EXTENSIVE literary interest and focus on Shimmer Chinodya’s interpretation of Zimbabwe’s liberation war of the 1970s has tended to overshadow many of his outstanding authorial features in this monumental work of literature.
Title: Harvest of Thorns
Author: Shimmer Chinodya
Publisher: Heinemann (1990)
One such ignored feature is the employment of the letter motif in illustrating the state of life in Rhodesia, oscillating around the boundaries of love, welfare and vision of a colonised subject.
The letters exchanged between Clopas Wandai J Tichafa and the woman who was to become his wife, Shamiso Mhaka, carry a classic sentimental feel.
They stand out as a product of valuable effort and an exercise in intimate risk. They expose a state of vulnerability through baring of the soul using the medium of a “broken” English dialect.
These letters are a mark of the beginning of the conversion of love from being an indigenous phenomenon to being a reserve for English language.
The author regurgitates the broken form that characterised the letters written by semi-literate urban workers.
One of the letters reads, “Dearest, Daleng Shamiso Mhaka, I hope you so sarpraised by riciving this missive but I just decision to send you one because I have importent news and this news I am keeping for to myself for some time.”
At the level of the command of English language, it showed how the education programme systematically did not equip its products with an aura of fluency that would empower them to use the language with a maintained dignity.
The letters present a linear transition of the translation of love as leading only to marriage.
A simple letter carried the certainty of trust in intent. “I want to marry you and to call you Mrs. Clopas Wandai J. Tichafa my wife.”
The boldness will be received with an uncertainty of the future, as the targeted young woman enquired with her elder sister: “He wants to marry me…” “What shall I do?”
Love is presented as more dignified, if not genuine, when withheld — at least temporarily.
This was keeping with traditional beliefs that a genuine man was prepared to wait for your love, and withholding the answer portrayed the woman as respectable. “Just wait. Don’t write him yet,” says Shamiso’s sister. Only by testing the patience of a man would his seriousness be established.
In the letter, Clopas confesses how a he was love-stricken youngman, because he was so anxious that he could not do his work properly and his boss was now on his case. “I can’t even do my job propery because of you the Baas is scolding me every day.”
Letters used to be as penetrative as the love, occupying every corner of the heart. They are the media through which all the emotional yearnings and exaggerations are exposed. They exude a documentation of sacrificed effort put in place in penning and unleashing emotions not superficially ballooned by the advent of more virtual and instant means of communication.
The photograph also has some integral importance in the process of connecting disjointed and displaced people units.
“I am hereby sent you a camera fotopicture taken me by my best friend,” Clopas reveals in yet another letter. Styles, a character in Fugard’s play, Sizwe Banzi is Dead, contends that the “fotopicture” carries the hopes and dreams of a person. It also has a strong communal connection unlike the modern “selfie”, which one just captures on their own.
The letter also identifies the existence of a functional saving and investment scheme in the colonial setup, unlike in the now, whereby one can no longer plan along with the support of a financial institution.
Clopas hints that he is saving money with the Post Office Saving Bank and is certain that this would leverage his future family’s livelihood.
A perspective that men should be the backbone of the family is revealed through Clopas’ promise to Shamiso that he will provide for the family.
The juxtaposing of the male authored and female authored letters in Chinodya’s text presents the underlying variables of gender orientation in the colonial setup.
The woman character can be read as one that’s not confident or is not able to use the English language, as a medium of communication in her letters. This can be explained by the fact that the majority of women were not privileged enough to go to school during the colonial era.
The shortness of the letters also shows the submissive traits that women harboured. They are not free to express their emotions in their rawness as compared to the men, whose letters are longer and free flowing.
The stereotypical concerns later portrayed by Zimunya in Country Dawns and City Lights that men were by all means wooing plenty of women is evident through Shamiso’s sister who constantly thinks Clopas is by no means innocent given his city orientation.
It subscribes to the notion that the city played a big role in disrupting black people’s functional social structures.
It also exposes men’s fear of liberal women, whose lives present Homi Bhabha’s concepts of hybridity and mimicry.
“I am being a stead man without fulling around and looking at silly town girls who is after beer and money chete,” reads one of Clopas’ letters. This depiction points to men’s fear of women that behave like men.
The extended family, in Chinodya’s epistolary presentation, is an integral part of society.
In Clopas’ letters, he is always hinting to Shamiso that he should greet babamukuru, maiguru and their baby. He also has a longing to meet up with Shamiso’s parents. This is against the current background of self-seeking family units that only speak to the very immediate.
Chinodya’s letters for me settle the argument that yesteryear’s men were better in packaging the message of love.
Whether it is deliberate on the part the author or not, these letters too, lead to a Harvest of Thorns.
Clopas and Shamiso’s love life falters along the way and show that, a promise, like all others is the first step towards the forest of disappointment, so does the promise and expectations from the war.