Stories of Struggle: The Intractability of Early African Fiction from Nascent African Nationalism in Rhodesia.

AuthorMavima, Shingi
PositionZimbabwe: The Royal Residence - Critical essay

"The history of any country is revealed in its art, and the history of any art is revealed in its influences" (Byerly 254). Literary works play a crucial role in portraying, critiquing and, in cases, determining the state of society is a truism hardly controvertible. In this analysis of select canonical texts of fiction in the first two decades of African literature in Zimbabwe (1956-1975) (1), the critical relationship between these early works and the contemporaneous rise and establishment of African nationalism are examined. First, the advent of the printed African story in Zimbabwe, typically aimed at creating a connection between the contemporary colonized peoples and a triumphant precolonial past-imagined or otherwise played an integral role in the birth and cultivation of a radical nationalism among the African masses. Secondly, colonial era African fictive literature in both English and the native languages was intrinsically political, focusing on the fracturing quality of the colonial experience as it pertained to ethnicity, society's fragmentation based on varying proximities to Whiteness and the colonial state, and gender. Linguistic agency, whether by way of the mother tongue or by the repurposed use of the colonial language, plays an essential role in the formation and popular articulation of nationalism, as well as national and Pan-African identity.

Through the veneration of African symbols of resistance, a recognition of a dynamic African being in constant flux, and a unity either in sentiment or in practice built around responses to colonialism, the definitive works used as sites of analyses in this essay were instrumental in creating a foundation upon which African nationalism would be built and sustained. Furthermore, while the overwhelming male representation in both the literary content and the content producers echoes, the reputation of nationalism as a largely masculine imagination, the female voices that broke into publication in that era made indelible contributions to anticolonial discourse through Pan-African evocations and didactic lamentations about the colonial environment. This study aligns with the paradigm of literary Pan-Africanism, which is designed to guide the "proper explanation of the content, form, and function of African literary creations... to ensure (these) works are placed in their proper historical context and evaluated based on their practical relevance and problem-solving capacity" (McDougal 41). Therefore, it advocates for a paradigmatic shift in the discourse surrounding these works: instead of fictional texts studied primarily for linguistic, cultural, and artistic purposes, we ought to elevate our analysis thereof to that accorded national histories and critical moments in the political evolution of the space out of which they emerge.

The Politics of African Literature- A Brief Overview

Before we discuss specific texts, authors and their significance in the context of nationalism and Pan-Africanism, let us recognize the inherent political nature of the printed word in general, and of African literature in particular. In his canonical text Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson cites the rise of print-capitalism as the catalyst for modern nationalism, arguing that having a plethora of localized languages in print (as opposed to Latin and a few other before the modern era) fostered a sense of belonging among those that each language spoke to, as well as giving languages and their speakers an impression of antiquity; a critical element in both imperial and anti-colonial nationalisms (44). For Africa, as with other colonized peoples, the printed word in itself was resistance. The absence of a strong literary tradition within many pre-colonial communities, particularly in Southern Africa, was often (and continues to be) cited as proof of African inferiority by the colonialists (Smith 4). Thus, the very notion of African people developing a literary culture in both their native and colonial languages was more than just artistry: it was innately subversive. Mazrui makes this case when he writes "If the general absence of the written word was a part of Africa's sense of humiliation during the colonial period, the outburst of written creativity among African people since those early days became part of Africa's vindication of itself" (315). Indeed, it was this recognition that provided the backbone for the cultural Pan-Africanism and renaissance articulated by the founders of Negritude, Ngugi, and others.

I also preface this study by accounting for my use of both Rhodesia and Zimbabwe in reference to the same geographic territory and, at times, in the same moment. Zimbabwe is, of course, the postcolonial name for the former colony that was Rhodesia (and Southern Rhodesia before it). However, I refer to the African anticolonial nationalism that grew out of 1950s Rhodesia as Zimbabwean Nationalism, for it was around this time that "Zimbabwe" emerged as the name for the independent nation that the nationalists envisioned. Thus while, for example, Umvukela waMandebele is the first African language book published in Rhodesia, it was a seminal moment in early Zimbabwean Nationalism, and hence, the term is also used interchangeably with African Nationalism in Zimbabwe.

Zimbabwean Nationalism and African Literature in Rhodesia

To effectively interrogate the role of African literature as the handmaiden of Zimbabwean Nationalism, it is critical to establish the temporal and political context out of which both grew. The end of the Second World War resulted in invigorated nationalistic sentiments for both the Rhodesian colonized and the colonizer, albeit for different reasons. Thousands of African people had been enlisted to fight in the British army overseas, while those who remained at home assisted in the war effort by "building air bases for use by the British Air Force", among other things (Mlambo 78). Thus, when Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill declared that the 1941 Atlantic Charter, which granted the right to self-determination to "all peoples", did not include the African colonies, and the African people who had fought tyranny against an unfamiliar enemy were disillusioned at the idea of returning home to face the same from a familiar foe. Ndabaningi Sithole describes the anti-colonial awakening among African people post-World War Two in his seminal 1959 text, African Nationalism, saying "during the war the Allied Powers taught their subject people that it was not right for Germany dominate other nations... they taught the subject peoples to fight and die for their freedom" (48). Thus, inadvertently, the World War led to the surge in anti-colonial African nationalism during the late 1940s and 1950s. On the other hand, the colonial powers were doubling down on their hold on the colonies. The onset of the Cold War meant that colonized territories were under the threat of aligning themselves with and coming under the control of Soviet communism. Furthermore, the loss of the Indian colony in 1948 was a huge blow to the British Empire, thus they were determined to maintain control of the rest of their territories, their African colonies in particular. As such, there was an influx of British migrants to Rhodesia in the decade following the war, coupled with increasingly oppressive laws for the African masses (Mlambo 81). In 1953, the Central African Federation (CAF) brought together the British colonies of Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) and Nyasaland (Malawi), a confederation aimed at consolidating British control of the central African territory, which further frustrated African people, and only fanned the fires of nascent nationalism in the region.

It was in this environment of disillusionment, heightened frustration, and nationalistic epiphanies that the earliest African works of creative literatures were published. Ndabaningi Sithole, who in 1963 would go on to found the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), and is widely regarded as "The Father of Zimbabwe's Armed Struggle" (V. Sithole 32), published...

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