WORKS of art including paintings, folktales, songs and dance often transcend mere entertainment and are capable of more than one meaning, with individual or group interpretations entirely dependent on cultural backgrounds or ideological thrust.
Consequently, art becomes a mirror, a platform, a stage or window showcasing pertinent societal issues.
The late music icon and national hero, Oliver “Tuku” Mtukudzi, possessed unique abilities to convey useful messages through music.
In one of his songs, Bere Radya Munhu — off the album Chinhambwe (2009) —Tuku takes a dig at leaders who cling to power and refuse to call time on their political careers even in advanced age. This is despite the leadership’s conspicuous failure to shepherd their countries out of numerous socio-economic and political problems.
In subtle remarks that are laid deep in Zimbabwe’s oral tradition, Tuku releases salvos at dictators, labelling them predators or man-eaters on account of their sharp appetite for looted wealth.
Tuku, through Bere Radya Munhu, delivers a sharp indictment against the rampant and deliberate abuse of power by the authorities while simultaneously using the song to conscientise the public about the reality of their “slavish” existence under dictatorships.
In the song, the Bvuma Wasakara hitmaker expresses both disgust and uneasiness in the line, “Zvandishamisa, zvashamisa/Kuti bere radya munhu” (I’m shocked that a hyena has eaten a human being). In Zimbabwean folklore, there is a story of an old woman who went missing, with every conceited search for her yielding nothing.
As if by coincidence, a hyena threw up, and tufts of grey hair were found in the vomit, pointing to the predator’s culpability in the woman’s disappearance: Kurutsa imvi/Kuti bere radya munhu. (Vomiting grey hair/the hyena has devoured a human being).
The transition from what began as just folktale to narratives of a sexual nature in the song, through figures of speech, is the most astounding. This probably explains why the song was unofficially banned from featuring on public electronic media during former President Robert Mugabe’s era.
The use of sexual hyperbole in lyrics is also clear. Bere (hyena), munhu (human being) and imvi (grey hair) are symbolic and represent a cartoonist’s perspective of a dictator, country and sterility, respectively.
From 1980 to 2017, bere (the dictator), was easy to identify (bespectacled and moustached; as represented by the hyena’s pointed mouth), whereas countries are generally marked as feminine. It takes a bit more imagination, however, to associate imvi with what could be sexual cannibalism.
In the early 1980s, bere sprung into action, “eating”, according to a Catholic Commission for Peace and Justice report, about 20 000 people in the Midlands and Matabeleland provinces during the Gukurahundi massacres.
But decades later, even Mugabe, under whose purview the atrocities happened, has admitted to the occurrence “as a moment of madness”.
Under draconian bere, the country was reduced to servitude, with an obligation to prop up the oligarchy and their cronies. At one time, Mugabe even confessed to US$15 billion of diamond money disappearing. “Pese apa, pese apa/Ndokubereka kumusana” (All this time, I strap and carry you on my back).
This could be a subtle reference to tenders, minerals and the prime land which those in power have converted to personal possessions, while the rest of the population languishes in stinging poverty. Tuku adds: “Uchinditengera fuko/Ndichiri kurarama” (you are buying me a covering cloth while I’m still alive).
The conversation between the woman and bere has now entered the no-holds-barred territory. Fuko, in the culture of the Shona people, is a white piece of cloth used to cover a dead person at burial. Ironically, though, the woman confesses to being still alive.
With symbolism, Tuku tears into Zimbabwe’s despotic regime, accusing it of burying the nation alive, so to speak. Since independence in 1980, universal suffrage in Zimbabwe has been allowed, though allegations are widespread that results are mostly subverted by the ruling Zanu PF cabal, in cahoots with the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission. Against this backdrop, Tuku depicts Zimbabweans as “dead-men-alive”, only with an appearance of being independent, while they are without freedom in metaphysical and substantial form.
In Bere Radya Munhu, Tuku also fires potshots at the dictator’s rapacity, upbraiding his relentless desire for intercourse, despite the “woman” raising complaints that she was now overstretched: “Wanikeni ndogomera/Ndiye tatara-tatara” (Now I’m groaning and staggering). This is symbolic of someone running out of breath.
Zimbabwe’s predatory leadership, since independence from Britain, has urged austerity among the citizenry, while they and their cronies live like royalty.
But the woman, who now feels wasted, can no longer stand by and watch. It is now more pragmatic to let go and allow the “marriage” to descend into anarchy, immediately calling for divorce: “Handichazvigona/Hatichazvikwanisawe” (I can’t take this anymore).
In November 2017, Zimbabwe came to such a turning point, with the nation serving divorce papers on Mugabe. At this juncture, Tuku leaves the multitude of his Zimbabwean listeners in suspense, and pondering on whether there is going to be another Second Coming for the oppressed people of Zimbabwe.
Only time will tell.
Original article was first published in the NewsDay