Power and Pitfalls of Historical Fiction

Against the Current, No. 158, May/June 2012

Mavuso Dingani

We are All Zimbabweans Now
by James Kilgore
Cape Town, South Africa: Umuzi, 2009,
Swallow Press, 2011, distributed in the United States by Ohio University Press, $22.95 paper.

WHEN JAMES KILGORE’S We are all Zimbabweans now first came out in 2009, the world economy was facing a deep recession. My first impression was that the book’s title referred to the globalizing of Zimbabwe’s 10-year economic crisis. In fact, Kilgore’s novel was referring to Zimbabwe’s attempt at reconciliation between white and black Zimbabweans after a brutal liberation war that killed 30,000 people.

Mugabe’s half-hearted policy of “reconciliation” lasted all of two years, forced upon him by his allies, Samora Machel and Julius Nyerere, then the presidents Mozambique and Tanzania. It was not from a sense of multi-racialism or for any other altruistic reasons that Mugabe first pursed this policy but rather pragmatic political calculation; he needed experienced bureaucrats and industrialists to run the government and the economy until he could educate a critical mass of black professionals to take over.

It is during this historical period of the early 1980s that the novel’s protagonist, Ben Dabney, a young idealist white American from Wisconsin, decides to go to Zimbabwe to conduct research on the liberation war. He adores its new black Prime Minister Robert Gabriel Mugabe, the man whom he describes as “more forgiving then Mother Teresa, as single-minded as Martin Luther King or the Dalai Lama.”

I can’t understand how the young PhD. history student compares the guerrilla leader, who prosecuted a war for five years and ruthlessly murdered his opponents within his own party, to non-violent peace advocates like Martin Luther King. But of course that conflation demonstrates Dabney’s naivete, at once adorable and comical.

Thus, from the beginning, Kilgore sets up Ben Dabney for failure. It almost reads like the time-worn cliché: Young idealistic white westerner idealizes some natives in some distant country whom he imagines to be noble or honorable, take your pick; he decides to go and witness their experiment of building a new society firsthand, only to be disappointed when he discovers that they are only human and that their policy decisions are dictated by brutal political calculation.

But Kilgore avoids that pitfall in his hero, and instead we have a book that uses the vision of this young westerner to lucidly depict early 1980s Zimbabwe.

For all his initial naivete Dabney comes to see the new regime for what it is, a brutal government that represses its opposition, yet he does not abandon his initial hope for a better Zimbabwe.

Zimbabwe Without Romanticism

We are all Zimbabweans Now also avoids that familiar trap that ensnares many commentators who claim that ’80s Zimbabwe was a land of unprecedented growth, a liberal society under an articulate, brilliant leader. Some have even ventured to call it a “once Switzerland of Africa.”(1)

This stinks of a strategically revised history that seeks to reinforce the depravity of the present by romanticizing the early years. Instead, in the prologue Kilgore describes a chilling scene of soldiers terrorizing villagers that this reader imagines was part of the Mugabe regime’s Fifth Brigade massacres in Matabeleland in the early 1980s, a campaign that left some 20,000 civilians dead.

But more than in highlighting overlooked historical moments, the true brilliance of We are all Zimbabweans Now lies in its dialogue. Some of Zimbabwe’s great writers have never quite been able to achieve that level of realism. Dambudzo Marechera’s work, though brilliant, was never strong on dialogue. Indeed, in his award-winning House of Hunger (Heinmann, 1979), Marechera never attempts to capture the Zimbabwean dialogue accurately, focusing instead on philosophical debates that the hero conducts with himself.

Interestingly, the only convincing dialogue in that novel are the parts set in England, where Marechera was living at the time he wrote the book. (This may have been simple proximity, or more likely a conscious attempt to reinforce his alienation from Zimbabwean society, a condition he saw as “the stuff“ that makes a great writer.)

Kilgore, instead, accurately captures how Zimbabweans speak with each other and foreigners — how we “educated” Zimbabweans mix Shona (the country’s main common language) and English in one sentence, and how many often speak in clichés that initially seem meaningless or hypocritical (e.g. “gayness is not part of our African tradition” whilst using colonial era laws to punish homosexuality).

While hypocrisy is a disease that afflicts all societies, it is of special significance for a country that now needs to be honest with itself to overcome twelve years of economic crisis and an even longer political one.

Ben Dabney’s Journey

This capacity for nuance is Kilgore’s, not Dabney’s. From the start of the novel, we see Zimbabwe through the eyes of a young idealistic American. We are with him as he first ventures into downtown Harare from his insular hotel to looking for a “real” Zimbabwean lunch of sadza.

Apparently, as my in-laws who grew up in the U.S. South tell me, there is nothing novel about the cornmeal dish to American tastes; they call it corn grits down there. But that’s trifling because our hero, Dabney, is supposed to learn how to eat it with his hands, which is usual for most Zimbabweans. As he does so he is told “we are all Zimbabweans now” by the restaurant owner, alluding to Mugabe’s policy of reconciliation and the title of the book.

We see him going to the national archives, where he gets to meet other expatriate researchers like himself, the most memorable of whom is Elizabeth Routledge. She is an attractive, British researcher with whom he has a brief affair. She has a gift for organizing dinner parties where other expatriate Africanists and South African exiles gather and gossip about the politics of the country.

This is a brilliant technique, because the author can naturally introduce the political debates about Mugabe’s politics and especially Matebeleland massacres that had just started. Of course, the real purpose of these scenes is to juxtapose Dabney’s admiration for Mugabe with the Africa “old hands” who are more pessimistic and have racist opinions of African leaders.

Other readers might think this is a little contrived but in my experience, it seems realistic: I mean, what else do expatriate researchers talk about at alcohol-sodden dinner parties but the politics of the day?

When the lovers inevitability fall out, in part because of Elizabrth’s apolitical distaste for debate, we get to meet the real leading lady and the most compelling character of the novel, Florence Matshaka. It is to Kilgore’s credit that he does not focus on the interracial angle of their relationship, because it’s irrelevant to the overarching point of the novel.

She is the prop that allows Dabney a foothold into black Zimbabwean society aside from taxi drivers, dodgey businessman-cum-security operatives and disinterested barmen. Easily the most endearing character in the novel, she is a vivacious former freedom fighter, a single mother who gave birth to her son in the guerrilla camps in Mozambique, had her leg blown off during the war, and has a love for politics and drinking beer. This is in contrast to the “good” Zimbabwean woman who is not supposed to drink beer but occasionally to sip wine or some horridly sweet, colorful alcoholic beverage.

Florence is a teacher who grades her students’ papers whilst drinking Castle (local beer brand), an image which creatively mixes the Zimbabwean feminine ideal of the learned teacher with her opposite, morally and socially, the bar girl. Through meeting unconventional woman, Dabney at last graduates from expatriate dinner parties and is fully immersed into Zimbabwean society.

Kilgore manages to make Florence a complex character without making her a victim deserving of our pity or a strong African woman envied for her resilience in the face of patriarchy. On the contrary, our Florence, in We are all Zimbabweans Now is likeable on her own terms and despite her faults. It’s important to point this out because many female freedom fighters were raped or sexually abused by their male comrades in the guerrilla camps.

“Flame,” a 1996 movie directed by Ingrid Sinclair, tells the story of another Florence, a freedom fighter, who runs away from home to join the guerrillas in Mozambique. There she is raped by one of her commanders during training. She manages to overcome that horrifying ordeal, and the death of her son, to become a successful commander in her own right. I am glad Kilgore spares us this aspect of female liberation combatants’ story.

Life of the Elites

It is through Florence that Dabney is introduced to the country’s political elites because they are her former comrades-in-arms. With her help, he secures an interview with a high-ranking government official close to Mugabe. The same official arranges for Dabney to finally interview his hero, Mugabe.

But that’s getting ahead of ourselves. Before all that comes to pass, Dabney is invited to the parties of the political elites and gets to see the opulent and decadent lifestyle that’s very different from their previous lives in the camps. Through Dabney’s eyes we see them pathetically mimicking the trappings and manners of their former adversaries, white Rhodesians.

Shortly after Florence introduces him to a high ranking government minister, Dabney is invited for a barbeque at the minister’s fancy house. It’s not the massive feast or outrageous amounts of expensive alcohol that disturb Dabney, but a young woman barely out of her teens who prepares the whole meal and works tirelessly to keep the banquet going. She is a live-in servant, referred to as the “girl” (or sisi), a term coined by white Rhodesian madams to refer to their maids regardless of age.

Franz Fanon’s warning on the pitfalls of national consciousness in his Wretched of the Earth is relevant here; in it, he rails against the national bourgeoisie for simply taking over the role of the white man instead of destroying the colonial structure of the state. The failure of the new political elite to transcend the colonial structure designed to enable the white minority to rule a black majority lies at the heart of the Zimbabwean tragedy.

Mugabe and company not only inherited the undemocratic tradition of Ian Smith [white Rhodesian prime minister from 1965-’79 — ed.]  and his predecessors’ repressive law and order statutes, they also perfected the security state that would be used to crush not only Matebeleland in the 1980s but later the people’s hunger for change and organized national opposition when the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) was born.

A Novel, Not a History

Notwithstanding the highly realistic portrayal of Zimbabwean society by a white American, We are all Zimbabweans Now should be read for what it is, a novel not a historical treatise. I have read in some quarters that the novel is assigned reading in university African history courses. Its place is in literature class.

I don’t think the author intended the book to accurately depict historical events in 1980s Zimbabwe, because he takes artistic license in conflating certain events to make the novel interesting and highlight the contradictions within that period.

In one scene, Florence is arrested on suspicion of prostitution because she was an unaccompanied woman walking at night in Harare’s Central Business District (CBD). There was, in fact, a period during which police arrested women just for walking alone at night — this was called “Operation Clean Up.”

The push resulted in hundreds of women being arrested for walking in Harare’s streets after dark during the Non-Aligned Movement Summit of 1986. The assumption by the authorities was that a “decent woman” should be home at night. Thus hundreds of nurses, janitors and others who naturally work at odd times, were arrested in the dragnet while walking home. But all that took place years after the period that Kilgore sets his story

Then there is the fictional figure Tichasara, a former guerrilla commander assassinated just before Zimbabwe’s liberation,whose death Dabney investigates at the request of an “eminent” Zimbabwean historian. It’s not really clear from the book if Kilgore is referring to the ZANLA  (Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army) commander Josiah Tongogara who died in a car accident in 1979, or to Herbert Chitepo who was assassinated by Rhodesian operatives in 1975. It seems likely that Kilgore simply conflated the two historical figures, to tell an archetypal story of internationalist intrigue murder and warfare.

Despite this lack of historical precision, Kilgore’s ear for dialogue and sense for illuminating underlying social and political tensions give readers a sense for life in newly liberated Zimbabwe — quite an accomplishment for a writer, who like his protagonist, was once merely a naïve, white American expat with a nose for politics!


  1. Barclay, Philip. Zimbabwe: Years of Hope and Despair, Bloomsbury, London. 2010.
    back to text

May/June 2012, ATC 158