Dambudzo Marechera (his first name means hardship or strife) was certainly a man of troubles – at least insofar as he was gifted with two opposing qualities – being at once a fighter and one gifted with great intellect and artistic sensitivity. Those psychologically opposite characteristics – features of the historical mood and changes of the time gave him an exhuberant attitude to life despite the early disadvantages of poverty and violence that surrounded much of his youth. There is more to it – and the complexity of Marechera’s early life and continued literary existence is deeply entwined with notions of spirituality. His profound intellectual and self investigations are never without this aspect. In all, he wanted to find out about his world and about himself so as to be able to heal the social and political rifts he encountered – particularly those in Zimbabwe, which was a place dear to his heart. Due to his profoundly experiential approach to investigating the world as he passed through it, and due to his attempts to push his own subjectivity to extremes – perhaps at times almost beyond its limits – one has to look at Marechera’s quest for knowledge and for healing of himself and others in a different light that that of the merely literary. His use of psychoactive drugs in order to enhance his awareness and creativity, and his use of literary doubles (or, at times, multiple versions of his self) are always mingled with political critique in his work. The peculiarity of the Marecheran genre, which integrates social and political critique with classical and high modernist literary and aesthetic motifs, which partake together with ghostly apparitions of the past and present, suggest that his approach had much in common with the cultural phenomenon known as shamanism. It seems that Marechera, in his determination, and by virtue of his gifted creative mind, invented and improvised various ways of coping within some of the most extreme social situations imaginable by following a pathway of development that has been revealed by those who study the subject as being “shamanistic”. These are: The initiation crisis, communion with spirits, and healing of the community.
There are other ways in which Marechera’s life and work can be considered shamanistic. His intellect is deeply cosmological in its approach – he seeks, through his poetry, prose fiction, and plays, to critique what is currently out of balance in the societies he passed through. His often darkly humorous but sometimes devastating criticisms of the cultural status quos are accompanied by dialectical intellectual and psychological engagement with “the spirits” of his time. Thus his writing ought to be seen as representing a programme to restore to that within society that has been politically corrupted or damaged, a balanced relationship between the cultural realms of high and low. This role of opening up communication between the heavens, the earth and the underworld (in Marechera’s case, we could take this as signifigying the realm of personal and autobiographical torment) is — symbolically at least – shamanistic. Mircea Eliade describes the ability to establish a spiritual unity between these three realms as the defining role of the shaman. I will take an approach that assumes the spirits that Marechera encountered in his literary journeys were not seen by him as literal ghosts, but were more rather his way of expressing figuratively and aesthetically his encounters with certain political and ideological currents. I do not wish to deny, however, that Marechera’s writing, in its inception, was probably deeply influenced by a cultural undercurrent of traditional Zimbabwean religious thought, which posits the actual existence of ancestral and demonic spirits.
– Stephen Chan, in his biography of Robert Mugabe, pinpoints how an essential aspect about Marechera’s own life has been overlooked by his critics. He says:
What the [Marechera literary] industry does not deeply invesitage is the spiritual cause of fracture within the delicate being of Marechera. Possessed of a spirit, Marechera’s mother relieved herself of it by having it ritually transferred to Marechera.
Chan goes on to suggest that this may have been an underlying cause in what he sees as the suspension of Marechera’s “mental balance in its own esoteric scales.” ( p 182). My own views concur with those of Chan, in agreeing that much of Marechera’s emotional distress was related to his family of origin and their values, experiences, and demise. What Chan’s point does illustrate for us is that the spiritism of Marechera’s writing (whether taken as figurative or literal) has deep cultural resonances within the traditional cultures of Zimbabwe. For, “spiritual endorsement of the liberation stuggle was vital to the guerillas, both as a link to the rural peope who helped protect their whereabouts and as a validation of themselves who were at risk of being killed. (p 182). So, much of what may be taken as mental imbalance in Marechera’s works may, in fact, be based, more solidly on cultural attitudes and motifs. This assessment applies as much to Chan’s critique as to others. The views that Marechera descended into a state of mental unbalance – even if this state were to be caused by spirits — seems to me to be too simple an explanation of his life and perspectives. His extremely sharp and emotionally engaging political critiques were made by him whilst in situations of immense hardship – financially in particular. (He was homeless for many months at a time, both in London and later in Harare.) That is to say that these were made from within contexts in which most of us would be struggling to remain lucid in order to say anything intelligent at all – much less hitting the nail on the head with such flamboyance and aplomb. Once again, this almost supernatural quality of coping skills seems to indicate the presence of a superior character – and not just, as western Romantics might have it – a superior mind cracking under stress. According to the literature on shamanism, shamans are generally of exceptional mental health, very robust and energetic. Given the circumstances that Marechera encountered in life – and especially taking into account his early origins, which were extremely disadvantaged – we do see this kind of exceptional resilience in Marechera.