At school, aged 16, Rhodesia, 1964. Punishment: write 1000 words on the topic ‘The Inside of a Bubble’. Despite considerable effort, my essay was rejected with a harsh reprimand. Besides the charms of its shimmering inner skin, I had described what I could see through the bubble. That was not allowed. I had to re-write the essay, focusing solely on the restricted space. Looking back now, that punishment seems uncannily revealing.
The white colonial society I grew up in was a bubble. And yes, it was beautiful in many ways for the privileged few. But it was sealed; its inhabitants inhaling and exhaling the same stale, recycled air, unable to breath in any other consciousness for fear of contamination and degradation. Our standards were the standards of the great British motherland. At school we read Wordsworth and Dickens and studied English history. I’d never seen a daffodil or an oak tree but clearly they were far, far superior to any local ‘bush’ flowers or trees. Evidence in books proved that real towns in proper countries had real history with cobbled streets, castles, old curiosity shoppes and kings, lords and ladies. Nothing local could be beautiful or important.
It is difficult now to envisage how limited our existence was, or how strictly the prescribed boundaries were monitored. Any attempt to reach out or look beyond was considered dangerous, a threat to the whole society, punished by a suffocating armoury of subtle and not-so-subtle disapprovals, threats of rejection and sheer disgust. Yet knowledge was screaming out everywhere. Everyday there were incidents. Some slight, almost unnoticed, just tremors or shadows in the subconscious. Others were deeply disturbing. That same year, 1964, I remember cringing with shame as the dust from the car wheels smothered and blinded the black farmworkers along the road, making them cough for air and cover their faces. They were walking home, hungry and exhausted from labouring in the fields. I was the farmer’s daughter, a rich white girl in a pretty dress driving to a party in the city. Questions were shrugged off. Discussion brushed aside. The causes, reasons, meanings, supposedly beyond my understanding and beyond anyone’s wish or ability to change. Life was just like that. But it wasn’t. Not really. I knew that.
When I found a copy of Two Tone in a Salisbury bookshop it offered a tiny possibility. It was not dramatic or revolutionary, just the smallest change in the environment. The first and easier change, one I welcomed with fervent adolescent passion, was the recognition of local beauty and particularity. Poets who could write about dust, cicadas and granite rocks, termite mounds and the smell of rain on hot dry earth. Local stories, scenes and characters described with pride and empathy. And then there was the other, the poems by the black people who filled my world but were somehow not part of it. In David Chipiri Jamali’s poem, ‘My Burning Mind’, I recognised what I felt and what I knew, no matter how many disavowals.
“The injustices I see build the infernos
which come down and settle on my mind
I am finding ways to trace the causes
Distribution of wealth is one injustice
Allocation of land is another thing
Shares and wages divide the population
All these injustices build an inferno
Which settles down on my mind
To burn the mind and all my hopes
My mind burns just like all flammable things
Day by day the inferno builds
Which burns my mind to torture the heart.”
Gradually I found other sources of mental oxygen: short stories by black Zimbabweans began to appear in cheap and easily accessible magazines like Parade, Moto and later Horizon, opening up clearer views into the realities we were living in. Years later, walking on one of Nyanga’s many hills, in a rustle of long dry grasses and the flickering patter of light-leaved msasa trees, I looked over a granite ridge into a valley filled edge-to-edge with primly painted bungalows, mowed lawns, pruned rose bushes and little fir trees, and my heart filled with rage. A dark and burning rage, an inferno, a moment of knowing how it might feel to be a black Zimbabwean living in the ugliness imposed by outsiders who claim predominance. Without doubt, I owe much of what understanding I have to those black poets and storytellers whose words helped me to breathe and to see.
Two Tone did not publish literary masterpieces, and it has been criticised for its conservative and patronising approach. But, by publishing even just a few poems by black writers, at a time when I most needed them, Two Tone provided intimations of reality that helped to burst the bubble of one-toned Rhodesian consciousness.