The view of the poets

‘The government was at its best in response to Cyclone Idai,’ says Petina Gappah in an interview with ‘Trevor’, but the thrust of her words is that normally the government is ‘dysfunctional.’ Pressed as to what she means, she points to the lack of a transition when they came to power in 2017.

They never took the time to say who they were and what they wanted to do. They simply announced, ‘Zimbabwe is open for business’. And, to make matters worse, they beat and even killed people who tried to ask questions.

Why was Idai a peak moment? Gappah explains that they saw the problem and acted immediately. But normally they make decisions ‘collectively’, that is, through endless meetings which water down decisions to meet the concerns of vested interests. In effect, little gets done. And, again, to make matters worse, they pour out propaganda, that is, manipulated news, which attempts to hide the truth.

Listening to Gappah, I was impressed by her optimism which she combined with sharp criticism. She spoke respectfully of members of the government in which she served. She says there are many excellent people there but they are shackled by having to abide by collective thinking. And she says at the highest level of government there is no direction. It is just a patchwork of policies.

Her performance reminded me of the role of poets and literary people in society. The men who colonised Ireland destroyed her kings and princes and even her bishops, but they couldn’t destroy her poets. They kept alive a flame during the dark centuries. Petina Gappah, if I understand her correctly, is first a writer and then an economist, advising governments from Geneva on trade and investment.

Perhaps strangely, these two seemingly different roles converge, enabling her to have an open mind towards politics and economics. She developed this mind through her passion for reading from her earliest years when she would devour books in the Queen Victoria Library off Rotten Row in Harare.

‘Prophet’ is a contaminated word these days as there are many false ones whose motivations are simoniacal. But the true prophets among us are poets who cannot make a living from their craft and simply follow it because of their love of truth. Gappah probably makes a bit from her writing as she is now widely known; but who would begrudge someone who, for example, set out to learn Swahili simply in order to dig deeper into the lives of those who accompanied Livingstone’s remains on their 1,500-mile journey from the interior to the sea, so that his legacy might be celebrated in his home country and beyond?

I have only seen her in action once and that was on a small screen, but her joyful confidence in Zimbabwe long-term comes across and acts as a tonic to weary observers of the present impasse.

Post published in: Faith

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