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Following in the Footsteps of Dambudzo Marechera

by Tinashe Mushakavanhu

17 May 2011

Dambudzo Marechera

In 1979, Dambudzo Marechera dramatically travelled to the then West Berlin without valid travel documents, at a time when security paranoia had not gripped the world as it became post 9/11. When he arrived the German authorities held him in a back room for several hours, but after negotiations between his hosts and the authorities, Marechera entered Berlin. And his fame was to be firmly fortified by this spectacular arrival.

In a press conference, he projected himself as a ‘guerrilla’ writer. It worked wonders. In fact, it is even said that the great publicity he gained resulted in a contract for the German translation of his book, The House of Hunger.

In a weird sort of way I have been following his footsteps, without a desire to become another Marechera but simply to understand the man and his writings. While Marechera’s Berlin was part of a fractured city, I recently visited a different Berlin. The dividing wall was knocked down decades ago and the two halves were merged into one whole city. During my stay, I criss-crossed from east to west and west to east.

The Berlin trip was special. My host was Prof Flora Veit-Wild, without whose hard work and industry Dambduzo Marechera could have easily been a forgotten writer. The trip happened after so many frustrating visa hassles – rejection, appeal, rejection, appeal – and I was finally granted passage.

Interestingly, my port of entry was the same as the one Marechera used: Berlin-Tegel Airport (unfortunately, the airport will be pulled down in 2012). Of-course, I didn’t plan it that way, some of this detail, coincidentally stuck out as I perused the Dambudzo Marechera Source Book.

Berlin pulsates with living history – it’s big in culture and character and cuisine. But, there is no escaping the past there. Museums are at every turn. The architecture is a reminder of the different historical shades of the city. Even though scars of the past remain, Berlin is a city reassuringly forward-looking, cosmopolitan in every sense.

What fascinates me about Dambudzo Marechera is not so much his colourful personality but rather his ‘free spirit’ – the range and depth of his experiences. The hankering for truth, the not-taking-things-for-granted attitude. Everything and everyone is open to interrogation. For him, life is not simply a game of truth or dare, it is both.

I worry when I travel to places where I can’t speak the language. But then again, sometimes it’s great to be in a place where you can’t speak the language and you just be and float along in the sea of human existence. It scared me at first but I got to like the feeling, sitting on a train, people laughing at jokes you have no clue about, lovers smiling and whispering to each other. It’s just profound to be there as a witness to the motions of humanity.

At some point, I sat to eat at a restaurant facing Wittenburg Station called Noah’s. I picked the restaurant for nothing else but its name, my own father’s name. I sat outside the restaurant people-watching, scribbling notes of my presentation on Marechera at Humboldt University. A young couple passed by and left my heart with a big yearning. Will a day come when I will hold hands with a woman, my woman, and freely walk together through a city? Perhaps, as I sat there waiting for my German meal, in a contemplative posture, Berlin got me dreamy of a Marecherean  Amelia whom he beautifully eulogizes in Cemetery of the Mind.

Before Berlin, I had been to Oxford, Sheffield, London meeting and talking to people who knew Marechera, being taken down Memory Lane, to a time when the young writer was in constant search of himself, living at the fringe of society or always on the go.

In Wales, Marechera spent seven months in a Cardiff jail for possessing cannabis and harassing a landlord. I met and did readings with Peter Finch, a prominent Welsh publisher, whom Marechera claimed to have given a long poem for publication – A Helmet of Darkness, which, unfortunately has never been found. It was at this time I spent a year at a small Welsh university where I was to be the only black student on campus. Sometimes, it felt like a jail of a kind.

And now, I know too well from experience what it means to be a black insider.

First published on zimbojam.com