War: The worst of man-made woes

A Fine Madness; By Mashingaidze Gomo, With a Preface By Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Oxfordshire, Ayebia Clarke Publishing Limited, 2010.  192 pp

ISBN: 978-0-9562401-4-9 (Paperback)

THE world is awash with books about war but Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms (1929) — which is a tragic tale of love and war — and Phillip Caputo’s 1977 memoir A Rumour of War, which recounts the involvement of the United States in Vietnam stand out above the rest.

I was paging through Caputo’s classic, pondering on what exactly happened during the Vietnam War — a war the US has struggled to reshape its ideological failure in the Far East during the peak of the Cold War. The US has invested millions trying to correct these failures.
This forced me to go back to my bookshelf where Zimbabwean Mashingaidze Gomo’s A Fine Madness lay waiting for me.

The book  — A Fine Madness — is a unique account of the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a war in which Zimbabwe was physically involved. 
Proper reading of A Fine Madness calls for a deep understanding of the history of the DRC soon after independence from Belgium in 1960.

Patrice Lumumba who became the first elected Prime Minister of the Republic of Congo in June 1960 comes to mind. His government did not last beyond 10 weeks as it was deposed in a coup that enjoyed the support of Belgium — the former colonial power — and the US.

Herein lies the continued desire by the US to have a grip and influence on the vast central African country and its resources.
In the preface to the 35-part book, Ngugi wa Thiong’o gives an apt comment on how difficult it is to ignore Congolese history: “A Fine Madness is really a collage of verse and prose narrative, memories, images, thoughts and characters against the background of the 1988 Congo war following the death of the Congolese dictator Mobutu Sese Seko and the Senior Kabila coming to power.
“Kabila, a Lumumbaist was a long time foe of the Mobutu dictatorship.” (p1)

Kabila himself is challenged by rebels with the backing of the West, which is suspicious of Kabila’s links with Lumumba and his leanings towards Marxism and Maoism. In a way, it is things that happened years back that determine the contemporary politics of the Great Lakes region in general and the DRC in particular.
Ngugi continues: “The poet-narrator would seem part of the Zimbabwean forces operating from and around Boende, in the Congo.

“From the air and on the ground he is able to observe and contemplate the chaos in the Congo, which in his eyes also becomes the story of an Africa that has seen so much blood and tragedy.” (p1) Perhaps what is crucial about these conflicts which pan out on African soil is that they are actually authored in the corridors of power in Western capitals.

University of Zimbabwe lecturer Memory Chirere said of the book on its release: “A Fine Madness is charmed, mad and maddening prose poetry in which an armed man snoops into Africa’s history of deprivation and strife to do the painful arithmetic.

“Meanwhile, the Congo civil war rages on like a monstrous fire, eating and allowing brother and sister to get eaten by the syphilis of the West’s relentless desire to plunder … But … Africa is a stubborn hope.”

The author is able to identify the general African problem, which the continent has been trying to shake off. Africa goes through a long period of slavery, is forced to leap into the pit of colonial subjugation and lands in continued capitalist domination in the post-colonial nation state.

He writes: “And they talked about legendary white explorers who discovered an Africa that was dark and chaotic and inhabited by savage black people who needed the light of Western civilisation, democracy and Christianity/ And we read about famous white men of the cloth who facilitated dispossession and forced labour of poor African people.” (p39)

The title that Gomo chooses for the book is reflective of paradox. Madness cannot be fine, or can it? The author uses his first-hand experience in the DRC conflict to explore the themes of horror, loneliness of war, the beauty of resistance, peace among others.
Resistance, in the writer’s opinion, brings peace. He alludes to the resistance Nehanda and her contemporaries put up against British occupation during the last decade of the 19th century.

A Fine Madness is unique in terms of style. The poet in Gomo cannot be hidden and true, just as things happen spontaneously in real life, so is Gomo’s style of capturing human experiences.

The writer himself says of his style: “This is some form of artistic rebellion. There is no form book in telling of our experiences. You do it in the way you feel and hence you can not follow prescriptions.

One of the major concerns of the writer is to show the world that soldiers are also human. They have feelings and can cry.
They can also love like any other human being. This explains the presence of Tinyarei in the book, a woman to which the poet-narrator is so much attracted.

Gomo wishes women do not sell their beauty to propagate European commerce. “They have accused Tinyarei of sitting on money and insisted that she should invest herself in European fashion magazines.

They have insisted to me that Tinyarei should be walking the streets of London and Paris, signing contracts that shackle her to European …” (pp4-5) The perception that soldiers don’t think and are tools of dictators is also demystified in A Fine Madness.

“And today’s African soldier is a man who has studied the concepts for which he fights/ and he knows Zimbabwe’s history has to be told by the spirits of the First Chimurenga who know that lessons of intolerance can be learnt from invading … has to be told by the descendants of the beheaded who know that no lessons on human rights and tolerance can be taken from a European community whose collective conscience is so hostile …” (p41)

The writer transports himself in memory from Boende in the DRC back home on several occasions. The actual geographical locations mentioned in the book, Bokungu, Goma, Manono, Mbandaka, Kinshasa, Kabalo among others, together with the names of fighter aircraft, the Alhouette III, Casa, M135 gunship all help render the narrative unparalleled authenticity.

The writer is talking about war. He brings the experiences close so the reader sees for himself how bad war can be. In A Farewell To Arms Frederic Henry — a lieutenant in the ambulance corps of the Italian army during the First World War — has to run away.

In A Fine Madness the war in the DRC in which Zimbabwe, Namibia and Angola are belligerents, war not only affect the soldiers who were at the battlefront but their families back home.
The happenings around Club Fulangenge bear testimony to this. “And there were more such children around . . . some seated, some dancing around, watching their mother catching men . . . their bottoms being pinched and slapped randomly by armed men” (p31) Among the other consequences of war are the destruction of infrastructure as power and water supplies are cut plunging people into darkness and disease.

Related consequences down the line should also be highlighted. As mostly men troop to the battlefront, women and children are left at the mercy of invader forces. These are real issues like has been happening in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Gomo rightly identifies poverty as one of the major problems facing the continent of Africa. “Poverty wears the moral fabric of a society to a threadbare see-through clock through which the attractive valuables of a nation are spied on and made liable to exploitation … Poverty creates pimps and prostitutes/ Poverty sustains slavery/ Poverty erodes self-confidence to create a complex of inferiority and inadequacy and a sense of hopelessness.” (p32)
Central in A Fine Madness is the role Western capital plays in fomenting conflicts in African countries. The DRC is not alone in this.

Renamo, the Mozambique rebel movement, enjoyed the support of apartheid South Africa, Savimbi’s Unita actually maintained chaos in Angola so that US planes could continue to fly in and plunder that country’s resources especially diamonds. Gomo writes: “armoured cars, helicopters, armed men, commandos, paratroopers and hired guns crawling into gigantic aircrafts to be airlifted to the borders of human dignity/ to the place of the skull/ To the weeping place? 
To prop up and hold an African civilisation together, where it was coming apart, dismantled by the insolent champions of Western civilisation . . . What was at stake was a birthright/ An African birthright!” (p17)

For Gomo, resistance breeds hope. The early resistance against colonial rule lost against imperial might. However, it is the battle that was lost but the war raged on as in later years, nationalists were to draw on Nehanda’s inspiration to continue with the fight.
“He talked about how most of the early fighters had been captured and executed but kept on coming, until the myopic Rhodesians had so much on their hands that they lost all initiative. (p25)

Mashingaidze Gomo was born in 1964 in colonial Rhodesia. He lived through the euphoria of independence and joined the Air Force of Zimbabwe in 1984 as an aircraft engines technician, joining 7 Squadron as an Alouette helicopter technician and gunner which saw him involved in Zimbabwean campaigns to prop up the Frelimo government in Mozambique, as well as the DRC conflict in 1998.

He completed a BA in English and Communication Studies with the Zimbabwe Open University and has since retired from the AFZ. 

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