Before being shut down by the government in 1999, the Zimbabwe Literature Bureau existed for decades as  the only platform for writers to publish novels in Shona and Ndebele. The bureau also played a key role in the training of budding African writers, and its closure was a major blow to the development and preservation of literature written in indigenous languages.

The bureau is credited by literary critics for producing a rich body of literature in indigenous languages. Literary figures have called for the revival of the bureau to produce literary content in the 11 previously marginalised minority Zimbabwean languages: Chewa, Chibarwe, Kalanga, Koisan, Nambya, Shangani, Sotho, Tonga, Tswana, Venda and Xhosa. The languages have been officially recognised by law ever since the promulgation of the country’s new constitution in 2013, but literature written in these languages remains scarce.

The government is now adding the indigenous languages to the curriculum, with Kalanga, Nambya, Tonga, Venda and Xangani being taught in schools. At the Bulawayo edition of Zimbabwe International Book Fair (ZIBF) recently, teachers expressed concern that the lack of books in these languages will significantly affect the learning process. Zimbabwe’s Minister of Primary and Secondary Education, Prof. Paul Mavhima, embraced the suggestion for the revival of the Literature Bureau or a functional equivalent.

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A more progressive mandate

Speaking to This Is Africa on the sidelines of the book fair, Minister Mavima said he is initiating the revival of the bureau under a new name and with a more progressive mandate. “Within the next two weeks, I will set up a taskforce, headed by an expert outside the ministry, to consult around the revival of the bureau. It does not need to be called the Literature Bureau as it will be originally Zimbabwean, without the colonial orientation of the predecessor organisation.

“Government will seed money and convene a pool of editors and experts to identify and promote new talent,” Mavima said, adding that the government will not be interested in censoring creatives, as the colonial organ did, but will provide space for well-written work and incubate new talent.

Primary and Secondary Education minister Paul Mavima

Mavima said the book sector has benefitted from government-commissioned work in recent years. The education ministry contracted a few major publishers to print a textbook for each student in 2012, and also invited all publishers to provide content for the new curriculum, beginning in 2016.

Aaron Chiundura Moyo, the highly regarded Zimbabwean novelist, weighed in on the proposed revival of the Literature Bureau, noting the potential benefit to the country’s run-down book sector. Moyo’s journey from a raw village wordsmith to one of the foremost names in Zimbabwe’s literacy space started at the Literature Bureau, which operated as the incubator for writing talent from its inception in 1953 till its closure in 1999. He credits the Literature Bureau, set up within the Native Affairs Department of the Central African Federation to promote writing in indigenous languages, as the midwife of many Ndebele and Shona classics but criticises it for mutating into an instrument of censorship.

With the proposed revival by the education ministry, Moyo and other players in the publishing industry weighed in on how the ‘second coming’ could be beneficial. “We welcome plans for its [the bureau’s] restoration and recommend that it extends its reach beyond English, Ndebele and Shona,” Moyo told This Is Africa. “Government needs to solicit ideas from writers’ associations and also bring non-state players on board as it moves forward with the project,” Moyo added.

Shona novels

When the Literature Bureau was at its peak, it showcased romances and histories foregrounding black pride. On the down side, the bureau herded writers into a restrictive thematic range where they could only create around innocuous social subjects. “You could not touch on political topics. The men at the top mostly behaved like teachers. They gave advice that was of help to beginners but then you needed to remain within that monolithic approach,” Moyo lamented.

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In recent years Zimbabwe’s book sector has been sustained by government support through commissioned textbook for schools. For creative writers, this is perhaps part of the problem. Narrowly focused on the sustained demand for content from schools, major publishers have taken to publishing little else behind textbooks. Fiction is considered mostly based on the likelihood that it will be selected as a school text.

The scourge of piracy

However, the irony is that writers whose books are adopted into the school curriculum do not benefit much because books are pirated and sold on the streets. Moyo, who has written and published extensively in the Shona syllabus, says he has earned less than US$400 between 2000 and 2014 for his 14 books, with the publishers blaming poor sales on piracy. Ignatius Mabasa, a disruptive innovator of the Shona novel, also lamented failing to get any returns for his novel that was set as a school text for two years. Neglected and cheated by publishers, authors have turned to self-publishing – but this has its pitfalls, especially where quality is concerned. This year, the National Arts Merit Awards (Nama) declined to give awards for two literary categories, citing a lack of originality and quality, problems the panel partly attributed to the fact that most of the submissions were self-published.

Ignatius Mabasa renowned Zimbabwean writer.

Poet Mzana Mthimkulu said authors in indigenous languages are productive but they lack empowerment. “There are manuscripts gathering dust on the shelves but writers cannot move on their own because they lack professional and financial assistance. There is also a lack of incentives because writers in indigenous languages do not enjoy the same respect as their colleagues writing in English.” Minister Mavhima said the new Literature Bureau would embrace all Zimbabwean languages, including English, which may catch the attention of major publishers once again.

“We made the noble decision to officially recognise these Zimbabwean languages. After that, there was silence.”

The unavailability of local literature written in indigenous languages is partly a result of policies adopted by publishers, who are guided by the profit motive rather than the desire to develop literature in indigenous languages. “Publishers do not move where there is no profit,” said Dr Ndabezinhle Dlodlo, a publisher and National University of Science and Technology (Nust) academic. “Without…the Literature Bureau, publishing content for previously marginalised indigenous languages is a no-go area for them [publishers].” At present, nothing is being done to encourage the publication of literature in these languages, a situation that is different from when the Literature Bureau was established, when money would be provided by the government to publish literature in Ndebele and Shona,” Dlodlo noted.

Language as tool of empowerment

Musaemura Zimunya, the acting ZIBF chairperson at the Bulawayo edition of the book fair, said government and multi-stakeholder efforts were necessary to create content for the previously marginalised minority languages, thereby equally empowering the citizens. “We made the noble decision to officially recognise these Zimbabwean languages. After that, there was silence,” Zimunya said. “If you marginalise a language, you marginalise a people. That is why we have this tendency of seeing people who do not speak English as inferior. We need to resource our indigenous languages and take pride in them.”

If you marginalise a language, you marginalise a people.

In the past, there has been criticism of the lack of political will to revive the bureau, but now there is hope that the current plans will take off. With the deliberative phase of the review concluded, the next hurdle is content production and setting up the bureau is definitely where the minister’s energy is required.

Stanely Mushava is an award-winning Zimbabwean writer and journalist. He can be reached at [email protected]