Everyone knows of that time
That time nobody wants to go back to
That time that will never be forgotten
That time we never speak of
Screams in the night
Fear gripping the most brave
Nobody wants to witness the shame
Daylight brings sunshine and blue skies
Yet the brightest song from the birds
Can never soak away
The blood drenching the earth
Calling out for justice
Mothers bear a fatherless generation
Girls pay with their sexed bodies
Young men flee for their lives
Fathers killed for their politics
Silence labours to erase
The trace of that time
But like a woman bewitched
Produces a thousand times more
The stench of death
(Poem by Duduzile S. Ndlovu, 2015)
Zimbabwe, a country on the southern tip of Africa, gained independence from direct colonial rule in 1980. This signalled the end of the liberation struggle; however, people in the Matabeleland and Midlands parts of the country (which were also strongholds for the opposition party at that time) experienced another war, this time at the hands of the army of the newly-independent country.
The poem above reflects on this period, which is popularly known as Gukurahundi, where 20,000 people were killed or disappeared from 1980 to 1987. Much has been written on the causes of the Gukurahundi violence and most importantly that its victims have not received any acknowledgement or restitution for the pain suffered. Many see the Gukurahundi as a genocide meant to annihilate the Ndebele from Zimbabwe. The Zimbabwean government has justified its silencing of the memorialisation of the violence by arguing that speaking about the Gukurahundi will incite ethnic division in the country.
Since the late 1990s, Zimbabwe began to experience economic decline resulting in an increase in the number of those migrating to neighbouring countries such as Botswana and South Africa, some as far as the United Kingdom and other countries across the globe in search of economic opportunities. As people migrate, they carry along with them their memories and trauma across the borders. Some of the victims of the Gukurahundi who migrated to Johannesburg find in it space to commemorate the Gukurahundi – which they couldn’t do in Zimbabwe, where the government prevented such efforts.
There are calls for the acknowledgment of the Gukurahundi and for the truth about the atrocities to be made public so the perpetrators can be held accountable. However, a male-centric, ethnic and nationalistic memorial narrative prevails in these memorials and calls for acknowledgement, reparation and reconciliation. Some calls for acknowledgement, for example, demand the cessation of borders to create an ethnically pure nation for the victims. This is despite the fact that many women were sexually violated and conceived and bore children out of the rape, thus making the idea of an ethnically pure nation impossible. Speaking about the sexual violence that many women (and some men) experienced and the presence of children born out of this thus presents an inconvenient truth.
These calls for acknowledgement therefore do not provide women with spaces where they can speak about their pain from the sexual violence. The gendered location of women, their experience of conflict and how it is remembered is rarely captured and represented in popular memory (see, for example, ‘Gender, Memorialization, and Symbolic Reparations’ by Brandon Hamber and Ingrid Palmary). The above poem, ‘Silence’, which I wrote in 2015, seeks to rectify this, and make visible the ways in which violence is gendered, and how conflict is felt differently on different bodies.
Dudu Ndlovu is a postdoctoral fellow at the African Centre for Migration and Society. Her research interests include exploring arts-based research methods as a form of decolonising knowledge production; interrogating intersectionality through narrative work; and analysing the gendered politics of memory. Since March 2018, she has been developing this research agenda through a Newton Advanced Fellowship attached to the University of Edinburgh, Centre for African Studies (CAS) (2018-2020). Dudu completed her PhD at the University of the Witwatersrand focusing on Zimbabwean migrants’ use of art (poetry, music, drama, film) to navigate precarious lives; speak about violence – including the Gukurahundi in Zimbabwe and xenophobia in South Africa, and memorialise those events. More of her poetry can be found here.