Zimbabwean writer Chenjerai Hove: ‘Zimbabwe is one big prison’

Chenjerai Hove (52) is one of Zimbabwe’s biggest authors and most respected thinkers. He lives in exile in Norway but stayed in Vollezele -a small village in Flanders- for a while to work on an update of Shakespeare’s play King Lear. Hove: ‘Just like Lear, Mugabe surrounds himself with flatterers and people who confirm his policies.
Hove’s novel Bones won the prestigious Noma-award in 1989. His poems and prose always put forward the voice of the powerless, first oppressed by the colonial powers, then by the post-colonial rulers.
As a teacher in the countryside, a journalist, a poet, a novelist, a writer’s mentor and finally a university professor in exile, Hove weathered more than one storm of which the traces are still visible. ‘I mostly write at night’, he says, showing his study in the luxurious Villa Hellebosch. ‘I’ve kept that habit from Zimbabwe. I didn’t want my children to see their father being lifted out of bed in his pyjamas in the middle of the night. At least I wanted to be dressed if the police came.’
While I am putting a copy of his latest volume of poems Blind Moon on the glass of the copying machine – ‘just tell them that you got the author’s permission’ – Hove tells me how he fled from Harare.
‘I left in 2001, following the advice of Wole Soyinka (Nobel price Literature from Nigeria, sa) and of the American radical writer Russell Banks. I used to write a weekly column in the Zimbabwean newspaper the Standard. I would make jokes about Mugabe’s monkey moustache or describe his love for toys. It became too dangerous for me there.’
‘Did you know that Mugabe’s entourage possesses no less than 45 limousines, preceded ànd followed by eight motorcycles?’ Hove giggles, making fun of that ‘foolish’ Mugabe and taking some tobacco at the same time. ‘There’s even a hospital with the latest technological novelties in his column.’
Do you really think Mugabe is crazy?
Chenjerai Hove: I’m no psychiatrist, but I honestly think that the president of our country is lunatic. For a while already, by the way. Desmund Tutu once called Mugabe bonkas, meaning no less than completely crazy.
Martin Meredith’s biography describes Mugabe as a solitary person, retreating to read and to study.
Chenjerai Hove: His family members told me that Mugabe was indeed more of a lonesome kid. He didn’t use to play with other boys or girls. But even though everyone likes to be alone once in a while, one still needs that contact with other people, to exchange thoughts. But not Mugabe. I once went for a drink with one of his younger brothers. We used to go to the same school. Mugabe however could never be found in a bar.
Have you ever been a supporter of Mugabe?
Chenjerai Hove: I’ve never been very fond of him. Nobody had heard of him before 1960 by the way. He was a teacher in Ghana and stayed in Zimbabwe for only a short period. Overnight, they made him the publicity secretary of the party because his English was very good. After the independence in 1980 he pushed aside all the nationalists one by one and arrested them. He fired the whole upper layer of the army and the police of the white minority regime, except for the torturers and the bullies. He kept them.  
Is that why your aversion from him started?
Chenjerai Hove: It certainly was the writing on the wall. But I also worried about his attitude towards us, teachers. At the beginning of the independency, teachers started striking. During the colonial period teachers at black schools earned only half of what teachers of white pupils got, for the same job, the same manuals and same lessons. So we demanded equal wages. We also wanted the government to pay our missed-out wages. The nurses went on strike with us because they were in a similar situation.
You demanded that the new rulers would pay your due wages?
Chenjerai Hove: Yes! (big laugh) Mugabe was furious and raged madly against us. He blamed us that we hadn’t contributed to the war of freedom and thus he said we had no right to speak our minds. I was deeply disappointed. That man didn’t know what he was talking about. During the war of freedom, teachers, nurses, farmers and business people had been supporting the guerrilla fighters the most. I remember only having left 23 cents of my monthly wages because I had spent all the rest of it on food and warm clothing for the guerrilla fighters who had come to our village.
Can your frustrations be found in your work?   
Chenjerai Hove: Literature shouldn’t lower itself to being only propaganda in favour of or against Ian Smith, Mugabe, Che Guevarra or Fidel Castro. Poetry is the beauty of the writer’s art. In my last collection Blind Moon for example, I wrote: ‘On your way to the house of power, you left us with only three fingers. On your way to the house of power, you left behind broken stones and damaged brains. On your way to the house of power.’ But I don’t mention Mugabe’s name. Literature is there to stay. Moreover, both racists like Smith and black rulers have abused their powers more than once. The black rulers even worse.
Was the violence after the independency worse than during the British oppression and the Ian Smith minority regime?
Chenjerai Hove: To be honest: yes, it was. The violence has become worse after the colonisation. I can’t remember ever having seen a child or a woman being set on fire before. If the colonial soldiers had dropped their eye on you, at least they would leave your wife and children alone. The guerrilla fighters didn’t. They would lock your whole family and then set the house on fire.  
Why did you flee from Zimbabwe in 2001?
Chenjerai Hove: Soyinka and Banks gave me an open British Airways ticket with the message: ‘Leave before it’s too late. We don’t want a second Saro-Wiwa (writer who was executed in 1995 for protesting against the oil exploitation in Nigeria, sa)’.  At first the regime tried to enrol me. I was offered a huge amount of money in 2001 to organise the next PEN-congress in Zimbabwe. I was – and still am – the chairman of the author’s association PEN Zimbabwe. The regime wanted to pamper international writers, show them Victoria Falls and Great Zimbabwe and put them to sleep in the most exclusive hotels, hoping for good publicity. Because people are very influenced by writers’ opinions.
But it turned out differently.
Chenjerai Hove: I told them that I did want to invite my colleagues but that I couldn’t guarantee what they would write. So the whole plan got dismissed. After that, they offered me a farm which I refused as well. My father was a farmer and I know what farming means: working your socks off. So that didn’t work either. Then they tried to accuse me of crimes I didn’t commit, such as marihuana trafficking. They also staged a car accident and tried to poison me while I was sick. As an opponent, you‘d better not be taken to hospital in Zimbabwe. The chances of returning alive are small.
Compared to the tortures Tsvangirai had to deal with, you got off rather well.
Chenjerai Hove: That’s true. I do believe that only few could bear what Tsvangirai did. He never gave up fighting, despite repeated tortures and even murder attempts. He continuously brings hope for a different Zimbabwe and offers citizens an alternative for the Zanu-PF party.
Tsvangirai may have been very brave, but during the latest elections he wasn’t able to turn his victory into real power.
Chenjerai Hove: Tsvangirai couldn’t do anything but opening negotiations with Mugabe, if only to show the world what an unfair negotiator Mugabe is. But nothing has been decided yet. The Tsvangirai delegation demands that key portfolios like safety, police and military affaires are divided equally. But Mugabe wants to keep these for his own party and grants Tsvangirai only small portfolios, unable to bring change into the current system. If Tsvangirai yields, his story is over. Because then all the criminals who killed our sisters and brothers would still be there, bragging and unpunished.  
How do you feel about the role played by the West in the latest negotiations?
Chenjerai Hove: I still don’t understand how for example the British Minister of Development Aid can declare in public that Zimbabwe will get five million pounds if things calm down politically. How can one promise the opposition a chequebook, knowing that Mugabe takes every opportunity to prove that Tsvangirai is a puppet of the West?  Blair simply should have said: ‘No matter what the result of the elections is, we support the new government and state.’ Either the British are poorly informed, or they are playing only to their home public, with as only message: ‘Look at us, the champions of democracy!’
What issues would you tackle first if you were a minister of Zimbabwe?
Chenjerai Hove: I’m a writer, not a minister. My cousin has served several times as a minister and offered me repeatedly to join the government. ‘There’s no worse minister of Education or Culture than a writer-minister’, I told him. ‘Because he knows what it’s all about and thus believes to know more than the others. He stops listening to his associates.’
But say you had to be a minister anyway…
Chenjerai Hove: As minister of education I would make sure all manuals get rewritten, because they are pure propaganda. As if our history only begins with Mugabe. As minister of agriculture I would let white people farm again. I would punish all racists among them every week and not let them own such big plots of land. But they would have to continue to farm, because agriculture has always been the strength of our country.
To break with the past a change of government alone will not do the trick. Should there be a truth commission, as in South-Africa? Or popular courts, as in Rwanda?
Chenjerai Hove: There used to be voices in favour of testifying about all crimes. I also pleaded in favour of that idea in front of the representatives of the opposition, but Mugabe stopped the whole initiative in 1998. I’m still willing to talk about what I’ve seen. I know where the mass graves are. I know where my fellow countrymen were shot, thrown in a hole in the ground and buried by bulldozers. In 1978 guerrilla fighters killed a medical assistant in my presence. They chopped off his nose and arms, which they then roasted on a fire. They made him eat his own flesh.
In your poem The Violence of Gokwe you write about your home region. How was it there?
Chenjerai Hove: Gokwe was a very complicated region, because fighters of Zipra, Zanla, bishop Muzorewa and other militias were all operating there at the same time. Say that I didn’t like my neighbour, I could simply go to one of those militias and claim that he supported the others. Then they’d shoot him. Gokwe was a massacre. Some offenders went back afterwards to apologise to the victims’ families, others have just gone mad. A lot of Zimbabweans are in need of psychological support.  
Do you sometimes wake up, still shivering from fear?
Chenjerai Hove: When you saw how someone got chopped in pieces before your very eyes, it’s hard to ever forget that image. My novel Masimba Avanhu? – Is this the power of the people? – describes the digging of a grave. The book is based on a true story. During the war for freedom I lost five of my students in one day, five girls. Guerrilla fighters would enter the classroom quite often to pick out the most beautiful girls to force them to have sex in the bush. That day the guerrilla fighters, together with five of my students, were ambushed and killed by Rhodesians. The helicopter of the Rhodesians landed right up to our school and they entered the classroom. ‘Sir’, they said. ‘We shot those terrorist students of yours. You can go and pick them up.’ We found their bodies in the mountains, shot to thousands of pieces.  
How long will it take before Zimbabwe heals from its wounds?
Chenjerai Hove: The impact of a war and a dictatorship on the human mind and on family ties and friendships is incredible. Our country is being ruled by fear. Zimbabwe is one big prison, in which husbands can no longer trust their wives and vice versa. Mugabe’s regime owns more than 200.000 unofficial informers, which means your own son could be a betrayer. So you go to church not knowing whether the priest is trustworthy. For Zimbabwe to heal, the whole system needs to be dismantled.
Do you ever want to return to Zimbabwe?
Chenjerai Hove: Once the peace agreement is final, I want to go back, even if I’ll have to teach in a little village school somewhere in the countryside. I prefer that to giving a lecture to fat children at Brown University, whose only goal is to obtain their degree. A lot of fled teachers don’t want anything more than returning, if only they would get a little appreciation in their home country. But even then things are not that simple. At least four millions of Zimbabweans have left their country and built up a new life elsewhere, bought an apartment and made friends there. I don’t even know myself how my wife would react if I would show up at her doorstep after 7 years. She’s become very religious in the meantime. She lately asked me to write a book about religion. I‘m not even up to thinking about it.

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