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from the May 2008 issue

Of Words and Borders

As a writer, I have come to know that writers have the misfortune of being invited to speak on things about which they know absolutely nothing. What do I know about this magic string of words: "Hospitality knows no borders." All I know is that millions of innocent people have been killed or died fighting to preserve those things called borders, frontiers, boundaries, some kind of barriers against your friends or enemies, even if they are only potential enemies.

Imagine a world without borders. Automatically millions of people will lose their jobs. I am talking of passport officers, immigration officers, soldiers; military factories would close, gun traders would probably have to go home. Fence makers would have nothing to fence in or out. Builders of high, defensive walls, they will be unemployed. Makers of the technology of borders, all those would have to retire to be retrained for some other useful trade. What a wonderful world!

Words are always a search for possibilities, they are fluid and they break like eggs, as my friend the poet Niyi Osundare says. Who said words are fragile? They are indeed fragile, but it has come to the notice of the world that the owners of words, the creators of these dots on paper, are more vulnerable than the word itself.

Was it the Greek philosopher Plato who poetically said poets should be banned from the republic? As far as I can see, the republic usually demands quantifiable things, bridges, roads, tall buildings, an abundance of police and security officers. The republic seems to hate words, images, metaphors.

Hence the creators of words and images find themselves as vulnerable as their creations. The republic is afraid of images to which it does not exercise control.

Control, that is the word, the power to give meaning to things, events, shapes and sizes of things, the power to name reality. Under dictatorial and suppressive regimes, "words cause itches on the private parts of the republic."

Words name the nakedness of the emperor as it is, its beauty and its ugliness. Writers, and indeed all artists, search for new ways of naming the angels and their devils. But you see, the angels and devils of the republic happen to own the institutions of giving or depriving others of freedom in all its manifestationsófreedom to create words, freedom to share them, freedom to move across borders (real or imagined), freedom to name the sound of the waves.

Sometimes I think that we, as writers, word crafters, are persecuted by mistake. How can the whole republic be so afraid of a mere mortal who does not even own a house, who owns only a mind and heart that he or she listens to? How can the republic think it will collapse if words are allowed to mushroom in the hearts and minds of the citizens?

But then I know, from experience, that in the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, the word became flesh.

Before I left my cruel, beloved country in 2001, four heavily armed police officers came to arrest me. I mean heavily armed, to come to arrest a single writer. The alleged crime was that I was a drug dealer, shipping cannabis across the border to Botswana, although I had never been to that border in my life. When I successfully explained myself out of the imminent arrest, I asked the senior officer why they would bring guns to arrest a mere writer. His answer was that there was the possibility of me running away.

Then I thought, have words, poems, lyrics, become contraband? As the policemen drove away, friends could only warn: "You have asked for it again? You and your poetry are in trouble."

In places where governments manufacture silence alongside bullets, words and those who produce them are a serious threat to national security. As Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano once said: "Internal exile is always harder and more futile than any exile outside."

Before we left home, we were already in exile, banished to prison, to borders of silence, to a forced amnesia, to a life of total insecurity. The midnight knock on our doors always exhausted us with fear. In my case, I decided to work throughout most nights until sunrise, to avoid the nightmares.

Reality is elusive, like a dream. It needs to be named. Those who have the capacity to search for new names for this elusive dream called reality are, indeed, in danger. For, after they take away our reality, they also want to take away our dreams, our visions in their total complexity.

I believe writers and other artists have the task, the duty to celebrate human joy, sadness, human folly, and the ugliness and beauty of our social and cultural aspirations. We try to celebrate the lies and truths which we tell ourselves. In other words, we fight for the right to be wrong but free.

A writer denied the right to celebrate the moon, love, flowers, hatred, and doubt is like a bird denied singing to the arrival of the flowers of spring. Such a bird dies a slow and painful death. The death of memory is the death of creativity. We are dealing with lives, with the word as a living invention whose origin we don't even know. Human beings became human because of their capacity to name things, to name themselves, thus locate themselves in the universe. To locate ourselves thus means we create what I would dare to call a cosmovision, a vision of the harmony and disharmony of being where we are, of being human beings walking on two feet, not four.

It is only recently, not more than a hundred years ago, if I remember, that the Church of Rome allowed the ordinary people to read the Bible on their own. The high priests did not want to lose control of the word.

The republic does not want to lose control of the word. The republic is, in our troubled times, the new High Church, with the power to create prisons and handcuffs, the power to decide who goes inside those prisons and who remains outside of them.

We know that corrupt bank managers, police officers, and politicians go to jail whimpering for their freedom. The writer too goes to jail, but words have taught the writer what the others have not learnt. Words are an instrument of defiance and celebration. The corrupt businessman cries because he has been deprived of the facility to spend his money on some god-forsaken island, in bikinis and swimsuits. The corrupt policeman cries because he knows how bad it is to be inside the prison. But the writer sometimes defiantly asks the prison office locking his cell: "Why are you locking yourself out?" as one Zimbabwean asked the officer before he was declared "insane" and released.

We live in a dangerous world, especially for those who do not succumb to the things which society has been drugged into believing are normal. Excessive wealth, excessive poverty living alongside each other like sister and brother in a hate relationship. We live in a world where there are so many borders that we have been taught not to see.

A young German student studying my works asked me in a questionnaire if Africa was going to achieve the same level of grand respect for human rights as Europe. I had to politely say to him: human rights abuses are only so subtly hidden in your country that you are being told not to see them, and the tragedy is that you believe your country is a perfect example.

Indeed, we have so many borders. The most dangerous ones are those we are not not to see. Racism, economic disparities, hatred in our history books, power for the haves and ghettoes for those who produce after the hardest labor for our world. Religious fanaticism disguised as civilization, the new "crusades" of trying to convert everyone to this or that religion as if there could ever be found a society without its own religion.

For goodness sake, if I have been worshipping my god through a rock or a tree or a mosque or a cathedral, and it worked in more ways than one for thousands of years, please be polite enough to respect me and leave me alone with my gods.

A writer has to contend with the reality that there are too many Christians without Christ, too many Muslims without Prophet Mohammed. Otherwise how can we understand a powerful Christian leader who authorizes the bombing and torture of hundreds of innocent people? And every Sunday he attends church. How else can we understand a religious leader who authorizes his followers to go around beheading anyone they do not agree with? Christians without Christ, Muslims without Mohammed, as far as I can see.

As writers and artists, most of us have to try hard to sharpen our vision and use it to fight those religious distortions and absurdities. The risks are real, so we seek "hospitality" in other lands, far away from the lands which are part of our psychological, geo-emotional, linguistic and historical selves. We become nomads, living more in other countries than in our own, learning to pronounce languages which we have never dreamt we would learn.

The most painful part of exile is the sudden realization that you may not come back, the sudden removal of the possibility to return to those voices, sounds, smells and movements with which you entered the world of meaning.

As the plane takes off, you look at the trees through the window, the tarmac, the little hills where you learned to shoot the little birds with catapults, the little houses where your mother could be sitting, yearning for your return. You see them all, you hear even the sound of the wind, you hear the rippling sounds of the little stream where you swam and bathed. Then you know that you are not likely to come back for a long time.

Then you sit in a foreign land, you know only the way to the office and a few side streets. You start to learn the new names of people and things. You become a child again, learning basic things like what food to buy without being sure whether it will cause you sleepless nights or give you satisfaction. You make so many mistakes. You even buy some powder thinking it is salt when it is some obnoxious substance usually used for the laundry machine.

Yes, you are a stranger in these parts. Everything plays tricks on you. The sun rises in the wrong place. The rivers flow in the wrong direction. The most important question you rehearse to answer becomes: "Where do you come from?" as if you are an intruder in all places, at all times. And when you answer, the faces around you shrink with disgust. Then you withdraw into yourself, the borders have been erected. Nightmares every night. You are alone in a crowd, without a country.

Pain. No extra ears to pour this pain into, to share the "one hundred years of solitude," as Gabriel García Marquez called it. You are sure that you are a candidate for the nearest mental hospital. You fear everything, even yourself.

It is the pain of longing to be where you should be, to be home. The pain of unfulfilled desire to return, to walk among the people who will call you by name at every street corner.

And when you call home, your family might not even feel free to talk to you. You discover that the whole previous week, the government newspapers, the only ones in existence, had hysterically dedicated several pages to denouncing you as "an unpatriotic coward," "a traitor," "a sell-out." All the language of slander is poured on you as if you were such a powerful person that if you had remained in the country, you would have taken over the statehouse. Even your own friends, journalists and writers, suddenly discover that it makes them more popular to denounce you. They might even get a small reward from the statehouse, chairman of some commission whose function is yet to be invented.

Writers in our parts of the world are vulnerable, so our vulnerability demands the removal of borders so the weak can escape and learn to be strong again, to smile, to laugh, to walk in the sun and feel this world is a healthy home to be.

In fact, it is true that we are the lucky ones, leaving home on a plane, flying away. There are those who cross crocodile-infested rivers to escape. No one knows about them. They do not even dream of a passport. There are over three million such Zimbabweans in South Africa. There are those who drown daily in the seas trying to escape on some broken-down boat. And when they reach the place of unlimited "hospitality," they are bundled back on the next plane, destination "home," bitter home, where there are still other borders waiting to welcome them harshly.

Copyright Chenjerai Hove. By arrangement with the author. All rights reserved.

Read more from the May 2008 issue
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