Why you should care
Because sometimes the writing on the wall is in a book.
Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s leader since the country’s independence in 1980 until his ouster in 2017, passed away on September 6, 2019, in Singapore, where he had been receiving medical treatment since April. OZY originally published this list of recommended reads in November 2017, following major protests in the country that led to Mugabe losing power.
For the quarter-century that I’ve been visiting Zimbabwe and also been married to one of its sons, there has been only one president: Robert Gabriel Mugabe. But after 37 years in power, the once-revered freedom fighter has been ousted along with his would-be successor, his wife Grace, in nothing less than a coup de grâce.
Truth is said to be stranger than fiction, but Zimbabwe’s novelists have always shone a light on the truths — both complex and contradictory — of this nation. Mugabe himself embodies complexities and contradictions: He was a liberation hero and the first president of Zimbabwe who presided over a country that initially thrived, but at the same time there was a dark underbelly to his rule in the ’80s and ’90s. Then came the period of the 2000s when he led a country that was clearly in decline. These 10 books trace this arc of the Mugabe era.
Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga
This widely acclaimed debut novel, set in early 1970s Rhodesia — Mugabe was a freedom fighter at this time, and when he came to power in 1980 he was heralded as the great liberator — put Zimbabwe on the global literary map. The nervous conditions explored in this book are those of the colonized and the colonizer, and especially those of its young female characters fighting race, class and gender prejudice.
The House of Hunger by Dambudzo Marechera
Marechera was of the generation that struggled for independence, and from him came the howls of a writer that made him a spokesperson for the “lost generation.” This provocative debut tells the story of growing up Black under Rhodesia’s oppressive colonial rule. It is narrated in a stream of consciousness in dense, innovative and searing prose.
Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood by Alexandra Fuller
In this evocative memoir told from a child’s perspective, Fuller writes the story of her childhood as the daughter of white farmers living in the eastern part of Rhodesia where the bush war raged. Both funny and painful, this book is an unsentimental look at the lives of one white family — prejudices and all — in a time of war.
Writing Still: New Stories From Zimbabwe by Irene Staunton (editor)
This rich collection of 23 stories, featuring the poet-novelist Yvonne Vera and master short story teller, Shimmer Chinodya, also includes several moving pieces set during the liberation era. Gugu Ndlovu’s “Torn Posters” is a poignant recollection of her father’s imprisonment during the liberation struggle, while Freedom Nyamubaya’s first memories of the struggle are described in “That Special Place.”
Running With Mother by Christopher Mlalazi
In the early 1980s, Zimbabwe’s economy and educational sector thrived, but there was also a dark side: the genocidal Gukurahundi killings of the 1980s, which are said to have been orchestrated by Emmerson Mnangagwa, the now rumored successor to Mugabe. Running With Mother bravely brings this ugly period to light in a searing story told through its 14-year-old protagonist, whose faith in adults is slowly shattered by the atrocities she witnesses.
Elegy for Easterly: Stories by Petina Gappah
In response to the deteriorating situation in Zimbabwe in the 2000s, writers such as Gappah have responded with works that paint a picture of a society in denial. In this powerful collection of short stories, Gappah documents the ills and hypocrisies that had come to plague Zimbabwean society: hyperinflation, misogyny, corruption and the unchecked AIDS epidemic.
Harare North by Brian Chikwava
This is the story of one of Mugabe’s green bombers — youth militias known as political thugs — who flees to London (aka Harare North), where he seeks asylum posing as a victim of a repressive political regime. In London he lives with an assortment of “illegals,” as well as two eco-friendly drug addicts and several rats. This astonishing debut novel is written in the first person in a voice that is erratic, enigmatic and not easily identifiable.
The Hairdresser of Harare: A Novel by Tendai Huchu
A few years before this book was published in 2009, I had noticed the word Zvakwana (“enough is enough”) scribbled across street signs in and around Harare. Set in a hairdressing salon at this time, Huchu’s novel paints a vivid picture of the country’s hyperinflation, high unemployment, rolling blackouts and the forced displacements resulting from farm invasions. The story captures corruption at all levels of society as well as homophobia, and leaves the reader wondering what the future of this younger generation will be.
We Need New Names: A Novel by NoViolet Bulawayo
The voice of the main character, Darling, leaps off the page in this coming-of-age debut novel. Beautifully written, Darling’s story begins in a place called Paradise, where she and her friends roam a desolate country that is the broken shell of what it once was. Darling ultimately makes her way to America when her aunt sends for her, but discovers that America is no paradise for immigrants.
Together: Stories and Poems by Julius Chingono and John Eppel
In some ways, the two authors featured in this collection could not be more different: Chingono, now deceased, was a Black Zimbabwean who worked as a rock blaster in the mines, whereas Eppel is a white Zimbabwean who taught English literature. Both, however, were born in the 1940s and lived through every decade of the Mugabe era. In their works of fiction and poetry, one sees their shared love of language, a deep concern for the poor and, in spite of hardships, a great sense of humor. Together, Zimbabwean.