Following in the Footsteps of Dambudzo Marechera
by Tinashe Mushakavanhu
17 May 2011
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