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Spiritualism laid bare in Mathema's book

02 Mar 2020 at 08:57hrs | Views
I recently attended a book launch by Education minister Cain Mathema at the National Art Gallery in Bulawayo, where four books were being unveiled.

I must congratulate him on the feat, I always said as Africans we do not write enough, and so we keep falling into the same traps of history.

Among the four, I am in possession of one, which I feel is the most fascinating among them. Yes, his lyric to the River Gwayi is worth perusing, but there are very few nooks and crannies of her belly I have not explored, and written about myself- from fishing expeditions to sifting for agate in the dry season.

I Worship King Mzilikazi fascinates me most among Mathema's latest offerings. The title itself is ballsy and upfront, radical in a context of a country whose constitution enshrines freedom of worship, yet we are constantly bombarded with talk of it being a Christian country.

To the spiritual, the idea of worshipping a man whose history confirms lived and died might sound absurd, yet that is exactly what we are made to believe about Jesus Christ whose return was as imminent to the Apostle Paul as it is today. Rastafarians are proponents of Ras Tafari, the son of Makonen, the Ethiopian emperor better known as Haille Sellasie. It is not totally absurd that one would pledge one's spirit to a man of flesh and blood, another might say it is more plausible than pledging one's soul to a Jesus brought with the whip and the gun.

In the pursuit of total independence, it is ideologically irresposible for a black African to worship Jesus of Nazareth, or the Christian God for that matter. Mathema notes in his introduction that all humans are born atheist; religion and gods are social constructs that are socialised into humans at later stages in their lives. He sets the parameters of his "worship" of Mzilikazi as follows: "love and admire someone or something very much".

There is much to unpack from this definition, and much of it comes from the fallacy of expectation. Mathema notes well that Christianity and Islam have commandeered the word "worship" and confined it to their space. Which is what brings the initial shock with a topic as this one. What if the title had been I Deeply Admire King Mzilikazi? Would it be as startling? I feel the shock produced by the title as it is serves a large proportion of what this book seeks to do: To help us un-swallow some poisons we have been consuming for eons.

Unfortunately, there is little else pleasantries to share about this text from here. The text is 77 pages long, not entirely bad for a poetry text. Some men have been known to publish 308 sonnets in one go, but then that is youth and virility, I am reliably informed that feat cannot be repeated just four years later. 77 pages is a good length for a poetry book, in fact, some "novels" are that long.

What disappoints me about the length is that the poetry only begins on Page 55, essentially we only get 22 pages of content and I feel cheated. The majority of the book reads somewhere between an excerpt from a history book and an academic paper with citations, including five-and-a-half pages quoted from one Thandekile Moyo.

At this point, I feel cheated as a reader, patronised even as one familiar with deification (most recent being the cult of Robert Mugabe which is yet to take on a new life) and not particularly interested in how the sausage is made. It feels as if Mathema is apologising for his radical standpoint by giving scholarly evidence and history even before the book has begun.

I might be taking it wrong; perhaps Mathema was interested in publishing a paper and a poem where I expected a poem or at least a creative work; although that is highly unlikely. The conundrum is further complicated by the absence of any heading or title on the preceding part, yet when the poem begins there is legend to announce it in the name of the book leaving one to rightly assume the first part is a preface or introduction- a long and unnecessary one.

All good writers research their works, or at least write what they know. The author did not have to prove that he knew. The skeleton is not to be exhibited to the gallery; it informs the text and holds it together. Because the author has chosen to separate the skeleton from the meat, the text is wobbly, formless and largely naked. Imagery like, "even Dingani after Shaka/You defeated like he was a baby" only moves me towards mockery. The poet seems to have no sense of chronological time because he speaks to Mzilikazi about pressure cookers and I wager my manhood the recipient would be as confused as an owl at noon with such imagery.

Ultimately the delivery is mediocre at best. There is no originality in the presentation, no sense of art or aesthetics. It is regressive to the poetic tradition of the world in general and the continent in particular; with special attention to the praise department. Let us, if we dare, compare this offering to Mazisi Kunene's Emperor Shaka The Great originally written in Zulu as UNodumehlezi kaMenzi: it is epic in style and stature, a sheer force of human achievement. It is a worthy offering to a god from a proselyte; a 600-page-plus tome Mazisi had to write twice because the first publisher wanted an English version.

Although there isn't anything to write home about in the form, I am fascinated by one confession in the content: How repulsive it feels to pray to Jesus Christ at parliament (something I am certain Mzilikazi would also know nothing about) and other national ceremonies. It was Bob Marley, the oracle of our independence night, who sang "only we can free our minds". If there is anything to take away from this text, it's the question why we hold on to these cumbersome relics of colonisation: a god who sent his son to destroy us, what of the pomp and ceremony of wig and mace at parliament? Why do we polish these relics of oppression, this baggage that serves no purpose, but to slow the march to the Renaissance?

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Philani Amadeus Nyoni is a poet and writer. He writes in his own capacity.

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