged orchestra will be performing these days. After all, Neria has lost her husband, the foremost Zimbabwean writer Charles Mungoshi, and her loss is shared by the nation he taught and the writing community he inspired.
To hear fellow writers tell it, Mungoshi’s first language was laughter, while his physical address was the habit-forming bottle. In fond recollections telling of young love and artist encounters in Zengeza and Kambuzuma shebeens, he stars as a man of disarming charm and a writerly ego only outsized by his wit and grit.
Mungoshi, who died on Saturday, 16 February 2019, having suffered from a neurological condition for almost 10 years, is, however, chiefly remembered as the writer who emptied himself to tell the stories of the least regarded with the greatest compassion. Whereas his degreed peers were “writers’ writers”, Mungoshi was “the people’s writer”.
The co-founding director of the Zimbabwe International Book Fair (ZIBF) has been laid to rest in Manyene, Chikomba district, where his story began on 2 December 1947. From there it branched out to mission schools, office jobs and dial-shifting accomplishments as a novelist, poet, playwright, editor, publishing director, translator and storyteller.
A bookish teenager
Speaking to This Is Africa, his brother and fellow writer, David Mungoshi, recalled how Charles had a literary career figured out as a teenager. “He first began to talk about his intention to write in about 1964, when he was in Form 2 at St Augustine’s Penhalonga. His first published story was called “Cain’s Medal” and was published in the African Parade Magazine under the name Carl Manhize sometime in 1965.”
Young Charles was an undiscriminating devotee of books, from genre fiction to modernist experimentalism. “An avid reader by any standard” he exposed David to Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway and crime novelist Peter Cheyney, whose influence, David is convinced, can be traced in Mungoshi classics like Ndiko Kupindana kwaMazuva.
“I got to know of James Joyce from Charles and was permanently impressed by Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, while he seemed to be really engrossed in Ulysses, which to this day I still find dense and impenetrable,” said David, who also named Jack Kerouac and the Zen masters as the late great’s interests.
David intimated that, while Charles “could deceive people into thinking he was just another drunk,” he did not actually drink and write. Perhaps this was because writing alone was a thing of intoxication for him, a possibility suggested by his widow, Jesesi.
The drunken master with an ego
Highly regarded Shona novelist Aaron Chiundura Moyo was one of those so “deceived” by Mungoshi’s drunken-master persona during their 1976 encounter. “As I was walking along the street, there were people drinking at a shebeen, and Mungoshi was one of them. Someone who knew us both called me. Since I do not take beer, I initially refused but later joined them,” Moyo recalled in an exclusive interview with This Is Africa.
“Yes, I had read his novel Makunun’unu Maodza Mwoyo at school and had liked the book very much but I didn’t know him in person. When he was introduced to me, he seemed drunk and went on about where he was working, what kind of the job he was doing, and bluntly told us all how he had rejected my manuscript and how he disliked my published book, Uchandifungawo.
“As a human being I was done being undressed in public. We exchanged nasty words and people tried to cool our tempers. He sobered up a bit, took me aside and said he liked my book very much and wanted me to see his place. After some initial resistance, I joined him and was introduced to this very beautiful woman who was carrying their first-born.
“She cooked sadza for us and I cleared the plate since I was hungry and happy by now. Years later he kept reminding me in happy times that ‘Aaron came to my house and wiped the plates clean. I am not misrepresenting you, Aaron; you were a loafer in Kambuzuma.’ I could only laugh as he was not lying,” Moyo recalled.
It was, perhaps, a thing for members of the so-called second generation of Zimbabwean writing to be ungenerous with each other. Mungoshi himself was the target of Marechera’s drunken jab: “You are not an artist” but no love was lost. The unlucky Moyo also took public shots from the controversial “dread”.
Having become a family friend of the Mungoshis, Moyo enlisted the couple for his ZBC drama, Ndabve Zera. But even as the paymaster, Moyo, who played Jesesi’s on-screen boyfriend, was in for more Mungoshi shots. The jealous writer-husband kept shouting, “Enough! Enough!” each time Moyo got too close to Jesesi, spoiling the make-believe of the drama.
“When I offered him money for a drink, he would pretend to refuse the offer by saying, ‘The likes of Aaron! You want an opportunity to tell people that you buy Mungoshi beer!’ It would take a lot of assurance for him to accept the small offer,” Moyo said.
He credited Mungoshi with innovating the Shona novel and taking it to a level beyond everyone else with Kunyarara Hakusi Kutaura? and Ndiko Kupindana kwaMazuva, and for inspiring later writers like Ignatius Mabasa. In moments of immodesty, Mungoshi reportedly bragged about outdoing university-educated writers with his borderline pass in Ordinary Level English. An “upstart crow” of sorts!
At a 2014 function organised by the Zimbabwe Writers Association, Jesesi, who plays the famous Neria in the Tsitsi Dangarembga-penned movie that also spawned her on-screen brother Oliver Mtukudzi’s classic song, shared the story of how Charles could not tell whether he was in Manyene or Harare by the time he finished his novel, Makunun’unu Maodzamoyo. Actually in Harare, Mungoshi had been swallowed up by the world of his own Manyene-set creation.
Literary journalist Beavan Tapureta recounts the story of how the lovebirds met in 1974 at the Kambuzuma residence of Jesesi’s brother-in-law. The novice actress was unwell and was lying down when Charles came in. She was amused when the 27-year old bachelor inquired, “Ah, so how do we tell her height when she is lying down?”
From that encounter onwards, he was on the girl’s case like an insurance salesman, resulting in one of the arts’ greatest love stories, a 44-year-long marriage of devotion, faith and mutual artistic excellence. In 2017, Jesesi and their first born, Farayi, won a National Arts Merit (Nama) award in the drama and literary categories respectively. Charles was undergoing an operation, the second in few months, and had been in and out of hospital for seven years as his family helped him fight a debilitating neurological condition.
When he regained the power of speech, Charles asked for Farayi’s short story collection, Behind the Wall Everywhere, and David’s poetry anthology, Live like an Artist. No stranger to accolades, Charles’s more recent recognitions at home included the 2014 National Art Merit Award (NAMA) Outstanding Fiction Book Prize for Branching Streams Flow in the Dark, a certificate of excellence on the 30th anniversary of ZIBF (2013), the highest ranking, with five books, on the Silver Jubilee (2005) best books list and a University of Zimbabwe honorary doctorate (2003).
The Zimbabwe Writers Association has – unsuccessfully, it seems – petitioned government to accord Charles Mungoshi the status of national hero. This would have been a natural decision, as Mungoshi, who died at 71, is easily one of the country’s foremost cultural figures, ranked by many as Zimbabwe’s greatest writer, including by Petina Gappah.
His works have been influential school texts since the 1980s, when his classic novel, Waiting for the Rain, became the first set text by an African writer, helping to loosen the Europeans’ illiberal chokehold on Zimbabwean education. He swept up many international awards, including the Commonwealth Prize and the Noma Award.
He told the stories of the least regarded with the greatest compassion.
His trendsetting contemporary, Tsitsi Dangarembga, received the news of Mungoshi’s death with sorrow but also gratitude for his legacy, stressing that Mungoshi, more than any other writer, taught Zimbabweans about themselves. “Charles Mungoshi will always have a special place in my esteem for the focused clarity, the courageous honesty and depth of compassion with which he depicted the Zimbabwean condition, and the lives, hopes and fears of ordinary Zimbabweans,” Dangarembga told This Is Africa.
“His work inspired me to found my production house, Nyerai Films. After reading some of his short stories, I realised that as Zimbabweans we have many urgent stories that we need to be thinking about and reflecting on deeply, that do not reach the masses of our people,” she said.
“I founded Nyerai Films in 1992 specifically to focus on adaptation, inspired by Charles Mungoshi’s work. I wanted to bring his narrative to greater numbers and motivate greater general interest in his work,” stated the creator of the films Neria and Everyone’s Child who has long intended to screen a particular short story by Mungoshi.
Footprints in the Mists of Time author Spiwe Mahachi-Harper calls Mungoshi the favourite Zimbabwean writer who inspired her to write. “It was while at college that my class had the opportunity to meet the great writer again (following her primary school encounter with the writer). What a pleasure it was to sit with the great scribe and discuss the plots and characters in his books. Later in life I had the pleasure of teaching my literature classes his short stories,” Mahachi-Harper said.
“His writing is so vivid it makes you feel you are part of it or that you need to be in those places. I was pleased when, during a drive from Harare to Masvingo some decades ago, we passed through his village. At that moment one of the most memorable places in his short stories, Marondamashanu, stopped being just a name in a story. He shall be missed but we are enriched as a nation in that he leaves behind a legacy in name and in his beautiful works,” she said.
The beginnings of the Zimbabwean Book Fair
Mungoshi co-founded ZIBF in 1983 with Phyllis Johnson and her late husband, David Martin. “He helped to begin to bridge the literary gap in Africa through supporting translations of novels from French and Portuguese into English,” said Johnson.
“He was disturbed that African writers could not communicate directly with each other across the language divide, and he experienced that directly in trying to communicate with French-speaking writers from West Africa,” she said. Apart from the French-English divide, Mungoshi ably translated Ngugi WaThiongo’s A Grain of Wheat into the Shona, with the title Tsanga yeMbeu.
“Charles received Jean-Marie Adiaffi from Ivory Coast in another ZIBF visit and presented to him his book translated to English. They laughed together when Adiaffi told him, ‘Now I have written a book I cannot read,’ an issue they both took very seriously,” recalled Johnson, who also worked with Mungoshi at Zimbabwe Publishing House, particularly as curators of the classic ZPH Writers Series.
A writer without an ego
Irene Staunton and Murray McCartney of Weaver Press also shared fond memories of the writer with This Is Africa. “Charles was a scrupulous writer who weighed every word for precision and integrity. A deeply compassionate person, he often wrote about people marginalised by society, exploring their pain and their struggles with a keen eye and a wealth of experience,” said Staunton.
Staunton, who has published two of Mungoshi’s books, The Milkman Doesn’t Only Deliver Milk and Walking Still under the Baobab Books imprint, as well as a short story, “The Sins of the Fathers”, in the Weaver Press anthology, Writing Still, commended Mungoshi for being very widely read and “never without a book”.
“He was very proud of his beloved wife, Jesesi, an actress and film producer. Together they had five children, and his family was central to his life. This was never easy, despite the awards he received, as his books never sold in the quantities that would have freed him from financial worries,” Staunton said.
“Charles was a warm, gentle, caring writer, who shrugged off his success as if it were an old glove.” – Irene Staunton
“Charles was a warm, gentle, caring writer, who shrugged off his success as if it were an old glove. At the same time, recognition by the University of Zimbabwe, who awarded him an honorary doctorate in 2003, meant a lot to him, as he had left school after doing his O-levels. He once told me, rather sadly, that he was ‘not as educated as other writers’; his contemporaries, all of whom had degrees. Finally, one should not forget that Charles had a great sense of humour, and even when he was ill, his eyes would twinkle with laughter as he shared a joke,” she recalled.
McCartney recalls Mungoshi as a regular visitor to their home, where he wrote at a quiet remove from Chitungwiza’s distractions. A letter to McCartney’s mother, shared with This Is Africa, expands on Mungoshi’s “drunken master” reputation.
“To the Book Café, for readings by two of our poet friends, Charles Mungoshi and Julius Chingono, who were so drunk that their eyes could hardly follow the page. Charles thought it would help if he borrowed Julius’s glasses whenever it was his turn, but all it did was make the event seem more and more like a Marx Brothers’ comedy routine.
“They were rescued by Chirikure Chirikure, who read for both of them while they looked on, glassy-eyed. Good-natured comradeship. The literary demi-monde at its best,” the Weaver Press director wrote.
Mungoshi would not remember the younger poet who came to the rescue that night when he suffered from a memory lapse years later. Albert Nyathi recalls a visit the two friends made to an ill Mungoshi. His wife asked him if he could remember the visitors. After looking at Chirikure blankly for a while, Mungoshi’s attention turned to Nyathi and he shouted mischievously, “Mundevere!” (the Ndebele!)
These are only a few stories about the man who told the stories of everyone in 17 books. He passes on at a time when the reading culture is at its lowest ebb in Zimbabwe; a victim of our philistinism who died largely unrewarded. May a generation worthier of him come after us.