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Mungoshi: A historical perspective

By Phyllis Johnson

Charles Mungoshi, what a very special, complex, innovative, creative person you were, and that rubbed off on all of us who knew you or read your work. You shared your knowledge and deep understanding of people, we will miss that. We will miss you… as people and as a country.

Mungoshi was an iconic author of so many books in English and in Shona, telling the stories of culture and traditional life as it was and as it came to be, with iconic titles such as Waiting for the Rain, Coming of the Dry Season and Kunyarara Hakusi Kutaura, that shaped knowledge through literature and in the struggle for education before and after independence.

His first two books written before independence, including Some Kinds of Wounds, were banned by the colonial regime, and his post-independence writing became part of the struggle to build a nation.

Mungoshi wrote through the 1980s and 1990s and past the millennium, and reaped many national and international awards, but one of his greatest contributions was in the education sector. Anyone who went to school in the years after independence knows Mungoshi’s name and his work.

Waiting for the Rain led the struggle to reform education post-independence from the whites-only system inherited from Rhodesia that included European literature but no African literature.

This was the first title by an African writer approved as a set book in post-independence education in Zimbabwe.

Mungoshi was the first African writer on the curriculum, through the work of the late David Martin, his publisher, and the late Toby Moyana in the Ministry of Education.

What a struggle it was, but they were successful, and Mungoshi was followed into the curriculum by Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thi’ongo, Dambudzo Marechera and Tsitsi Dangarembga, among others.

When I went with him to the airport later to receive the then leading African literary figure, Achebe from Nigeria, as guest of honour for the third Zimbabwe International Book Fair, we found that all customs and immigration staff knew Achebe’s work by then and received him as a visiting dignitary. And they revered Mungoshi.

Mungoshi was multi-talented, as a writer, editor and mentor.

He was a director and literary editor of a publishing house for the first decade after independence, and he played a key role in bringing other literature from Africa to be published in the country, and to stimulate some new and emerging literature.

He always wanted books that could be read on the buses, and in this way he was ahead of his time. Then there was nothing to read on the buses, now reading is from the phones.

Mungoshi was one of the founders of the Zimbabwe International Book Fair (ZIBF) in 1983, and the forerunner of the accompanying Indaba for writers, which began with workshops for writers from across the continent.

He helped to begin to bridge the literary gap in Africa through supporting translations of novels from French and Portuguese into English.

He was disturbed that African writers could not communicate directly with each other across the language divide, and he experienced that directly in trying to communicate with French-speaking writers from West Africa.

In another airport visit for the ZIBF, he received Jean-Marie Adiaffi from Ivory Coast, presented to him his book translated to English, and they laughed together when Adiaffi told him, “Now I have written a book I cannot read”, an issue they both took very seriously.

Mungoshi was writer in residence for a while at University of Zimbabwe, and was awarded an honorary degree from the same institution.

Mungoshi had his strengths and weaknesses, and his own way of doing things, but whatever he did or wrote, it was always for love of people. He revered his readers.

He had a career spanning almost 50 years, and it takes many people to tell his story, thus this is only a small part of his history.

He would want only to be known as writer, he was a story-teller, a teller of stories and he was the best.

He could not have made a better choice of wife, life partner and soulmate than Jesesi, a talented actor in her own right.

Charles, Jesesi and your loving family cared for you when you became ill and kept you with us for a few extra years when you could have gone away earlier. Thanks for everything, Mungoshi. We love you.

l Phyllis Johnson is a journalist, historian and author as well as founder of the Southern African Research and Documentation Centre — a Harare-based independent regional knowledge resource centre established in 1985 to strengthen regional policy perspectives and track implementation. She is popularly known for the book titled The Struggle for Zimbabwe, which she co-authored with her late partner David Martin.

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