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No riches for writer in Zimbabwe

Charles Rukuni ( Gemini )

When Zimbabwean author Charles Mungoshi received an award of 500 pounds (about $800) he said: "If I had been rich I would have donated my prize to the starving people of Ethiopia. But you see, I cannot because I have to survive too."

This simple quote aptly describes the plight not only of Mungoshi but almost all writers in Zimbabwe. Mungoshi is the author of 10 books. Four have won awards and another two earned special mentions in international competition.

The 500 pounds he received in London as a regional winner of the Commonwealth Writers Award is much more than he normally gets as royalties for all his books each year. Yet he is so convinced he will make it as an author that he left his job as literary director with the Zimbabwe Publishing House in Harare last February to devote more time to writing.

He admits: "One cannot survive through writing in Zimbabwe. If you are writing school textbooks, you may survive, but most of those who write these books are in the teaching profession and I do not know anyone who has left.

"The only writer who tried to survive on writing is Dambudzo Marechera, but he was not making much and he ended up sleeping in parks."

Marechera, author of three controversial English books-"The House of Hunger," "Black Sunlight" and "Mindblast"-died in 1987. He fled what was then Rhodesia, landed at Oxford University, was expelled, and received the Guardian Prize for Fiction for his first novel, "The House of Hunger," in 1979.

He made headlines because of an outburst at a party organized in his honour when he won the prize. He threw crockery at the guests and shouted: "I hadn't eaten for three days and here are people eating themselves sick in my honour."

In January 1982 when Marechera decided to return home, columnist Stephen Pile wrote in the London Sunday Times: "The controversial writer has in fact made precious little money and lives in a squat in a sleazy North London tenement.

"He sleeps all day, writes till he is exhausted and drinks himself senseless until dawn. He is probably the unhappiest person I have ever met."

Though aware of Marechera's predicament, Mungoshi says: "I am not making ends meet right now, but I decided to take up writing full time because I have a feeling that if I don't do it now I may not have the time.

"I may not become rich, but I think I must do all the writing I can now. It's a kind of compulsion. It's really for my personal satisfaction."

Mungoshi was born near the small Midlands town of Chivhu, about 100 kilometre south of the capital, Harare. He is the eldest in a family of eight; the next three children were girls. When he was three, in 1950, his father bought a small farm in Manyene.

He says: "I had the misfortune of growing up alone. When I went herding cattle I had no one to play with since I was followed by girls. So when the cattle had had enough and settled under tree sheds I found myself with nothing to do and I began inventing things in my head."

At school he started reading books, from comics to serious novels, and in 1964 in his second year of high school he had two short stories published by a local monthly magazine, Parade.

In 1966 he wrote his first novel in Shona, his native language, but it never saw the light of day. His second attempt the next year won the Rhodesia Literature Bureau prize of 20 pounds (about $32) in 1968.

The book, "Makunun'unu Maodzamwoyo" (literally "True but Heart-breaking") is the story of a girl being forced to marry an old man of her parents' choice rather than the young man of her own choice.

Ironically, though this book was written in Shona, Mungoshi did not study the language at secondary school level; the missionaries who ran his school felt there was no future in the language. On the other hand, the leaders of the ruling Ian Smith regime believed no black could write in English.

Mungoshi says: "The publishing houses we had in Rhodesia at the time did not think a black man could write anything in English that was worth selling. If they published anything in English at all, it had to be written by a white man."

For this reason he sent his first book in English to Kenya. "Coming of the Dry Season," a collection of short stories, was published by Oxford University Press in 1972. The book was banned in Rhedesia two years later because most of the stories dealt with the political situation then prevailing in the country.

In 1975 Mungoshi published two books, one in Shona and the other in English. "Ndikokupindana Kwamazuva" ("That's How Days Go By") and "Waiting for the Rain" each won the Book Centre PEN award for being the best in their languages.

Six other books followed, including a translation into Shona of exiled Kenyan Ngugi Wa Thiongo's "Grain of Wheat into Shona."

"Inongova Njakenjake" ("It's All One for Himself") and "Kunyarara Hakusi Kutaura" ("Silence Is Not Talking") each got special mention in the Norma Award for publishing. His 10th book, "The Rolling World and Setting Sun" won the Commonwealth Writers Award as runner-up.

Mungoshi's chain of books, all very popular in Zimbabwe, have brought small financial reward. He says: "I only get between $750 and $1,000 in royalties, each year from all the books." 'Makunun'unu Maodzamwoyo' made quite a lot of money in 1981-82 when it was made into a set-book for secondary school and I managed to buy a car from the royalties.

"The only way an author can survive in Zimbabwe is when his book is made into a set-book. Our people just do not buy books. Maybe it has to do with the literacy rate, so one has to rely on schools as the books become compulsory when made into set-books."

Mungoshi also believes publishers are to blame for poor sales. Overseas publishers do not promote books by black writers vigorously enough, he said. When he went to London to receive his prize he did not see a single copy of his latest book on the shelves.

Local publishers are worse, he says. "Coming of the Dry Season" has been out of print for more than 18 months although there is a demand for it, he said.

To promote his werks, "I sometimes do public readings which I am not paid for, but I get some publicity. I have also dramatized for television some of my books, but unlike overseas the rewards are not that great."

"There were paying scriptwriters as well as actors $20 for each 30-minute episode. This has since been raised to $100 an episode for both writer and actor," he said.

To make more money, Mungoshi usually writes the script and acts in the play with his wife Jessessi. In that way they make about $300 an episode, which for Zimbabwean standards is not bad.

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