The Herald (Harare)

28 January 2013

Zimbabwe: Know Your Author - Solomon Mutsvairo

The late Professor Solomon Mangwiro Mutsvairo was a Zimbabwean poet, educationist and the earliest Shona novelist. Born on April 26, 1924 in Zawu, Mazowe District, in Mashonaland Central, Prof Mutsvairo wrote his first book Feso in Shona in 1957.

His father was Elijah Mavhura.

Prof Mutsvairo was a writer who grew up in then northern Rhodesia, Zambia but remained attached to his fatherland Zimbabwe. He attended school at Howard Mission in Chiweshe before going to Adams College in South Africa.

An educationist by nature, Prof Mutsvairo later went to Fort Hare University in South Africa studying for University of Ottaw, Canada and Howard University Washington D.C. He won the Fulbright Scholarship in 1960 and he went to in the United States of America where he took several Master's Degrees and in 1979 a doctorate at Howard University.

He returned to Zimbabwe in 1981.

He became a teacher and taught at Goromonzi Government Secondary School in Mashonaland East.

His illustrious teaching career so him being elevated on of the first black headmasters at Sanyati Baptist Mission School in 1955.

Prof Mutsvairo became instrumental in organising branches of the African Teachers' Association and also started the African Language Development Association, later the Rhodesian Government Publication Bureau.

Under the colonial government, Bureau was changesd with the responsibility of promoting literature in Afgrican languages and ensuring that such literature did not upset the existence social order or challenge the colonial ideology.

In 1986 Prof Mutsvairo was offered a fulltime teaching post in the department of African Languages at the University of Zimbabwe.

In 1992 he was appointed the chairman of the National Arts Council a post he held for three years.

While still working with the National Arts Council Mutsvairo penned the 15-lines long Three-Stanza Zimbabwean National Anthem which was chosen among 1 600 entries in Shona, English and Ndebele.

The song replaced the South African Ishe Komborera Africa/ Nkosi Sikeleli Africa which Zimbabwe had adopted at Independence in 1980.

His first novel Feso, originally published in 1957 (when Zimbabwe was still called Southern Rhodesia), is a narrative with subtle political implications set several hundreds of years ago, just before British colonization.

Though very small, the novel became popular in the nationalist circles because the plot seemed to be a parable of the British-settler-Zimbabwean conflict.

When it was published in 1974 one chapter was missing and this chapter was knitted around the land question.

Feso was a political satire which castigated the colonial regime.

It is the very same novel which contains the words found in the poem, Nehanda Nyakasikana which was also the late Vice President Simon Muzenda's favorite poem.

The poem aroused political African nationalism in the country and so the late Cde Mzenda being arrested for reciting the poem to group of Africans in Mvuma.

Beyond the use of the Shona language itself, the novel incorporates a number of features of traditional Zezuru oral culture, including song and storytelling techniques.

Feso was widely read, and even taught in schools, until it was banned by the government of the new state of Rhodesia in the mid-1960s.

His second novel Murambiwa Goredema (1958) dealt with the effects of urbanization and Industrialisation on the African.

It looked at how the new economic setting brought about by the colonial system sucked out the African of his physical energy.

In the book the main character, Murambiwa Goredema, works for many years in Salisbury (Harare) but acquires nothing tangible to bring back home.

Mutsvairo's other novels included Mapondera, Soldier of Zimbabwe (1978), Prophet of Zimbabwe (1983), Mweya waNehanda (1988), Hamandishe (1991) Chaminuka, Nduri DzeNhango DzeZimbabwe, a political anthology of the poems on the liberation struggle. The poems in the collection prophesy a free Zimbabwe.

Other include Ambuyamuderere (1967) Zezuru Nursery Rhymes (1959), Madetembedzo Akare na Matsva; an anthology of several Zezuru poets (1962).

Though his research in Zimbabwean oral culture has been useful for both African and Western scholars, he has been considered something of a revisionist historian.

He provoked some controversy by arguing, in a series of televised debates that the Shona people should be referred to instead as Mbire.

Mutsvairo wrote both poetry and prose in English. His two explicitly political historical novels, about 19th century pro-independence figure Kadungure Mapondera and Chaminuka, were both written in English, and his English poetry is in a similar vein.

Mutsvairo has explained that his poetry is more influenced by English poetry.

With its regular meters, while traditional Shona poetry, based in repetition has often found its way into his prose.

Since he also translated his own work in both directions, he has acquired an unusually rich sense of the relationship between the two.

He found, he said, intuitive ways of making leaps from one to the other, even if they sometimes defy word-for-word translation:

"For example, idiomatic expressions like Chauinacho batisisa midzimu haipe kaviri: What you have, hold on to it fast because the ancestors will not give it to you again. If you wrote it the way I'm saying it now, it wouldn't make sense.

"Maybe it might be better to say, A bird in hand is worth two in a bush.

"And this has given you a totally different use although the idea is the same. So, there are many such expressions that are not synonymous, but somehow you can get the equivalent."

Mutsvairo was also a central figure in Zimbabwean academic and cultural circles.

He was the first person to be named Writer-in-Residence at the University of Zimbabwe, and was the Chairman of the National Arts Council of Zimbabwe during the late 1990s.

During the liberation struggle, Mutsvairo fought hard to motivate liberation fighters in their quest for the freedom of the country through his publications. He fought the liberation struggle using the pen.

On the eve of the Independence Silver Jubilee Celebrations on April 17 2005 Prof Mutsvairo was decorated by President Mugabe with the order of Star of Zimbabwe.

This was in recognition of his outstanding contribution to the development of the traditional African literature and thought.

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