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Home arrow Sociology arrow Ethics and Human Rights in Anglophone African Women’s Literature: Feminist Empathy

Nationalism and Human Rights

In the concluding section of Chapter 3, I discussed the phenomenon of Mugabe syndrome, which is the rejection of introspection and self-criticism and the attendant delusion of moral excellence. Mugabe is a master at fending off opposition and criticism of his (mis)rule by a clever recourse to anti-imperialist rhetoric. Each time people point out his mistakes he incites pan-African nationalist feelings by lambasting the West for colonialism and imperialism. Even though his observations are correct, they are merely part of his insidious technique to hold on to power. Using nationalism as a metanarrative of power, he has built a one-party state under an ideological cloak of anti-imperialism. It is within the contexts of Zimbabwe’s deployment of nationalist or totalitarian rhetoric that we can appreciate Petina Gappah’s An Elegy for Easterly,29 a collection of thirteen stories. My discussions will focus on three stories, “An Elegy for Easterly,” “At the Sound of the Last Post,” and “The Maid from Lalapanzi.” A central concern that will guide my discussion is the relation between the nation, conceived in a totalitarian paradigm, and the individual. How do abstractions disable people in general and women in particular, and how do people respond to their abuses?

“An Elegy for Easterly” is a story about a slum, Easterly Farm and about Martha Mupengo, who is mentally disabled and pregnant. The unborn child’s father is Josephat, husband of Ellen, who cannot conceive. Accidentally, Josephat’s wife, as she is popularly known, discovers Martha having contractions and delivers her baby. Martha dies in the process and Ellen takes the child back home, to the shock of her husband for whom the event is an epiphany; it causes him to remember the night he raped Martha Mupengo. To Josephat, as to the nation, Martha Mupengo is an object; she has no rights.30 She is therefore figurative of the greater tragedy of the informal settlement, and of Zimbabwe as a nation. The illegal settlement and its many shanties sprang up as a direct consequence of the president’s ruinous government; specifically, it was due to the government’s earlier attempt to sweep the streets of poor people because of the visit of the Queen of England. Those who were displaced in that cleansing effort found a new home in Easterly Farm. They were dispensable. The country had become a nation of informal traders.

Gappah uses the four countries that border Zimbabwe to reveal the country’s chaos:

to the north, Zambia, formerly one-Zambia-one-nation-one-robot-one- petrol-station... to the east, Mozambique ... to the west, Botswana... and to the south... South Africa... They had become a nation of traders... at the end of the day, smelling of heat and dust, they packed up their wares and they returned to Easterly Farm, to be greeted again by Martha Mupengo.31

Easterly Farm is a microcosm of the country. Before Mugabe took power, these countries, with the possible exception of South Africa, were worse off than Zimbabwe. Now, the opposite is true. Yet Zimbabweans are fed with official lies designed to make them believe their country is still flourishing. Like the rest of the citizens, the residents of Easterly Farm have, however, learned to decode the government’s lies. For them, truth is the exact opposite of the government’s official proclamation. “If the government said inflation would go down, it was sure to rise. If they said there was a bumper harvest, starvation would follow.”32 In a particularly revealing scene, BaToby, an elderly man, explains to a group of children some of the symbols on the coins of the old currency, coins which had been in use as recently as in 2000. The five-cent coin had a rabbit, the 10-cent, a baobab tree, while the dollar coin showed the Zimbabwean ruins. He repeats a popular joke to the children:

Before the President was elected, the Zimbabwe ruins were a prehistoric monument in Masvingo province. Now, the historic Zimbabwe ruins extend to the whole country. The children looked at him blankly, before running off to play, leaving him to laugh with his whole body shaking.33

BaToby symbolically blends lessons in history with a humorous reproach of the government. His laughter exposes the dysfunction undermining the new, independent country. The ruins of Masvingo represent the internal decay which the nationalist smokescreen seeks to cover. Human rights are one of the aspects of the country that are symbolized by the Masvingo ruins. Though Mugabe is not named in the story, we assume that “the president” refers to him. It is true that the entire country has become a site of ruins since Mugabe took over the reins of government, as it has become a site for many illegal settlements. But the people laugh about it. How might we interpret their laughter? Might it be gallows humor? Perhaps they deploy laughter as a deconstructive means. Even in their helplessness, they are aware of their subjectivity and agency. In this regard therefore, their laughter suggests their awareness of better alternatives.

In “Nietzsche’s Last Laugh: Ecce Homo as Satire,” Nicholas D. More discusses Nietzsche’s clever uses of humor and satire as rhetorical devices for his philosophical truths. According to More’s reading of Ecce Homo, “satire became the philosopher’s stone that turned the dark details of Nietzsche’s life and philosophy into the comic, and made them bearable, even enjoyable. Humor distanced Nietzsche from his own life just enough to face and embrace it.”34 But it is not only the difficulties of his personal life that Nietzsche confronts with humor and satire; he brings humor to bear on philosophy and life in general. In Chapter 8, Section 1 of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, “Reading and Writing,” Zarathustra exhorts his listeners to write with blood, but never to take themselves or their wisdom too seriously. Doing so easily leads to a dangerous gravity. God and the Devil are all products of grave spirits or constructs of ideology that can be defied by a simple act: laughter. The people ofEasterly laugh in the Nietzschean deconstructive sense; they slay the spirit of gravity, that is, the spirit of abstraction.

Gappah’s narratives are not only realistic; they are also, in some instances, a near mimetic presentation of Zimbabwe’s political and social realities, if only designed to mock them. Gappah satirizes Zimbabwean society, especially its understanding of heroism; she laughs at the system and those who proclaim its excellence with a typical anti-imperialist, abstract mindset. Ironically, whereas the president spins his propaganda, average Zimbabweans know what is at stake; they feel the pains of political dysfunction. They laugh.

The story, “At the Sound of the last Post” is told from the perspective of a sharp-witted widow, Esther, who, though she has tears in her eyes does not fail to record, in mocking tones, the social and political dysfunction playing itself out before her. The story is of the burial of Esther’s husband, an unnamed hero and freedom fighter. The party and state officials are present: the president, the chief justice, the police commissioner, and the governor of the central bank. The widow sits beside the president; she observes him and notes the obvious: he is an old man: “Unexpected pity wells up inside me. Half-remembered lines of poetry come unbidden to my mind: he grows old, he grows old; he shall wear the bottoms of his trousers rolled.”35 The lines from T.S. Eliot’s “The Love

Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” which put her in an innocent childlike state of mind, reveal more than the fact that old men no longer wear their trousers the way they did in their youth; they suggest that the ruler’s senses have deserted him. He sees the world in simplistic terms, the way children do.

Yet the old man fights against the perception that he has outlived his usefulness in office. Esther imagines him counting his years or months and days in the position. When it is time to put her husband’s coffin in the ground, she prepares to walk down to the grave. “The president moves also, and I watch him, an old man still but one who is Commander of the Armed Forces, Defier of Imperialism, and, as he was just moments ago, Orator of the Funeral of Dead Heroes.”36 The widow’s tone suddenly becomes cynical and mordant, making reference to the now redundant anti-imperialist rhetoric that has become part of the president’s political repertoire. Gappah achieves her goal of exposing the tension in society as soon as the widow’s tone turns from pity to derision. We hear immense pain in the widow’s tone. She embodies the grief and disappointment we feel at the ruins of the postcolonial country. From the widow’s perspective, we behold an old man who has literally and figuratively moved towards the grave, but who, in his spirit of gravity, stubbornly clings on to life at the expense of the nation. Being aware of the absurdity of the incident, we laugh with the widow.

The widow relates the president’s funeral speech in a sarcastic tone that exposes the president’s grand narrative as a farce. “We must move forward today and strive ahead in togetherness, in harmony, in unity and in solidarity to consolidate the gains of our liberation struggles.”37 The president’s catchwords, “togetherness”; “harmony,” “unity,” and “solidarity” are built around the symbolic relevance of the people’s common experience, which is supposed to contrast with everything the colonial master stands for. Secondly, it is his effort to create a common identity for the people. But the people laugh at his efforts because they know that common identity is an illusion. Harmony is an ideological construct which notoriously ignores the body of the individual. In parodying the president’s speech, the widow counters the president’s abstractness with lightness. “There was a nugget of newness in the use of trillion and not million as a measure of the impossibility of re-colonisation,” she says, and goes on to make a subtle comparison between the president’s impossible trillion and the unimaginable rate of inflation, that is, between rhetoric and reality: “It is three months since inflation reached three million three hundred and twenty-five per cent per annum, making billionaires of everyone, even maids and gardeners.”38

In the earlier parts of this book, I discussed the idea that those in a position of power anywhere tend to privilege reason over feelings, the abstract over the body, culture over the individual. This resonates with Elizabeth Anker’s critique of the liberal formulation of human rights. In Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death, we learn that female genital mutilation is designed to “align a woman’s intelligence with her emotions.”39 Abstractions are some of the easiest ways to avoid personal responsibility because they ignore the demands of the other’s body. Oppressive institutions rely on the abstractions of ideologies as effective means of control of the body. By his adept uses of nationalist tropes that have obvious symbolic control over the masses, the president successfully maintains his hold on power to the detriment of the citizens. Gappah’s goal is to make us laugh, and we do so as soon as we see through the folly of the president’s ideas. Even the microphone felt irritated, and “gave a piercing protest at the trillion trillion.”40

Satire “seeks to criticize and correct the behavior of human beings and their institutions by means of humor, wit, and ridicule.”41 According to Jean Weisgerber, “the satirist is a paper tiger: he assaults his victim by proxy, that is, through the medium of language and more especially of literary language.” For Weisgerber, the rhetorical feature of satire is “closely related to the satirist’s social motive, which consists in disclosing what is ‘right’ by deriding what is ‘wrong.’ Satire ultimately aims at enlightening and correcting.”42 Weisgerber further argues that “not only does satire require a social background even when it exposes individual follies or vices, but its aim is to convince as many readers as possible that society, as matters stand, is inferior to what it should be.”43

One of the ironies in the understanding of heroism in post-independence Zimbabwe lies in the identity of heroes. Who are they? It is emblematic that Esther constantly refers to the hero being buried as “my husband”; she never calls him by name. He remains anonymous even to her; he is therefore a man who can easily be replaced by another man. He is not sufficiently present in her life to mean something to her. He is not even the person she had thought he was, hence her declaration: “I thought I loved him; but that was in another country.” Both of them had lived in exile while his compatriots fought the racist, minority government of Ian Smith, and while in exile she “helped him to write furious letters of righteous indignation condemning the white-settler regime and the situation in his country.”44 There in exile, they engaged in highbrow revolutionary discussions associated with Frantz Fanon, Steve Biko, Marx, and Engels. These are obviously heroes of every revolutionary struggle, but Esther’s husband, a revolutionary hero, is everything but a true opponent of the oppressor, and he had not been forthright with her; he had made her believe she was a wife who shared in his dreams, an equal, not a subordinate. Esther, however, finds out that he had been married before, and had children whom he gave names that bore the characteristics of revolutionary struggle: “Rwauya, meaning “death has come,” and the second Muchagura to mean “you shall repent,” and the last Muchakundwa, “you shall be defeated.” They are messages for the white oppressors, warning signs to the white man.”45 Given the fierce nationalism in these names, there is little doubt that the dead husband was a true nationalist who did indeed love his people. But we know that the love was nominal just as his dedication to his country was. His heroism was a product of ideology.

Gappah suggests that the hero stands for the ideology of nationalism and, just as Martha Mupengo was a subject of abuse in society, so does the hero’s first wife become a victim of abstraction. We learn that the first wife was summarily divorced so that the hero could marry Esther. The issue is not that he divorced his wife; it is how he divorced her. He merely gave her a gupuro (a local symbol of divorce) which she would take to her family. Indeed, “he picked out a pot with a red and yellow flower on it and gave it to her as a sign that he had divorced her. She died three years after that.”46 The widow is dispensable, just as the residents of Easterly Farm are.

The divorce incident raises questions about women’s rights; it suggests that women are easily disposable. Women are substitutable for one another. Like Shoneyin, Gappah reveals the socio-cultural conditions that shape gender relations. If a man could easily dispense with his wife as if she were a rented car, then there are more questions not only about the man’s moral compass, but also the culture that made it possible in the first place. The fact that the divorced woman died three years later speaks to the precariousness of the lives of women in society. Women flourish only in marriages because they depend on men. Given that the hero is presented without a name, it is possible that Gappah sees in him a symbol of the excesses of chimurenga;47 and given the idea of conceiving identity in essentialist paradigms, it is only fitting that the hero’s widow mocks the hero as soon as she has narrated his divorce from his wife. “Like the worthless dogs that are his countrymen, my husband believed that his penis was wasted if he was faithful to just one woman.”48 Now that we know about the dead hero, Esther’s bluster seems to be in order. Her anger is directed at the beneficiaries of patriarchal privileges. She laughs at their empty performances and reminds us that the casket which has been lowered into the grave is indeed bereft of her husband’s body.49 The most portentous symbol of the emptiness of the postcolonial nation in this respect is the idea of people rallying to bury an empty coffin.

Esther is a means through which Gappah interrogates history, and with her (Esther’s) help, we discover that the new, post-Independence nation is a sham. Esther also reminds us of the obligation everyone owes to a world that has been held hostage by its rulers and a socio-cultural system that makes tyranny (political and patriarchal) possible.

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