Chirikure Chirikure
Zimbabwe’s most famous poet-performer was born in 1962 in Gutu. In this rural district, as the offspring of a family of Christian teachers, Chirikure came to learn not only Bible stories and church sermons, but also the ancestral cult of his people – the Shona – and the kind of life rhythmically-charged with dancing and singing typical for a traditional village community. In 1980, immediately after Zimbabwe regained its independence and Shona was reinstated as the country’s official language, Chirikure began writing poems in this language and performing them publicly. When he enrolled at the University of Zimbabwe in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital, the young poet entered an urban environment that gave him an entirely new dynamic.

Despite widespread material poverty, Zimbabwe (and especially Harare) has a lively cultural scene in which the artists foster multidisciplinary exchange. Chirikure, whose work connects poetry, music, and theater, is considered unique because he links the – stylistically diverse – oral tradition with written culture. Indeed, each poem, which he often composes in advance on paper, is literally reinvented when recited and granted dramatic dimensions through inflection, mimicry, gesturing, and alternating accentuation. At the same time, his performances are frequently accompanied on the mbira, a traditional instrument of the Shona people and used during the performing of religious rites to induce states of trance. For Chirikure poetry is movement and, oblivious to boundaries, it establishes itself on every plain. In turn, the word assumes great importance: “There is hardly anything as flexible as the word. You can speak, mumble, whisper, sing or shout it – you can even cough it. As human beings we have a strong need to speak to each other and to make ourselves understood, even by whispering everything imaginable to each other. We have the need to rehash our mistakes and to laugh out loud about them in order to see things clearer in the future. We have the need to sing at the top of our voices, and even to yell, in order to face the world with pride and dignity, so that it learns to respect us in return. We Africans and our legacy! If we don’t pass on the word, until the day when we’re lowered into the grave we’ll bring forth, at best, only a small cough.”

That Chirikure, who also speaks fluent English, always writes in Shona, uninfluenced by the canon of the former colonial power while a great many poets and writers throughout Africa express themselves in English or French, has much to do with his firmly established political outlook, his perception of the country’s history, and how he chooses to deal with the cultural legacy. He evokes the old, pre-colonial sense of community in order to complete the dream of independence on a visionary level – a dream achieved at the price of countless human lives, and yet what prevails since then is not justice, but rather greed, corruption and dictatorship, together with the people becoming divided as opposed to united. So what resound in many of Chirikure’s poems are a variety of voices as in Yakarwiwa nesu (We Fought the War), from the 1998 collection of poems “Hakurarwi” (We Shall Not Sleep), in which groups of people representing countless types of individuals verbally aspire to claim the victory in the war of independence: the students overseas collecting money and instigating the participation of the international community, the freedom fighters exposing themselves to every known danger and hardship, the messengers and scouts and pack animals dragging the ammunition into place, the village community parents supplying their fighting sons with food and clothing, and the forefathers whose songs and prayers promise advantageous conditions for all. In the end, the poet wants to know who, among these self-proclaimed victors, can feed today’s starving children.

In the 2003 online study An Introduction to Post-Independence Zimbabwean Poetry, Kizito Z. Muchemwa wrote that the lyrical “I” in Chirikure’s work has no clearly autobiographical or egocentric traits. Instead, it lends expression to a communal consciousness. The conveyed message is often so discomforting and jolting that one could likewise speak of the voice of a conscience determined to make an entire society, as it were, correct its present-day social wrongs – while preserving cultural idiosyncrasies, which are symbolized in the poem through sounds typical for the Shona culture as well as through ideophones and alliteration. Chirikure vehemently defends the notion of preserving the identity. In this context, he refers not only to his homeland, but also to the entire continent while rejecting the western influences causing people throughout Africa to alienate themselves from their own roots.

His poetry shows us how powerful, how lively these roots are, and how, even in translation, as quiet reading material, the universal power of their imagery impresses. For Chirikure’s western readership, a feeling of familiarity is produced through economically placed Bible references (Jesus on a donkey, Lazarus – “Rise and go”). At times these harmonize with the occasionally prophetic, characteristic style and forge a bridge to the village community that frequently forms the background as a metaphor for the entire country at the same time. Yet Chirikure also targets city dwellers in his poetry as he does in First Street, Harare, where a craving for recognition and bragging becomes scourged with searing ridicule – or images of war, neo-colonial exploitation, and an obliviousness towards history confront departures into a mythical past as in Places Found in Fiction: “they […] asking again about where I have journeyed/ I answer promptly: I was in the land of silent echoes/ in the sands of the ancient Timbouctou/ they shake their heads like bulls/ laughing in mockery as they drink:/ such places are only of fiction /I bow my head/ consoling my heart with soothing words:/ the blessing in the heart is mine.”

Luckily, the poet shares his refreshing words with a steadily growing, worldwide audience, so that now, in Germany as well, we can learn more about the literary tradition and the present in Zimbabwe.