11 June 2018

Zimbabwe: Whatever Has Happened to Yesteryear's Reading Culture?

I grew up in the village with my parents and my siblings (Sue, Josy, Anne and, later towards the 2000s, Tawa). My parents, God bless them, trusted my work ethic so much that they practically left the choice of what to read, and when to read, to me.

I don't remember them tyrannically dictating the homework first and TV later rule to me that I see many young boys and girls enduring today. Of course, you might want to say TVs were not a common phenomenon in the village in those days. So find anything to use instead of TV. Mahwani Touch if you want.

Our parents practised a laissez-faire approach to education: I had to decide what I loved, and they had to provide the means (sometimes laboriously). Lots of times, I had to join them, either as father's dhakaboy (a colloquial term for someone who mixes mortar for the builder), or as mother's runner at the township market. During the cropping season, after helping in the fields, I had to look after our small herd of cattle. With such a busy schedule, novels still managed to find me.

By the time I completed my seventh grade at Mutya Primary School, I had already breezed my way through every popular Shona novel one could think of. My reading of these novels was necessitated by two things. First, Josy loved to unceremoniously insert long paragraphs of any Shona novel she would be reading at any given time into an everyday conversation. Imagine, you are having a conversation about invading Mbuya VaRusekeni's mango orchard, and Josy rattles up something from "Kutonhodzwa KwaChauruka" for effect.

Only a perfect WhatsApp emoji can capture the confusion on our faces. So I took to reading every Shona novel that came my way. Some came as complete packages; others came with a couple of missing limbs, but the good thing about Shona novels of that time was that like Nigerian movies, getting into the story 25 pages later was no serious setback. The second reason was my late cousin, Innocent (may his soul rest in peace).

This naughty fellow had a bookphobia of unimaginable proportions. So he would bring his Shona set books home and during bedtime, instruct me to read for him, a chapter per night. Of course, a couple of paragraphs later, he would be snoring loudly so that anyone who dared to listen from the outside would think that I was performing some incantations to the demonic approval of some dark force.

After sensing an invasion of her turf, Josy later migrated to English novels. However, I suspect that her affair with English novels was not a deep one because instead of citing whole paragraphs like what she used to do with the Shona novels, this time she confined herself to sudden citations of novel titles and their authors. For instance, during a game of bakery (I think that's the spelling; no one bothered to spell the names of games because games were meant to be played), she, from nowhere, announced, "Silent Journey from the East". So I migrated as well, but unlike Josy, I actually wanted to read the contents of these novels.

Form 1 of course started with the usual: "Mpho's Search" or "Oliver Twist". Then came Holly Meyers from the United States. She practically upgraded our Rukovo Secondary School library and introduced a reading culture by making sure that every Form 1 pupil had a reading card.

In the library, I stumbled upon the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys series and loved them. I think I read 66 Hardy Boys novels and around 54 Nancy Drews. I usually worked at a rate of two novels per day. Even my English compositions became action-packed, reflecting the influence of America on a young village boy of my calibre.

Then my uncle, Uncle Tich, came to the village from boarding school. Uncle Tich represented what the village was not. He listened to foreign musicians, and usually whistled "From the Distance" when absent-minded. There was something foreign and fresh about him that made me want to be his friend.

He also brought Dambudzo Marechera (in books and in appearance), Mario Puzo, Robert Ludlum, Wilbur Smith, Jack Higgins, Frederick Forsythe, Eric van Lustbader, Sidney Sheldon, Ken Folliet, Louis L'Amour, James Hadley Chase and many other popular writers.

But the one who really invaded Uncle Tich's life was Marechera. Besides the unlimited collection of expletives that Uncle Tich used when angry or happy, he also began to exhibit behavioural traits that Marechera was famed for. For me, that was what set Uncle Tich apart. It drew me close to him and I became his disciple, reading his books and imitating his English.

By the time I reached Form 4, I had read "The House of Hunger", "Scrapiron Blues" and "Cemetery of Mind" and many other trend-setting Zimbabwean works. I had also read "The Great Gatsby" and many other literary works including "War and Peace".

I was the first, and I am sure the last, to borrow it from the school library. I still remember how I walked up and down the corridors with the book pressed to my chest. "War and Peace" is a voluminous affair and a Form 2 pupil must really be Marecherean to walk around with it.

Uncle Tich had a typewriter. He wrote his stories using that typewriter. I borrowed it from him to write my first story, "The Mountain". I do not remember how I lost it, but I am sure it was when I came to Harare. Uncle Tich has lost his stories too. He has also lost the Marecherean disposition that made him a rebel of sorts. Now he is all reserved and "normal" but the linguistic dexterity is still there.

A couple of weeks ago, I sent him a poem titled "Time": "She led me to the house at the end of the street, and left her caresses on my face." He added two lines about "dark voyeurs" peeping at us from the thick but perforated blanket of darkness, and I knew I still had my favourite uncle around.

Now I teach literature at the university. I have all these books in my head, but every time I rattle off some titles like Josy, I am met by blank faces. I don't know if the generation of learners we have now is different from ours, but the truth is that they no longer read these books like we used to.

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