1Zimbabwean author Yvonne Vera openly experiments with ways of retaining the features of precolonial orality in postcolonial writing that is primarily concerned with offering contemporary African women a moment of intervention, a free (written) space which is “much freer than speech.” For, Vera argued in her 1999 collection of African women’s writings, appropriately titled Opening Spaces:
If speaking is still difficult to negotiate, then writing has created a free space for most women -much freer than speech [...] The book is bound, circulated, read. It retains its autonomy much more than a woman is allowed in the oral situation
(Vera, 1999: 3).
- 1 “There is no way to stop sound and have sound... If I stop the movement of sound, I have nothing - (...)
2So Vera promotes writing because it works against the silencing imposed on women by the combined pressure of patriarchy and colonialism which still affect women’s lives: “to write is to banish silence,” she declares in Under the Tongue (Vera, 1996: 93). This does not mean that she accepts the written word as an unproblematic alternative to the spoken word. In Nehanda (1993) she has one of her characters summarize in one question the basic problem underlying the orality/literacy divide: “How can words be made still [in writing], without turning into silence? Silence is more to be feared than the agitation of voices ” (ib. : 43). Like Walter Ong1, Vera highlights the paradox of writing, which developed to ensure the immortality of the word, but which, by foreclosing sound and movement, is invariably associated with silence and death, particularly in the context of colonization. But, quite consciously and more flexibly than Ong, Vera makes sure that all her works stave off the threat of silence by moving (though not unproblematically) between orature and literature, so as to blend rather than juxtapose them. Vera’s fiction aims to maintain the spirit and language of oral forms, by centering on word and voice, debating the question ideologically, and creating phonocentric texts, which we are invited to “hear” as well as read. While talking in a 2000 interview about the motives behind her first and probably most famous novel Nehanda, Vera says in relation to her material:
The legend, the history is created in the mouth, and therefore survival is in the mouth. That’s what I wanted to capture in Nehanda
(qtd in Bryce, 2002: 221).
3The survival of Shona culture in the nineteenth century was made possible by the mythopoetic words of the spirit-medium and prophetess Mbuya Nehanda (c. 1863-1898), who inspired anti-colonial resistance and the uprisings against the British occupation known as the first Chimurenga (the 1896-7 Rebellion). Almost a century later, Vera’s act of writing transforms a series of orally-trasmitted cultural texts into written “braided voices” (Samuelson, 2002: 19) that ask to be heard. In other words, she writes a fragmented, ritualistic, multiple-voiced text - a narrative which in fact is not narrated (Ludicke, 70), and that claims an explicit ’aural’ quality. Nehanda is very much an example of ’speakerly’ writing, in Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s sense of “a text which aspires to the status of oral narration” (Gates, 1988: xxvi).
4What follows intends to explore how Vera juggles voice and silence, the oral and the written in Nehanda. I suggest that the ways in which Vera makes them interact can be understood within a framework that takes its clue from American scholar Valerie Lee’s study of African-American women writers. Lee states that in order to hear more readily the orality of black women’s texts we need to learn to “read double-dutch,” her strategy being one of “jumping in the space between orality and literacy” (Lee, 1996: 4). Reading double-dutch is a reference to jumping double-dutch, a folk activity on playgrounds across America, which requires a company or a community of players. Jumping double-dutch is different from skipping rope, because it consists in the ability of rhythmically turning two ropes and it requires the jumpers to multiply locate themselves between them, in a more integrated kind of performance often accompanied by the chanting of songs and musical rhythms. According to Lee, reading double-dutch allows the reader to see how the turning of several narrative ropes simultaneously creates intertwining cultural performances. The ropes in her study are the lives of historical black grannies and midwives in the US and the writings of African American women about them, such as Tony Morrison’s Song of Solomon (1977) and Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day (1988). The turning ropes in the present essay are the stories about Nehanda, which have variously survived in time and made their way into the liberation war songs of the second Chimurenga and Zimbabwean popular culture, and Vera’s own literary intervention to prolong, re-activate and re-interpret this survival.
- 2 The mhondoro (lion) refers to the belief that certain powerful spirits, particularly the spirits of (...)
5The first uprisings aimed at driving out the British from Matabeleland and Mashonaland were organised by the Ndebele in May 1896 and joined by the Shona in October the same year. The startlingly unique element of the Chimurenga was the leading roles played by the mhondoro, spirit mediums who were believed to be the reincarnation of powerful ancestors2.
6The mhondoro captured the minds of the people by effectively convincing them that Mwari, their supreme deity, blamed the whites for all their suffering and decreed that the whites should be driven from the land. Among them was Nehanda, the only female spirit medium involved, who operated in Central and Northern Mashonaland.
7Nehanda Charwe Nyakasikana was considered to be the re-embodiment of Nyamhika Nehanda, a legendary Shona princess. The myth of Nehanda as a powerful ancestor spirit concerned with issues of land appears to be connected both to the stories of mythical autochthonous ancestors and to socio-historical circumstances surrounding the Mutapa kings in the 17th and 18th centuries. As an inheritor of the various strands of legends about Nehanda, Charwe could draw on ancient indigenous traditions to motivate resistance to the white settlers who were appropriating African lands for themselves, and she played a great role in the organization of the anti-colonial struggle, thus becoming a symbol of the liberation effort. Charwe was executed by the colonial authorities along with a fellow medium who claimed to be possessed of a spirit called Kagubi. Before she was put to death, she famously prophesied that her bones would rise again, a phrase which inspired another important reincarnation of Nehanda during the second Chimurenga, whose voice strategically united the traditions of original ancestors directly with the first liberation struggle against the colonial invaders (Lan, 1985: 6).
8As the Zimbabwean nationalist movement developed during the middle part of the 20th century, Nehanda came to represent - in songs, in verse and in myth - the inevitable but long- awaited victory of the Shona over their oppressors. Novelists, poets and political activists extolled her spirit and actions and implored her to come back. A 1957 poem by Solomon Mutswairo asks: “Where is our freedom, Nehanda? Won’t you come down to help us?” while nationalist leader Herbert Chitepo’s verses written a year later wonder: “Where are our heroes of old? Where is Chaminuka and Nehanda? Where are our tribal spirits?” (qtd in Lan, 1985: 6-7). By the late 1960s, “a tradition about Nehanda had been re-invented by Zimbabwean nationalists who used her story to create a unified tradition in support of the ancient authority of Shona founding ancestors” (Cox, 2007: 131).
9During the second Chimurenga, every combatant in the renewed struggle against the white regime was inspired by Nehanda’s prophetic words and hung on to them for reassurance and strength. The leaders of the liberation army actually saw themselves as her rising bones, the actualization of her prophecy, as confirmed by the song “Mbuya Nehanda” by the ZANU-PF Ideological Choir, which was broadcast over the Zimbabwean Broadcasting Corporation on the day before independence was granted in April 1980:
Nehanda’s bones resurrected,
ZANU’s spear caught their fire
which was transformed into ZANU’s gun,
the gun which liberated our land.
(qtd in Keller, 2005: 145)
10The Chimurenga artists, supporting armed resistance against Ian Smith’s government, played a major role in establishing continuity within the Zimbabwean tradition of spirit-medium belief associated with the fight for land and against oppression. They wrote lyrics that mediated the need for revolutionary change through the traditional structures and music of folk poetry, and were instrumental in the rekindling of Shona myth in popular culture. The songs of the second Chimurenga emphasized that, for the war to be won, the nation had to engage the support of its ancestral guardian spirits. So Nehanda, alongside her ally Kagubi and other heroic spirit-mediums such as Chaminuka and Takawira, is appealed to for assistance in the struggle, her name repeatedly invoked, and the survival of her myth ensured, as in the song “Titareyi” (Please watch over us):
We cry to you Nehanda our guardian angel,
Yes, you are that to us.
Please guide our steps in this struggle
Until we return to a liberated Zimbabwe...
(English translation in Pongweni,1997: 69)
11Alec Pongweni argues that the songs of the Zimbabwean war of liberation “owed their authenticity and popular appeal to tradition, just as the inspiration to embark on revolutionary action owed its historicity to the forces of revolution perceiving themselves as rising to the challenge left by ancestral heroes who had gone before them” (Pongweni, 1997: 64). So what seems to be positively at work in these appeals to ancestral interventions, during both the first and the second Chimurenga, is a process that strengthened the forces of ’tradition’, while at the same time investing that tradition, as Maurice Vambe has rightly observed, with the political authority to legitimize and ratify the aims, ideals and political direction of the nationalist struggle (Vambe, 2004: 29).
12Vera responded both to the new dimensions of orature opened up by the liberation war songs that venerated Nehanda (see Muchemwa, 2002: 6) and to the inspiring character of the foundational connection with authoritative ancestors. In an interview with Jane Bryce, Vera said that:
Nehanda came out of me like a dream. It has the feeling of a dream when I look at it now. And that suited it, because it concerned a myth, a legend. It was a story of spirituality, of ancestors, a mystic consciousness and a history ... so it was much better to write it almost intuitively, out of my consciousness of being an African, as though I were myself a spirit medium, and I was just transferring or conveying the feelings, symbols and images of that. I wrote it at a time when I could write it, the way one might write a folk-song... I wrote it from remembrance, as a witness to my own spiritual history.
(Bryce, 2002: 220)
13The result of this ’possessed’ kind of writing is a poetic novel which leads the myth into new directions, though Vera was not the first Zimbabwean fiction writer to deal with Nehanda, who also appears in Solomon Mutswairo’s Shona novels Feso and Mweya waNehanda, in Charles Samupindi’s Death Throes, and Chenjerai Hove’s Bones, the title of which refers to the words spoken by the spirit medium at her hanging. The symbol of rising bones is the leitmotif in Hove’s novel, standing for the history of African people, their suffering, and their eventual fight for freedom. A sort of contemporary fictional reverberation of the Nehanda story, Bones has been regarded as a possible founding text for the “third” Chimurenga (Muponde, 2006), which arose from the failure to act decisively on land settlement after independence, and described by many as the culmination of over one hundred years of fighting to regain indigenous land rights (Cox, 2007: 132).
14The powerful voice of Nehanda, in her various declinations, comes out of the land of the ancestors and speaks of ownership and freedom. When Vera picks it up, it already exists in versions which mix historical and ethnographic data, legends, folklore, orature, and ideological uses of myth that produce modes of representation reflecting very real power negotiations. It is clear that the question of the historical ’truth’ of the various reinventions of the Nehanda story cannot be posed, and any attempt at tracing the actual correspondences between the cultural texts of the myth and the version that Vera provides in her novel is actually pointless. What is more interesting, from the point of view of my double-dutch reading, is the interplay of the coexisting narrative ropes, the possibility of jumping in the spaces created by the intertwining stories about Nehanda and of suggesting several cultural performances - the historical Nehanda(s) as performer(s), the literary text as performance: multiple sets of meaning interacting with each other.
15It seems to me that Vera actually ’writes’ her novel in double-dutch fashion, crossing and turning oral stories and written fiction to locate herself multiply in-between, for a number of purposes: first, to affirm a history of resistance to western knowledge and to patriarchy; second, to place in the foreground the politics of gender; and third, to create a discursive space for healing and wholeness in the future. The passage of stratified cultural data of mostly oral nature into Vera’s narrative creates an amazing interplay of ’voicing’ rituals in the novel (the dream, the folktale, the prophecy, the myth associated with images and symbols of spirit possession), which become a means for both historical and literary African women to transcend limitation, lack of prospects, and silence. For Vera’s aim in Nehanda is to bring out the woman’s story of difference from within a persistent (autochthonous and colonial) patriarchal tradition. This interplay of voices creates a larger meta-narrative, wherein the history of Nehanda reads as cultural fiction, and the writer’s fiction reads as cultural performance.
16Moving from the assumption that “survival is in the mouth,” Vera is careful not to dismiss the question of the differences between orality and literacy in Nehanda, although many critics maintain that, because of these differences, the novel is riddled with contradictions that scorn “the conditions of its own existence” (Samuelson, 2002: 22). What I find interesting is that Vera consciously raises the oral vs. written issue but, as she does so, she unhinges each from their polarity. Quite effectively, the divide is discussed in a performative context, during a ritual meeting, in which one of the villagers takes on (as the speaking voice does in her novel) different roles and positions. In this performance, the European custom of ’fixing’ words on paper is criticized, but we must bear in mind that what generates the discussion itself is a realization of the risk implicit in an exclusively oral way of dealing with the new colonial power:
Our people know the power of words. It is because of this that they desire to have words continuously spoken and kept alive. We do not believe that words can become independent of the speech that bore them, of the humans who controlled and gave birth to them. [... ] The paper is the stranger’s own peculiar custom. Among ourselves, speech is not like the rock. Words cannot be taken from the people who create them. People are their words.
(Vera, 1994 : 3940).
17The writer endorses and at the same time qualifies this position. What the story of spirit-possessed Nehanda proves is that, even when spoken, words can actually be disconnected from the people that utter them and otherwise appropriated. In this respect, the image of Nehanda carrying “her bag of words in a pouch that lies tied around her waist” (Vera, 1994 : 1) talks about an almost independent existence of language, a reification of the word, in the service of which the spirit-possessed woman and the artist perform their role. What Vera confirms, instead, is that words are deeply implicated in the power/knowledge process -those who can articulate language have the means to signify presence and protest; those who gain the authority to speak for themselves and others can, like Nehanda, move out of exclusion and into the center of power.
18Literacy, or its power to convey truth, is certainly downplayed in the novel: like orality, it is presented as a set of social practices which make sense and contribute to the creation of meaning within a specific cultural tradition. Therefore, as her own version of the story proves, the powerless/powerful binary is not/should not be considered as inbuilt in or natural to the oral/written dynamics, nor should it be an unavoidable given in the confrontation between African and western epistemologies.
19To address this confrontation, and to write her own history of resistance to the West, Vera’s narrative demonstrates what happens when western men of learning/science meet women of faith on landscapes that still bear the contours of an African-centered epistemology. What we ’hear about life in the Shona village tells us that, in the African context, knowledge comes through experience combined with both memory and vision, and it must be governed by an ethics of care which includes the people and their environment, as exemplified by Nehanda’s ’dreams’.
20By violating these principles, white men are denied the true power of words - their speech sounds hollow, their books fail to speak. They therefore become targets of critique and ridicule in the narrative, whether they pursue science or law or religion. Mr Browning, the colonial administrator, for example, is shown as totally deprived of the means by which to construct an understanding of the indigenous world. Concerning the role of Nehanda, he says:
I doubt that the natives can listen to an old woman like her. What can she tell them? This society has no respect for women, whom they treat like children. A woman has nothing to say in the life of the natives. Nothing at all.
(Vera, 1994 : 75)
21His speech is undoubtedly a source of dramatic irony, through which the text reconfigures power relationships and notions of ’truth’. The character of Nehanda - a vessel of powerful spoken words - deconstructs the whites’ hegemonic and patriarchal logic by embodying and giving expression to the strength of the indigenous tradition, while at the same time re-modulating that tradition through a woman’s voice and atypical gender behaviour. She in fact refuses to live a gendered life according to the norms defined by her male culture, and defies gender constructions existing on both sides of the African/European divide: she does not marry, she does not cater for family, she does not bear children. Instead, she prophesizes and dances her people’s future into being, bringing with herself an alternative vision. As a seer/teller of ’dreams’ she is both black sphinx and ageless griotte, concealing and revealing information drawn from a body of culture rooted in the continuity with the past. “The livings are listeners [a narrator voice says], the dead are powerful articulators. Only the dead make the living speak” (Vera, 1994: 117). Given the historical context, Nehanda’s agency cannot be mistaken for progressive feminism, nor does it suggest autonomy. As Keller argues, the figure of the possessed woman can only exercise a paradoxical authority (’instrumental agency’), born of radical receptivity: her power derives from the community’s assessment that she no longer exists as an autonomous agent, having become an instrument of the overpowering will of an ancestor or spirit (Keller, 2005). Vera’s remake, however, is intent on creating perspective and building a genealogy for the female voice, starting from its being ’differently’ located within a tradition. Nehanda’s performance, beside repetition, involves a degree of creativity and the carving out of power zones through a skilful use of language and rhetoric.
22So, from her postcolonial position, Vera reaffirms the validity of orality and cultural performance, engaging the complexities of the socio-literary process, contesting western categories and male reference points through African based cultural means. But at the same time, through written narrative, Vera disempowers (western) men with means Nehanda never had. She uses writing to validate ’truth’ claims in the non-linear, symbolic, polyrhythmic discourse of the black woman, and points out that there are paradigms of alternative knowledge that can be useful if we but listen to them. Vera thus, as a writer, has the ambiguous power to let Nehanda perform again, to give her a (renewed) voice, investing her with magical, ancient, life-affirming powers that rise out of her folkloric past and that persist as part of contemporary women’s functioning present.
23The historical Nehanda was involved in the labour of finding a voice through which to speak her people into revolt. The literary Nehanda is involved in what critic Anne Goldman refers to as “the painful labour of becoming a speaking subject” (Goldman, 1990: 322), around which Vera constructs her character representation.
24One of the first episodes in the book is the birth scene, the birth of Nehanda, in which only women are allowed to take part: they speak in proverbs, wait in the dark, tell allegorical traditional tales, weave loose conversation intercepted by singing. The central figure in the scene is the midwife, a highly respected old woman whose role goes far beyond that of delivering children into the world. As Vatete waits for Nehanda to be born, we learn that she was often invited by the elders to join them at the dare, the village fireplace, to arbitrate in matters of the village, especially those concerning women.
The dare was a large clearing in the center of the village. Those who were admitted to the dare knew the power of words. The midwife was also among the shapers of wisdom, who determined the future of the village.
(Vera, 1994 : 9)
25The basic connection that Vera stresses here is very clear: the life-giving power of words is essential to the future, and women have a role in shaping both life and speech. She actually devotes her novel to articulating this, though not through the recurrent and easily acceptable trope of motherhood, but rather through an articulation of gendered discourse and vision.
26When eventually Nehanda comes into the world, in the darkness of her mother’s hut, she does so silently: she does not cry, as babies normally do, and the women who are present at her birth worry about this silent child, they wonder whether she has lost the gift of speech on the journey out of the womb. This unusual birth tells us that the newborn baby is not an ordinary girl, and also that, particularly for a woman, speech must be sought, the right voice found before she can speak. In an interview with Eva Hunter,Vera suggested that she always had “to find the right voice first,’’ before she could tell the story (Hunter, 1998: 85), and I suggest that the episode of Nehanda’s birth contains a graphic representation of this search for the right voice, which conflates the endeavour of the ancient woman prophet and of the modern woman writer. After her birth Nehanda is silent for a whole day, but then
she cried, and the women sang her back to sleep, willing a silence onto her. She defied them with her tiny speech-seeking voice and cried all day and all night until her mother fell asleep.
(Vera, 1994 : 12)
27Once the tiny but defiant speech-seeking voice comes into its own, there is no way of stopping it. From now on Nehanda’s (and Vera’s) voice will only have to learn how to modulate itself, to serve its many functions, to say things effectively.
28Some passages in the novel, describing Nehanda’s leading role in the revolt against the English, give a clear idea of the range of modulations and functions attached to ’voice’:
[Nehanda’s] is an alluring voice, undulating, carrying the current of a roar that reminds them of who they have been in the past, but it is also the comforting voice of a woman, of their mothers whom they trust. Her voice throws them into the future, and she speaks as though they have always triumphed, as though they only looked back at their present sorrow. But again she abandons that voice and brings them back into their present sorrow. . . . Nehanda closes her eyes and speaks with a trembling and troubled voice. Her voice rises higher, as though to reach every crag surrounding the village. Her voice carries the heart-breaking tender cry of a mother for a lost child.
(Vera, 1994 : 62)
29But later, as the ending approaches.
[she] brings out words with a lashing tongue, for those who are confronted with challenges too hard to bear can only defend themselves with speech. She knocks words out of the sheltering rocks. Silence is made speech, to flow commingled with fate-transforming words.
She, who has dared to speak will not be found with an idle tongue, but she will change even the seasons of humankind.
(Vera, 1994 : 90)
30Nehanda’s silence from childhood paves the way for an exceptional ’oral’ behaviour as she matures into adulthood: her mouth produces and transmits an oral tradition. But, more importantly, Vera emphasizes the restorative potential of Nehanda’s speech acts (and of her own narrative acts), by turning speech into a healing metaphor for spiritual power and activism, and locating in language a new curative domain. Like her character, the writer is engaged in a ”transformation of reality“: she uses writing like Nehanda used speech - to locate resistance and healing in words, language, and visionary narration, and to produce speaking positions for African women. In so doing, Vera pays homage to her past, while providing a present-day idiom for power and transformational wisdom within an African context. The ancestors speak through her as they spoke through Nehanda, celebrating - as in spirit possession - the myth of eternal return and regeneration. The terms of her engagement with this tradition in writing, which cost Vera some criticism particularly for the way in which she appears to have appropriated the cultural symbols of a male-dominated cult of spirit-possession without critiquing its ideological claims (Vambe, 2004: 85), are clearly expressed in the author’s own words:
I must be in touch with the earth. I can never mistake the source of inspiration and energy to be gender, it is something we all share. It is true, however, that one best writes on themes, feelings, and sentiments one is more closely connected with. In this regard I like to think that I am writing. I am a woman. I am writing.
31Vera refuses to fall into the either/or trap which characterizes so much resistance writing, where you either praise or condemn tradition, endorse orality and downplay writing, foreground woman and forsake man. In her writing there are strong suggestions, as Muponde states, ”of how not only to step outside a charmed imaginative space of land and tradition, but how to mediate possibilities of new sites of social entanglement and freedom“ (Muponde, 2006). In Nehanda, the emphasis on continuity, immortality and transcendence is not at odds with the woman’s speaking position in society, nor with the way the historical character constructed herself as myth, and it is functional to the bridge that Vera intends to throw between past and future.
32At the end of the novel, the prophetess is compared to a powerful wind of creation that cannot be seen but is heard and has immense power to transform and recreate:
the legend-creating wind gives new tongues with which to praise it, and new languages with which to cross the boundaries of time. Out of it evolves new patterns of growth, and new purposes with which to greet the waking day. Each seeks lightness and freedom, guided by the recollection of the death-defying mother of dreams. From dreams come life, and growth... In cheerful voices the women celebrate their shelter-giving selves, and see new existences come out of the dreaming air. They too are in a state of birth, and growth, and unstoppable exultation. After the agonizing birth they have witnessed they rise from the tattered mat and learn to walk; their footsteps bear sign of majestic language that will lead them safely into the future ... With words compelling them through the intersection of time, they recognize their future selves...
33The newly born come into the world bearing gifts. They walk and speak. They have eyes that hold memories of the future. (Vera, 1994 : 113. my emphasis)
34This ending extends the qualities that make an individual larger than life to broader, cultural qualities that speak to the women’s need to be seers, to be larger than their circumstances, to develop a ”majestic language“ of their own.
35I will argue, by way of conclusion, that the paradoxical phrase ”memories of the future“ offers an icon of Vera’s novel as a whole: the text performs the drama of spirit-possession as a visionary, suspended, surrealistic reenactment of knowledge for the future imparted through dreams whose roots are in the past. This hovering ’suspension’ signals the very nature of Vera’s textual performance that crosses time limits, spans cultural borders and seems to be willing to temporarily embrace contradiction.
36A paradox also structures the writer’s creative imagination: she represents orality through the written mode, which in the end may amount to acknowledging the potency and the resilience of writing. And yet the incorporation of orality in Nehanda validates the existence of the oral form in the written one. The tension generated by the coexistence of features pertaining to the two modes ensures that a complete transference from one to the other never takes place (Vambe, 2002: 137), and the novel remains suspended between the two - it actually keeps ’jumping’ between the ropes, so that ”survival“ is not so much or not any longer ”in the mouth,“ but in the synchretic, ’mouthed,’ textual performance of the postcolonial African woman writer.