This article was published in the October 2009 issue of The Brooklyn Rail. Photo by Benjamin Herson.
by Peter Holslin
Over thirty years have passed since Dambudzo Marechera wrote The House of Hunger, his landmark 1978 novella about the brutal relationships and decayed ideologies of colonial Rhodesia, the southern African nation now known as Zimbabwe. But hunger remains a common theme in Zimbabwean poetry and music, manifesting itself as both a metaphorical yearning for freedom from corruption and oppression, and as something quite literal: a desperate need for food.
Zimbabwe became independent in 1980, after a vicious liberation war, and the country became a model of economic prosperity in Africa. But true democratic freedoms have never been achieved under the leadership of President Robert Mugabe, a guerrilla leader turned dictator. And it feels as though the slam poet Comrade Fatso is continuing from where Marechera left off when he begins his own House of Hunger, an album of pointed rhymes and fresh grooves that’s being reissued online by Nomadic Wax, with the wanting words, “My belly wakes me again.”
Set during Operation Murambatsvina (or “Drive Out the Filth”)—a 2005 nationwide campaign in which soldiers and police demolished tens of thousands of houses and vending stands that the government deemed “illegal”—that opening track, “Bread & Roses,” captures both types of hunger. Fatso takes on the persona of a street vendor who watches as a policeman smashes her vegetables. “Here come the forces of good/ Those who wage war on food,” he says in his steady cadence.
I thought ours was the land of the fruits
Now crushed by these blind boots
Saying my food is dirty
No, my food is dignity
It sends my children to school, you see
“Comrade Fatso” is the performance name of Samm Farai Monro, a lean 29-year-old with long dreadlocks and a dry wit, who eats with his fingers and rhymes in a patois of English and Shona (the language of most Zimbabweans). The son of white community organizers born in Zimbabwe, he resists being sucked into the bitter identity politics that have haunted Zimbabwean activism over the past decade. “You have to deal with issues regarding color, but that’s not what’s at the core of our crisis,” he told me in a phone interview.
What does lie at its core, as he makes clear in House of Hunger, is a system of institutionalized patronage and state-sponsored violence that sustains the immense wealth of a minority of political elites and punishes those of the country’s 12 million people who want to build something better.
Monro is an avowed activist and experienced grassroots organizer—when he isn’t touring with his band, he’s working for Magamba!, a youth activism network that hosts a monthly spoken-word event and does outreach in economically disadvantaged townships. But House of Hunger is only political, at least with regard to government, in the sense that it was banned from state-controlled TV and radio broadcasts when it was first released in Zimbabwe in March 2008. At its core, the album is about personal relationships—and the unbreakable love, crushing poverty, dark humor, and shocking acts of violence that bind them.
Fatso’s verses often ooze anger and ache with pain. But the yearning vocal phrases of singers Chiwoniso Maraire and Nyengeterai Zembe, and the supple guitar, lustrous marimba, and mbira (an iron-pronged instrument played with the thumbs), and dynamic beats of Fatso’s band, Chabvondoka, inject the songs with positive energy. And even Fatso’s most mournful verses are followed with words full of hope and vision. “Here, those with hope and head / Are beaten, battered, left for dead,” he intones in the title track, over a slow groove with a somber guitar phrase and meditative mbira passage. After he dissects the House—“brick upon brick” of corruption, the “cement” of apathy, the kitchen where “chefs cook up feasts of famine”—he concludes, “It’s time to build a house for all / And it all starts if we stand tall.”
House of Hunger is similar to the driving mbira-style guitar songs of the legendary Thomas Mapfumo, who sang in support of the Zimbabwean liberation struggle during the war. But today, Fatso and other radical performance poets engage in non-violent battle with toyi-toyi, a leg-kicking revolutionary dance invented during the liberation war, which anti-apartheid activists later adopted in South Africa. At shows, the poets are energized when their audiences toyi-toyi. “It’s just a beautiful state to be in,” Leslie Tongai Makawa, a fellow slam poet who helps run Magamba!, told me in April in Washington, D.C., before playing a concert as part of an East Coast tour with Fatso and Chabvondoka. “You’re saying, ‘I refuse to lose!’”
The concert, performed in a large room of a church-owned building, was held on the 29th anniversary of Zimbabwe’s independence. After Chabvondoka launched into a sweltering jam at the end of their set, Fatso broke into a passionate toyi-toyi. Dozens of Africans and Americans in the packed audience spontaneously rose from their seats to boogie. The feeling of joy was as palpable as the smell of Zimbabwean food—cornmeal, beef, and collard greens—wafting in from the lobby: a deep hunger satiated, at least for that night.