Essay on Musaemura B. Zimunya’s Contribution to Zimbabwean Poetry

Musaemura Zimunya’s poetry life span tackles issues pertaining to colonialism up to post independence Zimbabwe. His pilgrimage in poetry has seen him applauded for being Zimbabwe’s most anthologised poet. Zimunya’s poetry describes his physical and spiritual location in the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe which is his birth place. It is a land of very beautiful landscapes and weather and this forms the basis of an exploration of his identity as a Zimbabwean and later on as an African. He tackles the issue of identity with specificities rather than abstractions, a technique that helps him anchor his imagination. Zimunya’s poetic gaze helps the reader to appreciate the difference between the past and the present and the gap between the ideal and the real evokes feelings of loss, mourning, despair and indignation later on in his poetry.

Most of Zimunya’s poetry is critical in the study of poetry because it spans over three decades whilst revealing the effects and cause to the environment and its people. The poetry reflects on physical beauty of Zimbabwe’s struggle against white rule and racism in Rhodesia and post independence era. It also reveals the meaning of some African traditions and myths as well as the meaning of individual freedom. His four anthologies include Thought Tracks (1982), Kingfisher, Jikinya and other Stories (1982), Country Dawns and City Lights (1985) and Perfect Poise (1994). The anthologies explore the relationship between people and the environment. His poetry is like painting and it evokes a scene and creates mood.

Most of his poems are autobiographical and sum up Zimbabwe’s challenges. In Thought Tracks (1982) a poem ‘No Songs’ is critical in understanding the thoughts of the poet as it shows the effect of colonialism on the society and environment. His lone and emotional attachment and fascination with nature is shown in the poem and it also bears a deeper meaning and “osmotic relationship that Africans have with their environment” (Herald of November 10 2014). The reason for Zimunya’s love for nature makes him bemoan the disfiguring and plunder that has replaced the once natural beauty of the rural landscape. The disfiguring can be juxtaposed to the effects of colonialism upon the African soil. He says;

No songs of cicades
Only a sighing silence
Where, once,
As I walked below the yellow leaves
Of fresh foliage
A spray of urine
Moistened my face
And a shrill symphony
Waned into my ears (pg10)

The silence shows a change in the environment. The past has now gone and the present scene makes him remember the past. Zimunya laments the loss of identity as humans have destroyed the good relationship they had with nature. This has led to loss of identity and it has also led to “no ancestors, no shrine to pester our prayer, no sacred cave where to drum our drums and no svikiro to evoke the gods of rain…” (pg 10).The poem diction shows a co-relationship, all the things in the above stanza co exists and Zimunya is aware of the effect of modernization even in the country side.

The poem ‘No Songs’ is also outstanding because it shows Zimunya’s firm grip on the actual, the human or physical situation. In a way his poetry is a representation of a history of the black Zimbabwean that is the feeling of darkness. He asks “where shall we find the way back? Opaque darkness guards our exit, we have groped until our eyes were almost blind and it was hard to rediscover.” The effect of cultural loss is equated to the groping of eyes and causing blindness. In ‘ No Songs’ when

No whistle of a bird
No flutter nor flap
Amid the brown fingers of trees
Without leaves
When spring’s lushness
Should be wiping my tired eyes
And dipping gleams of sunshine
Into the young leaves. (Pg10)

The reader visualizes what the poet is describing and can actually hear the silence and see “brown fingers of trees”. It is through Zimunya’s ability to grasp this reality on paper that his poetry is depicted as “the point where all good poetry begins and to which it constantly returns” Zambezia (1982). Poetry is life itself, therefore Zimunya allows the reader to “see and feel and know things” This becomes Zimunya’s vision in his poetry to touch readers hearts and leave a permanent mark there. In a way the poem recovers and validates the past in the face of the onslaught of colonialism and modernity. It also celebrates ancestral memory and shows “vigilant and relentless moral and cultural consciousness” Muchemwa(2004). Zimunya’s vigilance allows him to trace the country’s culture and subject it to thorough moral searchlight.

‘No Songs’ seems to sum up what all Zimunya has in Thought Tracks (1982), his love for nature, is seen by his poetic diction of describing nature change. The change in nature also shows the loss of cultural identity. In the poem he depicts the loss of traditional value and he shows that it did not start in Country Dawn and City Lights (1985) but Zimunya had seen it at the height of colonial rule and Western civilisation as he laments;

We have no ancestors
No shrine to pester with our prayers
No sacred cave where to drum our drums
And no svikiro to evoke the gods of rain
So we live on
Without rain, without harvest.(pg 10)

Zimunya shows the effects of drought on the people and it is appoint of death that people can “regain a sense of heritage” Zambezia(1992). Therefore death is a way of rebirth and the loss of tradition becomes one of the main themes in Thought Tracks(1982). In the above stanza people have deserted the ancestors or vice versa and no one will intercede for the rains to come and this has led to drought.

As a way of regaining a sense of heritage, Zimunya uses a lion to represent the spirit mediums” the day we shall know the way back to the caves of the ancestors, the lion tongue of death will be licking the last gush from our soul”. Zimunya uses the phrase “ the lion tongue of death’ to shows the influence of spirit mediums in the African Society. Zimunya uses his diction wisely not to offend anyone and it makes him unique from Dambudzo Marechera who belonged to Zimunya’s same generation who used vulgarity in his literary works, instead of saying “ the lion tongue of death” he would have chosen “ underwear of our souls….” To quote from Marechera’s diction. This also contributes to the importance of Zimunya’s poetry as it applies to all ages.

In Thought Tracks (1982) Zimunya groups his poetry into three sections. The first we find ‘No Songs’ and this depicts his passion and candour in capturing the spirit of the people and his home area. It seems as he says, “no songs of cicades only sighing silence…” it depicts elements of poverty and this is shown by drought. Although Zimunya mentions the ancestors in his poems in Thought Tracks (1982), other analysts such as S.Mutswairo (1992) bemoans that Zimunya could have mentioned more of the spirit of ancestors as “ they form the reference points for the cultural identity of their people.” It might be argued that by dwelling so much on nature and landscapes, Zimunya was being Eurocentric and see nature in a romanticised way. However Muchemwa (2008) highlights that Zimunya’s use of landscape in poetry shows that it is important to site land in the “ creation of subjectivity” Land is associated with space mapping and ideological contestation in both colonial and postcolonial Zimbabwe.” Therefore poets use land symbols in poetry as a way of locating identity.

Rangarirai A Musvoto in ‘Recasting History: Imagining and Mapping out Identities in some Zimbabwean Poetry’, asserts that Zimunya’s poetic representations is a process of “decentering” and his” doubling back” in Thought Tracks (1982) to the pre colonial past, that is the same past that is made worthless by hegemony of the colonial history is not so much of a yearning to the “golden age” of the era but assures black subjectivity of the “difference from the imperial centre” Ascroft et al (1989) cited in Musvoto (2010) and this support the desirability and necessity of change. The poems in Thought Tracks(1982) show African people rootedness.

In Thought Tracks (1982) and ‘No Songs’ as part of recovering the pre colonial African past, “ So we live outside the burning flames of our thirst , we live the lives of locust-hunting rooks, but even then where are the rooks for I have neither heard a caw nor seen a black patch in the sky.” The effects of the drought have left the people without even insects to eat. Zimunya then denies the colonial settlers literary space as he rejects colonial representation in the whole anthology. As alluded earlier that Zimunya wrote the poem with an awareness of his own moment in history. The 1970s mood saw blacks suffering in Rhodesia, the 1965 UDI from Britain left Rhodesia isolated and this is shown in Thought Tracks as Muchemwa(1978) alluded when referring to Zimbabwean poets of that era, he noted;

We felt left out, culturally and politically from the main stream of beliefs and thoughts current in free independent black Africa. The isolation from the rest of Africa, the lack of any fruitful contact has made adverse effects. The cultural erosion is seen in the absence of cultural sites and this blocked blacks from re-establishing links with their past. They could neither relate to the past nor the world around them. Therefore ‘ No Songs’ becomes a critical poem in Thought tracks as the poet searches for familiar signs from nature and ritual rites to understand the communion between men and nature. The absence of that communion manifest into a disjointed society that has no identity”.Muchemwa(1978).

Zimunya’s poetry shows the journey of a country as well as the poet himself. After Thought Tracks, Zimunya embarked on another anthology which was published in 1982, Kingfisher Jikinya and other Poems and Country Dawn and City Lights (1985). After yearning for the country side he comes to the city where he deploys the country/city metaphor. The importance of the anthologies of this era is that it signifies two spaces that represent and contain different values. The country is presented as the source of African identities and the city is portrayed as a threat to African identity. He shows the reader the effects of colonialism on the African people. Generational writers of his time Charles Mungoshi also sees the same effect in his short story collection The Setting Sun and the Rolling World: Selected Stories (1989) Mungoshi also presented the city as an unpredictable colonial location that erodes the stability of traditional African identities Musvoto( 2010). This he shows through old Musoni advising his son Nhamo about the dangers of the city. Old Musoni tells his son that he travelled that road once but Nhamo believes the city has hope for their impoverished lives in the countryside.

The city is seen as a haven for colonial values and the country represents a place that is not influenced by colonial values. When the city and the country interact a complex situation arises whereby an African loses identity. Zimunya’s portrayal of the city as cultural wasteland for blacks on one hand and his depiction of the country as a source of cultural stability for blacks is a continuation of the vision he started in Thought Tracks(1982).

The poem ‘I like the City’ ridicules the consciousness of Africans because they are easily attracted by the city and it also disapproves the ever changing identities of Africans who live in the city. The poem is a conversational poem and it reads;

I like the city , said Loveness
– Why do you like it?
I just love it, she repeated
– Do you like it like sadza?
– Do you like it like meat?
– Like sweets then?
Not quite
– Like ice-cream?
Try again
– Like sex, like a man?
– Like sex, disco, the jackpot, whisky?
I bet you would never get it right;
Like all these combined and more,
She laughed, stirring the words up
With her tongue-spoon. (Pg 42)

The poem shows that what Loveness like about the city is alien to what the country likes. The country has children singing “ rain, fall, fall, we will eat berries rain fall for all” ‘Children’s Rain Song’(1982:3). It shows that in the country people love rain because it brings a bumper harvest for the whole community whilst in the city the city is a bad influence on Africans as it does not make them agency of development. Therefore Loveness and the city are ridiculed by the past because the past is good in Thought Tracks. Loveness appears constantly in several poems in Country Dawn and City Lights (1985) and this shows that Loveness is a product of a confused identity as noted in the poem “ I bet you would never get it right like all this combined and more…” (pg 42)

Zimunya subverts the modern city through generalizing the city life. He uses the images of sex, city, women and Western food such as “buns”, sweets” and “biscuits”. One is reminded of Tounde in Houseboy (1929).What missionaries did, Father Gilbert would throw sugar cubes as if throwing to fowls and children scrambled for the sugar cubes. Likewise Old Japi in Waiting for the Rain love for sugar made her hide the sugar from her grandchildren. She is attached to sugar. These are western products influence on Africans. It is sad that such presentation in his poetry in Country Dawn and City Lights obscures any critical examination of the city in the context of new positive developments that arose in Zimbabwe after independence as he concentrate on negative issues only.

In trying to demystify the city, Zimunya representation of the city becomes problematic because he coins his poems around the colonial myths that he seeks to deconstruct. Such myths were that the country was idyllic place for Africans because the city was too sophisticated for Africans. This would also bring in the debate of his use of English and use of non African allusions and symbolism his poetry. In ‘I like the City’ like is likened to sweets, ice cream, sex, disco, jackpot and whisky at the expense of indigenous items such as “ishwa” (flying ants), matamba fruits to mention but a few. Zimunya uses such allusions to show the uselessness of modernity and as a way of writing back because his major audiences were the empire and a few elites.

Even though Zimunya’s poetry in Country Dawns and City Lights (1985)portrays women as the tool for decay yet his poems are important as they conforms to the historical events of the time. Therefore the feminist reading of the poems can be contested and debated but readers need to understand that the anthology was published two years after the 1983 operation clean up whereby women who patrolled alone at night in urban centres were arrested for prostituting. It seems sex activities was rampant as seen by Loveness inclination towards sex”…like ice cream? Try again… Like sex, like a man? You!….” Therefore Zimunya’s poetry is justified as he was in support of the post independent government’s objective of domesticating women. He becomes a nationalist in his writings. The poem also shows Zimunya’s onslaught against colonialism that he began in Thought Tracks (1982). As a poet he is advising Africans to embrace the concept of Afrocentricism so as to become agency and put urgency in Africa’s development and not to behave like Loveness whose space unfortunately is constituted by fuzzy fragments and makes no meaning in life. If we compare ‘I like the City’ with ‘Rock of Zimbabwe’ Loveness and the city can not identity with one another whilst the persona in “Rocks of Zimbabwe” knows his roots and can easily be identified with Great Zimbabwe. He says,” ….watch the sky tire the sun and the night weary the star and do not look , do not move but be a ruin of stones- eternal unto yourself” Zimunya 1982:101. It is because city dwellers are affiliated to the former coloniser’s values that Zimunya denies the city dwellers a narrative voice to describe their identity space. However to some city dwellers we note that they were progressing well as some embraced education and educated their children with the English language and these children later became business people and politicians.

On the language debate, in a 1998 interview by Angela A Williams, the interviewer noted that many poets agreed that the use of vernacular languages provides the medium for the “more lucid expression of their thought” Williams(1998) Instead Zimunya has used English and has moulded it into a suitable artistic medium. He admits that English language is “too stifling, too inflexible, rigid, and cannot quickly translate the feelings, moods, experiences that we have”. However Zimunya was taught more of European history than Africa and English poetry was at a more advanced stage then than Shona. He also admits that English is the greatest carrier of Western culture and what matters most is the use of language to benefit the people.

Zimunya’s Perfect Poise and Other Poems (1994) broadened his poetry to talk about social justice. The poetry shows that independence has not yet arrived. He shows the disillusionment after the liberation struggle when Zimbabwe gained its political independence. People were nostalgia about a happy and totally independent country and yet we see that the independence gave birth to a new bread of black colonisers. In ‘Hooray for Freedom’ the poet says

After nine years of sucking
The teat of a slogan
Of a heroic war
The people began to emaciate
While those with slender proboscis
Have gone to sleep on smooth puncheons.(pg 200

In the poem the poet laments that after nine years of independence and being faithful to the ruling party, people are sad because of how the government is ruling. What has changed is nothing, except that nothing has changed. Zimunya acclaims that the independence is being used as torches to burn the squatter camps. This shows the emptiness of the political rhetoric. He goes on to say”

After nine years of singing
Nyika ndeyedu vatema
Avaunt, you suckers of sweat!
We wake up to find
An invasion of farmlands
By big black aristocrats
Benzocrats and brothermen
With independence torches
Burning down squatter villages
Hooray for Freedom.(pg 20)

Zimunya is mocking the independence after a realization that independence has given birth to more problems. His poem is also echoed in George Mujajati’s novel The Sun will Rise Again(1999). Politicians are manipulating all economic opportunities at the expense of the poor. Hooray for Freedom talks to a post independent Zimbabwe. Unlike resistance and protest poetry by such poets as Dambudzo Marechera and Chenjerai Hove, Zimunya’s protest poetry is optimistic as it gives solution to the problems of a nation, “ after nine years of braving price rises and vanishing minimus wages…. A voice from the crystal palace warns us still against grumbling and teaches us the golden African patience.” (Pg 20). Zimunya’s view of Zimbabwe independence rises above ideological perspective unlike other poets who runs dry once what they were fighting disappears, but for Zimunya is lives with the plight of the people and stand s up to reveal it in poetry. The importance of this poem is that it does not talk only to Zimbabwe’s post independence era but the whole of Africa. Just like Ayi Kwei Armah, Two Thousand Seasons, the poem depicts the rottenness of the current African governments. Therefore it seems Zimunya is taking a cue from Ayi Kwei Armah. It is also penitent to note that African government inherited a colonial political system which is very difficult to erase, it is a process to reverse the system and this system is of using the law enforcements to silence people. The poem goes on to say ;

After nine years of quiet faith
Bruised knees and endless rallies
The yoke begins to cut into flesh.
We raise our voices
And someone rushes to our face
With threats of cannon and clenched terror(pg 20)

The cannon shows the influence of the law enforcements in silencing people. ‘Hooray for Freedom’ then makes Zimunya to be labelled a ‘nationalist’ by the ordinary people whilst the government would view him cautiously.

To conclude the three poems ‘No Songs’, ‘ I like the city’ and ‘Hooray for Freedom’ were written in very simple English that any average educated Zimbabwean can understand them. They also bridge the three decades of poetry fro Zimunya as they show his growth as a poet. His poems talks or narrate the history of Zimbabwe. They redefine the past therefore making them critical to the growth of a nation. Nevertheless Zimunya’ works show his “strength and sensitivity and this gives him insight to combine both thought and feeling in the achievement of his desired literary goal) Zambezia(1991).

1. Muchemwa, Kizito Z, 2004, ‘ Tribute to Forgotten Ancestors’ accessed 3/04/2017)
2. Muchemwa, Kizito Z, 2008, ‘An overview of Post- Independence ZimbabweanPoetry’ Overview-of- Post-independence Zimbabwean-Poetry (accessed 4/4/2017)
3. Musvoto, rangarirai A, 2010, ‘Recasting History: Imagining and Mapping out Identities in some Zimbawean Poetry’.
4. Mutswairo, Solomom, 1991, ‘ A Zimbabwean Poet Writing in English: A Critical Appraisal of Musaemura Zimunya’s Thought Tracks’ Zambezia(1991)XVIII(ii) 31/3/2017)
5. Williams, Angela A, 1998, ‘Mother Tongue: Interviews with Musaemura Zimunya and Solomon Mutswairo’, The Journal of African travel- Writing, Number4, April 1998( p.p36-44) 31.03.2017)
6. Zimunya, Musaemura,1985, Country Dawns and City Lights, Longman, Harare, in association with The Literature Bureau.
7. Zimunya, Musaemura, 1993, Perfect Poise and other Poems, Harare, College Press.
8. Zimunya, Musaemura, 1982, Thought Tracks,Harlwo, Essex, Uk Longman


Author: dakwaelizabethsamakande

A self motivated university graduate with research interests in African literature, African American literature, Caribbean literature, African Futurism, Afrofuturism Aesthetics, Post-colonialism, De-coloniality, Creative literature, film and media. Very good experience in research work. A strong mental acumen and with the ability to work unsupervised. Can work under pressure to meet deadlines. Adaptive to trending literary theories. Hardworking and passionate in teaching dissertation writing and a keen eye for research methods and teaching. A creative writer of film scripts, short stories and poetry. Has over 2 years experience as an ‘A’ Level and ‘O’ Level part-time teacher of English and English Literature. Also has vast experience as a Research Assistant.

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