These Bones Will Rise Again: African women (re)writing ourselves into history

In my opinion, re-writing our history, especially as Africans, is at least as important as documenting our present. And yes, I am indeed advocating for re-writing, as opposed to just learning or passing down already-documented history. Because history is always getting re-written anyway, so we might as well be the ones re-assuming control of the narratives—especially as Africans, and especially as women.

“There are many questions and I am looking for answers. The kind of answers that slip past the facts of history books or analyses by pundits and experts. Answers that are not party politics. That are not Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), or Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) or the Movement for Democratic Change. Answers that are not Cecil John Rhodes, Ian Smith, Joshua Nkomo, Robert Mugabe, Morgan Tsvangirai or Emerson Mnangagwa, or any other Big Men in the history of the nation.” –Panashe Chigumadzi

I had the privilege of meeting Panashe Chigumadzi at a lecture organized by UCT’s Institute of Creative Arts. The lecture, which was essentially a reading of most, if not all of Panashe’s most recent book, was marketed with a word I had never previously seen: “biomythography.” To try to define it, I would break it down into the three words I can identify in it: biography, mythology and historiography. It was just as well that I learned this new word on the very day I bought These Bones Will Rise Again, because I would otherwise have been hard pressed to describe the type of book this is. (My Microsoft Word keeps underlining the word biomythography, so I have now looked it up. Turns out the word was coined by Audre Lorde, to describe a book she published in 1982. I love lexivist legends!)

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I took a picture with Panashe Chigumadzi! That’s really, really cool! 😀 Also, she’s so, so gorgeous! 

After Panashe’s lecture, which had already had me snapping multiple times in my head, and left my brain spinning by the end, the floor was opened for questions. Although intimidated by Panashe’s brilliance, I gathered up enough courage to ask one. My question originated in a discussion I’d had the previous semester with a Kenyan friend, between two halves of a long Africana Studies class. Right before the break, I had posited to my classmates my opinion that a large percentage of what Africans consider legitimate history gets disregarded by Caucasian society/colonial institutions like academia because these histories contain elements of the magical/spiritual/mythological. Thus, critics may say: Myths are just myths, this isn’t scientific, it couldn’t possibly have happened, so we shall not look twice at it.

Why was I thinking about this during the lecture? Because a significant portion of These Bones Will Rise Again revolves around the spirit of Mbuya Nehanda, that powerhouse who, whether for better or worse, has achieved some sort of Mother of the Nation status in Zimbabwe. The book’s title, in fact, is directly drawn from Nehanda’s own words: “‘Mapfupa angu achapfuka.’ My bones will rise again.” Mbuya Nehanda’s spirit is central to Zimbabwe’s history, and she has consistently returned after her first death, through the bones of different mediums—a classic example of what colonial academia calls implausible, illegitimate and in-credible. In other words, myth.

The question my Kenyan friend had asked during that one lesson break was whether my own use of the word “mythology” contributed to the delegitimization of African history’s spiritual elements. By invoking the very term “myth,” was I not already implying that these aspects of history were deliberately invented, whimsical fantasies? So, this was this very same question I posed to Panashe a few months ago. I had wrongly assumed that she was too spent and tired after speaking for more than an hour, to give an extensive answer. Thus, I was not prepared for the beauty of her response.

She said many things, but I will give you a summary: All history is myth-making. Myth-making is not exclusive to African history or to European history; neither confined to spiritual events nor military affairs. All of it is myth-making. The minute someone chooses to tell or document a story about the past—what they include or leave out, the pictures they paint of historical figures/characters, the embedded “morals” of the stories, even the person or people passing on the history—they are constructing a kind of official myth. People consistently and deliberately construct versions of stories, especially “national” narratives. It’s why we have real-life heroes and villains; and a tale about a hero whose weapon was supernatural element manipulation may turn out to be significantly less fabricated than one about a “hero” in uniform, whose weapon was an assault rifle. I suppose that might depend at least partially on the power and influence of the myth-maker.

When Panashe had finished answering my question, I sat back to reflect on it, in awe. It was more than satisfying, it was stimulating.

Early on in These Bones Will Rise Again, Panashe gives an apt example of how myth-making can work in our (Africans’) worst interests. She speaks of Wilbur Smith’s (a)historicization process in the writing of The Sunbird (which I’ve never read and don’t think I ever intend to read), saying, among many other things, that:

“Time and history were colonized so that they acquired a new racial dimension: the natives they ruled over were backward, ahistorical, primitive tribesmen who were, in effect, out of time.”

The history of Africa is already written, you see. In some cases, it’s inaccessible to some of the people for whom it would be most relevant. In other cases, the kind of history that deliberately de-contextualizes Africa is too accessible to the people whose minds are overly malleable in the hands of the colonizer, regardless of race. And this process, this myth-making process that has the potential to do so much work in the minds of the recipients/readers/consumers, is exactly why re-writing history is as important as telling it at all.

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Now, with this new word “biomythography” available in my lexicon, let me try to describe the book itself. For starters, it’s nonfiction: kind of like a book-length essay. I don’t usually read nonfiction books unless it’s for school or research for my own fiction, and I might have overlooked it entirely if it hadn’t been Panashe Chigumadzi’s name on the cover. Secondly, the book is described, at least in the areas it’s being formally marketed, as a “reflection”—primarily of Zimbabwe’s late-2017 “coup that was not a coup,” as Panashe has called it. (And now that I have greater contextual understanding, I agree.) This “reflection” is also said to have been done through a quest for the spirits/memories of Zimbabwean national heroine, Mbuya Nehanda, and for Panashe’s own maternal grandmother, Mbuya Lillian Chigumadzi.

I must argue, however, that These Bones Will Rise Again is not nearly as clean as that description. Saying what it was about will limit the book itself. It includes accounts of Panashe’s own life, the journeys she went on, and people she visited—strangers and family members alike—as she attempted to uncover as much as she could of first-hand information on Mbuya Nehanda and her grandmother. It also includes personal accounts of her reactions to Zimbabwe’s political events. It includes retellings of Zimbabwe’s history, brief accounts of the Chimurengas, the country’s nation-building process, and the rise and rule of its former president. The chronology is at least as confusing as the content, jumping back and forth between 21st century present, 19th and 20th centuries. It’s a messy web of words (which is not to say at all that it doesn’t make sense), but so is the human thought process, isn’t it?

 

On the fourth page of the book, I believe, is the explanation for both why this book was written and the reason it was written in biomythographical format:

“As a people who believe that a person is both flesh and spirit and lives on after death, we often commune with our ancestors, but it is especially in times of crisis and need that we look to them for answers about ourselves.”

In the space of about a month, two very important things happened: Panashse’s paternal grandmother Lilian Chigumadzi, née Dzumbira, was buried (and Panashe was unable to attend the event). About a month later, Zimbabwe had a “coup that was not a coup,” during which Zimbabweans were “suddenly being liberated from Mugabe’s rule by the very military that supported him for almost four decades.” That latter event shocked even me, when, in November 2017, I sat in my dorm room in California, frantically scrolling through “breaking news” sections on news sites and texting Zimbabwean schoolmates, trying to figure out what in heaven’s name was happening. I can’t imagine how much more confusing it would have been for a born-Zimbabwean, a diasporan in the sense of having been raised in an African country other than the one of her birth, who is simultaneously going through the grief of having lost her grandmother long before she was ready. If I were Panashe, I would have been looking for answers too. I just don’t know if my approach, like hers, would have been to turn to my own departed ancestor. What, after all, would one Zimbabwean woman, not explicitly affiliated to national affairs in any way, have to offer me as a response to my country-sized questions?

But Panashe answers my question herself when she says,

“I must cast my eyes from the heights of the ‘Big Men’ who have created history that does not know little people, let alone little women, except as cannon fodder.”

This is exactly why Lilian Dzumbira Chigumadzi is so essential: she is a little woman in the face of the imposing structures of Zimbabwe’s history. As such, she is indispensable. (As paradoxical as this may seem, it makes sense to me.)

A few semesters ago, I read a paper for class by Patricia Hill Collins called “The Social Construction of Black Feminist Thought”. While I consider(ed) it another one of those academic papers that could honestly have been four times shorter and still have adequately accomplished its task, there was at least one applause-worthy thing I was able to glean from it. This paper contained a critique about the “necessity” of researchers in academic culture having to be personally removed from the subjects of their study. Patricia Hill Collins argued that this approach just wouldn’t fly for the kind of work Black Feminism was trying to accomplish—particularly when such work was being done by Black feminists. Instead, the opposite approach was, in fact, the most sensible, even if traditionally unacceptable: to deliberately insert oneself, as a Black woman, into one’s research narrative, because our experiences and identities are as essential as the topics we are writing about. (If it can be broken down in a paragraph, why did I have to read five million pages that convey the same message? Like, bro, I can’t wait to leave school forever.) I feel like this Black Feminism principle of inserting yourself into your work is exactly what led to the mashup form of this essay-book as a biomythography. And I approve. In fact, I want to do some.

On the topic of Black Feminism, biomythography becomes even more important when we consider how history typically treats women and the positions to which it relegates them in important narratives:

“As we have done with Mbuya Nehanda, the Mother of our Nation, the lone heroine of our Chimurengas, our political history is one that makes wombs of women, empties us of all human complexity, impregnates us with all that is good or wrong in our society so that women are either Mothers of the Nation, birthing all that is good, or Evil Stepmothers, birthing all that is bad in our society.”

This seems like a lot of responsibility, and at once, I realize I’d rather be one of the little women as well, because at least it might give me the freedom to be written as fully human in history. I am neither pure heroine nor pure villain.

As much as These Bones Will Rise Again is significantly memoir, it’s also quite evidently a history textbook (in a loose definition of the word), and I’m actually very grateful for that. Not once have I ever read such a narrative by an African woman that tells me so much about a single African country from a personal lens, and which has successfully stimulated me and maintained my interest without my having been forced to read it. I hate classrooms with a passion, but if we’re going to keep using them on the African continent for the time being, we should probably distribute this book to African students everywhere, Zimbabwean and otherwise. Because, really, how many writers can successfully make non-fiction academic history not boring? My education would have meant a hell of a lot more to me if I had read a book like this before college. I imagine it would mean a lot to many young people who get the chance to read it.

I can’t emphasize enough how important I think this book is. I lost count of the number of times when, as I was reading, this thought occurred to me: This book has to explode, madly. It is way too important not to explode. But will it? I’ve come to believe that book popularity has at least as much to do with the funding and marketing behind the publishers as the actual quality of the work, so I don’t know. I do feel like by composing this post, I’m doing my little part in pushing this book to a potential audience. (I’m grateful to even have an audience!)

One thing I particularly admire about Panashe Chigumadzi is the boldness in her honesty. Whatever else this book is about, it’s also about Zimbabwean politics. Politics is dangerous everywhere, but I assume it’s much more so when the country in question had a genocide it dealt insufficiently with. Furthermore, a country whose historical characters are not only still alive, but still holding freaking positions in government. I don’t know if this book is being sold in Zimbabwe, but if it is, I’d consider it a miracle. (State censorship is hella real, you feel me?) I don’t know if Panashe ever plans to relocate to Zimbabwe, but if she ever successfully does, I’d consider it a miracle.

I will admit that as a Ghanaian girl who only learned last year that Zimbabwe even used to be called Rhodesia, and clearly had no knowledge of Zimbabwe’s history before very recently, this book had me thoroughly confused at times. Who are these people, where are these places, what are these words, what are you talking about, sis? But the more exposed you are to certain things, the better you begin to digest them. As I’m completing this write-up, I’ve only just finished reading Novuyo Rosa Tshuma’s House of Stone, which actually complements These Bones Will Rise Again very nicely, but in fiction form. At the time of Zimbabwe’s non-coup, I’d never heard of Emerson Mnangagwa in my life. Now, after following Zimbabwe’s political events nearly consistently and reading a lot more, I’m far less ignorant.

Still, assimilating the information contained in Panashe’s book is going to take several, several more reads. One could never have been enough. So, you know, it’s great that I own it now and can keep going back to it. (I should have asked Panashe to sign it when I met her. SMH. I really slack.)

-Akotowaa

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