Smaller – Mapping Dambudzo Marechera’s movements in Harare after his return to Zimbabwe in the 80s
Mapping Dambudzo Marechera's movements in Harare after his return to Zimbabwe in the 80s © Black Chalk & Co
what does it mean to be a colonial subject torn from our home and pulled to it – like the many waves of the atlantic? what does it mean to be erased, disappeared from the archive? colonial subjectship is soul destroying. maddening. enraging. it is the present past. a mind fuck. what’s worse is that the veil of ongoing colonialisms can be so thick that at times like these it is hard to see a way out. but there are cracks. there are ruptures. so we write and resist in/through these ruptures. we search for the disappeared and hold fast to the disappearing. we labor to remember. we are more than colonial subjects. always more.
– Yomaira C. Figueroa
Eudora Welty, in One Writer’s Beginnings (1984), focuses on three aspects of her childhood – listening, learning to see and finding a voice. As a child, born in the euphoria of Zimbabwe’s independence, I was hyper-aware of the peculiar circumstances of my being. In 1980, at the independence ceremony heralding the new nation state, Bob Marley gave voice to the hopes of the newly independent Zimbabwe:
No more internal power struggle
We come together to overcome the little trouble
Soon we’ll find out who is the real revolutionary
‘Cause I don’t want my people to be contrary.¹
Yet the ground shifted quickly, hope dissipated. I remember the 80s as a decade of fear. It was palpable, everywhere. From early 1983 to late 1987, a series of genocidal massacres of the Ndebele people was being carried out by the North Korean-trained presidential fifth brigade, a secret wing of the new black army, under the command of Robert Mugabe.² They were called the Gukurahundi, a Shona term which loosely translates as “the early rain which washes away the chaff before the spring rains.” Mugabe’s long rule was paved by blood. He was omnipresent, a godlike figure, who ruled with ruthlessness.
People were afraid to speak. My parents, who came of age in the 70s, were the “dream children,” as Yvonne Vera called them, the generation that saw and participated in the overturning of the colonial system. Now, they were afraid to speak. It was in the murmur of their voices, the endless back and forth at night, while time stretched away unnoticed as they tried to make sense of the country in which they were raising their young children.
What could I hear in their voices, and what could I see on their faces? In fact, most of the adults around me had the same expression. Fear. Terror.
Individuals are never simply what the state tells us.
There was a story running in Parade magazine at the time. A young woman in the government secretarial pool had disappeared. Her name was Rashiwe Guzha. She was 22 and there is speculation her body was dissolved in acid. The hushed rumour was that she had been a mistress of the director of the Central Intelligence Office (our CIA) and knew too much. Did she also sleep with the president? The president went on to marry another typist from the secretarial pool, Grace Marufu, now known as Grace Mugabe. I was so intrigued with this story that one day in the school playground I started singing Rashiwe Guzha’s name, perhaps as a way of verbalising the questions that were swelling in my subconscious. What happened to this young woman? Who is she? What did they do to her? Our school master appeared from nowhere, yanked me off the ground and screamed, “Do you also want your parents to disappear? Do you love your parents? Do you want to become an orphan?” The terror on his face, the tremor in his voice, have lived with me ever since. Then, I knew that among the things I had to become, one was a secret finder.
In Zimbabwe, the search for secrets is often considered a political act. But as Jacob Dhlamini, a South African historian, writes, individuals are never simply what the state tells us. I try to find my way through the cracks.
An archive is echoes that have never fully faded. Fragments that escape purging. Traces.
The power of the internet is such that what is not seen does not exist.
Our search started unknowingly, as a series of blindspots, curiosities, fears and questions. I had moved to New York where I met an eclectic group of young Zimbabweans who, like me, left home for various reasons – school, work, escape. Robert Mugabe was still president, still alive. The story of our country was intertwined with his. He was the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. Until he wasn’t. The veil dropped. People danced on the streets; cars honked. World media celebrated the fall of another dictator. Mugabe, who was in power for four decades, who had refused to step down – until it was no longer an option. We were a generation born under the shadow of his authoritarianism. How would we even begin tracing the past?
We started indexing our history. This ambition quickly morphed into a digital platform we called Reading Zimbabwe.³ In the beginning, we intended to create a national bibliography, to record the existence of as many books about Zimbabwe as possible.
In an authoritarian state any perceived threat to the system can result in total elimination, death. Our decision that Reading Zimbabwe should be an index was a strategic way of avoiding political censorship. Instead of direct confrontation, the question shifted from being about how to read inaccurate or inconsistent archives, to how to find an archive about who we are at all. What do we do when archives are not there? What about when material was never accessioned, or was lost, or when it was mutilated or destroyed? How do we read the history of events that were never written down? What do we do when there is no archive?
The technologies of the internet and its infrastructures are biased towards the English language. African languages, cultures and stories are neither serviced nor recognised.
The “sociology of absences” developed by Boaventura de Sousa Santos sheds light on the processes that obstruct connections between different struggles and knowledges, in order to demonstrate how the “incompleteness” and “inadequacy” of counter-hegemonic forms is produced.
We decided to document metadata about books to learn the “obsessions” of how people were writing our country – Zimbabwe – globally. It became an exercise in mapping experiences beyond the grasp of our government and its insecurities. But it was not enough to just be a web-based project focusing on what we call virtual repatriation, rescuing our national literatures from wholesale obscurity or systemic erasure. The project also became an exploration of the question of “archive” in the context of digital annihilation. The build-up of data also opened further possibilities, and certain patterns and behaviours started emerging.
The technologies of the internet and its infrastructures are biased towards the English language. African languages, cultures and stories are neither serviced nor recognised. In many instances, digital data on Zimbabwean texts in Shona and Ndebele lack basic information like descriptions, book covers and author biographies. The power of the internet is such that what is not seen does not exist. Algorithms end up feeding us things which we are already interested in, so we find ourselves in a mirror chamber with a narrower and narrower experience of the world.
Despite the ubiquity promised by the internet, it is hard to locate Zimbabwe. Material about Zimbabwe is scattered online or simply does not exist. This is a widespread problem afflicting critical African archives which emanates from the inequalities embedded in our digital technologies and systems. One of the challenges of Reading Zimbabwe has been: how do we archive gaps or acknowledge the absence of texts?
Reading Zimbabwe addresses the challenges of archival and documentary practices in the context of elimination and loss, of displacement and decolonisation. How does one document or analyse that which has been erased or disappeared? Our index of books contains traces, ruins, documents, accounts, utterances, silences, memories, and imaginaries left behind or carried forward. This knowledge of absence prompts us to rethink epistemologies, methodologies and disciplinary practices, and to account for the disappeared in our history, now and before.
Home Means Nothing to Me launch in Johannesburg, South Africa © Black Chalk & Co
Home Means Nothing to Me launch in Johannesburg, South Africa © Black Chalk & Co
1. Lyrics from the song ‘Zimbabwe’ by Bob Marley which he sang at the independence ceremony on 18 April 1980 at Rufaro Stadium in Harare.

2. The story of the Gukurahundi is complex and multifaceted, but significantly concerns the political annihilation of the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) as an opposition party, as well as their supporters.

3. Reading Zimbabwe is an open access digital platform created by Tinashe Mushakavanhu, Nontsikelelo Mutiti and Corey Tegeler.

4. See, ‘Sociology of Absences’ concepts/sociology-of-absences

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