Tapestries of Difference

A novel of Zimbabwe today in light of its recent past

Roger Riddell

A few weeks after Independence in 1980, the Prime Minister, Robert Mugabe, invited Roger Riddell to chair the first economic commission of the new Zimbabwe. Previously, Roger graduated from the University of Zimbabwe with a degree in economics and then went on to co-author the country’s first Poverty Datum Line study.  After obtaining a Master’s Degree in development studies in the UK in 1978, he was appointed as a lecturer at UZ when he was declared a prohibited immigrant by the Smith regime. He then edited and wrote a number of booklets in the series From Rhodesia to Zimbabwe which were widely used in the camps in Zambia and Mozambique.

After a spell as the Chief Economist of the Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries, Roger returned to the UK in 1984, but he has returned to the country on numerous occasions both to work and to visit, and he has continued to follow events in the country extremely closely.

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Now, after a lifetime of academic and research work, Roger has just published his first novel, Tapestries of Difference, which was launched at Blackwell’s Bookshop in Oxford in late January. Here Roger explains how he came to write the book which he calls “a novel of Zimbabwe today in light of its recent past”, sharing a little of its content.  

Tapestries of Difference is the story of two young people who were born in Zimbabwe but grew up in London.  Returning to the country in their mid-20s they are captivated by the beauty of the country but shocked by the poverty and hardship they witness for themselves. But there is more. Through a succession of coincidences they are forced to confront the horrors of Zimbabwe’s pre-Independence war.  But they are also drawn into understanding the commitment and heroism of so many of their parents’ generation committed to bring about fundamental change as they begin to understand the heroism of the tens of thousands of people who laid down their lives for their country.

Without a doubt, my experience as Chair of the Commission of Inquiry into Incomes, Prices and Conditions of Service greatly influenced the writing of Tapestries. Tasked with examining the remuneration and benefits of all workers and making recommendations on the pay and living conditions especially of the lowest-paid, my Commission began its work in September 1980.  The issues were hugely controversial, but nine months later, in June 1981, driven by the spirit of reconciliation that pervaded the country, my eight commissioners and myself – who were drawn from a wide cross-section of society – were able to present a unanimous report to the President. The Government accepted many of our key recommendations, resulting in an initial rise in minimum wages and a range of improved living conditions which made a significant differences especially to the lives of farm workers and their families.

What happened subsequently does not need re-telling here because – as we all know – the achievements which were possible as a result of the higher rates of economic growth achieved in the first years of Independence were short-lived.  Hopes that the new Zimbabwe would lead to a steady rise in employment and real wages, higher living standards and increased opportunities for the majority were soon shattered. As the country was driven increasingly by greed and corruption, unemployment levels started to rise, the gap between the small elite and the poor grew wider (though this became more a gap between black and black than between white and black), opportunities for productive work shrank and poverty levels rose. Today, most analysts agree that living standards are now significantly worse than they were on 18th April 1980, with the potential for future development severely curtailed by the exodus of many of Zimbabwe’s most talented young people forced to make the painful decision to move abroad in search of a better life.

And this brings me back to the experience of our Commission. The first thing we decided we needed to do when appointed as commissioners was simply to listen – to try to understand better what people wanted and what was possible. To do this we criss-crossed the country travelling over 6,000 kilometres, setting up over 400 meetings ranging in numbers from hundreds to just a few, which took place not only in the main urban areas but in some of the country’s most remote areas. In addition, we invited people to write to us and received an avalanche of replies: over 550 organisations and workers groups and 1,600 individuals wrote to us, 70% of their letters written in Shona.

This experience enabled us – in a unique way – to capture the mood of the country at that particular juncture of our history (I say “our” as I became Zimbabwean around that time) as the country turned its back on war and reflected on how to build the new Zimbabwe.  This was because quite soon it became apparent that we had created a forum in which scores of people opened their hearts to us; this was a humbling experience.  Many said this was the first time they had ever been asked their opinions or been prompted to explain their worries and outline their grievances; and not a few unburdened themselves of the hardship and suffering of the war-years, built on decades of oppression and what it felt like being treated as second-class citizens.  As our report put it: “The dominant and most lasting impression made upon the Commissioners … has been the degree of dissatisfaction, the depth of bitterness, ill-feeling and sometimes anger, and the frustration expressed by the workforce in Zimbabwe today”.

There is no doubt that people spoke to us with such openness and candour because they really believed the new order in Zimbabwe would bring about tangible and enduring changes to their lives. This was in large part because they believed their voices would be heard through our Commission and that in turn government would implement policies to enact the changes they needed and expected. Narrating how they felt was a liberating, even cathartic experience for so many people, and in many ways I felt we were taking part in a national process of reconciliation.

However, not only were the economic hopes of that period dashed, but any hope that a genuine process of national reconciliation would be launched and carried through was soon abandoned.  Indeed, as we all know, through successive events – such as the Gukurahundi; the farm invasions; the expulsion of tens of thousands of farm-workers and their families to neighbouring countries; and Operation Murambatsvina –  the divisions between different groups of people appear to have widened and deepened.

In some ways because I still feel – all these years later – a sense of obligation to those people who trusted my Commission, and believed we could contribute to making a tangible difference to their lives and because I believe that reconciliation remains a pivotal issue in Zimbabwe to this day, a dominant set of themes which run through my novel encompass the issues of peace, reconciliation and forgiveness and the enormous benefits they can bring.

Another set of themes woven throughout the book concern the linked issues of faith and belief. The reason for this lies in part in the new and fast-changing world of the Zimbabwean diaspora in the UK, though the challenges they throw up probably apply elsewhere. Thus in Britain, where I now live and so know best, a growing number of the children of first-generation Zimbabweans are no longer as fervent churchgoers as their parents and grandparents were, and like their British counterparts have little interest in the church and Sunday. The problem – which I have rarely witnessed discussed in the open or written much about – is that this can often create intergenerational tension.  I have rarely seen this issue discussed openly, but it is raised and discussed openly in my book.  Tapestries raises and discusses these issues, confronting them head-on.

Inevitably, too, the linked themes of ethnicity, race and racism pervade the book, though – deliberately – they are at first concealed, so that that different readers will find themselves engaging with the these issues at different points in the narrative.

As all these different threads are woven together – like a tapestry – they provide some musings on what the components of the “good society” might be for Zimbabwe. Then, towards the end of the book when the narrative returns to England, these themes provide a platform to address the issues of race in Britain today and what being a multicultural society means for contemporary Britain.

But why should I have written about all this as a novel? Well, looking back at the hopeful period at Independence when I was appointed to chair the Commission and reflecting on what has happened to the country since, I have increasingly felt that that there are things I want to say which could best be said through the medium of fiction.  And I am not alone in doing this.  Indeed, towards the end of his life the British philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote that if he had his time again he would devote it to writing novels, believing them to be more effective at changing minds for the good than anything else he had done.

Tapestries of Difference has already begun to be reviewed. I will end now with quotations from two on-line reviews which, I hope, will provide some additional insights into what the book is trying to say.

Here is the first.

“The legacy of Africa’s civil wars has been examined in a number of remarkable novels – such as Half of a Yellow Sun (Nigeria) or Nervous Conditions (also Zimbabwe) – but Tapestries of Difference is unique in exploring this theme in both its original context and its transposition over time to metropolitan society in London. It is very effective in challenging the reader to re-appraise convenient assumptions about closure (Zimbabwe’s war), the healing characteristic of time, and identities of race in contemporary Britain (though London in particular). It can be recommended to anyone with an interest in the contradictions and complexities generated for individuals by Africa’s relations with the rest of the world.”

And here is the second.

“In Tapestries of Difference, Roger Riddell has written a love story and a mystery. With his use of exquisite detail, Riddell takes the reader with him into the new lovers’ lives, where we can follow them around North London as they meet and get to know each other, or around Zimbabwe, thanks to an author who knows the territory intimately. We also get a level of detail on the development of Emma and Simon’s relationship that I have rarely seen from a man. We move slowly through their early encounters, experiencing every expression and nuance.

“The mystery lies in Zimbabwe, and this was the part of the book that I could not put down. The description of the country evokes an almost nostalgia for a birthplace that neither of our protagonists quite remembers. The growing mystery about their parents’ stories and how they intersect is riveting…

“Ultimately this is a deeply moral novel that places a couple of families of caring human beings in positions where their decisions really matter in how things turn out. The difference in this love story is that the author does not ignore profound needs in human beings other than romantic love: for agency, community and most of all, for meaning. Yes there is love and sex too, but Riddell correctly understands that a life is more than the search for one other kindred spirit. A girl must have more than a handsome hero. She must have integrity—the ability to live with herself, follow her own instincts, in the light of the principles she has chosen. And if she chooses to share her life with another, it must be a partner who shares her commitment to what is right, to a world-transforming morality.”

In the coming weeks in an exclusive agreement with the author and Powerhouse Publications, The Zimbabwean will be publishing extracts from the book.  Tapestries of Differences is available in both paperback and kindle form from Amazon UK and Amazon.com. It can also be ordered direct from Blackwell’s bookshop Oxford, UK.

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