ZIMBABWE is currently experiencing queues, be it for fuel, cooking oil, gas and many other commodities.
Between the Lines: Beniah Munengwa
Fifteen years ago, Weaver Press published the short story anthology, Writing Still, which carried a story by Zimbabwean literature legend Shimmer Chinodya titled Queues, which spoke to the reality of the time when “queues” had become part of life in the country.
This has become an enduring theme that speaks to a country battling an economic crisis for which queues for basic commodities are symptomatic.
Queues, a story which was written at the Caine Prize Workshop in Cape Town in 2003 depicts the life of a man that has “…been queuing up all his life” seeking friendship and tolerance but finding himself in “many a wrong queue, only to be told at the crammed garages of my fantasies that I am in the wrong lane, or to be turned away.”
I met Chinodya at the recent launch of the book, Junctions, and that stirred my interest to revisit Walking Still, which was edited by Irene Staunton.
I re-read Queues in the context of the queues that I am seeing in my everyday life. The read could be depressing as one realises that independence came with a sense of despair and mistrust that pushed Zimbabwe to the brink.
The majority continues to sink in poverty while the powerful get richer and Chinodya observes that the “national cake was getting smaller, but suddenly everyone wanted a piece”.
The story succinctly captures how things continue to deteriorate as the persona looks back with nostalgia to a time when his father could send all his three siblings to boarding school on a milkman’s pay and how a loaf of bread cost 12 cents and a kilogramme of meat just a dollar. The standards of living are presented as having fallen.
In trying to rescue ourselves from the mess, Chinodya writes, “We borrowed and borrowed until we borrowed until we borrowed the word borrow.”
Whilst the political and economic problems of post-independence Zimbabwe are what makes up the greater part of the story, how men and women relate in and outside unions is a gigantic feature of Chinodya’s writings.
The extramarital relationship between Rudo and the iconic Clopas Wandai J Tichafa from Chinodya’s classic book, Harvest of Thorns, unravels how wretched society has become as Clopas reflects on the degradation of social conditions, especially for the civil servant whose pay is eroded by inflation at the tick of the clock.
What does a man with a wife but without getting love from her do, if not to move on? But if he does, will he ever find peace in living away from his children?
Through their interchange, the deeper yearnings of a man’s heart are revealed: “I told her I wanted a good woman to help me do that, that the best thing for a man was a good woman. A good, funny, honest woman. A woman to enjoy, to like, to love, to talk to, to laugh with, to devour, to feast on.”
But, a strenuous relationship that takes a toll on one’s psychological tank is always an undesirable one.
Society is presented as full of artificialities including theories that are mostly bar talk. “Perhaps the only ‘isms we truly knew were chauvinism and sexism.” These are what Chinodya picks as the real components of life for, although despised, they are what people practice.
Through Chinodya’s iconic 2003 short story, you get to question why we express awe at the occurrence of queues and shortages in this country we call ours in this day and age. Literature through its power of documentation and reflection demonstrates that there’s nothing new about any of the problems that we are facing as a nation and that, to hope will be to waste our time. Queues brushes shoulders with other interesting short stories like Memory Chirere’s Maize, Charles Mungoshi’s The Sins of the Fathers and many compact others.