“History is a tale of fierce animals, a book with wolves on every page….”
No one knows what it means, but it gets the people going, doesn’t it? The type of quote that gets you thinking. A blood and thunder quote to start what may presumably be a blood and thunder article about Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle. After such a quote, the normal thing to do would be to tell you that it was said by so and so after such and such had happened.
Truth is I’m not sure who first said it. I neither know what events preceded the statement nor am I aware of the particular conditions that were prevalent in whatever universe it was uttered in. I just don’t.
What I do know is that I like it. I like it a lot. Why? IT’S CATCHY! I stumbled upon it rather serendipitously as I was poring through volumes and volumes of academic material on the highly regarded academic portal that is Instagram. Yes, they have some good stuff there.
Anyway, I digress. The quote is from a book titled Zone by Mathias Enard. Have I read it? No. I will probably read it later on in life and realise that the way I used the quote was far removed from its actual context and meaning. This brings me to the moral of this oral: Context.
For historians, context is important, isn’t it? I ask because I am not a historian so I would assume that understanding the environment within which certain events happened is important in order to tell a story that is as close to the truth as possible. Ah yes… “truth,” another tasty word. In my not so humble opinion, within the Zimbabwean context, for ZANU-PF at least, the truth has become an impediment to the telling of and/or interpreting history.
Perhaps this raises another question. Is truth the same as historical fact? I would think not, but I am noone in the greater scheme of things. Just the child of “liberation stalwarts” pontificating about the country of his birth from the safety, and might I add comfort, of his supposedly fancy townhouse in whatever foreign country us war kids tend find refuge in – * waves at Felicity Sibindi*
For the record I do not live in a fancy town house.
For the sake of argument (and the length of this piece), let us assume that historical fact and “the truth” are uncomfortable bedfellows. On the strength of that assumption, I would say that Zimbabwe is a very peculiar example in this regard. Nowhere is the saying about history being written to favour the winners more true than it is in the context of my Fatherland. The winners being ZANU-PF. Brave men and women who sacrificed their lives and died for this country so that born frees like myself could live, breathe and see the fruits of their sweat and sacrifice.
Far be it for me to be ungrateful, being the child of two of those brave men and women and all that. I am extremely grateful and cannot even begin to fathom the sacrifice that both my parents made when joining a war for the liberation of our country. That is an amazing thing to just…do. I can’t imagine sitting somewhere 30 or 40 years from now and saying “…Hi I am Eleph and I fought in a war of liberation.” Before I am accused of treason or inciting people to violence please note that my war of liberation is imagined. It is hypothetical. It would be a pretty cool war though; because lasers. There would be many lasers.
Again I digress. The point I am making is that the mere thought of going to fight a war for any reason, real or imagined, is a monumental sacrifice. It is a humongous adventure, an amazing story of death, bravery, terror, fortitude and so many other exciting words, especially for those who died for the country and managed to come back alive. For any country or people, such a story should be a source of pride. It should create a space for national coalescence. It should be a place where as a nation; we find some sort of direction. A place where we find our foundational values or something airy fairy like that. All of the above might have been true with Zimbabwe for a very long time, particularly in the early stages of our independence. It must have been such an amazing time to be alive and I am here typing these words today because there are people who made the freedom I enjoy today a reality. That is a fact.
Telling it like it was… or wasn’t
The problem for me is that the war of liberation has been told and taught as a linear and contiguous story of brave young black people led by greying black dudes who were very smart and had many degrees. That is supposedly the truth. Very reductionist, I know, but allow me, I am making a point here. The dominant story of our liberation paints these people as a united band of brothers and sisters who laid down life and limb and brought about our independence. I think of the history set books that were our staple in high school, The African Heritage, People and Power, People Making History and many others, and all I see is the same linear story of the war of liberation. Our modern history starts with the battle of Chinhoyi in 1966 and ending with the Lancaster House Conference in 1979. Surely there must’ve been more? Where are the stories about the Vashandi / Izisebenzi or the Nhari Rebellion? Where are the stories about the Mgagao Declaration of 1976 or similar people-centred works that were produced at Wampua? They are certainly not in our history books. The truth that comes from an understanding and appreciation of these stories is, I suppose, inconvenient. It is not congruent to the story of a unified liberation struggle and by its very nature a threat to the status quo.
The exclusion of these very important aspects of the liberation struggle is in my view, a huge tragedy. In speaking of these events my intention is not to divide but to add my voice to those who are trying to put a stop to a culture where the only truth that is told is the truth of those who wield the monopoly on the dissemination of information.
However, the bigger tragedy lies in the fact that this important story has been used by those in power as a source of legitimacy and means to cling to power. In Zimbabwe, ZANU-PF’s truth IS historical fact. The result being the bastardisation and perversion of what, on the whole, was a noble sacrifice by a lot of people even outside the conventional circles of the military and the nationalists. Through their actions, the ruling elite continue to destroy what should be a proud legacy. A place in time where we could and should find inspiration to build our country and move forward.
Is it not important for all of us to understand that our war, as great as it was, was on occasion, characterised by infighting, disunity and conflict on the side of the liberators themselves? In my view, this is a necessary cathartic exercise that creates a context and background to the problems faced by Zimbabwe immediately after independence and today.
The American Revolution (despite not having lasers) took place over 200 years ago and yet it is still a source of immense pride for Americans. What have we done with our own revolution? We have bastardised it by creating new pseudo-heroes in the image of an imagined 3rd or 4th revolution such that the mention of the real war, the real revolution, induces many to vomit.
So how do we salvage the dignity of that war? (Yes dignity and war are in the same sentence). How do we reclaim the legacy of what was a noble sacrifice by so few for the good of many? We tell the truth about the protagonists of this most important of wars. Any story about the liberation war must be told in its entirety without any redaction.
When I started work on this piece I had hoped to write about the Vashandi Rebellion / Movement during the liberation war (depending on who is telling the story). I’ll probably still write something on that later on. However, what struck me as I was researching was how there has been a deliberate and systematic attempt over the years to sanitise and in some cases completely erase certain events and occasions.
The powers that be have tried successfully to panelbeat the truth and shape it to suit their ends, aims and ambitions. I might be naïve in thinking that the ruling elite would not do so and let history speak for itself. In fact, I am naïve. Notwithstanding the foregoing, I believe the circumstances of the Fatherland require a re-examination of our history books. A re-writing of the narrative so that people understand what truly happened. Why?
Because “…history is a tale of fierce animals, a book with wolves on every page….”