For a writer who was a scatterbrain and thrived in composing fragments, Dambudzo Marechera’s comprehensive archive deposited at the National Archives of Zimbabwe has sustained his reputation and legacy. He is no doubt the most archived writer in post-independence Zimbabwe.
When he died in August 1987 due to an Aids related illness, his friends and some members of his family, decided to preserve his unpublished writings. They set up a trust to oversee his literary estate. The material he left behind – drafts of published works, unpublished works in a finished state or partially completed and papers of intrinsic literary interest such as correspondence or personal diaries and records – were eventually deposited at the National Archives of Zimbabwe.
Many writers die unnoticed or are quickly forgotten in Zimbabwe. Marechera remains an exception.
While his archive is open to the public, it remains underutilised. So far, the only person who has extensively published from the archives is German scholar, Flora Veit-Wild. In his lifetime, Marechera published three books with varied success, but after his death, Veit-Wild decided to posthumously publish, one after another, some of the manuscripts that Marechera had left behind: The Black Insider, Cemetery of Mind, and Scrapiron Blues.
Veit-Wild, as a result, firmly established her own centrality in regard to anything involving Marechera. She remains the executor of his literary estate who has also set the agenda for subsequent Marechera scholarly research to date. Most prickly literary estates are interested in suppressing unflattering or intrusive information, but no one combines toll-taker, brand enforcer, and arbiter of taste as relentlessly as Veit-Wild does, and certainly not in such a personal way.
I discovered in my recent visit to the National Archives of Zimbabwe, in Harare’s Gunhill suburb, that the Marechera archive, as it exists, has so many gaps and inconsistencies. In 1993, the trust published a companion to the archives, Dambudzo Marechera: A Source Book on His Life and Work, which is the nearest version of a biography that exists on one of Zimbabwe’s most famous sons, however, some of the documents referenced in the book are not in the archives. It will be of interest to find out why not – if they have since disappeared altogether, or simply been catalogued in different parts of the archives.
When I visited Marechera’s files in the archives, perhaps I visited on a quiet day. In total for all the hours I spent there, only six people came through. The staff was mostly friendly and helpful, from the front desk to the reading room. The only shocker was that the institution’s only photocopier was down on the day I visited. If I wanted to make any copies, I was told, I could take pictures with my phone under staff supervision but still pay something like a dollar per three copies.
My interest in Marechera, a subject of focus for my doctoral thesis, has led me in the past decade to England and Germany, settings central to Marechera’s literary reputation, and where other archives of his writings exist. The three archives are uniquely different.
The documents in the University of Reading library include most of his correspondence and drafts of his work sent to Heinemann, which was then the leading publisher of African fiction in the 60s and 70s. Marechera was one of the high profile authors on their roster.
The German archive, held at Humboldt University, which is supposed to be a replica of the one held at the National Archives of Zimbabwe, is very different. There is also supposed to be another Marechera archival trove similar to the one at the National Archives deposited at the University of Zimbabwe, which I am yet to access.
There has been no scholarly study of the Marechera literary estate itself. Veit-Wild’s interventions have been accepted wholesale – but would Marechera agree with this popularised version of himself?
Even though Marechera died 30 years ago, his writings still have the ability to shake readers out of stale ways of seeing the world. Many Zimbabweans however, are still uneasy with or dismissive of Marechera’s fierce stances and controversial lifestyle. But among Harare’s young writers, Marechera holds the keys to our understanding the political problems that haunt our country.