Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Resounding Whispers - Zimbabwean Poet Ethel Kabwato


(Author's Note: Within hours of publishing this piece, I was delighted at the news that Robert Mugabe had resigned as President of Zimbabwe.)

Like many, I have found much of my attention in the last few weeks focused on  Zimbabwe, where the murderous reign of Robert Mugabe seemed, for a few days at least, to have been on the verge of expiry, thanks to what seemed to have been a predominantly peaceful coup.  As the chances of this appear to have ebbed, the country's future remains unclear, and having no history or family connections in that country, I can only imagine the unease many Zimbabweans must currently be feeling.  But, as described in previous posts, I have connections to Zimbabwe dating back to my days as a mental health worker, when a good proportion of my colleagues were Zimbabweans.  We would often discuss the barbarity of Mugabe and his hideous regime, but also the happier aspects of the country's cultural heritage, including its poets.

Unlike the other Zimbabwean poets featured on these pages, teacher, arts practitioner, and multiple prize-winning poet Ethel Kabwato, who was born in 1970, in Mutare, near the eastern border with Mozambique, is a writer whose work is virtually impossible to find beyond her native country.  This is both surprising - the poet has been involved with many cross-cultural poetry projects including with British Council Wales and at Lancaster University - and unfortunate: her magnificent writing, says Zimbabwean journalist Tinashe Mushakavanhu, tackles the difficult subjects that have come to define what has been dubbed the Zimbabwe crisis, subjects of land, violence, patriotism through an intelligent employ of irony and wit.

 Much of Ethel Kabwato's poetry centres on the situation in Zimbabwe, both obliquely and directly.  For example, in one of the few poems to have enjoyed an English translation (thanks to the website Poetry International) , Damgamvura, 1979,  she describes the transition of her country from the unrecognized state of Rhodesia, into the creation of modern Zimbabwe, via the Lancaster House Agreement in London:

Our fate hung in the air
As they sat down at Lancaster House
Our dreams of independence
Only a glimmer of hope. 

There is a palpable sense of detachment and alienation from the political process, as the future of the country is decided on by politicians thousands of miles away.  But despite - or perhaps because of - her awareness of the gulf between the powerful and powerless, the personal and political are inextricably linked in Ethel Kabwato's poetry.  Describing the birth of a child against the horrific backdrop of the so-called Gukurahundi, a series of massacres carried out by Mugabe's Fifth Brigade in the early days of his oppressive rule

Gukurahundi came to Dangamvura
Marking the birth of a new era
As we joined in the turmoil
The October rains
Pelting on the windows
Bullet fire drowning the downpour
Our laughter
Taking away the fear
And anxiety
As mother lay in hospital
Waiting for a child of war.

As many as 80,000 civilians were killed in the Gukurahundi, mostly belonging to the Ndebele minority, to whom Mugabe was hostile owing to the age-old rivalry between the Ndebele and the indigenous Shona, from which background Mugabe came himself.  The massacres began in January 1983, and lasted until December 1987, when  an agreement was signed by Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo, a Ndebele nationalist and former minister in Mugabe's government (who had been ejected on charges of plotting against the President.)  Pressed on the Gukurahundi in a 1999 interview, Mugabe described the entire period of 1983-87 as "a moment of madness," but refused to elaborate on his own responsibility for the killings.  Recently uncovered recordings and correspondence indicate strongly that the President was not only aware, but gave personal orders for the massacres.  Only recently have they attracted the attention of the international community.  In a small way, they are exposed in this unflinching poetry, in which the dryness of statistics is replaced by human faces.  We counted the victims, the poet recalls, and lists some of them, randomly remembered:

The bus driver at Raheen
The postmaster’s wife
Jarvis, the white farmer

In just three short lines, Ethel Kabwato acknowledges the humanity of black and white, tragically united in their shared suffering.  But elsewhere, the regime's non-physical violence is also highlighted, the yoke of censorship and the suppression of dissent given graphically metaphorical treatment:

Burial of An Activist

They buried him today
Lips and tongue
Cut out
As if to silence
Even in death.

The necessity of free speech is a recurring theme in Kabwato's work.  In the Munyori Literary Journal, Beaven Tapureta champions how The willpower to speak and be heard as a woman is deeply expressed in one of Kabwato’s poems,  Echoes of Silence. In this poem the personae speaks of “scars hidden deep/deep within our hearts”, yet even though these and other mysterious forces attempt to silence them, they determinedly speak through “whispers”!

 Echoes of Silence

Our thoughts meander
Our suffering bravely borne
The scars are hidden deep
Deep within our hearts
We thought we could
Did not know we couldn’t
We thought it was crazy
The craziness was within
We searched.
The echoes of our silence
Reached their hearts
Unwinding the dark mysteries
Surrounding us;
Our voices;
Became whispers . . . 

This spirit of quiet defiance characterizes much of Ethel Kabawto's charged but dignified style of writing, a manner which I would describe as patiently passionate, and which is mirrored by her selfless work outside of writing.  A mother of two children, she has found the time to launch and administer a range of educational initiatives, along with running the Zimbabwean wing of the international Slum Cinema project, which screens documentary films in the poorest areas of Africa.  Indeed, from the vantage point of her firmly rooted sense of Zimbabwean identity, Ethel Kabwato might be seen as an internationalist poet.  In 2010, she visited Wales as part of a British Council poetry project, and was inspired to write a poem which would serve as the foreword to the book which was produced by virtue of the visit.  Published by Cinnamon Press, edited by Welsh poet Menna Elfyn  Sunflowers In Your Eyes also contains poems by Blessing Musariri, and features Ethel Kabwato's A Tale of Cardiff's New Arrivals. The poet explained to BBC Wales: When I arrived in Cardiff I was inspired by the warmth of the Welsh people to write a poem, A Tale of Cardiff's New Arrivants. Some of the street names had a certain familiarity and reminded me of home in Zimbabwe.
"Cardiff is rich in culture. Art is on the street where you live, on the faces of the people you meet in shops, at the bay, in shopping malls and in places where we read our work. The Welsh people live art.

A Tale of Cardiff's New Arrivants.
They found a new home
Along Bute Street
And called the street
In the same way they
Used to back home
Before they discovered
The route number 6 bus
Which would take them
To St Mary's
And St David's
To the market
To the graffiti along
Christina Street
And to the basements
Along the narrow street
They call Lloyd George
They tasted
The addictive
Welsh cakes
On the little street
Behind the harbour
And forgot
About the boat ride
And the Number 6
They watched
As the sun shone
Over Cardiff Bay
And they dreamt
And talked
To their shadows
While basking
In the warmth
Of its beauty
As it welcomed
Them in the summer
Croeso i Gymru
(Welcome to Wales)

Reading Ethel Kabwato, I have a strong sense of someone who is keenly aware of her own heritage and identity, while embodying an instinctive, entirely non-sectarian compassion transcendent of national borders. In one of her most moving poems, she draws on the tragedy of the 2011 Oslo massacre, an event which must have generated terrible memories of those documented in her poetry of the Gukurahundi nearly twenty years previously:

 Light a candle for her
Wherever you are
Lay down your wreath
On the stone cold pavement
When the sun has faded

 We will sing with you, Norway
Across the miles
And whisper a prayer
In our own language

(From After the Terror)

The evocation of human loss depicted above in macro, national level, is framed in close up by the painful Tariro, in which the cot-death of a baby (the poet's?) is described from the perspective of her parents.  Tariro is Shona for "Hope," and the poem begins with an explanation of how:

We called you Tariro
Our hope for the future
We dreamt on
Lifting dreams
Upon dreams

We watched you grow
A ray of sunshine
A promise of things to come
The joy that lit our lives

As the inevitability of death is made apparent, there is a curiously English, profoundly sad, moment, when:

Tea cups in hand
We sat by the window
Eyes on the road
Ears strained

And the poem softly reaches a deeply sobering conclusion:

 The nights wore black
The heart listened
We could no longer hope
For a chapter
That had been closed
In our life
God had only lent us
A page of your life. 

Interviewed in 2016, Ethel Kabwato explained how Poetry is a means of expression. It allows me the freedom to be happy, sad, or inspirational. To me poetry is therapeutic. I like writing about socio-political issues. I live in the present, the here and now. I rarely revisit the past. However, womanhood is something I can never run away from. Most of my poems revolve around the central theme of womanhood. Poetry serves as social commentary. In the absence of freedom of expression or censorship; one can reach a wider audience by simply being subtle or satirical.  
There are probably a great many satirical elements in her poem The Witch's Dance, which those familiar with Zimbabwean history and culture may recognize but which I do not.  But the poem its self is nonetheless a fascination for me - dripping with inference, a mysteriously romantic reminiscence neatly woven around a mythical idea, a story of transitory, unfulfilled love, or perhaps a love majestically fulfilled but subject to the brevity of youth or those fleeting experiences of ecstasy which come so rarely, yet burn so brightly when they do:

 The Witch’s Dance
We walked on
Through the dust
The wind enclosing us
Our vision clouded with dust
Our dusty feet coated with red soil.

We walked on
the whirlwind
spiralling and dancing
The papers and the grass
Floating in the air
You called it
The witch’s dance
You closed my eyes
And held me close
You said she would come
And I waited
 But we walked on
The dust stinging my eyes
I felt the rhythm
Within your heart
Entrapping the blackness
Of my soul
You said she would dance.

I felt the beat
As you stamped your feet
The darkness enveloping me
The dust suppressing my breath
The witch’s dance
I heard you shouting
The witch has danced
She had danced
With the whirlwind
And gone with the wind.
It is greatly to be hoped that the reputation of Ethel Kabwato continues to blossom both within Zimbabwem and beyond.  Whatever the next chapter in the tortured history of her homeland, her future as a poet should assuredly be bright, and, while it is through her wider community and cross-cultural endeavours that she will continue to help those scarred by war and poverty, it is through the medium of her poetry that she has given testimony to the troubles of her country and her generation, and it is through the medium of this continent-crossing, empathic, deeply human poetry that she will continue to do so. Poetry heals me, said Ethel Kabwato in 2016.   It is my sincere hope that the poetry and prose will portray, in earnest, the lives of the people I have laughed and cried with, in their time of joy and need.

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