An Underground Country
Zimbabwe, since its independence in 1980, has produced an interesting crop of prose stylists. Dambudzo Marechera, Yvonne Vera and Tsitsi Dangarembga are all known as trail-blazers. Lately, Brian Chikwava, Petina Gappa and Noviolet Bulawayo have emerged to carry on the illustrious tradition. All the names just mentioned have had considerable international impact. However, there is much more to be said about contemporary Zimbabwean literature than we are presently led to believe.
Basil Diki is another engaging and energetic novelist and playwright that should be added to the interesting list of Zimbabwean literary artists. His novel, Two Hangmen, One Scaffold Book 1 (2012), centres on the lives of Binga Jochoma alias Akar Muja, his wife Matipa and their son, Peza. Akar works in a mine enduring a punishing work schedule that brings very little by way of monetary returns. We get to know he is a far more conflicted personality than he presents to his wife and family. He lives with his customary law wife, Matipa while he has a common law wife, Nomathemba, living in another city. Finally, he has an undergraduate girlfriend, Gillian to complete a complicated emotional picture. By some sort of schizophrenic twist he is able to keep the separate strands of muddled emotional existence apart. He convinces himself he needs Gillian to serve as an antidote for his creeping sexual impotence. His main dream in life is make enough money to keep his women in different metropolitan centres of world namely, Oslo, New York and Johannesburg so as to be as far as possible from each other’s throats. Clearly, his job as a menial mine worker cannot aid the realisation of his dream and so he has to resort to a Malawian sorcerer to assist him in his quest for unparalleled financial wealth.
Akar plans on stealing Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa from its fortress in Europe which he hopes to sell. Indeed Akar is a mess of contradictions: down-trodden mine worker, ex-soldier, a fervent adherent of juju practices, a lover of literature and the fine things of life who plans to come by wealth through art for good measure. But alas, there are even more head-spinners. He is sexist though he somehow never beats on his wife. However, there is a secret his wives and family do not know. Akar is a cold-blooded murderer who haunts derelict mines in order to dispossess illegal miners of gold and money. He disappears for many days on end prowling through underground tunnels in a bid to supplement his meagre income. If he doesn’t, it would be impossible to buy Christmas gifts for his loved ones and earn their respect. One of his disappearances earns him the sack from his bosses and which is when his hobby becomes his main source of income.
Diki unveils a multitude of graphic images on the Hobbesian world of illegal mining that make the world illustrated by Emile Zola appear rather humane. The realities of illegal mining in Zimbabwe are peopled by desperate souls, ghouls with broken dreams and ruthless killers. Accidental falls down shafts and man-made pools that rip off flesh, hair and bone are a common occurrence. Poisonous snakes lurk in crevices and machete-wielding killers lie in wait for victims in all manner of places both within and outside the mines. Indeed the concealed turf of illegal mining is more gruesome than one would expect:
There were many ways to die in the tunnels. Gangs roamed underground and robbed the illegal miners of rich and ore and gold. When thugs floored a victim with fists and machetes, pinioned him to the ground and pressed a knife against his Adam’s apple, he invariably yielded all the gold or ore on him. Venomous snakes in the tunnels killed those who stepped on them (p.103).
Diki’s Zimbabwe is many leagues away from Marechera’s and his contemporaries. The seizures of white-owned farms, a national economy experiencing rapid implosions coupled with foreign economic sanctions have severely devalued human life in the country. The Marxian axiom that religion is the opium of the masses is granted especial force. Matipa lives under the perpetual guidance of Prophet Jatropha and personal religious dreams, nightmares and visions. For her and so many others who belong to her sect, when all else fails it is only natural to turn to the phantasmagoria of charismatic Christianity. Unfortunately, she does not often recognise when her rigid faith threatens her marriage. Her husband’s life lurches jerkily under the compulsion of a sordid and absurd mix of animism and vaunting machismo. There seems to be no respite for anyone as everyone writhes within the relentless grip of personal and societal melt-down.
Diki’s highly descriptive novel manages to say quite much with not too many digressions and indeed there are some which is not unusual for a book of such considerable length. Zimbabwe isn’t only Diki’s sole point of reference even though it is the main one. Current affairs such as European soccer leagues and events and lifestyles of Euro-America often crop up for mention. Perhaps this isn’t always very effective. Indeed the finely assimilated products of his powerful imagination are really what would bestow his art with a transcendent quality.
It is a pity that this work which is a perceptive and honest critique of the political situation in Zimbabwe cannot be entered for the Commonwealth literature prize by its publishers Langaa, as the country remains suspended from the body. As a result, not only Zimbabwe but the entire world suffers.
Sanya Osha is an author who lives in Pretoria, South Africa. His latest novel is An Underground Colony of Summer Bees (2012).