Teaching the Children

It’s one thing to teach children how to conform to what society expects of them. This requirement to conform is represented as necessarily painful, although ultimately productive, in Lacan’s notion of castration. It is by this means that children leave the realm of Nature and enter into the realm of the Civilised social order.

How does Marechera’s views on teaching the children differ from this process outlined above? Clearly there is a great deal in terms of children’s “natures” that Marechera has no wish to refine, correct and adjust to the social order. In fact, his mode of writing to children is a form of teasing their minds and emotions, in a way that invites these young minds to reach out and explore their local environments for themselves. Marechera’s writing to children invites them to doubt the veracity and integrity of the adults and their worlds, and to adopt and independent and adventurous mode of being, perhaps with also using literature as an emotional window on the world.

How could a Zimbabwean child, who would almost certainly live much closer to animals and to nature than many a Western child would have the opportunity to do, be anything other than amused at a story which spoke of a cat sneezing, startling the mice, with the consequence that the cat’s whiskers shrunk in shame? ( p 220, Scrapiron Blues). The subtle injuction attending this segment from the Marecheran short story on “The Magic Cat” night be not to believe everything you hear. This tone of mocking hilarity also accompanies the following segment, which would be read differently by Zimbabwean adults than Zimbabwean children (although the children, too, would one day put two and two together about idealised and genteel world of the magic cat:

My Cat asked the soldier”Where is Heroes’ Acre?”The Soldier smiled and pointedMy cat loves the Eternal Flame.
The soldiers at Heroes’ Acre are notoriously taciturn. It would be hard to imagine them smiling and pointing, then, even for the pleasure of something as innocuous as a magic cat. And it is, notably, the author’s cat — rather than the author himself — who “loves the Eternal Flame”. The author’s subtle snubbing of the state socialist regime is readily apparent in this children’s short story he wrote in the early 80s. Already a few years after national liberation, it was apparent to the author that there were autocratic aspects to the regime — including keeping him in Zimbabwe when he wanted to leave. His own experiential knowledge of a hidden, and politically repressed reality, is conveyed through the foil of his cat.

There is present in this a peculiarly Zimbabwean flavour of humour, however. To take note of, and to surreptitiously remark upon the discrepancies one sees between lived reality and the officially contrived versions thereof, has traditionally been a mode of political and social commentary in Zimbabwe for a very long time.

Marechera’s children’s writing, which invites children to see the discrepancies between reality and purported reality, is therefore profoundly culturally Zimbabwean.
In Fuzzy Goo’s Guide (to the Earth), Marechera goes even further in his endeavours to safeguard children from the devices of “civilisation” employed by adults. He encourages them to doubt and fear a range of adult authorities — including the police, ambulance men who “rape you (girl or boy) if you are unconscious”, and the powerful members of the political inner circle known locally as the “chefs”. To instil an emotional tendency towards doubting one’s authorities is arguably a way of protecting the young from ideological subsumption into the political roles and models formed by their elders. Such protection is particularly pertinent in a society which is violent and/or exploitative. One must put a wedge between the adult world and the children’s world, in order to preserve the children by making them adopt a mode which is constructively “paranoid”. (see Isabel Menzies Lyth on “Constructive Paranoia”.) This mode of seeing is also related to the facility of the strong mind which – aware of its anxiety — overcomes a human tendency to revert to primitive psychological defences [as described by Menzies Lyth] in the face of overwhelming anxiety. “Paranoid means seeing all the things which big humans have been taught not to see.” ( p 241)
Marechera draws very much from his own experiences in his education of the children. His teachings, being experiential, invoke shamanistic wisdom — they are not abstract teachings, or those based upon transcendental principles. Rather, the teachings furnish the emotional and cognitive basis for living in an objectively dangerous world.
You know what I said about big people! They have a torture machine called drought which they bang on the heads of the little people: they say there is no food. Drought means no food for the little citizens. All the big chefs will be eating silly — but not for you. Especially if you are sick. ( p 243)
Marechera’s advice to children, as I have said, is to be independent as much as possible, and to seek to experience the world on their own terms, on pain of death:
So when you know you are growing up you must kill yourself before you become just another very boring blah. If you are a coward, then you must smoke ganga or get mean and drunk every day and night. It is usually better to run away from home. All you need is a rucksack and a small tent. If you stay in society and the big ones want to beat up the other society next door they will put you into the army and you will get your small finger and private parts blown up with bombs. It is very painful. If you stay in society, the big ones will make you stand in line in the streets and wave stupid flags and sing horrible national songs, and be kissed by the thick drunken lips of the biggest of the big human beings. They won’t let you pee when you want to but when they want you to. ( p 241)
The writer’s message to children is clear: If you do not want your lives totally controlled all the way down to every microscopic detail — including when you can pee — and if you want to escape the fate of beind reduced to both the ordinary and more extreme forms of misery that are the lot of adult human beings, you must take extreme action up to and including running away from home.
From Dambudzo Marechera’s passionately experiential and humorous point of view, the greatest danger that can come to children is that presented by adults and by their ideals of “civilisation”.

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2 thoughts on “Teaching the Children

  1. A Zimbabwe joke is no laughing matter The TimesJune 27, 2008Tyrants may try to ban it, but humour has a way of seeping through the cracks of any dictatorshipBen MacintyreHeard the one about Zimbabwe? A policeman stops a motorist and asks for a donation: terrorists have kidnapped the former Sir Robert Mugabe, and have vowed to soak him in petrol and set him alight if the ransom is not paid.“How much are other people giving?” the motorist asks.“On average about two or three litres.” It may not be new, or even funny, but the joke represents one of the few points of light on the dark landscape of Zimbabwe. Mugabe and his thugs have killed off any meaningful election, food shortages are acute, inflation is heading for 1.5 million per cent, but one currency in Zimbabwe is steadily increasing in value – jokes.Unreported amid the horrors is the growth of underground anti-government humour. Jokes about Mugabe are a crime; anyone saying or writing anything insulting to the Government is liable to be arrested. Yet the jokes are spreading, by text message, e-mail and by word of mouth. The http://www.nyambo.com website is dedicated to Zimbabwean humour. (“Nyambo” is Shona for “jokes”.) Question: What did Zimbabweans use for light before candles? Answer: Electricity.There is no sound more terrifying to a tyrant than a collective snigger. “Every joke is a tiny revolution,” George Orwell wrote. The moment of truth for the Romanian tyrant Nicolae Ceausescu came when he looked out over the balcony during a rally in Bucharest and heard not the regimented chanting of a cowed people but the unmistakable susurrus of rebellion, a welling, mocking laughter that signalled the end.Jokes alone cannot topple dictators, but anti-regime humour is the most subtle form of revolt, the slow erosion of a despot’s dignity, a survival mechanism, a cathartic snook cocked at the stupidity, cruelty and hypocrisy of life under the boot.Autocrats have seldom managed to suppress humour, although most have tried. Satire is banned in North Korea, the world’s most humourless land. Earlier this month, police arrested Zarganar, Burma’s most famous comedian, who has attracted a wide following by mocking its military rulers. Zarganar had led efforts to distribute humanitarian aid to victims of Cyclone Nargis. Official reports accused “unscrupulous elements” of exaggerating the country’s problems.“Humour,” as Joseph Goebbels remarked, “has its limits.” He was wrong, of course, for humour has no limits, and an uncanny way of seeping through cracks of the most vicious dictatorship.Iraqis laughed behind their hands at Saddam Hussein, Romanians secretly teased Ceausescu (Why does he hold a May Day rally each year? To see how many people have survived the winter) and the French Revolution was preceded by a spontaneous upsurge of ribald humour at the expense of the monarchy.Perhaps the most extraordinary proof of how humour can survive and even flourish under oppression is the spread of jokes under Soviet communism. In a fascinating new study entitled Hammer and Tickle, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, Ben Lewis explores the wealth of subversive humour during the long, bleak decades of communism.People gathered, treasured and exchanged jokes, the “music of the oppressed”, in Lewis’s words – jokes about the endless shortages, official corruption, and the chasm between official pronouncement and crushing everyday reality: laughter in the face of unhappy truth.Question: What stage comes between socialism and communism? Answer: Alcoholism.Humour did not defeat communism, but it helped, chipping away at the plinth of dignity and omniscience on which the entire, ludicrous structure was perched. Ronald Reagan used to insist on telling anti-Soviet jokes to Mikhail Gorbachev at every meeting, to make a point – that the jokes made about him did not threaten the entire political system.Party bosses understood the danger, and attempted to co-opt humour itself. Stalin encouraged jokes about Trotsky. Soviet ideologues invented “positive humour”, a genre designed to emphasise the virtues of communism, and hilariously unfunny.The most chilling moment in The Lives of Others, the brilliant 2007 film about East Germany’s surveillance society, comes when a Stasi boss overhears a young underling telling a mild joke about Erich Honecker: he bids him repeat the joke, laughs heartily and then takes down his name and rank.Perhaps the same sort of thinking lies behind Robert Mugabe’s amusing dress sense – wear a ludicrous shirt and see who dares laugh, the Emperor’s New Clothes in reverse.Hitler authorised a book of cartoons in 1933 respectfully satirising himself, apparently in the belief that if humour was tolerated, up to a point, it might be controlled.A thin but resilient vein of humour persisted, even in the death camps, where a mordant Jewish wit survived. What is the difference between a Jewish optimist and Jewish pessimist: Jewish pessimists are all in exile; Jewish optimists are all in concentration camps.In July 1944 Father Josef Möller was sentenced to hang by a Nazi court for “one of the most vile and dangerous attacks directed at our confidence in our Führer”.He had told two parishioners this joke. A fatally wounded German soldier asked his chaplain to grant a final wish: “Place a picture of Hitler on one side of me, and a picture of Goering on the other side; that way I can die like Jesus – between two criminals.”Möller’s last joke, Holocaust humour, the Soviets mocking their own plight and the thousands of Zimbabweans exchanging grim laughter in the face of brutality – these mark the strange point in history where courage and comedy combine. The very best jokes do not just make us laugh.

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