Discovering Dambudzo Marechera
Flicking through Stephen Chan’s latest book, African Political Thought, I noticed the name ‘Dambudzo Marechera’ written on a page that also mentioned the University of Oxford (Oxford). I stopped to read Chan’s description of Marechera, a Zimbabwean writer who attended Oxford on a scholarship but was expelled in 1976 for refusing psychiatric treatment and allegedly attempting to set ablaze New College. This was my first time learning of Marechera and I was disappointed to have known nothing about him before. But I was more curious than disappointed and my curiosity led me to acquire a copy of Marechera’s The House of Hunger (1978), a short story collection, which I finished reading in a day. It was like nothing I have read before — it was raw, horrifying, and political.
Set in Ian Smith’s Rhodesia, the first story—a novella bearing the same title as the book—brims with words skillfully manipulated to trigger sharp visualisations of the atrocities faced by (poor) Black people in a country ruled by the white minority. As a former student of African history and politics, I had read stoic accounts of the Second Chimurenga and the roles played by freedom fighters like Robert Mugabe in crafting what many hoped would be a better nation, but I hadn’t encountered highly personalised narratives like Marechera’s that portrayed the messy and protracted unfolding of decolonisation. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Marechera wrote, not to bring comfort to readers, but to drag us with him into the depths of hell, thrusting us into what I can only imagine to be a fraction of his unsettling and fractured reality. With other stories set in Oxford, this text provides deep insight into the difficulties of being Black in places like Rhodesia and England.
After reading The House of Hunger, I searched the Internet for videos of Marechera speaking or interacting with the world and after watching excerpts from a Channel Four documentary directed by Chris Austin, I could instantly appreciate how much Marechera’s writing reflected his personal challenges. Despite being critical of European imperialism, Marechera spoke with an upper class English accent. Yet, Marechera was equally critical of Black Africans, especially those hungry for power, who replicated or sustained oppressive regimes implemented by white people. He wrote the following in his novella:
“There’s white shit in our leaders and white shit in our dreams and white shit in our history and white shit on our hands in anything we build or pray for. Even if that was okay there’s still sell-outs and informers and stuck-up students and get-rich-fast bastards and live-now-think-later punks who are just as bad, man. Just as bad as white shit. There’s a lot of these bastards hanging around in London waiting to come back here and become cabinet ministers.”
At different points in the text, Marechera pushed me to reflect on what it means to be truly liberated, not simply from colonial rule (or postcolonial inertia) but from various other manifestations of oppression in society. Throughout The House of Hunger, Marechera refocuses on a concept of liberation that concerns quotidian struggles for survival and ease in a world shared by different organisms harbouring conflicting desires, a world in which freedoms are bound to clash. On the one hand, Marechera captures the vulnerabilities associated with being a Black person in a world burdened by colonial trauma, writing at one point, ‘I don’t hate being black. I’m just tired of saying it’s beautiful.’ Yet, in his story, Things That Go Bump in the Night, he paints a graphic picture of the mundanity of violence against women in Harare and, in The Christmas Reunion, the narrator criticises the killing of animals for human pleasure, emphasising that a Christmas goat prepared for slaughter is also deserving of emancipation.
In a way, The House of Hunger reads more like an experimental novel than a traditional collection of short stories especially as the different stories jointly encapsulate two discomforting truths. First, violence is deeply entrenched in our society; like a virus, it mutates and morphs into different forms, improving the speed at which it permeates our world. Second, the road to liberation is long and rocky. Some taste death before discovering the flavour of freedom. This is reflected even by Marechera’s own life — amid his struggle against the hunger and anguish that suffocated him since he was a child, he died in August 1987 at the age of thirty-five.
Wole Soyinka once described Marechera as 'a writer in constant quest for his real self’ — it seems it was a discovery left unfulfilled. There are no happy beginnings or endings in The House of Hunger, but this work of literature, as disturbing and unpleasant as it may be to some readers, serves as evidence of Marechera’s troubled existence and, more importantly, it forces us to recognise the different wells of darkness that many remain trapped in.