POETS WITH GUNS: A CONVERSATION WITH CHIRIKURE CHIRIKURE

Chirikure Chirikure means “that which is far is very far.” He is a well-known poet, writer, and songwriter who has collaborated with Chiwoniso Maraire and Oliver Mtukudzi among others, and toured the world as a solo artist and with his mbira ensemble. He also lectures locally and internationally on Shona poetic forms. I first saw him on stage, acting in Wilson Katiyo’s play, A Son of the Soil, a seminal expression of Zimbabwean identity and the unanticipated bind of the artist as a social critic. I only found this out some 30 years later when we sat down for this interview. What a delight this discovery was.

When I was putting together my first album, Chimurenga Soul, I invited Chirikure Chirikure to join me in the studio. I wasn’t quite ready for the intensity and emotion of his words and delivery. I don’t think I’d ever seen anyone give so much in performance – something to do with its poignancy and relevance, in a society rendered mute by disillusionment. This was 2005 – we were going through a lot as a country and he expressed it all. We’ve been friends ever since.

Early in 2018, in the aftermath of the military coup, we met one sunny afternoon in my garden in Avondale, Harare, and talked into the evening. It took that long for him to tell me in his soft-spoken, mild-mannered way about our violent history, his personal persecution, and the stirring story of Zimbabwe’s birth, which he witnessed blow by blow. Always a thorn in the side of the establishment, Chirikure Chirikure is the embodiment of a son of the soil – a beautiful revolutionary soul, a gentleman, and a seasoned craftsman.  He is a picture of resilience, optimism, and stoicism, whose performances express a commitment and sincerity the likes of which we rarely see. – Netsayi Chigwendere

Chirikure Chirikure: I was born in Gutu, Zimbabwe, in 1962, to a family of teachers. My maternal grandparents were also teachers and I pretty much grew up in Masvingo Province. My first few years of school were spent near Great Zimbabwe. Then we moved back to Gutu for my final primary-school years. In between, I was in boarding school from grades three to five. That was a nice but tough experience for me and my little brother – an opportunity to develop some character. Then, high school was at Zimuto in Masvingo, A-levels at Bernard Mizeki.

But the year between Zimuto and Bernard Mizeki was an interesting one. Our school was closed because of skirmishes that happened when the Rhodesians helicopter-raided a pungwe that the entire school was attending. The Rhodesians then ordered it closed. That was in June. So, we went through the remainder of 1979 without attending lessons and only got to write O-levels at Harare High School. Fortunately, we had registered, so we just used our registration numbers and they gave us a classroom for refugees to write the exams. Our refugee class came out tops.

Netsayi Chigwendere: Refugees?

CC: We were termed refugees because of the war. So, after going through six months of that, studying from home, then I got myself into Bernard Mizeki for A-levels.

 

NC: There was a gunfight at your school?

CC: Well, we’d had a series of mapungwe at the school and during the holidays I would be involved as well, operating as a mujibha (trainee guerilla) once in a while.

 

NC: You must have been… 16?

CC: Seventeen. That’s when you’d be ripe to train as a guerrilla. The war was part of everything. At our neighbouring school, Gokomere, there was a very bad experience where the Rhodesian soldiers raided a pungwe. Some students and guerrillas lost their lives and the school was closed. Independence came as I was doing my A-levels. I saw the whole process. By the end of the war, I was staying with an uncle in Kambuzuma during the holidays – a student fresh from the roots, getting into Salisbury “sunshine city” vibes. I remember hearing Bob Marley in Rufaro Stadium, all the way down in Kambuzuma.

NC: Can I go back to the pungwes? I never grew up kumusha, in the rural areas, so how did things actually happen? The freedom fighters would come, people would cook for them…

CC: Both ZIPRA (Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army) and ZANLA (Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army) were guerrillas, and in a guerrilla war process, you basically have to survive on the people in the villages – for information, provisions, etcetera. The all-night gatherings would entail a number of villages assembling at one place. Word would just spread: “Pungwe will be at Mr. Chirikure’s homestead.” Then, you would sing Chimurenga songs, the guerrillas leading; then, a bit of dancing and so on. But, in the process, there was the indoctrination…

NC: (laughing) You mean “re-education”.

CC: (laughing) Yes. Or “reorientation”. In each group of guerrillas, some would be very eloquent, so they would go through the whole process of educating the masses on why we are fighting, the history and justifications of the war, why we should all be part of this – against oppression and our land. But as the war went on, there were a lot of sellouts – selling out the guerrillas and each other. So the pungwes were also used as a court to discipline people. If you were found guilty, you’d be beaten up in the presence of everyone else as a way of instilling allegiance.

The pungwes went on all night and dispersed before dawn. The guerrillas would sleep all morning and move on in the afternoon. If they had to attack something or engage in a battle, it would usually be at night. You’d have the mujibhas moving ammunition and supporting them, and the chimbwidos (female collaborators), doing the cooking and bringing food.

NC: To hear that there is going to be a pungwe, was it exciting or scary, or both?

CC: It was exciting. You are at that age when you are very conscious and aware that you are trying to change the course of history and liberate the country. So you would be excited by that… But I must say I was very fortunate. One of the commanders in Gutu had left university to join the struggle and he was very well educated. He took a liking to me and, most of the time, I wouldn’t be sitting in the pungwes, but on the outskirts of the village with him. He’d talk to me closely, giving me more information – how things are in Mozambique, how he wished to go back to university, encouraging me to complete my school so that I would be in a better position to serve Zimbabwe after independence.

He passed away just before the end of the war. He was shot in the battle during the ceasefire. He didn’t see Zimbabwe. It was very unfortunate. Mkoma Jose – very, very intelligent.

NC: Words are so crucial…

CC: Exactly. We are oral people so as a fighter you really need to be articulate to sell a message, reach more people, be convincing. Speech, poetry, music… because the music was carefully composed as well. They took traditional songs and put in new lyrics, or even gospel songs, and turned them around. We had very good composers who ended up as professional musicians after independence, like the late Comrade Chinx. So, yes, the word was always part of the struggle.

Incidentally, my mother was my first teacher in grade one and years later she saw me performing and she said: “You know, you just reminded me of your grade one days. You used to love standing up in front of the class to say some funny skits.” Grade one.

After independence, I was doing more organised performances and I began to appreciate that the word should be used carefully and for meaningful purposes. By the time I got to university and started writing more serious poetry, I decided to depart from what we had before – very good Shona poetry, but it was more like cultural issues, environmental issues, using the language to preserve culture, rather than to communicate contemporary concerns.

My writing and performances were getting a bit critical, because within two or three years of independence, you began to see all these signs of things not going as expected. And then my brain flipped back to the pungwes, to Comrade Jose, to the vision of independent Zimbabwe, and how the train was slowly getting derailed.

NC: What were the early signs of the train derailing?

CC: The sudden amassing of wealth by the political leadership and the alienation of the rural population who’d supported the struggle. Worse still, the alienation of the average guerrilla. I have so many relatives who were part of the struggle – trained fighters who, after independence, were just demobilised and left languishing in the villages. You’ll find a good number of my early poems with those observations. We were in this together and suddenly we had these different classes, and no one was addressing the issues we thought we were fighting to correct. If music and poetry were used to forge the struggle, why not take the process further and use the same word to try and correct the new Zimbabwe?

NC: The guerrillas had a captive audience with people in the villages excited to hear their message, but who was your audience? Who did you hope would be listening?  

CC: One aspect of why you do this is that there are things you want to let out of your heart, hoping that the seed you throw finds somewhere to land and grow. But with time you do develop an audience. I was fortunate my first book was published in 1989, Rukuvhute, a collection I started writing at university around 1983. It had been mostly performance until [fellow writer] Stephen Chifunyise said: “But, all these poems, where are they?” And I said: “Well, I have them somewhere.” And he said: “Why not put them together for publishing?”

I was working at College Press, so I submitted to them. It took a long time to convince everyone, but eventually it became the first poetry collection published in Shona by one writer under one cover – my book, and another by Samuel Chimsoro. Before, it had only been anthologies with several poets under one cover.

We tried to submit the book to the Ministry of Education, but they said: “This can’t be taught.” It was because I had deliberately run away from the styles used by earlier poets. The poetry published before was pretty much Victorian in structure and yet it was in Shona. But I had been exposed to literature in English from West Africa, and even by Zimbabwean writers, and I fell back to free verse. It took a couple of years before the University of Zimbabwe (UZ) picked it up as a set book and slowly it got into teachers’ colleges. But it wasn’t in high schools until last year. Now, it’s an O-level set book, but that’s almost 30 years down the line.

NC: Were you a contemporary of Dambudzo Marechera at UZ?

CC: He came back when I was there. He’d hang around and sleep on campus and we’d chat with him. And, when I got into publishing, we published Mindblast at College Press. We’d interact quite a lot – a fantastic writer and out of the ordinary in terms of character; could be very, very tricky as a personality. But his writing was brilliant, way ahead of his time.

NC: What did you read at UZ?

CC: I did a BA General, then BA Special Honours, focussing mainly on Shona – literature, culture, phonetics, linguistics etcetera – and also religious studies, philosophy and history. For postgrad I did religious studies and philosophy by virtue of being offered a scholarship. My choice would have been languages, but I couldn’t get the support. Instead, I got a scholarship that should have taken me to PhD, but halfway through, I felt like I wanted more practical things, so I applied for the publishing job. When I got it, I dumped school and never looked back. I suppose that was the time of Wilson Katiyo’s Son of the Soil

NC: I remember watching that production at UZ as a kid…

CC: I was in the cast. We were university students and we went through the whole process of adapting the novel into a play script with Dr McLaren as director. We ran to full houses. It was a wonderful production.

NC: Having rejected the original form and function of traditional Shona Poetry – poets as the custodians of genealogical lineage – what do you think is the poet’s role in our current evangelised state?

CC: By trying to interrogate pressing socio-economic issues, you are not necessarily abandoning the culture. I think you remain a custodian and you have poetry addressing the same concerns, but from a different perspective. Even by using Shona as a vehicle, you are doing a lot to make it relevant. You don’t want the language to be locked in a drawer. You want it to move with time.

But this whole battle of development – whether of politics or economics, or religion behind them – is pretty much the same process. Because it’s easier to win souls when you dominate material needs and political power. We are at a point where we are very evangelised. I mean my grandparents and parents were in one way or another church leaders and it has moved on from generation to generation. But the process has accelerated because of the economic and political challenges we have had over the past 20 years – people turn to religion to survive.

What I find interesting though is that, while our generation tends to be more evangelised, the younger generation – teens, early 20s – are reappropriating Zimbabwean traditions, particularly in the diaspora. If you go to any part of the world and meet young Zimbabweans, the first thing they ask is “Mutupo chii?(“What is your totem?”), and then they address each other neMutupo and they do the whole makadiini (traditional greeting). So political and economic processes have also helped a lot of people to realise their identity is Zimbabwean.

NC: Really? I know that in the diaspora, you get a bit… (raises fist). But in Zimbabwe itself, do you think that’s true?

CC: Well, all you need to do is take a casual survey and you’ll see evidence of what I’m talking about. Even if you look at Zim dancehall – the way they use Shona is amazing. The content might be wishy-washy, but the command of the language is amazing, and it’s coming from the ghetto. What does that tell you? Even some of the evangelical churches are riding on traditional musical beats, mbiras, and so on. And that means a lot. I don’t see a need to be despondent.

NC: Turning to recent events, what do you make of what Ntone Edjabe called “choreographed demonstrations of love for the substitute dictator”?

CC: (laughing) I was right in the streets. But, it was pretty much to go and observe. I wasn’t dancing. I wasn’t waving my flag or anything. Having participated in the celebrations in 1980 and been here throughout the 37 years, you become very cautious, especially the way things happened. What’s the biblical term? “Old wine in a new skin.” You are never quite sure how sincere the whole process is. But you also look at the positives. At least one major obstacle is out of the way in the person of Robert Mugabe. Also, the fact that people realise that you can actually go into the streets and demonstrate. I think that’s a huge achievement. The younger generations were completely closed out, but the way they flooded the streets is a sign that if anything happens in the future, we can still do the same.

NC: Yes, but they went into the streets because the army said: “Go into the streets!” Previously, no-one went into the streets because that same army would have pointed their guns at you.

CC: Yes, we’re in a transitional phase, which I hope in the long run will open up the system for more free and fair participation. But, at least, so far, they are trying to reach out. Still, we must be cautious. We must never relax. Politicians will always be politicians. We need to move ahead with caution and dialogue and people listening to each other. What I find a bit tricky is that the opposition seems to have been taken out completely. They embraced the whole transitional phase and I just wonder how they will justify any election manifesto? Their major rallying point was “Mugabe must go.” Mugabe is  gone now, so what’s the rallying point? Whether the system will be able to reinvent itself into a more democratic dispensation? We wait and see. A year is more than enough for the true colours to show.

NC: Do you have any thoughts as to how we should proceed from a cultural perspective?

CC: Two or three days ago, the new Minister of Culture had a meeting with artists in Chitungwiza. It was an open call. I didn’t go because a few weeks before the coup, the previous new minister had called a similar meeting and we made all sorts of contributions and then he was removed. And you just feel like… well, we’re just going through the same cycle. But I understand that one of our colleagues asked for government to make funds available to artists to move from point A to point B – a mobility fund type thing. But there is a danger in us looking at our immediate, individual needs as artists, whereas I think it should be more about setting up an enabling environment and having all systems ironed out for doing business. Access to audience, access to the media and the international community, whatever that means. I wouldn’t want the arts and culture sector to be a dependent, donor-funded kind of scenario. If we get the institutions in good order, we are very creative and can be very productive. But we should not be dependent.

NC: When you travel, do you have a set for local audiences and another for an international audience?

CC: It pretty much depends where you are and the kind of audience. If it’s an open audience, it can be tricky. But, if it’s an academic institution, you can manoeuvre quite a lot. The fact that you are up there and you are using your body, better still if you have musical accompaniment, the language barrier becomes less relevant. Like, the bomba bomba poem (Thina bomba) – I use it as an experiment. Every time I perform abroad, I challenge people to try and interpret what it is saying and, anyone who gets it right, I give them a CD – that kind of thing. I try and do as much as possible to push my performances in the original language but obviously you also ride on the translations, interpretations. Or, sometimes you can beam the English translation on the side of the stage or pass around copies of the translation. But, most of the time people don’t bother to look at the translation until you are done. It’s amazing.

NC: But in Zimbabwe, anyone watching you surely knows what they’re going to get? Do you get any antagonism? Because you don’t mince your words. Or, do you preach to the converted?

CC: At a regular venue like The Book Café, you would probably be preaching to the converted. But, say you are out there in Highfields, people come out of curiosity or they have heard a piece on radio; they sit there for an hour and it will be their first time to see you.

I had an interesting experience once at Intwasa in Bulawayo. I was supposed to have gone with the band and funding fell off at the last minute, so I got up on my own and did one hour solo, 90 per cent in Shona. I had this young man come up to me at the end and say: “You know I am born and bred Ndebele and it’s my first time to sit down for an hour listening to Shona and I really enjoyed it and I could flow with you.”

And then you have varied experiences where you can get an audience who have a political perspective of their own and get agitated by some political positions you take through the poetry, particularly in the past years before the coup-which-was-not-a-coup-which-was-a-coup. You’d get into some nasty situations.

NC: Like what?

CC: Guns. Some years ago, I went to The Book Café and the toilets were outside and, on my way out, someone just grabbed my collar, pulled out a gun, and ordered me to shut up, blah blah blah. Luckily, people noticed there was a scuffle outside and they dashed in. A fellow poet and friend had a gun on him too, so he came out and said: “OK. If you shoot him, I’ll shoot you”. That kind of thing.

NC: (laughing) A Mexican standoff between two poets and a CIO (Central Intelligence Organisation) at The Book Café? Beautiful.

CC: That was after the 2002 elections. I had another incident when driving back home. Suddenly, you realise your wheel has flown off and you manage to stop and check and someone has removed the nuts. The whole idea was for you to die on your way home. There are so many nasty stories. So you realise that you are pretty much operating at a political level more than an artistic level. I had a scuffle the other time in Mbare. These ZANU–PF youths came and said: “You are denigrating our party.” But I stood my ground. I said: “No, I am performing poetry which is in books used in schools and colleges, and the police are there and they haven’t said anything. And, anyway, who are you? I mean, you are a political party and this is a national event that has nothing to do with ZANU–PF!”

But there have been other interesting scenarios too. We were invited to…  is it Moleli High School? Near Kutama there… and [ZANU–PF minister] Webster Shamu was the guest speaker. I was performing a couple of poems… not exactly complimentary, but humorous, and the audience was enjoying it. I turn and look at the high table and the minister is rolling with laughter. Afterwards, he says to me: “That was fantastic. You hit us very hard, but nice and smooth… that’s what I call art.” He could appreciate it and he wasn’t at all confrontational and kept on chatting. “Let me know when you’re performing…” That kind of thing. Up to now, we meet and laugh about it.

So it really depends on context – where you’re performing, whose agenda, what’s the audience. We had one concert in Harare gardens in the formative years of MDC. We had this piece Chinja Napken (Change the Nappy) and the whole crowd raised their palms with the MDC symbol, you know? And at the end of the piece, I said: “This is not about politics, it’s all about hygiene. Change your baby’s diapers when they are soiled.” And everyone says: “Ah! Iwe mhani unofunga kuti takapusa here?” (“Do you think we are stupid?”) And everyone was laughing.

That’s what art should be about – not sloganeering, or appearing as if you are on a campaign rally. And I wish our audiences would be equally open-minded. It’s a good opportunity to open up dialogue and take the discussion further, instead of throwing bottles and eggs if you don’t like what people are saying.

NC: In many cases, we are self-censoring. People say: “Don’t say anything because you’ll disappear.” But perhaps that day at The Book Café, the CIO acted on his own initiative.

CC: Yes. And the system was very crafty as well. They would know that if they do something crude, the repercussions would be difficult. So, they would rather do subtle things. There was a period when you wouldn’t be mentioned in any of the state media, but there’s no official ban – you are just silently ignored. You find that in mainstream music. No one ever said: “Thomas Mapfumo is banned.” But you would listen to radio the entire year and no airplay. Fortunately, the world is more open now, with social media and such channels. These things were done very systematically. That’s how the system survived, you know? No one could critique it and you would think twice before you opened your mouth in the street, because you were not sure who was going to do what. But, that’s the game of oppression.

People were basically “Mugabe! Mugabe!” and “Grace! Grace!” Then, suddenly, a day later, they are singing the praises of Mnangagwa and Chiwenga. James Maridadi (MDC MP) put it very well. He said that, in parliament, he tried to put a motion forward that Grace was denigrating a vice-president (Mnangagwa) in public when she was not in government, that even though he was MDC, he knew it didn’t make sense for a VP to be humiliated in public like that. And he was booed down by ZANU-PF MPs. And now everyone in parliament, the same people who were booing him, were literally climbing on top of each other to congratulate Mnangagwa.

NC: Just as it doesn’t make sense for Mugabe to be humiliated. It’s very disconcerting. But, at the same time, I feel very fortunate, because we are having this conversation. Can you imagine us having this conversation a year ago?

CC: I have even found people openly commenting on Mnangagwa. If he does something they don’t like, they say it, which is a good sign.

NC: You’re a great thinker, an incredible live presence, something of a diplomat, and you’ve worked with Oliver Mtukudzi, Chiwoniso Maraire and many others. How did these collaborations come about?

CC: Way back, the creative sector was quite a small, tightly knit community, so you would meet regularly. We would do shows at Mushandira Pamwe, Seven Miles… And we would go as a group of friends to support each other. So, if Oliver Mtukudzi is playing, you go with [fellow writers] Chenjerai Hove, Musaemura Zimunya, that kind of thing. And places like The Book Café became rallying points for artists and you develop strong bonds, so much so that my children’s best friends are Chenjerai Hove’s children and Chiwoniso’s children.

In the process, you end up drifting to like-minded people. Someone like Oliver, the way he does his art and carries himself, and my character and my approach to art… Thinking things through before you record or publish… Personality too – you sit down and talk things through and make sure you understand each other. Once Oliver saw me performing one of my earlier poems and he said: “Next time we meet, your poem will be a song.” And I said: “Go ahead. Feel free.” No issue about monies etcetera. And from there, one thing leads to another – joint performances and collaborations on stage.

Same with Chiwoniso’s father, Dumi Maraire. He was performing at the university and I was performing solo and someone says: “But you two could work together.” So, we said: “Let’s give it a try.” And we were just having a couple of drinks and playing around with sounds and we realised it could work. Chiwoniso was still in high school. And when the father passed away, we just continued with the group, and then with Chiwoniso as a duet.

I think one thing which also helped a lot with all these friends and colleagues was that money wasn’t at the top of our minds. It was always passion and seeing a process through. I think a good percentage of my earlier performances were just for the fun of it. I suppose I had a full-time job elsewhere, so it made things easier. I remember I would jump on stage in between Oliver’s shows and then jump off stage and start dancing with everybody else. I think it was more a question of trying to put poetry up front and bring it into the popular domain. Same with Dumi Maraire – it was out of fun and love of the mbira. But then one thing leads to another and suddenly you begin to attract a paying audience. Well, the money is always welcome, but I think starting from the other angle is much healthier. I have also been fortunate to have a lot of people who have faith and appreciation of the way I do my writing, with a lot of musician friends approaching me for lyrics – the late Dumi Ngulube, The Pied Pipers…

NC: I need to do that. I need to commission you to write lyrics.

CC: Well, it’s just a glass of whisky… (laughing)

 

 

 This and other stories available in the new issue of the Chronic, “The Invention of Zimbabwe”, which writes Zimbabwe beyond white fears and the Africa-South conundrum.

The accompanying books magazine, XIBAARU TEERE YI (Chronic Books in Wolof) asks the urgent question: What can African Writers Learn from Cheikh Anta Diop?

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