Mother Tongue: Interviews with
Musaemura B. Zimunya and Solomon Mutswairo

By Angela A. Williams

The Journal of African Travel-Writing, Number 4, April 1998 (pp. 36-44).

Copyright © 1998 The Journal of African Travel-Writing

There are several informed views about the implications of foreign languages, and specifically the English language, on the creative process and product of African poets, whether they write in their vernacular languages or not. Ngugi Wa Thiong'o of Kenya believes that "African poetry, true African poetry, is never written in any language outside the African's mother tongue." Emmanuel Ngara of Zimbabwe feels that "to choose a language is to choose an audience and by the fact of writing in English, French, or Portuguese the poet has chosen to address members of the African petty bourgeoisie and westerners." But others, like Dambudzo Marechera, the late Shona poet, choose the English language "as a means of escape and mental liberation while at the same time undermining and subverting the former colonial language and its implications." Marechera stated:

The writer should be mastering the language. The language should be the slave, we must brutalize it into our own shape. This is the best way to fight back our own former slavery. But every time we try, language escapes. And so we have to beat it again and again and to capture and to punish it again and again.
The English language and other Western influences pervade daily life in African countries, like Zimbabwe, once colonized by the British. Even today, the Western way of life is considered the ideal, while the traditional African lifestyles are quickly becoming part of a distant past, and persons desiring to write poetry are systematically forced to decide whether to write in English or in their own African languages. Whatever their choices, African poets know that they are excluding part of their intended audience and limiting their own creative mode of expression, since most are, because of colonization, quite literally multi-lingual people. Within these choices of language, such multi-lingual African poets find limitations to overcome and freedoms to enjoy. Use of the English language, which carries the baggage of the oppressor's culture, usually becomes a mode of stimulating mental exercise. On the other hand, the Shona and Ndebele languages, which are most Zimbabwean poets' more natural forms of communication and expression of feelings, unfortunately limit the global exposure of their work.

The poets with whom I spoke in Zimbabwe in 1994 agreed that to choose to write in the English language at any time involves a conscious effort. If English is not the poet's first language, words to express what he feels do not always flow easily from the soul, where true poetry comes from. An African poet can easily find himself lost in the middle of a thought in English and just as easily lose the essence of what he wants to say. Flora Veit-Weld writes:

When using the English language, this emotional component often gets lost; as a matter of course, writers feel more detached and relate to the language as a tool rather than as a means of cultural identification. Those however who have an equal command of both languages can benefit from the situation of bilingualism. They can choose either language according to specific purpose or feeling.
Most of the poets with whom I spoke agreed, however, that no matter how much English education they received, their vernacular languages will always provide the medium for the more lucid expression of their thoughts.

Solomon Mutswairo and Musaemura B. Zimunya were among those I interviewed in order to understand the implications of the English language for the African poet. Mutswairo was one of the first Shona novelists and poets to publish in Zimbabwe and is therefore considered part of the country's "Generation One" of African writers and poets. Mutswairo, a professor in the University of Zimbabwe's Department of African Languages, writes in both English and Shona and has translated many of his Shona poems into English. Musaemura B. Zimunya, a professor of literature at the University of Zimbabwe, part of "Generation Two," is one of Zimbabwe's foremost poets writing in English, but he also writes extensively in Shona. Zimunya has taken on the challenge of the English language and has succeeded in molding it into a suitable artistic medium. Each of these men has made an unavoidable choice in order to express himself on his own terms.

Musaemura B. Zimunya

Williams: Being that Shona is your first language, what are the challenges of writing or creating in English?

Zimunya: I think the heaviest challenge of writing in English is that the English language is so old and remains, for the most part, a foreign language to me. There will always be hidden areas of that language which I cannot come to terms with. And since the language is so old, it's old in its history. I mean to say, whatever I am doing, I am consciously selecting out of that massive vernacular what I believe is its functionary use for it. That, I think, is a constant challenge for any foreigner writing in the English language. The other matter is that this foreign language was born in a different environment. A very different environment. An environment where the geographical barriers are so cultural. And, as such, that language sometimes is problematic in my African experience which has its own human history, social history, cultural history, and geographical history. These are the most crucial for Africans, and for myself, even though a writer who has published over the years, who has read so much. I sometimes don't think about it. Purely because of studying literature and so many years of studying the language, using it as an academic and creator, I have acquired a certain amount of proficiency which makes it possible sometimes to not get bothered by the impediments caused by the language. But fundamentally, I think you have seen Africans thoroughly through the Shona, you've seen their behavior, their culture sometimes, and there are some areas where the English language is too stifling, too inflexible, rigid, and cannot quickly translate the feelings, moods, experiences that we have.

Williams: Do you still write in Shona now?

Zimunya: Yes.

Williams: And have you published Shona poetry lately?

Zimunya: The last time I published Shona poetry was about 1986, in a collection that I edited myself. Outside that, most of my materials I have not published in manuscript form.

Williams: Why have you decided to write in English and not in Shona?

Zimunya: It's a curious experience really. I grew up in a very pleasant village, a very pleasant family, and spoke nothing except Shona. But as soon as I got to school, I got excited about learning. Just learning, not only about colonial history and colonial culture. Because, as you may well imagine, any new experience is more exciting than any old experience or familiar experience. The English language is so highly developed as a literary form, that has a lot of enchantment for anybody willing to experience it. We read poems, old English poems which included John Keats, John Milton, and William Shakespeare. It was excruciatingly obscure and hard, but somehow the ring of the language excited me, just enchanted me. It sounds stupid to say, but to be honest it was the most amazing experience. Studying great works over the years, one picked up a kind of competence or a weight of knowledge about the English language. I remember The Student's Handbook. This is a book that will give you a semi-encyclopedic look, not only at the English language but at the Western culture. For example, it had proverbs. It had geographic knowledge--for example, the equinox, the seasons, the moon phases. It had who discovered what and so on. It had history over the years. The destiny of experience made one believe that one could use this, if not for personal delight then for conquering an international frontier. And I think that you will find that most of my generation felt the same, that they were conquering a certain frontier. And with that knowledge of that frontier gradually went the knowledge of who we were, our relationship with this new world, this colonial world. And with that, also, its wickedness, and the cruel irony of history that excited us and of this foreign culture that was hostile to our purposes, our well-being. So that went with that. But how did I start to write in English? First, in the colonial days the educational syllabus was designed for us to become "civilized" and, as a result, we learned more about Europe than we did about Africa for the most part. By the time I was eight years into school, I knew so much about English poetry from reciting it that I could already feel that I could use this to establish my writings. Whereas, I'd done so much less literature in African languages, like Shona, because--this is an added reason--Shona literature itself was at a young state. Consequently, it shouldn't surprise you to find that someone with an artistic urge found it very exciting to write in English, especially at the discovery of the iambic meter:

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host of golden daffodils.
And you know this cadence was so powerful that I wrote what you might call imitation that sounded like Wordsworthian poems. And that's how English got to be preferred over Shona, by default largely. If it were to be put more powerfully, you could say that we were already colonized.

Williams: So, most poets of your generation now write in English?

Zimunya: I don't know about that. Most of my generation would have tried their hand at both. For example, Samuel Chimsoro. I know many poets of my generation wrote in Shona and English. Because what happened at some point was that many in our generation, you could say, were schizophrenic, that is to say we were torn between two worlds. At that point, we became aware that our language was actually rich and, at that point, we became conscious of that. It became a challenge to write in Shona as well.

Williams: And when you are translating from Shona to English or from English to Shona, is there anything gained or lost in the process?

Zimunya: You know this is an old traditional number: Nyama yekugocha. . . . Now, if you translate it into English it says, "Here comes the big wild monster. Here comes the big wild monster. Here comes the big wild monster. Raise your spears. Raise your spears. O brother, misery's dogging us. O brother, misery's dogging us. O brother, misery's dogging us. Raise your spears. Raise your spears. . . ." And then Nyama yekugocha means "Now the meat is ready for roasting. Now the meat is readying for roasting." It doesn't make sense in English because, you see, what is happening is a complex use of consonant agreement. "Here comes the big wild monster" has use of consonant agreement in that line of English. Besides that, in Shona consonant agreement is not only musical but determines the meaning of the poem, of the song. Here in English you have to say, "Here comes the big wild monster." In Shona, there is no "big," but the ye, ye means "the huge thing," and therefore it makes it very difficult to make a translation from Shona to English, from English to Shona, effective. It makes it very different. We only render the meaning, but not the feeling. The feeling is lost. The feeling!

Williams: Dr Tafataona Mahoso believes that Zimbabweans should begin construction of their own African reality in this post-colonial era. Do you agree and how does choosing to write poetry in Shona and/or English fit into your belief?

Zimunya: I wholeheartedly agree. I think that in constructing a new reality, we are saying, or he means, our idea of who we are has been determined pretty much by the Western intellectual tradition, the Western media. There is television, radio, and so on. And the West did not spare us their cultural problems--i.e., cinema, music, dress, and so on. I mean, Zimbabwe is embarrassingly English, as you may have observed. So, what he means is that it is time we reverse the trend that we see ourselves through the mirror of the West. And that is, in my mind, a fundamental factor of our rebirth, a matter of consideration in creating a new Zimbabwe for ourselves. Now, as far as writing in English is concerned, I consider English an artistic medium. It matters most to me that every writer who has to use an artistic medium must accept the consequences of using that medium. Now, the English language, first and foremost, is the greatest carrier of Western culture as far as Zimbabwe is concerned. It is the greatest carrier of Western culture musically, literarily, journalistically, and so on, and so on. When a writer, like I do, chooses the English language, I think it matters the most that I use the English language for the benefit of our people. In other words, I do not promote English culture in my writing. It would be very easy for me because we study European civilization. I think when people argue against the use of the English language at the expense of the Shona language, I think they are expressing a genuine sensibility. But my problem is that this world is so wide, it is so large now, that it is not enough to look at ourselves through our own image. We have to look at ourselves through other cultures. If we canžt do that, I think we will remain isolated from the world which is so big now. For example, I teach a course on languages in African literatures. What I find very interesting are the various cleavages in this subject. There is Achebe who says, "I'll use this language as I see fit." And Ngugi says, "Those who write in English are Anglo-Saxon or Afro-Saxon and their literature is contributing to the world of English literature." But my observation is that the English people don't consider it as English literature now. They do not. They don't even have much interest in it. Only a few academics in some universities have a serious interest in African or Caribbean or even African-American literature. I know universities in America that don't teach African-American literature because they don't think it's worth it, because it is not subtle enough, it is too strident. So, I don't care what they think, because I know there are people who read what I write in order to derive inspiration and in order to see who they are and where they are coming from, where they are going. And the majority of the people read in English. Our school system emphasizes the virtues of learning the English language. And in any case, I earn my bread by teaching literature in English and not Shona. It would be extremely hypocritical of me to say that this language is useless. Extremely hypocritical. And I leave that to the politicians.

Solomon Mutswairo

Williams: Flora Veit-Wild states that the impulse for early Zimbabwean writers was the desire to teach their fellow Africans how to attain a dignified, proud, "civilized" way of life according to European standards. Do you agree or disagree, and how does your belief relate to poets choosing to write in English or in Shona?

Mutswairo: The early writers of Shona novels and poetry were indeed inspired by English because it was our first exposure when we went to school. There were few books in Shona and none in Ndebele, and so we were wholly exposed to English literature. This is what inspired many, including myself. The idea was to be able to write books similar to English books in our own language, to provide some written material in our school, not necessarily for teaching references, but we were also looking for publicity. It was nice to have your name appear in print at that time. And so we relied mostly on the Literature Bureau, the Rhodesian Literature Bureau, which sponsored African Literature; they're the ones who monopolized the whole deal of publishing books in African languages, especially in Shona and Ndebele. And that was the early nineteen-forties, thereabouts, when we started to write. It was not until 1956-7 when the first novels in Shona and Ndebele appeared. And I was among the first published. Feso was the first novel. At that time, poetry written in Shona, or English as well, appeared. So we were inspired, some of us, by English literature--as well as Zulu literature, which we studied in South Africa. I think that's where the inspiration came from.

Williams: And I have read that you translate your poems from Shona to English.

Mutswairo: Yes, I translated many of my poems from Shona to English, and these are contained in Zimbabwe Prose and Poetry. I translated many of my poems.

Williams: Do you translate other poets' poems also?

Mutswairo: Yes, I translated a few.

Williams: And when you are translating from Shona to English or from English to Shona, is there anything gained or lost in the process?

Mutswairo: There is a lot that is lost. The languages are not the same--their idiomatic expressions, their proverbial expressions. So when you translate, you are losing the imagery, you are losing the symbolism that is expressed in this kind of literature. So the idiom of expression is devalued, so to speak. And there is a lot lost there because our mode of thinking and that of English are not synonymous, are not the same. Our expressions to capture the imagery that you would like to express and those English expressions would not necessarily be equipped to capture the same image in Shona and English. And in the process, you lose the essence of whatever you wish to say in this basic native language. So this is the problem I encountered when I translated my poems from Shona to English. I was thinking of Shona, but I had to think in English in order to capture the imagination and interest of the English readers. And sometimes it was not word-for-word translation. To do this wouldn't make much sense, so you had to use expressions similar in your language. For example, an idiomatic expression like Chauninacho batis midzimu haipekairi: "What you have, hold on to it fast because the ancestor spirit will not give you again." If you wrote it the way I'm saying it now, it wouldn't make sense. Maybe it might be better to say, "A bird in hand is worth two in a bush." And this has given you a totally different use although the idea is the same. So, there are many such expressions that are not synonymous, but somehow you can get the equivalent.

Williams: When you are creating or when you are writing poetry, is it usually in English or in Shona?

Mutswairo: Firstly, when I write poetry, because I was influenced by English, I have a tendency to use the mode of writing of English using regular lines and rhyming schemes, which is not found in Shona poetry. Traditional poetry doesn't use that kind of meter or beat. Traditional Shona poetry uses repetition, which is the basic unit of Shona poetry. For example, we use a lot of repetition and a lot of imagery. But when I started to write, it was first in Shona and then in English. The technique I used, I borrowed, because there were no books in Shona or even Ndebele. For poetry, the only source of information was from English literature, and we were very heavily influenced by English teachers and lecturers. We wrote imitating the English way of writing. It was later that we decided that it was not appropriate to use that style. It was simply an embellishment. And many people are opposed to writing outside of Shona or Ndebele. But personally, I don't see anything wrong. A borrowed technique is not necessarily wrong; it can be just as good. So, I would accept anyone who writes in English or in Shona. It can only enrich our poetry.

Williams: Please respond: "Language is not neutral, it carries the weight of its origin."

Mutswairo: Yes, the language and the words are those of cultural people, the carried weight of cultural norms of the people. And these cultural norms may be different from other cultures. Cultures have to appreciate the norms of other cultures which may be quite different from theirs. Being different doesn't mean being wrong, and being out of the ordinary doesnžt mean that either. It only means that you grew up within a venue of culture that has accumulated those ideas and those images peculiar to you. See, you have to understand that, and in order to appreciate that you have to appreciate the language itself. It is better still to learn the language. Then you get in touch with imagery and the thinking and the essence of the people. Otherwise, it will be very difficult for you to appreciate why we think along these lines, because they are culturally oriented.

Williams: Do you agree with John Reed's title for you as "the poet of Shona cultural nationalism"?

Mutswairo: Poetry, of course, is not new to Africans. They have had poetry from time immemorial. This is true among Shona-speaking people. Their poetry is found in their religious expressions, religious centers. It is found in expressing their totemic identities. It is used as Shona people are divided into numerous totems that take their symbolism from animals, parts of animals, or inanimate objects, so that their poetry would be an expression of their philosophy of life, their co-existence with one another, and their unity as family, as clans, or as tribes. And I believe that this is widespread, not only among Shona people but among the Ndebele, as well--and, indeed, among the so-called Bantu people. These languages take their origins almost from the same source. So, I think that's the way I look at it. Definitely these poems are an expression of all members of the society, irrespective of their age or status in society; they all share the same kind of people among the clan. This is not so among the Ndebele, for example. Ndebele poetry centers mainly around heroes and heroines, warriors, ideals--individuals. In other words, "The Poem of Lobengula" cannot be applied to anybody else but Lobengula, but the poetry of Chief Chihota, here among the Shona, is applicable to all members of the Chihota grouping, whether young or old. So there is a big difference. Here we have a close link between people. Everyone is the same, regarded as an important member of the family. Not so, say the Ndebele: Lobengula is the important figure. We have the lion, the tiger, the elephant, and so on. So there is a big difference here. This is also true of Botswana poetry and Lesotho poetry.

Williams: Dr Tafataona Mahoso believes that Zimbabweans should begin constructing their own African reality in this post-colonial era. Do you agree, and how does writing poetry in English fit into your belief?

Mutswairo: Well, there has been a lot of talk about going back to our culture. I have no quarrels with that. There is nothing wrong with going back to one's culture. But culture is a dynamic force; it is something that grows. We cannot think in terms of going back a hundred years into our culture. I believe since it is dynamic, we should accept that dynamism which seeps into our present society rather than wholly accepting those cultural norms that are no longer timely. So, thinking along those lines, I should like to think that those elements of our culture that are good, acceptable, should be retained. And those which are not will fall apart. Therefore, we will be forging ahead with a new culture, a hybrid kind of culture, which incorporates both the Western and the traditional. I do not believe I could be an advocate for a purely traditional culture in Zimbabwe, because we are now greatly influenced by other cultures, particularly the Western culture, which includes European and American. And American influence is very great, not only in this country but throughout the world, in terms of clothing and food and music and dance and general thinking. So, how are we going to retain purely that which is Zimbabwean? I say that we live in a culture within cultures, a new culture in Zimbabwe that fits our young. This is quite obvious in our music. The most popular music is not quite traditional. More particularly, it is more Western, which means our culture is moving from one phase to another. So, that's what I believe. Are you going to dictate to the people to accept a particular cultural element, or are the people going to choose? So, what the people want is going to be an established kind of culture. It cannot be dictated. For example, I have never seen Dr Mahoso engaged in the traditional dances although he advocates going back to tradition. And I've never seen any of these educated people engaged in our traditional dances. Theyžre like pieces in a museum that they would like to preserve.

Selected Bibliography

Ngara, Emmanuel. Ideology and Form in African Poetry. London: James Curry, 1990.

Veit-Wild, Flora. Teachers Preachers Non-Believers: A Social History of Zimbabwe Literature. Harare: Baobab Books, 1993.

Wa Thiong'o, Ngugi. Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. Harare: Zimbabwe Publishing House, 1981.