Zimbabwe: Re-Reading Hove's Masimba Avanhu?

After going around the streets and bookshops looking for Chenjerai Hove's only Shona novel Masimba Avanhu?, I ended up at the very place where it was first published in 1986, Mambo Press.

Sadly, the book is now out of print. Classic local publications are now scarce as if they are foreign titles. On the streets, book sellers argued the book did not exist. I had made it up.

Or if they wanted to give me the benefit of doubt they assumed I was confusing the book with one of Hove's English books.

This novel heralds the many themes and truths that continue to preoccupy Hove's fiction and poetry, or his general trajectory as a writer and thinker.

Masimba Avanhu? has a redeeming social value. It offers analysis and contains a call to political action.

Though the framing of the narrative was inspired by a tragic bus accident that actually happened in the 80s, Hove finds moral lessons in it. The real substance is in the human situation dramatically presented.

Masimba Avanhu? is a book about people's power, their ability to organise themselves to fight for their rights and safety. The pivotal event in the short novel is the near tragedy of an averted bus crash that galvanises the passengers to challenge the driver's reckless driving.

After the bus overturns the passengers take the driver into custody after he attempts to run away from their wrath and get him charged with attempted murder.

The book can be summarised as a dramatisation of the common cliché, democracy for the people by the people. As one of the characters says; "Mutyairi ngaatongwe nedare rebhazi. Idare revanhu, rashagwa nevanhu." [the driver must be tried by the people in the bus.

The jury has been chosen by the people.]

There are few books in Zimbabwean literature that have given a more immediate feeling about people's power. Hove's eye for detail is excruciatingly precise, and each nuance of his observations is rendered with undeniable authenticity and authority. The Shona language serves a function.

Too often we are wrapped up in the Western conception of democracy yet it is not an alien notion, but a natural human organisational system that can be expressed in any language or society. Whether Hove was instinctively aiming for this in writing, the book is mere conjecture.

The bus, for instance, is not just a bus, but a global way of exposing post-colonial collusions, that is, the dynamic and spidery deceptions that have an effect on young post independence states such as Zimbabwe.

In fact, the novel proceeds as an argument rather than as a statement or an evocation of personal and collective experience. A bus attracts a diverse mix of people who fundamentally share different ways of thinking and interacting with the world.

This allows Hove to confront topical issues addressed in the form of arguments between and among the passengers. The conversations give a sneak preview of the community.

The bus could also be symbolical, a journey motif, a retrospective analysis of the short journey a young Zimbabwe had taken since political independence in 1980.

The book was only published a year before the Unity Accord was sealed.

The Gukuruhandi massacres had been taking place in Matabeleland and some parts of the Midlands. And probing questions were already being directed to the President. And to make matters worse, the new black leadership was deep in corruption schemes to enrich themselves.

The bus driver somewhat represents the leader or guide. And the bumpy ride and the driver's reckless temperament and disregard of the passengers' welfare are at the heart of the conflict that holds this narrative together. Inferences to the uncertain journey Zimbabwe was undertaking are not lost to the reader. Has time and circumstances made the book prophetic?

Another important aspect of Masimba Avanhu? is importance of women characters. The civil service of women in a patriarchal society such as Zimbabwe is often taken for granted yet in Masimba Avanhu?, as in other Hove books, women are given due prominence as leaders and arbitrators.

It is not surprising, then, that Hove's work has been largely devoted to a more general investigation of power and powerlessness, and when we come to Palaver Finish (2002), a collection of short essays originally published in The Standard, we find a deeper discussion of many of the same questions he tries to formulate in all his writings. Masimba Avanhu? has a disdain for colonialism and distrust for the new nationalism.

The political subtext adds weight to it, renders it more serious and even determines its character.

Hove stands outside Zimbabwean literature as we know it, and to do him justice we must read him on his own terms.

For it is only in this way that we will be able to discover the real import of Hove's Shona novel Masimba Avanhu? It is one of those rare works produced early in our independence designed not to change but to challenge our perception of the world we inhabit.

The sheer immensity of the novel's ambition makes it an exciting book, even when it is irritatingly unreadable at times (for instance, I am not sure why he puts in a lot of the chirapa-rapa dialogue bits).

Masimba Avanhu? is crucial to us for what it reveals retroactively about Chenjerai Hove's earlier work. We don't have to be in agreement with him to admire him. He is a writer of his convictions.

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