5 January 2007

Zimbabwe: What Great Zimbabwe Has Meant to the Locals

book review

The Silence of Great Zimbabwe: Contested Landscapes and the Power of Heritage

By J Fontein

(Harare, Weaver Press, 2006), xviii, 246 pp.

SINCE 1980 we have, by and large, been spared the outpourings of ideological cranks, such as Gayre of Gayre, whose renewed insistence on the exotic origins of Great Zimbabwe enjoyed some political support in the 1970s.

Garlake, then the leading archaeologist in the country, went into exile to publish his major work on the subject in 1973. After Independence he returned and soon published a small but useful guide raisonné to the site and several academic articles.

Archaeology as a discipline which I had battled for years to introduce to the History Department at the University was also soon established; and the pleasing result has been the extensive publications on detailed aspects of Great Zimbabwe by local archaeologists, notably Matenga, Pikirayi and Pwiti.

Similarly the administrative side of the National Museums and Monuments has been invigorated by History and Archaeology graduates such as Munjeri, Mahachi and Chauke; and their efforts have led to a greater public awareness of Great Zimbabwe and to its recognition in 1986 as a World Heritage Site.

However, until the publication of Fontein's book, we have not had a general discussion of the site itself, as we know it today, rather than its early history which has pre-occupied archaeologists.

Fontein's work is therefore greatly welcome and should be read by everyone interested in the monument itself and its historical and political context since Independence.

For as the book's subtitle indicates it is not just about the archaeological remains or their interpretation. Rather it focuses on what Great Zimbabwe has meant to the people of this country since nationalists adopted it as a symbol of African achievement that could flourish again once Independence was achieved.

Once achieved, of course, the country was named after this, one of the most impressive monuments in Africa -- but that was the easy part. How to manage, maintain, and market the site was more problematic, and particularly so in the face of competing claims to access and "use".

From war veterans and traditional religious figures, and latterly from an increasingly dirigiste government, on one side. From professional archaeologists and the requirements of Unesco and the often conflicting demands of tourism on another.

And most interestingly from the people living in the vicinity of the site -- Mugabe's Duma, Charumbira's people and the Nemanwa, all of whom came to the area not all that long before the whites but who each now claim "ancestral" ties, indeed rights, to the site, both against one another and all the other interests already mentioned. This indeed is the "contested landscape" of the book's subtitle.

It is the voices of these local peoples -- hitherto largely unheard and certainly unheeded -- that make Fontein's treatment of Great Zimbabwe refreshingly different. Their voices now break "the silence" of the book's title and also indicate some anger at their effective exclusion from the site and at the "desecration" of it. The triumph of the professionals over the "exoticisers" has not meant much of a change for the local people and their emphasis on religion and tradition.

Fontein's discussion of the recent professionalisation of the National Museums and Monuments in the context of heritage management is also enlightening and thought-provoking for all concerned. Indeed with the exception of the concluding chapter on very recent developments and patriotic history, it is the parts of the book that deal with the post-Independence period that are the most valuable.

For, the earlier section on the Zimbabwe Controversy goes over familiar ground covered by Chanaiwa's book of that title published 30 years ago (strangely never mentioned by Fontein). In any case the controversy is presented in old-fashioned, rather sterile, terms -- of factually right against factually wrong -- rather than listening to the voices of the whites as he listens to those of the local peoples.

And the whites' voices as seen in their novels were interesting, as Chennells showed long ago. For in fact they spoke not so much about exotic origins per se as about the need to avoid the decadence that presumably led to the collapse of the former immigrant Zimbabwe civilisation: redemption and Social Darwinism informed by eugenic pessimism rather than the racial superiority or triumphalism that is assumed.

The section on nationalism also is rather sketchy, and missing from Fontein's discussion of this -- and indeed of the local peoples' sacralisation of the site, probably more recent than assumed -- is any mention of Christian religiosity.

The first African to record his impressions of Great Zimbabwe, in 1915, said that it was the "Church of God" and so named his independent church after it. Others concurred and Mai Chaza's publications in the 1950s have photographs showing the Conical Tower with angels, Jesus and herself superimposed to show that God created Zimbabwe when he created the world.

In the early 1960s the association with religion was institutionalised with the Zimbabwe Remnant Church and the Zimbabwe Church of the Orphans feeding into nationalism; indeed the latter church was effectively taken over by the people's Caretaker Council to retrieve the Zimbabwe name after the banning of Zapu.

Further marring this otherwise splendid book is the absence of care, both on the author's and any editor's part. Discursive and allusive, it is written in a knowing style as if only for fellow experts.

A sample check of the first longish quotation in the book reveals two obvious misspellings and eight errors of transcription. Authors Dachs, G Pwiti, Sister Mary Aquina and Chigwedere become, respectively, Douglas, J Puriti, Aquirans, and Chiguredere; and many others like Randall-MacIver and Allan Wilson are spelt wrongly, some consistently so, some differently every time. References to material in the National Archives also look inadequate.

Such pervasive carelessness inevitably raises doubts, particularly when much of the book relies on field-notes and interviews that had to be transcribed and translated -- a task much more demanding than simply copying quotations, author's names and file references.

So this book is just a beginning -- enjoyable for its interesting ideas that will make readers think more about their heritage; and hopefully an inspiration to local archaeologists and historians to look afresh at their history.

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