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On Dambudzo Marechera: The Life and Times of an African Writer

ISSUE:  Winter 2006

I got my things and left.

This, the opening line to Dambudzo Marechera’s The House of Hunger, apart from being the coolest opening line in African fiction, is a fair summary of the writer’s life. He was always getting his things and leaving; not that he had many things to get—in his last years, homeless and reduced to sleeping on park benches in Harare, Zimbabwe, all he had were his typewriter and a few books. He died at thirty-five, an age when most writers are just publishing their first novels. It is a mark of his genius that, with only three novellas, some short stories, poems, and essays published during his lifetime, he is regarded today as one of the most influential postcolonial African writers.

One of the most interesting instances of Marechera getting his things and leaving was in 1979, when he received a telegram from his publisher in London, James Currey of Heinemann Books, telling him that he had been invited to a cultural festival in West Germany, lasting from June 23 to July 1. The House of Hunger had been published the year before to good reviews, and Marechera was a writing fellow at the University of Sheffield, working on his second book.

The trip to Berlin, from beginning to end, could have been scripted by Marechera. He didn’t have his passport when he arrived at Currey’s office. His shoe had a big hole in the sole because, he said, he had been hitchhiking. Currey said with regards to the German trip many years later, “When you were with Marechera all your ordinary middle-class training was held in suspense.” Instead of sensibly calling off the trip, he said, “Well, let’s see if we can’t get you to Berlin.” At the airport he was able to convince the immigration officers to let Dambudzo on the plane to Germany without any valid travel document.

The second sentence in The House of Hunger is: The sun was coming up. It must have seemed pretty sunny and promising on the plane after the initial difficulties. But then the third sentence reads: I couldn’t think where to go. With Dambudzo things always had a way of falling apart just at the moment when they seemed most promising. In Berlin he was promptly arrested by the frontier police and threatened with deportation to London. By the time he was rescued by the conference organizers, the news had spread through the conference halls that a writer was being detained. The festival, tagged “Berlin International Literature Days,” had brought to Berlin almost all the prominent African writers: Bessie Head, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Dennis Brutus, Nuruddin Farah, and many others. When he finally arrived at the festival hall, Marechera—perhaps the youngest writer there at twenty-seven—was already a star. Though his name was not on the leading list that night, he was given the opportunity to read. He gave an impassioned reading from The House of Hunger, which was greeted by a standing ovation, and from that moment on, the German media had discovered a hero. The truth is that the audience had never met an African writer quite like Marechera before—a man with such a sense for the dramatic, a man to whom the boundary between the fictitious and the real is so thin as to be almost nonexistent. He was hijacked from the main conference by another, left-leaning, group who had organized an alternative conference and who now wanted him to give a press conference on his “travails” in the hands of the German police.

He gave them exactly what they wanted. He declared himself a political refugee and linked his arrival in England on a scholarship to his political stance against Ian Smith’s white minority regime. “I am a Communist Party member in England. I support Robert Mugabe. I know that any time I am back in Zimbabwe . . . I will be arrested.”

The radical crowd loved this. According to Flora Veit-Wild, Marechera’s biographer, the crowd “regarded Marechera’s detention as a deliberate political act against a political refugee. . . . In much of the press coverage Marechera was celebrated as a stunning new talent who was writing with great power and immediacy “from inside slum life in Zimbabwe” and as a victim of Ian Smith’s “brutal colonial oppression.”

The German outing proved a good publicity stunt for Marechera as well, as for his publisher, who received many offers for a German edition of The House of Hunger. Dambudzo Marechera stayed on in Germany for two more weeks after the conference. He got involved with a German woman whom he may or may not have married. Many years later he would still talk of his German outing as one of the high points of his life.

*  *  *  *  

Charles William Dambudzo Marechera was born on June 4, 1952, in Vengere township in Rusape, Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia). His father, Isaac Marechera, was a mortuary attendant and his mother, Masvotwa Venezia Marechera, was a maid for the white families that lived in the whiter area not far from the township. He had nine siblings, himself being the third. Marechera was, even as a child, exceptionally gifted, and his favorite pastime was reading. In school he was always top of his class. He was also very attached to his parents, and so his world was unhinged when his father Isaac Marechera was killed in 1966 by a hit-and-run driver. In the highly autobiographical The House of Hunger, the car was replaced with a train:

The old man died beneath the wheels of the twentieth century. There was nothing left but stains, bloodstains and fragments of flesh. . . . And the same thing is happening to my generation.

As the critic David Kerr so insightfully observes in his essay on Marechera, the “train carries the thrust of Western technology, destroying indigenous African culture, and leaving in its wake both literal death, and more widely a psychic destruction, the anomie which engulfs [Marechera] and, even though sometimes they do not realise it, his whole generation.”

Left with nine children to bring up, unable to pay the rent, Marechera’s mother was evicted from her house in 1969, and the family moved to an even grimmer neighborhood, mainly inhabited by prostitutes, pimps, and petty criminals. She eventually took to drinking and prostitution. It was at this time, at thirteen years of age, that Marechera began the habit of getting his things and leaving. Mostly he was escaping the shame of his family, the poverty, the chaos, the pain—the “The House of Hunger.” He was always leaving the houses of hunger, seeking the sun—the sun, in most instances, would turn out to be school, scholarship.

He was accepted at the prestigious St. Augustine Secondary School in 1966. It was a Catholic school, the first secondary school in the country to accept black students, and the teachers, mostly white, tried as much as possible to shield their black pupils from the harsh racial climate outside. But the real world awaited him as soon as he got to university, the University of Rhodesia as it was then known. The mood there was racially charged, with the black students on one side of the line and the whites on the other.

This was 1972–3 and Zimbabwe, apart from South Africa, was the only African country not yet independent. The white minority government, under Ian Smith, had unilaterally declared Rhodesia a republic and independent of British rule. Unjust laws, segregation, arbitrary arrests, and other repressive measures were used to keep the black population under control. The black nationalists, under the Marxist/Socialist leadership of Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe Africa National Union (ZANU) and Joshua Nkomo’s Zimbabwe Africa Peoples’ Union (ZAPU), had taken to the bush to wage a war of liberation—known locally as the “Second Chimurenga”—against Ian Smith.

Eventually, in 1980, international pressure and the nationalist guerrillas would force Ian Smith to give up power to a black majority government. In the meantime, in 1973, Marechera and other black students were expelled from the university because of their participation in a protest demonstration against the school’s racist policies. Marechera’s distrust of power would from that moment begin to grow, until, after numerous brushes with the law in Britain, it reached paranoiac proportions.

After independence he would distrust and criticize the new black leaders as much as he had distrusted the white minority rulers. He said, “The very thought that someone has got enough power to organise thousands of people’s lives, whether he makes a mistake or not, really horrifies me.” His distrust of power would lead him to embrace the ideas of the American beat generation and to begin to study anarchist literature seriously; this subject would become the main preoccupation of his second book, Black Sunlight.

*  *  *  *  

In 1974, a year after he had been expelled from the University of Rhodesia, Marechera, once again, got his things and left. This time he was leaving the country. On the recommendation of some of his lecturers he had been granted a Common Room scholarship to study at New College, Oxford. In his short story, “Thought Tracks in the Snow,” Marechera would later recreate his departure from Rhodesia:

As the plane burred into the night, leaving the Angolan coast and heading out into the void across the Atlantic, I suddenly remembered that I had, in the rude hurry of it all, left my spectacles behind. I was coming to England literally blind . . . I was on my own, sipping a whisky, and my head was roaring with a strange emptiness. What was it really that I had left behind me . . . I think I knew then that before me were years of desperate loneliness, and the whisky would be followed by other whiskies, other self-destructive poisons: I had nothing but books inside my head, and they were burning me, burring with the engines of hope and illusion into the endless expanse of air.

Many whiskies did follow. Many years later, a vicar in Cardiff, Wales, who had had the opportunity to witness Marechera’s lifestyle up close, wrote in a letter to James Currey. Marechera’s publisher and reluctant guardian in London, “I would doubt if Mr. Marechera will be alive for very much longer—he hardly eats and only drinks.”

Oxford was a huge culture shock for Marechera. Nothing in his background quite prepared him for it. He was astonished by the lazzez-faire approach to education displayed by the mostly upper-class students. His typical colonial upbringing had taught him to believe that education was the golden fleece to be pursued and attained at all cost: it was the only way out of the ghetto.

He said in an interview, “I was now actually on the soil where all these writers I had been studying had lived and died, and the reality was so disappointing. Oxford has got one of the highest unemployment figures in England. And Oxford is also segregated, though I thought I had left segregation behind. On the one side there are the students, the aristocracy of Oxford. On the other side, there is a whole army of thousands and thousands of ordinary workers who live and work there. I mean, Jesus Christ, for the first time at Oxford I had a white servant.”

From all accounts he never really encountered overt racism at Oxford—he was, after all, a member of the Oxford “aristocracy.” The brand of racism here was almost polite. Its tone is best captured in the semiautobiographical short story, “Oxford, Black Oxford,” where the Marechera-like narrator is questioned by his white fellow student, Stephen, a member of the real aristocracy:

“Always wanted to ask where you learned your English, old boy. Excellent. Even better than most of the natives in my own hedge. You know. Wales.”

“It is the national lingo in my country.”

“It is not bambazonka like Uganda?”

It was also at Oxford that Marechera’s lasting affair with alcohol really began, an affair that was to reach a colorful apogee at the Guardian fiction prize ceremony where he shattered the face of the genteel British publishing establishment by hurling plates and wine bottles at the chandeliers. He carried too much baggage, was too sensitive, too uncompromising to really fit into British society—or to lie low like other African students did, focusing on their studies, counting the days until they returned to their countries. He was also temperamentally unsuited for the student life; his approach to literature and to learning was too personal, too subjective for the university curriculum that encouraged a more uniform and regimented approach.

And so alcohol became a way of suppressing the alienation and the loneliness. He began to cut classes, sleeping all day, and going out to the pubs at night to get roaring drunk, and more often than not ending up in arguments and fights. After just two years at Oxford, when his drinking had become too riotous to ignore (there are unsubstantiated allegations that at one time he attempted to set his residence hall on fire), the college gave him a choice: either submit to psychiatric care or be expelled. He chose the latter.

*  *  *  *  

And so in 1976 he got his things and left Oxford. It is doubtful that the sun was shining at that time. After being expelled, he had technically become an illegal immigrant. He would be threatened with deportation a couple of years later when he was arrested by the police in Cardiff over possession of cannabis, but he was eventually rescued by James Currey after he ended up serving three months in prison.

Marechera’s life reads like a picaresque novel, with its unexpected and often bewildering turns of fortune.

After leaving Oxford he went into a kind of hibernation; in some accounts he claimed to have been living in a tent by the river in Oxford, while in other accounts he claimed to have stayed with two rather shadowy friends, Shelagh and Peter, who converted their kitchen into a room for him. What is certain though is that it was at this period, after the sobering effect of his expulsion, that he sat down to write The House of Hunger. According to David Kerr, “It is the possibility of art as a solution to the meaningless contingency of life that allows Marechera to create The House of Hunger at all, and he is acutely aware that the very act of writing the novella is almost an act of defiance, plucking meaning from chaos.” This statement covers the entire trajectory of Marechera’s life, from the ghetto in Vengere township where he was born up to his expulsion from Oxford.

The book, The House of Hunger, the title story in particular—from the first sentence to the last—simply dazzles. The collection consists of eight linked stories, the titular novella, and two poems. It was, at the time, an odd collection, the first of its kind in the Heinemann African Writers’ Series (the leading publisher of writings from the newly independent African countries)—but Currey was willing to make this exception because of Marechera’s incredible promise. He was hoping for a bigger, more ambitious second novel.

The House of Hunger was published in December 1978, and at first the reviews were a bit slow in coming, but when they eventually came they came in superlatives. Prominent writers like Doris Lessing and Angela Carter hailed Marechera as “a genius” and “a prophet.” In 1979 the book won the prestigious Guardian First Book Award. Marechera was the first, and to this day, the only African to have won the prize.

*  *  *  *  

Marechera’s enormous contribution to African literature is often underrated for so many reasons, one being the sheer impenetrability of his prose style. He is nothing like any African writer before him. Up until the time he appeared, the leading writers, like Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, and Ayi Kwei Armah, had written in an accessible, social realist mode, and most of the writers that came immediately after them adopted the same style, not only because of the earlier writers’ influence, but also because of the effectiveness of this very accessible style in presenting the anti-colonial, nationalist themes that had become the predominant concern of early post-colonial African fiction. But Marechera, heavily influenced by the European modernists, departed emphatically from the tradition, choosing the rather self-reflective, technically ostentatious stream-of- consciousness mode.

The House of Hunger is set in 1970s Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia), in the repressive years of Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) of the white minority government of Ian Smith. These were also the years of the war of independence. The story opens with the nameless narrator leaving the “The House of Hunger”; on the way he stops at a bar where he runs into friends—first Harry, then Julia—the bar then becomes the immediate, concrete setting of the story, and from then on the narrative progresses in seemingly unconnected flashbacks and lengthy digressions.

Marechera’s main critics were, of course, fellow Africans who saw his dalliance with European modernism as a betrayal of the anti-colonial struggle. One such critic, Julia Okonkwo, wrote that Marechera had “grafted a decadent avant-garde European attitude [nihilism] and style to experiences that emanate from Africa” and declared that “the continent cannot afford the luxury of such distorted and self-destructive sophistication from her writers.”

The critic, Annie Gagiano, a Marechera champion, notes that, “The discomfiture of some critics with the African cosmopolitanism or African modernism embodied in Marechera’s work might be linked with a representative passage in Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s influential essay collection, Decolonising the Mind (1986): ‘By acquiring the thought-processes and values of the foreign tongue, [the African] becomes alienated from the values of his mother-tongue or from the language of the masses.’” But Marechera’s answer to all these charges, given in his typical eloquent and iconoclastic manner, was: “If you are a writer for a specific nation or a specific race, then fuck you.”

Marechera’s iconoclastic bent was perhaps most powerfully displayed on the night of the Guardian First Book Award Ceremony. The photographs show him dressed in a red cowboy poncho and a hat in the midst of the stiffly suited members of the British publishing establishment. He seemed to be sending a clear message that he was not going to be patronized by or co-opted into the literary establishment. Then, as if to make his message even clearer, he began to throw plates and wine bottles at the walls and chandeliers. According to a West Africa reporter:

Dambudzo Marechera . . . was already well-launched on several drinks, and therefore loquacious. . . . I heard him complain that an African writer was expected to write only about Africa, and advocate the removal of such prefixes as ‘Irish’ and ‘black’ from the substantive ‘writer.’ He spoke of himself collecting prizes in London while his people were being killed in Zimbabwe . . . the whole scene was not pretty, but it was certainly serious.

*  *  *  *  

Marechera’s second book, Black Sunlight, was published in 1980 after many revisions and rejections by the now totally disillusioned James Currey. The publisher in a rather naïve way had hoped to make of Marechera one of the most important writers out of Africa. He wanted a big Zimbabwean novel—Zimbabwe being then in the forefront of the British media because it had just become independent. Currey was not the only one at Heinemann with such high hopes for Marechera’s writing. A reader, John Wyllie, wrote of Marechera in a report on the early draft of Black Sunlight titled Black Insider: “For me, Marechera comes through in his book as a most likeable man, honest, modest, and tremendously gifted but . . . just what should be done with Black Insider is, I think, a problem. I don’t believe it is right for what I see as the AWS [African Writers’ Series] public. On the other hand Marechera should not be allowed to escape to another publisher for he could become, in my opinion, as important a writer as Soyinka or, perhaps, a sort of African Dylan Thomas only much more intelligent than Thomas ever was.”

But Marechera shared more than Thomas’s genius; he was also sinking deeper into drink and depression, and Black Sunlight reflects Marechera’s growing paranoia. The book’s setting is not specified; the story roughly traces the fortunes of a group of anarchists/revolutionaries who are in revolt against, and finally lose out to, a military-fascist-capitalist opposition. The central character is a press photographer, Chris, whose camera lens becomes the device through which Marechera often cleverly unravels the story’s incidents; other important characters through whom the story is sometimes focalized are a group of young women, one being Chris’s blind wife.

Marechera’s style here becomes even more obscurantist and autobiographical. The digressions become longer, until the story line totally disappears to be replaced by long political and philosophical discourses on history and power and anarchism and race. The expletives become more profuse, more colorful. He claimed the book had been influenced by the Baader-Meinhoff story, which he encountered during his trip to Germany, and his subsequent readings into anarchist philosophy. In an interview he says: “In Black Sunlight I really tried to put terrorism into a historical perspective, neither applauding their acts nor condemning them. The photographer does not take sides, he just takes the press photographs.”

Marechera’s biographer, David Pattison, locating his critique in psychoanalytic terms, points out that in both Black Sunlight and the posthumously published Black Insider, “Marechera is seeking to discover the true, the unalloyed self, free of contaminating influences, particularly, as he makes clear, of the colonial experience, but also before the dialectic of identification with the other [the West] has begun the irreversible process of encoding identity.” Pattison agrees that this search is ultimately futile, but what is important is the process itself, because it can lead to an acceptance of the “self-as-is.”

*  *  *  *  

It might have been as a result of this introspection and search for self that Marechera finally decided to return to Zimbabwe in 1982. The process began when he was approached by the British TV station, Channel Four, with a proposal for a film based on The House of Hunger. The first part of the movie was to cover Marechera’s rootless life in London, showing footage of the squats where he lived, while the remaining part was to cover his early years, as represented in the book, in Zimbabwe. The first part was realized successfully, but trouble began as soon as Marechera and the film crew arrived in Zimbabwe. According to Veit-Wild: “The Marechera myth had preceded the writer’s return to Zimbabwe. Press coverage recounted the highlights of his legendary career: the attempt to set fire to an Oxford College; throwing crockery at the Guardian Fiction Prize Ceremony; detention and triumph in West Berlin. He sleeps all day, writes till he is exhausted, and drinks himself senseless until dawn.”

First, Marechera was informed at the airport that his book, Black Sunlight, had been banned in Zimbabwe. Then out of the blue he decided that the producer, Chris Austin, a white South African, was being neo-colonial and exploitative in his dealings with the black crewmembers. Marechera and Austin finally fell out, and their contract was cancelled. Marechera was kicked out of the plush hotel that the TV company had booked him into.

And so began his next five years in the streets of Harare.

He had left Zimbabwe eight years earlier, when it was under a white minority government; now it was ruled by a black majority government, but as far as he could see, nothing much had changed. He could see clearly through the fog of independence euphoria that it was not about the person in office, it was about power. He said in an interview: “Our revolution has only changed life for the new black middle class, those who got degrees overseas during the struggle . . . for those who committed themselves to become fighters. . . . Most of them are now unemployed and live on the streets.”

The banning of his book by the new black government (the ban was later overturned on appeal by some Zimbabwean writers and lecturers) foreshadowed a bleak future. When Mindblasts came out in 1985, most Zimbabweans were shocked by the stridency of his attack on the new government. His critical stance quickly won him many powerful enemies. Once, he was thoroughly beaten up by a colonel in a hotel toilet. Mindblasts was written at a time when Marechera was living rough on the streets, spending the nights on park benches, and writing obsessively. The book is a mishmash of poems, stories, plays, and a journal, all united by the theme of disillusionment. It was his last published book. Before leaving London his increasingly erratic behavior had caused Heinemann to sever all relationships with him, and getting published had now become a problem. Mindblasts was published locally by the Zimbabwe Publishing House (ZPH). After that no local publisher seemed interested in publishing him even though he kept writing and sending out manuscripts. According to Veit-Wild, “His cosmopolitan outlook and anarchistic views did not fit into the landscape of Zimbabwe just after independence.”

Marechera was coming face to face with the reality of life in a typical post-colonial society. He grew increasingly despondent and bitter towards the end of his life: “I no longer have the initial anger I had when I was writing The House of Hunger and Black Sunlight. I seem to have come to a stage where I think I am ready to sell out my profession.” As far as he was concerned to even think in a functional, utilitarian way was to be untrue to his art. He held on to his integrity to the end. In his crazy, iconoclastic way he had redefined the way we look at African literature; he had expanded the boundaries of what an African writer can write about. It is important, he points out in The House of Hunger:

to insist upon your right to go off on a tangent. Your right to put the spanner in the works. Your right to refuse to be labelled and to insist on your right to behave like anything other than what anyone expects. Your right to simply say no for the pleasure of it. To insist on your right to confound all who insist on regimenting human impulses according to theories psychological, religious, historical, philosophical, political, etc. . . . Insist upon your right to insist upon your right to insist on the importance, the great importance of whim.

Dambudzo Marechera died in August 1987 of AIDS-related illness.


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Elinor Sisulu's picture
Elinor Sisulu · 9 years ago

Brilliant review of a significan and misunderstood writer. 


Lanre. 's picture
Lanre. · 7 years ago

Sound piece on a sound mind, Helon Habila. I read his House of Hunger before this. He was an enigma, a top talent. 

Kwaku Dade's picture
Kwaku Dade · 7 years ago

He is one who could not have been understood as he should be understood. A fighter, an unalloyed wonder, I am pleased to have learned about him today. Thank you, Helon. 


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