Doris Lessing and Zimbabwe

Percy Zvomuya

Earlier this year Harare City Library unveiled the Doris Lessing Special Collection, 3500 of the writer’s books donated to the library after her death. Lessing lived in Southern Rhodesia between 1925 (when she was six) and 1949.

Harare City Library is in the red-earth country on the southern edge of the central business district, near the Kopje, the hill on which Cecil Rhodes’s Pioneer Column hoisted the Union Flag in the 1890s. The library used to be in the city centre – that building is now a school – but moved to its present site, alongside a museum, a music school and a court house in the 1960s.

Like most infrastructure inherited from minority rule, the library was left to rot. Until it got a facelift a few years ago – due to a fundraising campaign, led by the Zimbabwean writer Petina Gappah, which secured a million dollars from the Swedish government – the roof was leaking, the interior was dingy, the floors were peeling, the toilets didn’t work and the wiring was hazardous. The years of neglect are still evident in its collection. After the Lessing donation, there are now 16,000 books that can be borrowed (Harare has around two million inhabitants).

When she won the Nobel Prize in 2007, Lessing began her lecture by recalling a visit to a British friend who lived in north-west Zimbabwe in the 1980s. He had gone there ‘to help Africa’. He was a teacher in a rural school which had ‘no atlas or globe … no textbooks, no exercise books, or biros. In the library there are no books of the kind the pupils would like to read, but only tomes from American universities, hard even to lift, rejects from white libraries, or novels with titles like Weekend in Paris and Felicity Finds Love.’

Villagers would drop in at the teacher’s house to ask for books. ‘Please send us books when you get back to London,’ one man asked Lessing. ‘They taught us to read but we have no books.’

The independent Zimbabwe that Lessing returned to in the 1980s was a different country from the Southern Rhodesia she left in 1949, which had declared her a ‘prohibited immigrant’ when she went back in 1956. She described it as an ‘awful place’ in one interview. ‘Only someone who’s lived in these dreadful colonial places will understand why. They are so dead and narrow and stultifying. If you are living in that kind of society where a small number of people are oppressing a great many, they become obsessed by the fact, and they talk about nothing else, day and night. And I always think of Goethe, who said, if you are going to keep a man down in the ditch, you are going to have to get into the ditch with him.’

The minority government that had run the country since the Unilateral Declaration of Independence in 1965 – which led to a war in which up to 50,000 people, most of them black, died – was defeated by Zanu in the 1980 election. ‘Whatever government I succeed in creating will certainly adhere to the letter and spirit of our constitution,’ Robert Mugabe said in his inauguration speech, ‘since that government will itself have been the product of such a constitution. Only a government that subjects itself to the rule of law has any moral right to demand of its citizens obedience to the rule of law.’

‘I urge you,’ Mugabe concluded, ‘whether black or white, to join me in a new pledge to forget our grim past, forgive others and forget, join hands in a new amity, and together, as Zimbabweans, trample upon racialism, tribalism, and regionalism, and work hard together to reconstruct and rehabilitate our society as we reinvigorate our economic machinery.’ Mugabe, of course, scuppered his own prescriptions for independent Zimbabwe in short order.

In her Nobel Prize lecture, Lessing said: ‘On Independence in 1980 there was a group of good writers in Zimbabwe, truly a nest of singing birds. They were bred in old Southern Rhodesia, under the whites – the mission schools, the better schools. Writers are not made in Zimbabwe. Not easily, not under Mugabe.’ The writers she had in mind may have included Dambudzo Marechera (1952-87), the author of The House of Hunger, and Charles Mungoshi, comfortable in both Shona and English, whose novels include Ndiko Kupindana Kwamazuva and Waiting for the Rain (both 1975). But there are writers who have been made in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, such as Petina Gappah, Tendai Huchu, Brian Chikwava, Ignatius Mabasa and NoViolet Bulawayo.

Lessing told a story in her Nobel Prize lecture about a pregnant woman during a drought in an unnamed country in southern Africa. The woman is reading Anna Karenina while waiting with scores of other desperate people for a water bowser from town to deliver water. She has two young children tugging at her skirts, demanding her attention, but she is determined to read, to see out the story. But most of the people who use Harare City Library, one of the librarians told me, are studying for exams. Zimbabwe’s education system ‘has not placed value on a reading culture’, Mabasa said in an interview in 2014. ‘We are told to read so that we may pass exams so we tend to associate books with that. We don’t read for leisure.’

Mabasa also regretted the closure in 1999 of the Literature Bureau, founded in 1957 to promote Shona and Ndebele literature but also to sift out subversive material. Despite its questionable origins, the body is responsible for some of the best literature ever to come out in Zimbabwe. The writers first published by the bureau include Mordecai Hamutyinei, Ndabezinhle Sigogo, Patrick Chakaipa, T.K. Tsodzo, Solomon Mutswairo and Giles Kuimba. In 2013 the education minister, Lazarus Dokora, made noises about reviving the agency, but it was all talk.


  • 28 August 2016 at 5:50pm
    mark dixon says:
    Disappointed that Percy did not mention Yvonne Vera whose 6 novels were written post independence. Many would regard her as one of Zimbabwe's most important novelists.