Thank you Charles Mungoshi, because I can read Ngugi’s A Grain of Wheat in Shona

Charles Mungoshi

Chinua Achebe once said, “For most writers in the world, there is never any conflict — the mother tongue and the writing language are one and the same. But from time to time, and as a result of grave historical reasons, a writer may be trapped unhappily and invidiously between two imperatives.”

Charles Mungoshi has always found a way of writing between two languages.

He is no doubt accomplished in both English and Shona so much that in the 1970s and 1980s, he would simultaneously publish books in both languages in the same year and win awards for all. Only a genius can mediate between cultures and languages.

One of the most innovative translation projects ever to be done in Zimbabwe is Mungoshi’s Tsanga yeMbeu. Here, Mungoshi famously translated Ngugi Thiong’os A Grain of Wheat into Shona.

For a long time, I had been looking for a copy. The first and last time I had read the book was in boarding school. The curiosity never left me. But as with most books published in Zimbabwe in the first decade of independence, it is not surprising that the book has long been out of print. However, I finally got a second-hand copy on the Harare streets by chance.

Reading literature in translation is a marvel — I have done it with French, Russian, Portuguese, Japanese and Chinese authors. Translation bridges the delicate emotional connections between cultures and languages and furthers the understanding of human beings across linguistic borders.

In the act of literary translation, the soul of another culture becomes transparent, and the translator recreates the refined sensibilities of foreign countries and their people through the linguistic, musical, rhythmic, and visual possibilities of the new language.

Ngugi has spoken passionately of his “deep concern at what we are doing to the continent and this generation.” He says, “It pains me, in a personal kind of way to see the entire intellectual production of Africa — the one that is visible — in European languages” as if “Africa can only know itself or be visible in English.” I wonder how he felt about the gifting from Jalada Collective when they translated one of his short stories into more than 30 languages.

Mungoshi would not have sought a better writer to translate than Ngugi. The Mau-mau struggle in Kenya becomes the Chimurenga in Zimbabwe. If one did not know that, Tsanga yeMbeu is a translation, it would pass as a local story, almost. The confrontation against the colonial establishment, the yearnings of the black people are no different. Whether it is in Ngugi’s version or Mungoshi’s, the devil is the same colour.

A Grain of Wheat is a novel about collective struggle. In the book, Ngugi used an omniscient narrator. The use of “we”, “us” and “you” could point to a narrator with a collective conscience as the liberation struggle was bigger than the individual. This hidden character was there at independence and was there when the struggle started. It is the spirit of Kenya, or Zimbabwe.

But Ngugi was not just interested in those who fight and reclaim freedom. A Grain of Wheat is as much about the unknown soldiers and those who are not celebrated even though they have made it their aim to fight for independence.

Mungoshi translates the Kenyan struggle and localises it as his own. His translation is as much a reader’s translation of an experience he identifies with. Tsanga yeMbeu is not an awkward text by any measure but flows and meanders. Its texture is made real when imbued in a Bantu language that captures the story’s pains and struggles. Mungoshi gave me access and ownership to a part of my own history.