Musaemura Zimunya performing at Elliot College, University of Kent at Canterbury, 1977.

Birth of Zimbabwe’s literature in the ‘Garden of England’

I was first introduced to the University of Kent by Musaemura Zimunya in the acknowledgements page of his seminal text, Those Years of Drought and Hunger: The birth of African Fiction in English in Zimbabwe. My destiny was sealed, I just knew I had to go there.

Tinashe Mushakavanhu
4 min readOct 18, 2015

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After graduating with a first class English honors at Midlands State University in Zimbabwe, Caroline Rooney, a Zimbabwean born postcolonial professor, invited me to be her PhD student to work on the literary anarchism of Percy Bysshe Shelley and Dambudzo Marechera. For four years, both writers were my roommates at Virginia Woolf College at this institution perched at a hill in the Garden of England.

It is a place that has quietly influenced the architecture of Zimbabwe literary studies. The University of Kent was one of the first institutions in the United Kingdom to recognise and teach postcolonial studies (including African literature) as areas of scholarly enquiry. It was the base from which Musaemura Zimunya almost single-handedly fought for Zimbabwean literature and its writers in the 70s and early 80s.

I arrived in Kent after reading another Zimunya book, a short story collection, Nightshift, with its references to his student life in Canterbury and Whitstable. And Templeman Library, with its breathtaking view of the magnificent Canterbury Cathedral, was the place I encountered the first draft of Those Years of Hunger, a typewritten MA dissertation on bond paper in a black binder, with tipex marks and ink corrections.

Zimunya’s book, is the first critical text on Zimbabwean literature in English written and published by a black Zimbabwean in post independence Zimbabwe. This is important to reflect on, especially as our literature is now a playground for many second rate academics from Europe and North America who are busy plundering and reframing our literary discourse.

Zimunya’s former teacher, emeritus Prof Lynn Innes, whose seminal works include books on Chinua Achebe, fondly remembered ‘Musa’ as she still calls him ‘as a sharp student with an enquiring mind’ who ‘always wore a beret on campus. He was certainly revolutionary in attitude and temperament.’ The lies ZANU PF feed us that the war was only fought in the bush ignore the work that comrades like Musaemura Zimunya did to re-approapriate and re-write our national narrative.

Zimunya was not only a literary activist and historian in every sense but he was also a prolific poet. He fought against the banning of works by his black peers by the Rhodesian authorities; he agitated for the respect of black Zimbabwean writings internationally and instead of just talking he did the actual work of putting together anthologies of poetry and short stories in both English and Shona.

He, no doubt, built the foundation for the publishing scene that was to come in the early years of independence led by his contemporaries — Charles Mungoshi (ZPH), Stanley Nyamfukudza (College Press) and Chenjerai Hove (Mambo Press). When the black Zimbabwean government banned Dambudzo Marechera’s Black Sunlight in 1982, Zimunya successfully campaigned for the overturn of the ridiculous decision by the ‘new’ Censorship Board. If the ban had remained steadfast, it would have set a bad precedence for post-colonial Zimbabwean literature.

However, Zimunya was not the only Kent alumni to make a significant contribution. The late Olley Maruma, a controversial figure and ZANU PF apologist, made the first (and still only) full documentary of Zimbabwean literature in film, After the Drought and Hunger released in 1987. The film, which is a montage of conversations with writers such as Stanlake Samkange, Solomon Mutsvairo, Stanley Nyamfukudza, Charles Mungoshi, Dambudzo Marechera is a continuation and interrogation of the themes Zimunya had dealt with in his book, Those Years of Drought of Hunger five years earlier. He also wrote an autobiography, Coming Home, that is largely set in Kent.

By happenstance, I discovered that the first Zimbabwean female poet to be published in English, Kristina Rungano, is a professor at Canterbury Christ Church University also in Kent. Rungano’s book, A Storm is Brewing, published by Charles Mungoshi at the Zimbabwe Publishing House in 1984 was widely acclaimed. Her yet to be published second collection, Harsh Noises & Soft Tunes, is influenced by her life in the diaspora and also draws on her Zimbabwean experiences.

It is at the the University of Kent that I found myself. I had a room of my own in the aptly named Virginia Woolf College, the postgraduate quarters, where I lived for three years. In 2009, together with my good friend Dr David Nettleingham, a sociologist and poet, we took portions off our scholarship allowances to facilitate the publication of State of the Nation: Contemporary Zimbabwean Poetry. It was to be the first book under a poetry press we co-founded called The Conversation PaperPress.

State of the Nation, was not just a passion project but an active response to the fact that local Zimbabwean publishers still refuse to publish poetry on flimsy grounds. The book was developed as some kind of sequel to And Now the Poets Speak, which is the first congregation of poets put together by Musaemura Zimunya and Mudereri Kadhani in 1981. The new poetry collection featured 30 poets including new and old names — Julius Chingono, John Eppel, Chenjerai Hove, Emmanuel Sairosi, Togara Muzanenhamo, Rumbi Katedza, NoViolet Bulawayo, Joyce Tsitsi Mutiti, Tinashe Mushakavanhu, Christopher Mlalazi.

And today the social commentator Alex Magaisa, former advisor to MDC-T president Morgan Tsvangirai, currently a law professor at the University of Kent is using the tranquil of the Garden of England to reflect on the politics of Zimbabwe.

Indeed, the waters and air of Kent, have a special chemical favourable to the Zimbabwean literary discourse.

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