The week that Herbert died…Yemu could not remember much of what really happened that week. She remembered their incredulity, hers and Tofara's, and that of everyone back home who knew for a fact that Herbert had never had anaemia. The doctor surmised that the onset of this condition so suddenly could have been triggered by a change to a vegan diet, denying the deceased his regular supply of iron.
But Herbert had been a vegan for nearly a decade, Yemu had pointed out.
"Ah, yes, well, you see, it is just possible that there was something in his traditional diet that you have in your own country that replenished his iron," the doctor had explained. Yemu had formed an image of the doctor trying to pick out the racist or at least politically incorrect bits of his theory from a bowl with a pair of chopsticks. They did that sometimes, these doctors who chose to see immigrants as anatomical oddities. Yemu recalled her first pap smear test. Staff at the surgery had never seen the elongated inner labia, a genetic present of the Khoisan people, that many Southern African women are quite proud of and decided they were proof of the Female Genital Mutilation they had heard so much about in the news.
The Boeing had touched the ground. The land of Zimbabwe. The land under which her brother now lay, waiting.
Yemu sat up. Now why did she think of him as waiting? It was the impending kurova guva, she told herself quickly. The ceremony during which Herbert's spirit would be evoked and invited to join the pantheon of ancestors. The reason why she was flying back to Zimbabwe to join her relatives for a night of singing, drinking and dancing, during which Herbert would choose the person to possess.
Masimba Musodza left Zimbabwe in 2002 at the behest of his father.
"I'm the kind of person who will say what I think and don't care if people are offended. This is not appreciated in Zimbabwe. My father wanted me out of harm's way, he said, go, don't come back, and make something of your life. It was either that or my mom would be worried to death. I wasn't a journalist, but I wrote stuff."
He started a degree in English and Creative Writing and became a screenwriter, writing, among other things, an episode of Home Boys, a TV series that never took off. He's also an actor and extra, and at the time of our interview, was in the cast of the TV show Beowulf: Return to the Shadowlands. He is also the author of Uriah's Vengeance, a crime novel described by Ivor Hartmann in Story Time e-zine as "a great step forward toward diverse African Genre Fiction."
His forthcoming horror novel Herbert Wants to Come Home deals with the diaspora in a new way. Back home in Zimbabwe, the Mutsepe family hold a ceremony to invite the spirit of Herbert, who died abroad of anaemia, to join their ancestral spirits—but they have invited a vampire.
Vampirism has been used before as a metaphor for the aristocracy, foreign immigration, homosexuality, and otherness in general—and now as a sprung metaphor for returning home with a European curse. Or even, handily, a metaphor for colonialism itself—dead but alive, sucking Africa's blood.
This European myth preys so easily on a particular traditional belief—the family's need to honour ancestor means they invite the vampire in. This too fits with so much African history.
The story is a hybrid of European and African traditions—a purely diasporan story, about the diaspora and made possible by it. And the heartfelt title, Herbert Wants to Come Home, captures a certain emotional side of the diaporan experience. No wonder that even before publication Masimba is getting emails and comments about it from Africans in the diaspora. This comes from the introduction to the novel:
I suppose going home to die is better than going home alive to face whatever issues one left, or even the ones that have brewed in one's absence. Going home to die may be better too for the people at home. After so many years abroad, there is the fear among Zimbabweans who have remained behind that their relatives and friends have changed. Not only changed, but mutated.
Like Tendai Huchu, Masimba writes in different genres—and publishing in the Shona language is important to him.
"My claim to fame is that I wrote the first science fiction novel in Shona—a very big novel—400 pages. I had to republish it as there's such renewed interest in speculative fiction in Africa. So it just reappeared a few days ago on my own imprint. The novel is called Munahacha Naïve Nei? That translates into 'What Was in the River?'
"It has several subjects, the spec fiction part is bio engineering, illegal experiments by the USA but in Zimbabwe through corrupt officials. The results leak into the ecosystem. So when a giant fish eats a local child, the people think it is the traditional mermaid, Njuzu.
"It started off as a dare: you can't write complicated things in Shona. But it's not true that you have to write science fiction in English. Shona does have names for the planets, the ones you can see with and without a telescope. Venus has two names, one for the morning and one for the evening. I used Shona throughout the novel. I didn't need to go into space so I didn't need a Shona word for 'orbit.' I can't think of a word I needed to invent.
"The educational system we inherited had Group A schools that had been white in the colonial era. After independence, they were better funded, had better facilities.
"You can tell what group someone is from by the way they talk. If you went to a type A school your accent is European. So they call us Nose Brigades or Salads. That's like 'Oreos' or 'Coconuts' in the West. The Nose comes from when Zimbabweans first encountered Europeans and they thought the nasal sound of the language came from the long narrow nose, so they called it 'speaking English through the nose'—kutaura ChiRungu chemumhino. A term of both contempt and admiration. I come from that background.
"As a teenager, I would get stopped by the police for having dreadlocks—they don't treat Rastas well. But the attitude changed as soon as I spoke. In case I was the son of someone important.
"We were taught English as a first language, and Shona became a foreign language. Speaking Shona means you are less sophisticated, less educated. In Zimbabwean TV, a common theme is the clumsy buffoon who can't communicate in English. It's divisive. Some people would be offended if you spoke English to them; others would be offended if you didn't.
"People would be surprised that I could speak English. When I was interviewed by UK immigration, they didn't believe that I was who I said I was, so they made me talk Shona to an interpreter. They were surprised, there was no expectation that I could speak Shona."
His time living under Mugabe-style collectivism has led Masimba to be a free-market neo-liberal. He pins the blame for Britain's economic problems on the welfare state. But he is not what is called a cultural conservative in the USA.
Masimba: "I'm proposing that people be more scientific. I feel there's been a relapse, and that Christianity is behind it, the new Evangelical forms of Christianity that encourage belief in witchcraft and superstition in sharp contrast to the colonial missionary churches that discouraged it, are taking us back but bringing in ideas that never existed in pre-colonial times. Someone will have a degree in mental health nursing but will believe his uncles did something to his father, their own sibling, laid a curse on him to drive him mad. He is able to think in terms of what is known about mental health for other people, but not in his own family."
Masimba is a Rastafarian, a tiny minority in Zimbabwe who are troubled by the police and the Christian church. His challenging approach confronts Christians and politicians alike.
"A pastor was preaching that the pyramids are evidence of devil worship, that it's the triangle with the all-seeing eye of Satan. So I challenged him, I said show me where it says that in Bible. So he's going through all the pages and can't find it and I tell him—you're making it up. It isn't in the Bible. So they called me a Freemason, which to them means of course a devil worshipper.
"Science has the answers, but I can understand why so many go to superstition as everything is going the other way especially in Zimbabwe. We had such high hopes at independence. Now we have a despot, the economy is going the other way. We have reached 1950s levels of industrialization. All this uncertainty. A new century, the millennium, people go mad.
"While I was in school, I wrote a novel inspired by Errol Brown's Mariners of Space (1949). I found my manuscript again two years ago. My story is set at time when Africa is a powerful empire and controls a chunk of moon. The whole world is divided into big super-states, except the USA, which is split up into three main parts. The African Empire included part of the USA and the Caribbean. The other empires are India/Iraq, Europe and Japan. The first humans on Mars are African—and they encounter a previous human colony.
"The publishers said no one would want to read it—too far fetched, no connection to Africa, that it was not Zimbabwean fiction.
"I kept writing SF. I was an SF fan. In Zimbabwe I found a lot of Golden Age fiction—Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells. Also television—Chocky, about an alien mind contacting children about an new energy source, and Buck Rogers, Space 1999, and Star Trek. The church people in Zimbabwe are now telling people not to watch these TV shows as they are a pathway to devil worship.
"Coming to the UK, I found that there is very little accommodation for African writers of SF. As strange as it sounds, it does seem as though 'African Literature' is determined by non-Africans.
"Many African writers have felt obliged to mould themselves into what is expected by non-Africans, but having already challenged what it means to be Zimbabwean, this was not a route I was prepared to follow. Lucky for me, there has been a recent paradigm shift in the publishing industry. There is plenty of room not just for writers, but also for publishers and readers. Suddenly, more people are really interested in what post-colonials, minority ethnic groups living in the former colonial metropoles are writing. This is really the best time to be an SF writer from Zimbabwe."
So what if any is the impact of living away from Zimbabwe?
Masimba: "It has been 14 years since I last walked the streets of Harare. Those streets have changed. I have changed too. I think that the Zimbabwe I knew migrated with me. Just as there are people who live in Britain who see themselves as Persians rather than citizens of the Islamic Republic of Iran, I think it is possible to place a national identity within a certain timeframe, to have a cut-off point. Why not?
"When my mother was born, she was a citizen of a country called the Federation of the Rhodesia and Nyasaland; my father and grandparents the Crown Colony of Southern Rhodesia. My great-grandfather was born in the independent kingdom of Buja. I myself was born in Rhodesia, which became Zimbabwe Rhodesia when I was 3 years old, and Zimbabwe a year later.
"The Zimbabwe that features in my writings consists of memories I have carried with me, and projections of a past and present that I have imagined. Think of George Seferis's poem, 'Return of the Exile.'
"There is a large diaspora community that relates to some of my writing. This came across to me when I started posting chapters of Herbert Wants To Come Home. I was getting e-mails from people who recognised the themes of migration, returning home and finding one's bearings again."
This again, from the introduction:
At the turn of the century, when our generation moved abroad, it was easy to think of the whole of Zimbabwe as Kumusha/ekhaya. (small, rural communities that were where most Zimbabweans lived before urbanizaiton). This includes the urban neighbourhoods where we grew up.
Over a decade later, many of us have settled here in the West. Settled here does not necessarily mean we are the roaring successes that we thought we'd be, that we set out to be or we would have never left. There are so many broken dreams, so many shattered hopes, that a pity party for the Zimbabwean community abroad would last for months. There are so many of us right now hanging on in quiet desperation, too ashamed to catch a plane back to Zimbabwe and face what we fear to be a very judgmental, very unforgiving society. Or, more realistically, knowing that they no longer have the energy they had a decade ago to work and make things better here or back home. That too is another set of fears. Yet, few Zimbabweans would even entertain the idea of being buried here.