Review of Strife - Cultural Tension

CULTURAL TENSION, MASCULINITIES AND LEADERSHIP IN SHIMMER CHINODYA’S STRIFE

Ezra Chitando


This paper was presented at the Pamberi Trust, Book Café, on 21st August, 2008 in a discussion entitled: “The novel STRIFE by Shimmer Chinodya explores the tension between the power of tradition and the forces of modernity. What are the role models for men in today's society? What do we expect of the good father, husband, citizen, son? What are the tensions that polarise views at this time?”

1. “I have betrayed my manhood. Today I cried. When a man cries, he compromises manhood.” This is the dramatic beginning of Siphiwo Mahala’s book, When a Man Cries (2007)
A number of questions:
a) Who/What is a man?
b) What does a man do?
c) What are the responsibilities of a man?
d) How can men become more effective leaders during moments of strife?

STRIFE
An intriguing, well-written and gripping account. Almost every page bristles with strife---pain, suffering, disease and death.
-Chinodya brilliantly flashes back and forth, playing out the drama from the past, in the present and highlighting the paralysis wrought by the tension between tradition and modernity.
-Given the importance of naming, one of the Gwanangara’s must have been named Gwenhamo, ie, one given to poverty and generic viagra oral jelly misery. Their adult life is one long narrative of tears of pain and death. Misfortune has chosen to camp permanently in their household.
The plot centres around the middle-class family of Dunge Gwanangara. He has fought a vicious battle against poverty. He has sent his children to school, and things appear to be going well. However, soon, things fall apart. The family lurches from one crisis to the next, and they do not know when the rain began to beat them (Achebe). Could it be that the Gwanagaras prefigure the larger family, the imagined community called Zimbabwe?

MAJOR THEME

The tension between Christianity and African culture underlies Strife. The struggle between the call of the ancestral drum and the church bell is at the heart of Strife. According to John S. Mbiti, “African Christianity is many miles long, and a few inches deep?”
The key question is: where does the African go in times of trouble, misfortune, suffering and death? Is it to the well-scrubbed church, or to the darkened room of the traditional healer (n’anga?)
Africans are well known for “walking on two legs”, or multiple religious allegiance. They have never accepted that there is “only one way” to salvation.
Gwanangara endeavours to remain faithful to Christianity. “For forty years he has placed his complete faith in the Bible, and throughout his life God has shielded him from trouble, but the incident on his son’s wedding night has shocked him; rent him like old cloth----Forty years of faith have not dulled his fear; like a true black man he listens to the words of his neighbours” (3).
The tension in Gwanangara is introduced very early in the narrative, and stays with the reader till the very end. Can an African wholly, totally and exclusively rely on the “white man’s religion”?
Throughout Strife, we see Africans mixing Christianity and African Traditional Religions (ATRs), with ATRs clearly having an upper hand. Chinodya emerges as an African cultural nationalist. He is not convinced that the church is scratching where the African is itching. Christianity is superficial and inadequate. When faced with pressing issues, Africans resort to their ancestral traditions.
At any rate, Christianity has no right to claim superiority over ATRs. Often Christianity has arrogated the tag, “true religion” to itself, dismissing its competitors as “superstitions.” Godi, the narrator, says:
Superstition has merely changed its format, its imagery. Even the priests spreading incense are superstitious. What better way to enact the partaking of human flesh and buy viagra black blood than the Eucharist? (220).

MASCULINITIES

Dunge Gwanagwara, his sons and brothers feature prominently in Strife. It is clear that the Shona culture in which they are steeped is deeply patriarchal. Men supposedly call the shots. Herewith are some of the stereotypes regarding men and women.
Men                          Women
Rational                   Emotional
Strong                      Weak
Aggressive                Nurturing
Tough                        Soft
Dominating              Tolerant (cf Basin 2001: 28).
One encounters these gender differences across different cultures. Men are supposed to be strong and daring (after all, according to the Bible, God created the man first). However, in Strife, there is a crisis of masculinities. Men are incapable of providing decisive and effective leadership. This worsens the crises.
Chinodya is not convinced that men live up to macho image that society has ascribed to them. While the late Yvonne Vera, Tsitsi Dangarembga and others have been preoccupied with women’s issues, in Strife, Chinodya questions/interrogates and doubts masculinities in a very direct way.
Njiki becomes the author’s mouthpiece when she charges, “You men call yourselves men but you are no more manly than women!”(85).
Using Tachiona, the author contends that men have been more destructive than women:
“Was she perhaps not a hapless victim, like most women of her time, like women of all times, of self-righteous patriarchal condemnation? (91).
In the closing drama, Patriarchy appears on stage, and is not very convincing. Patriarchy naively declares, “Men always know best. They run the world” (217). Given the state of the world today, Patriarchy would have been more accurate if he (it?) would have said, “men are running the world to the ground!”
The men in Strife are not high-flying role models. There are too many flaws in Dunge Gwanangara’s personality, and this facilitates the entry of trouble into his homestead. Whatever spiritual forces bedevil the family, his own weaknesses allow and worsen the chaos in the family. The following weaknesses are discernible in Dunge:

1)    Over-ambition. Masculinities are characterised by the desire for success at all costs. His desire to ensure that his family climbs out of the poverty trap and become “the best of the best” drives some of his children into mental problems. Their mental health is compromised by their father who forces them to excel and does not accept anything but excellence. Dunge’s quest for modernity and success, to have and to own, might have ultimately inflicted greater damage to his family than any other spiritual force in Strife.

2)    Indecision. Despite his burning drive for success, Dunge finds it difficult to make firm decisions and follow them through. He cannot decide whether his family is Christian or traditional. He vacillates, withdraws, suffers quietly and does not inspire.

3)    Emotional Aloofness. Men have been socialised to keep their emotions to themselves. This results in a gulf between them and their children. This has serious repercussions later in life, as the children find it difficult to relate to their father. When Dunge is involved in an accident, Godi confides, “I don’t remember touching father’s head before” (106). The emotional distance between fathers and sons makes it difficult for them to plan their lives together.

4)    Paranoia. Masculinity is not given once and for all. It has to be achieved and defended constantly. Dunge is always striving to defend his success, and imagines enemies all over the place. He prevents his family from going to Chivi to attend his brother Tachiona’s funeral (102), although he and his wife go. Throughout, he is at pains to protect his family against enemies.

5)    Authoritarianism. Dunge believes in benevolent dictatorship. He knows what is right for his family. He decides their career paths, and all they have to do is to follow the blueprint that he has come up with. He is not democratic, and as a result his family lurches from one crisis to another.
Dunge is not the only male character in Strife who demonstrates failure of leadership. Against the stereotype of a strong, healthy male body as the bastion of masculinity and patriarchal authority, Chinodya brings up the figure of Tachiona who regularly elbows his urine bag back into place (74). Men are not always physically imposing, Chinodya is reminding his readers. Where the dignity of the father must always be protected, Godi witnesses Dunge being assaulted by the possessed Kelvin. In addition, Rindai is epileptic, while Kelvin is mentally challenged. Godi himself neglects his own nuclear family, preoccupied as he is with the “more important” Gwanangara family matters. Overall, the men in Strife are not paragons of effective leadership. This is at both the nuclear, extended family and national levels.

For a Time such as This: Leadership in Times of Strife

It is possible to read Strife against the backdrop of the leadership question at the national level. Nelson Mandela has characterised the Zimbabwean crisis as, “a collective failure of leadership.” Can Dunge Gwangara, whose family is riddled with problems, provide inspired leadership to his political party? Can Godi, wholly absorbed by family drama, be productive at his workplace? Why has leadership by men in Zimbabwe been characterised by exceptional mediocrity? “Exhausted patriarchy” (?) has been blamed for the woes in postcolonial Zimbabwe. The strife that has gripped the country is to a very large extent a result of intolerant, violent, and

1. Chinodya challenges men to accept the voice and leadership of women. In the dialogue in the drama at the end of the book, he intimates that women’s leadership was more effective in the Gwanangara family than the paralysis offered by patriarchy (217). At any rate, history informs us of outstanding African women leaders who brought success to their communities (217).

2. There must be a more deliberate, reflexive and systematic approach to the interface between tradition and modernity. In Strife, the interface between tradition and modernity is not reflected upon. The Gwanangaras hover and vacillate between Christianity and ATRs, and nobody pauses to draw up “lessons learnt.” Politicians in Zimbabwe too are keen to ideologically bring up African culture to support their positions, and shift to Christianity whenever it is convenient to do so. Ideological criticism is critical if the paralysis brought about by the tension between tradition and modernity is not negotiated with the requisite clarity of thought. Men, who regard themselves as custodians of tradition, must interrogate the privileges they enjoy as a result of upholding tradition.

3. Strife suggests that masculinities must undergo radical transformation if the Zimbabwean society is to enjoy health and well-being. Men must become more sensitive and caring, and less authoritarian. Zimbabwe will blossom if men would become “servant leaders” characterised by humility and democracy. They must not regard citizens as subjects (Mamdani).

4. Men must accept to be second-best. From an early age, men are socialised to be the most successful, richest and most intelligent individuals in their communities. These dangerous masculinities manifest themselves in the national body politic. Although Dunge Gwanangara did not steal from his Indian employer, he sought to ensure that his family’s star would outshine the rest. This resulted in a family tragedy. Political leaders who have sought to project Zimbabwe as the suffering servant in the face of imperialism have brought tragedy to Zimbabwe. There is need to adopt the spirit of John the Baptist in the Bible, “I am not he---I am only a fore-runner---he must increase while I decrease.”

Conclusion

“I am happy I cried. A man needs tears. Without tears he is incomplete.” This is the conclusion to Mahala’s book, When a Man Cries. Strife lays bare leadership failure by  men. In our own time, Zimbabwe needs male leaders who can cry. It needs men who are moved by emotion, who cry to transform deserts of hopelessness and despair into oases of hope. Wanted are men who are moved by compassion when villagers are forced to marry their underage daughters because of hunger and starvation; men who find the cash shortage and attendant long queues unbearable; men who challenge the decay of institutions of higher learning. Zimbabwe now requires male leaders who can cry to transform the valley of dry bones into invigorating mountain tops that bring forth life, and life more abundantly.