The Herald (Harare)

Zimbabwe: What Would Have Been Different?

opinion

Photo: Dambudzo Marechera/Facebook
Author Dambudzo Marechera

What would have been different if he had written a will? 'Which one of you bastards is Death?' Dambudzo, I am sitting by your bed watching you die. I have never seen anyone die before, so I don't know whether it will happen within the next hour, day or week.

I have asked the nurses who glide in out of the room at long intervals, ignoring my presence. Dying is shameful and nobody wants to be implicated. I feel like an intruder, white in a black hospital, encroaching on a foreign culture at one of its most secretive moments.

The nurses tell me one cannot tell, it can be very soon, but can also take its time.

When did you write the 'Bastard Death' poems? Days or weeks or months ago? You did not show them to me, I will find them tomorrow when I clear out your flat. You are in conversation with this bastard now, not arguing anymore, silently acknowledging his presence as he lets you draw your last wafts of breath. You seem far away, your mouth and nose under the oxygen mask.

The mask is all they can provide to relieve your struggle. Antibiotics won't help, not with one side of your lung already gone and the other near collapse. It is only a matter of time. I am sitting here, helpless, watching you breathe in, ever so slowly, as deeply as your corroded lungs allow you, wheezing as your chest heaves up and then rattles down. There is a pause after each breath and I listen anxiously, waiting for the next. The pauses seem longer and longer. Each time I wonder, is this the last one?

But while you are going to join your ancestors -- oh, how you will howl at them to leave you alone! -- let me tell you how the Bastard is threatening to get me -- is hovering above my house, too -- because this is also part of our story.

For many years I will live full of joy about every new day that I will be in good health. But, unlike you, I will be lucky. I will survive.

The After-Life

After Dambudzo's death, there was talk among publishers and friends about what to do with his unpublished work. I did not want to do it. I wanted to focus on my PhD research, which I had started in 1986, and also, I did not feel sufficiently qualified. I did not say that my life was too closely interwoven with Dambudzo's to be the one to select and edit poems that had been inspired by our relationship.

How could I work on his biography without mentioning his love life and the real cause of his death? Yet, in the end, Irene Staunton and Hugh Lewin, my main consultants -- who had just founded Baobab Books and published the tribute collection Dambudzo Marechera 1952-1987 -- persuaded me that I was the best person to take on this task.

So I did. I took on what was to become a deeply gratifying labour of love. In a way I have been in constant conversation with him, safe from his invectives, free to do with "him" what I deem proper.

Ironically, Dambudzo, out of his grave, "paid me back". To my great surprise, seven years after his death, I found myself appointed Professor of African Literature by Berlin's distinguished Humboldt University. I would enter a career that I had never planned or expected.

Yet there has also been the dark side, the menace. Dambudzo haunted my dreams. Once, not long after his death, I dreamed he was throwing little poison darts at me from across the street.

They stuck in my skin, but I pulled them out and walked away, safe. When he appears to me now, the threat is gone. He seems calm, composed, almost serene.

During my family's remaining years in Zimbabwe, I worked concurrently on my PhD and on the posthumous publications and the biography of Marechera.

Both my dissertation, Teachers, Preachers, Non-Believers, and my Source Book appeared in 1992. I attended conferences and published articles.

In 1993 we returned to a re-unified Germany. East German universities were being restructured, so also Humboldt. A chair for African Literatures and Cultures had been created.

Although I had only passed my PhD at Frankfurt University in 1991 and did not have the usual prerequisite for such a post, the German Habilitation, other work could be recognised as an equivalent. In my case, this other work consisted of my Marechera oeuvre.

Yet another historical irony came into play. In 1974, the West German government had not admitted me as a high school teacher because of my adherence to Maoist organisations. I was a victim of what was called "Radikalenerlass".

Twenty years later, I was ordained as "Beamter auf Lebenszeit" (civil servant for life). And this not only thanks to Dambudzo, the troublemaker and the most anti-authoritarian spirit I have ever known, but also thanks to the changed political environment in my country.

The academic committee at Humboldt University had shortlisted an Africanist from an East German University as number one for the position.

However, he had been implicated with the GDR regime and therefore lost his job. That is why the government authorities did not accept his candidature at Humboldt, thus making way for number two on the list, the erstwhile Radical, which was me.

This is, in outline, my story of Dambudzo Marechera. He unlocked many doors for me and let me peek into the marvellous world beyond.

He gave me intimations of hell but also the strength to resist. He, who said he had never met an "African" but only human beings, made me into an "Africanist". What a prank, Dambudzo.

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