Chenjerai Hove – A voice for the voiceless in Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe

Posted: 2 October, 2019 | Category: Obituaries

The death of Chenjerai Hove at the relatively early age of 61 in Oslo, Norway has robbed Zimbabwe of one its great poets and novelists.



He was a man of principle during the course of a lonely 14-years exile in America, France and Norway.

He was a voice for the voiceless in Robert Mugabe’s crime-soaked Zimbabwe.

“Chenjerai was a national treasure,” said Wilf Mbanga, editor of the UK-based “The Zimbabwean’

“It is such a tragedy that one of Zimbabwe’s best known writers was hounded out of his country and forced to live – and die – in exile. He was never afraid to speak the truth, no matter however painful that might be.”

At literary seminars after Zimbabwe’s Independence in 1980, Hove told large audiences that writers of his generation and background had heavy jobs before them – The burden of persuading a largely indifferent world to listen to Africa’s cries of helplessness.

“As writers,” he said and wrote so often, ”we have as well to turn around and be publicists for the sake of the survival of our people.”

It was his literary mantra and life-long guiding principle.

Hove wrote regularly for ‘The Zimbabwean.’

Like Voltaire, he believed that the best way to put dictators in their place dictators was to mock them.

Said Oscar Wilde: ”If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh otherwise they’ll kill you.”

In one column (‘The Zimbabwean’ 12-18 August 2005) Hove asked his readers to remember the stories they’d heard as children – especially the story about the proud monkey (no doubt a 91- year old with a t-shirt showing his own face on the front and the back of it) who climbed to the top of the tallest tree seeking applause from below.

But when he got there, all the animals on the ground below roared with laughter.

They cared nothing about his prowess as a climber but were delighted to get a worm’s eye view of the size of this self-important mammal’s enormous red bottom.

“And so it is with power of any kind, political or otherwise,” Hove wrote.” The higher one ascends the tree of power, the more the public have a chance to observe and scrutinise one’s political and economic bottom.”

In her excellent book ‘Teachers, Preachers, Non-Believers – A Social History of Zimbabwean Literature ‘ (Baobab Books, Harare 1993) Flora Veit-Wild tells us that Chenjerai Hove was born on 9 February 1954, the son of peasant farmers near Zvishavane in the Zimbabwean Midlands.

Bu many a peasant in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) at that time had “royal” blood flowing through his or her veins.

So it was with Hove.

When he was 10, Chenjerai moved with his parents to Kadoma, a small town west of Harare.

He must have been spotted by some discerning White Father, Marist Brother or Jesuit priest because he was hand-picked to attend the prestigious Kutama Mission School, Robert Mugabe’s alta mater.

It was there that he converted from his parents’ branch of Protestantism – Lutheranism – to Roman Catholicism.

After graduating from Gweru Teachers’ College in 1977, he worked as a teacher until 1981. Then he moved into editing, furthering his education at the same time by studying for two BA degrees in Language and Literature at the University of Zimbabwe.

Hove was never part the military wings of either Zanla or Zipra, the two main “liberation” forces led by Josiah Tongogara and Dumiso Dabengwa and Lookout Musuka respectively (Mugabe didn’t know how to fire a catapult yet alone an AK47) but as a teacher in war-torn rural Rhodesia he came face to face with the victims of atrocities committed by blacks and whites during the Second Chimurenga (War) between 1966-1979.

Before he became a voice for the voiceless, Hove was a secular saint for the gunless, having seen the plight of ordinary people caught between the rock of Mugabe’s and Nkomo’s “freedom “ armies and the hard place of Ian Smith’s Rhodesian “ security” forces.

Mugabe’s “freedom” forces. Smith’s “security” forces. Wince-making oxymorons, both of them.

This is what Hove wrote as a page reference to the Zimbabwean edition of “Harvest of Thorns” (1989):

“When you are with them you see their problems, you attend a funeral of some who have been massacred and so on. And then you begin to understand what it is to be without a gun between two people who have guns.”

Said Veit-Wild:”From a compassionate literary observer, Hove developed in the mid-1980s into a cultural politician.”

He gave up teaching and worked for Mambo Press (the Roman Catholic publishing house) from 1981-1985. Later, he joined the Zimbabwe Publishing House and was there from 1985-1987.

Between 1984-1989 he was Chairman of the Zimbabwe Writers’ Union (ZWU) and in 1989 won the prestigious Noma Award for his novel ‘Bones’ in which he told the story of Marita, the poor, illiterate farm labourer who sets out for the city to search for her son who left with the freedom fighters and never returned.

Marita was one of the hundreds of thousands of lost and lonely women who walked the Zimbabwean earth after Independence, often no better off (sometimes a lot worse) that they were in colonial times.

‘Bones’ received glowing reviews and was translated into several languages.

Like Carlo Piero Guercio in Louis de Berniere’s ‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin,’ Hove soon grasped after Zimbabwe’s long post-Independence honeymoon that official history is the propaganda of the victors and that dictators –whether named Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Mao or Mugabe – don’t want to know that it really ought to be nothing less nor more than “the anecdotes of the little people who are caught up in it.”

‘Bones’ was followed by two other important novels – ‘Shadows’ in 1991 and ‘Ancestors’ in 1996.

Veit –Wild writes that in the tradition of Chinua Achebe, Hove vests the African writer with the public function of teacher and conscience of his people. The writer who bleeds, burns and despairs with those who do has the duty to give “voice to the voiceless, the powerless the victims of both power and circumstance.”

And as regards to literary form, Hove recognized that it was the responsibility of the writer to re-examine and re-discover oral and traditional art forms. He wrote “ We owe the world the complex fusion of the arts so ably celebrated in our dances and rituals to which the dancer, the story-tellers, the poet, the singer, the priest, the actor, the healer combined in an unique artistic harmony which makes fascinating reading today if rendered in a novel or a poem or a theatrical piece.”

And the writer’s job was also to cleanse the very language and thought-structure of colonialism –“cleansing the colonial languages to the extent of representing then to our former colonisers as languages which can also be used to depict human dignity, not human slavery and anger. This is a task which we can only achieve with the inspiration of the great masters of oral narrative to whom we are accountable.”

Said Flora-Wild:” Hove seems to have met certain expectations that critics and international readers have of the modern African tale. ‘Bones’ affirms in a lucid and inspiring way a certain image of a reformed but still intact ‘Africaness.’ ”

She added: “Hove’s attempt to recreate the African image seems, at best, romantic and naïve, and at worst, dangerously misleading.”

Some say it was Hove’s embrace of traditional African values that so appealed to liberal book buyers in London and elsewhere.

One of Hove’s contemporaries, the wild man of Zimbabwean literature Dambudzo Marachera, dismissed all this talk about a noble, Man- centered African past as “a new kind of fascism based on the ‘traditional ‘African image.”

Hove could live with intelligent, constructive criticism. It was here that he differed so gloriously from Mugabe and his cronies.

His decision to attack Mugabe from the Left (always the most dangerous thing the critic can do in Africa) cost him his country, his family and finally his life.

His house in Harare was broken into by secret police. An obituary in The Times (20 July, 2015) said that at one point Hove became no 17 on a secret police list of “enemies of the state” the African euphemism for “opponent of the government. “

He counted several apparent attempts on his life.

His manuscripts were taken away.  His computers were wrecked. His family was threatened. Hove’s remaining friends (how quickly they leave when the police arrive) told him he would be killed unless he left the country.

He fled in 2001 with the help of the International Parliament of Writers, leaving behind him his wife, Thecla. and six children.

He started a new life, moving first to Rambouillet in France.

He later moved to Stavanger, Norway, where he was a guest writer through the International Cities of Refuge Network, an organization that aids endangered and exiled writers.

He died because of liver failure something mean minded Mugabe sycophants picked on to insinuate Hove was, at the end, an incoherent alcoholic.

God help such slime-mongers if there’s such a thing as a Day of Judgment.

Hove was honoured in Britain, Germany and Scandinavia. At his untimely funeral he will be honoured by the men, women and children he so championed in Zimbabwe and other oparts of the world.

They may be counted in their millions.

(Chenjerai Hove – Poet, novelist, newspaper columnist. Born Zvishavane (Zimbabwe Midlands) February 8,1954 – died in Oslo, July 12, 2015 Wife: Tekla Hove.  Hove fathered six children.)

First published in The Zimbabwean