‘Perhaps she was’ this, ‘perhaps she was’ that

Panashe Chigumadzi, These Bones Will Rise Again

Indigo Press, 144pp, £7.99, ISBN 9781999683306

reviewed by Jacqueline Landey

To explain the ousting of President Robert Mugabe after 37 years in power, Zimbabwe’s military general chose his words with great care. The army had taken over but the coup was ‘not a coup’. President Emerson Mnangagwa – then Vice-President – spoke of Mugabe not as a target but as ‘my father, my mentor, my revolutionary leader’ who was ‘surrounded by what others described as criminals.’ Decades earlier, when Mnangagwa was Minister of State Security, the leading party suppressed dissidence through an operation called Gukurahundi – meaning ‘the first rains that wash away the chaff’ – a series of massacres that killed over 20,000 Ndebele people. The genocide was framed as an act of ‘self-defence’ and later described as a ‘moment of madness’. 
Politics has long been an exercise in storytelling. In These Bones Will Rise Again Panashe Chigumadzi interrogates and then lays aside historical narratives that foreground political agendas and belie the experience of the people who live it. From colonial textbook accounts that tend to glorify conquest and conceal oppression, to more recent political campaigns claiming ownership of the liberation struggle to determine the absolute right to power, ‘Zimbabwe,’ she writes, ‘has had many versions of history.’ Within these narratives, the few women who are named are relegated into the role of mother of the nation (when she’s useful to them) or discreditable whore (when she’s not). 
Exasperated by these accounts from the ‘Big Men’, answers from history books, party politics, ‘analyses by pundits and experts’, Chigumadzi goes in search of a deeper understanding of the Chimerunga, as Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle is popularly known, by exploring the lives and legacies of two women: her late grandmother Mbuya Lilian Chigumadzi, and the spirit medium of the ancestor Mbuya Nehanda, the anti-colonial heroine who led the Ndebele-Shona uprisings of 1896-97.

The essay follows the author’s exploration over a few months beginning with Mugabe’s ousting in November 2017, a period that coincides with the loss and mourning of her grandmother. Over this time she journeys between South Africa and her native Zimbabwe, returning to the valleys where the struggle for liberation took place, to ask questions that provide a richer account of her ancestry, and to pay tribute to her grandmother. No longer able to ask her the questions she had always longed to, Chigumadzi finds other ways to engage with her history through the essay. She reconstructs a photograph of her in her youth, which the author lost when she was a child; she documents the process of producing her memorial speech. Gradually, her grandmother is rewritten into being.

These Bones Will Rise Again is written in the present tense over a period of personal and political upheaval, and the author’s emotional processing is unsurprisingly apparent throughout. As she tries to make sense of present and past politics, we share in her frustrations, discoveries and disappointments. The narrative is a journey that’s in a state of flux – emotional, geographical, and temporal. As she moves from place to place, into the past to make sense of the present and into the future to make sense of the past, it’s not always clear where you are, creating a marked sense of dislocation. In contrast to the linear narratives that dominate historical accounts, Chigumadzi creates a dynamic impression of a past that shifts with the present, showing the historical narrative as a work in progress: if her scepticism towards the incoming leadership may have read as cynical amid the wave of hope leading up to the election, it seems sadly prescient in retrospect.

The imperfect process of forming ideas about the past is well illustrated through the author’s construction of her grandmother’s image. Fragments of the past come to light as she discovers them, and as she finds new information she corrects herself, leaving the earlier marks of misinterpretation to see. For instance, Chigumadzi initially suggests the photograph of her grandmother must have been taken in her twenties, but later establishes it was taken when she was 16. She returns to the photographic studio where she believes the picture was taken, identifying the studio floors from memory. She fills in the gaps with information gleaned from eyewitness accounts, with what she can remember and interpret from her grandmother’s gaze, and by researching the predominant culture, politics and music of the day, in order to piece together a picture of who her grandmother may have been at a time before she was her grandmother – ‘perhaps she was’ this, ‘perhaps she was’ that.
Much like that image, this essay develops via multiple sources. It’s a woven account of voices, languages, songs on the radio, a family photo album that provides ‘new textures to the oral accounts narrated’ to her, answers told to her by those she asks, and the silences spoken by those who cannot answer. As her grandmother, Mbuya Chiganze, says: ‘Zvimwe hazvibvunzwe. . . Some things are just not asked about.’ By refusing to conceal the marks of its making, Chigumadzi’s essay lays bare the challenges of constructing historical narratives. As it moves forward, the text repeats and circles back, providing new impressions and an altered understanding, ultimately enacting her description of history being ‘like water’ which ‘lives between us, and comes to us in waves.’
Jacqueline Landey is a freelance writer based in London.