I first read We Killed Mangy-Dog by Luis Bernardo Honwana in 2000; it could have been in 1998, perhaps 1999. A long time has passed. It’s impossible to know now.
Mangy-Dog was one of a breathless list of books I read as part of my African literature course; perhaps it was the southern African literature course. It’s impossible to know now.
I soon forgot all about Mangy-Dog and its author.
But how I could forgot a collection whose title story begins in a startling and haunting way is impossible to know now. Dogs, for one thing, have a special attraction for me. I remember a dog I owned but which I never really owned. I was told, on arriving home from boarding school after the end of a term, that a beautiful puppy our mother had bought for us had disappeared. Perhaps someone stole it, or the dog, suddenly seized by wanderlust, followed some stranger and couldn’t find its way home. It’s impossible to know now.
Maybe pushing Mangy-Dog to the outer edges of my consciousness was my way of dealing with the loss of this dog I owned but never really had. It’s impossible to know now.
I like to think it was furry and brown. But it might have been black with no fur at all. Or even spotted. It’s impossible to know now.
I find the dog’s halfway state between animals and humans particularly intriguing. ( Philosopher Achille Mbembe has written about “the dog in most ancient African societies [enjoying] a slippery and highly ambiguous cultural status. Neither a human being nor a wild animal, it was nevertheless admitted into the domestic sphere where it was recognised as man’s best friend. Loyal to a fault, it was committed to its master to the point of helping him hunt wild animals.”) Also, dogs seem to be the companion of the solitary, iconoclastic figure in Zimbabwean literature made famous by Dambudzo Marechera. There is Samambwa (he who has many dogs) in Charles Mungoshi’s Waiting for the Rain, Mhokoshe in Shimmer Chin0dya’s Strife (to Tsitsi Dangarembga’s surname, meaning kraal of dogs).
Perhaps I forgot about Mangy-Dog because, soon after I read the book, I started looking south, to South Africa, a country with histories, languages and politics that have a lot in common with Zimbabwe, my own country of birth. Or maybe it’s because I was looking north, to Britain, whose imprint is perhaps as fresh and vivid today as it was when the first British settlers, via South Africa, claimed this piece of land as their own. It’s impossible to know now.
The story begins:
“Mangy-Dog had blue eyes with no shine in them at all, but they were enormous, and always filled with tears that trickled down his muzzle. They frightened me, those eyes, so big, and looking at me like someone asking for something without wanting to say it.
“Every day I saw Mangy-Dog walking in the shade of the wall around the school patio, going to the corner where teacher’s chickens made their dust beds. The chickens didn’t even run away, because he left them alone, always walking slowly and looking for a dust bed that wasn’t taken.
“Mangy-Dog spent most of the time sleeping but sometimes he walked, and then I liked to watch him, with his bones all sticking out of his thin body, and his old skin full of white hairs, scars, and lots of sores. I never saw Mangy-Dog run, and I really didn’t know if he could, because he was always trembling all over even though it wasn’t cold, and swaying his head to and fro like an ox, and taking such crazy steps that he looked like a rickety old cart.”
In the past few months, Honwana’s book has haunted me, making me ache to read him again, especially as the name Honwana keeps coming up in Zimbabwe’s own histories. How could his name be submerged in eternal darkness when he was Samora Machel’s chief of staff? Biographical details are patchy, and his oeuvre is limited to just that one book. Surely he must have written something else?.
As I read up and asked about Zimbabwe’s own problematic histories and politics, I found out that Honwana was one of the people who died in the plane crash that claimed Samora’s life and 17 others. But, after digging deeper, I found out that was not true. A Wikipedia entry says his last job, as recently as 2002, was at Unesco’s offices in South Africa.
To confuse matters further (I was confused myself), there is a Fernando Honwana, the man who, indeed, perished in the crash. A graduate from the University of York, he had been deployed at independence to the president’s office as Samora’s specialist on southern African affairs. He was the man who was entrusted with Machel’s message that Mugabe accept the Lancaster House Agreement, which brought independence to Zimbabwe, despite its shortcomings.
In the authoritative biographical book Mugabe (Sphere Books, 1981), journalists David Smith, Colin Simpson and Ian Davies explain why Mugabe had to accept the terms of Lancaster:
“It wasn’t just the burden of tens of thousands of refugees dotted in camps throughout northern Mozambique, or the flight from the country to the towns sparked by Rhodesia’s raids. For months now, Machel had known that [the general of the Rhodesian forces Peter] Walls had contingency plans to invade northern Mozambique and put an end to Mugabe once and for all … ‘The strategy of Smith, the South Africans and the British has been to break Zambia’s backbone,’ he [Machel] wrote to Mugabe. If the war resumed, Walls would concentrate his attacks on Mozambique, he said. ‘We will not be in any position to resist,’ Machel wrote. He even mentioned the most likely date for his own fall: July 1980. Machel’s final message was blunt: Mugabe must accept the risk of Lancaster House and fight the elections. He didn’t say it, but the warning was implicit. Mugabe would have asylum in Mozambique if he refused, but no longer bases for war …”
Had Mugabe rejected the terms of the Lancaster House Agreement, would Machel’s government still have fallen in July 1980? It’s impossible to know for certain.
About Mozambique, Wole Soyinka set down a prophecy:
“March 3rd. 1976. Samora Machel. Leader of the People of Mozambique, announced to the world a symbolic decision which primed the black fuse on southern Africa: the Mozambique nation had placed itself in a state of war against white-ruled Rhodesia.
“But very few Africans see this as of primary relevance to the resolution of the Rhodesian anomaly, the act of Samora Machel being more profoundly self-evident as the definitive probe towards an ultimate goal, a summation of the continent’s liberation against the bastion of inhumanity – apartheid South Africa. It is best likened to the primary detonation of a people’s collective will, the prelude to its absolute affirmation and manifestation. No longer do the natives of Abibiman ask of the void: ‘Will it happen in my lifetime?’ It has happened. The rest is history.”
Before I retrieved my own copy from my friend Lunga Mkila, I had asked Zimbabwean literary scholar Tinashe Mushakavanhu if I could borrow his. His own copy was in Gweru, a town at the very heart of Zimbabwe, but I could ask another Zimbabwean writer and scholar Memory Chirere. Chirere is a big fan, an expert even, Mushakavanhu told me, who was sure to have a copy lying around.
So, one day, finding myself at the University of Zimbabwe to set up an interview with a greying, wise old head for an unrelated story, I decided to go up to the third floor of the faculty of humanities, which houses the English department. I knocked on Chirere’s door. A balding man with an expansive smile and an avuncular demeanour welcomed me into his cluttered office, offering me a seat across from his desk where he sat behind a computer.
He loves Honwana so much that, back in the 1990s, he told me, his classmates at the University of Zimbabwe took to calling him Honwana. More than any author, he said, his own style derives much from Honwana. (Chirere is the author of Somewhere in This Country (2006), Tudikidiki (2007) and Toriro and His Goats (2010), books I have not yet read.) Chirere’s statement is revolutionary in a Zimbabwe where we all live, sigh and labour under the memory, ghosts and weight of Marechera.
What was meant to be a meet-and-greet encounter soon became a protracted, fascinating conversation – a rare occurrence in Harare, where talk normally centres on when Mugabe will leave office, how tough things are, and how to make money – and as the conversation progressed I realised I had met not just a serious scholar but a kindred spirit. When I had to leave, to step into Harare’s sun-drenched madness, Chirere locked his office and walked with me for about 100m, a distance in which we talked about Honwana and nothing else.
Chirere on Honwana:
“We Killed Mangy-Dog is Luis Bernardo Honwana’s only prose book. It is a very small book of only seven short-short stories. In the bookshops and libraries one could easily bypass it in search of ‘bigger’ books.
“Published first in Portuguese in 1964 and translated into English for the African Writers Series by Dorothy Guedes in 1969, this book of “Mozambican stories” is a pathfinder of sorts in the southern African short story writing traditions.
“The uninitiated might not know that while the novel is prominent in east and west African writing in non-African languages, the short story is arguably ‘the genre of southern Africa’, and Honwana is a trendsetter in that regard.
“Nearly every southern African writer who has become prominent today started with short stories or has a short story collection somewhere along the way. Marechera’s House of Hunger, Mungoshi’s Coming of the Dry Season, Njabulo S Ndebele’s Fools and Other Stories, Ezekiel Mphahlele’s Corner B, Alan Paton’s Debbie Go Home and many others are books of short stories. Even the so-called novels from southern African tend to be merely long-short stories, sometimes called novellas. One only has to see the very thin volumes of novels – like Nadine Gordimer’s July’s People and Alex Laguma’s In the Fog of the Season’s End. The short story is ‘the genre of southern Africa’ and the reasons for this are yet to be properly established.”
In the excellent biography of Machel by British writer Sarah LeFanu, S is for Samora (UKZN Press 2012), she writes about how in Honwana’s story “of poor trembling, rheumy-eyed Mangy-Dog with his suppurating sores, his feeble, arthritic legs and his poor trusting doggy heart came to represent for me all that I experienced as unsettling and incomprehensible about the People’s Republic of Mozambique”.
Honwana’s collection has six stories – ‘Inventory of Furniture & Effects’, ‘The Old Woman’, ‘Papa, Snake & I’, ‘The Hands of the Blacks’, ‘Nhinguitimo’, and ‘We Killed Mangy-Dog’. It’s no exaggeration to say that in these six stories, all the humiliation of the native, the dispossession instituted by the settler, and the nightmares of the colonial experience are concentrated.
Take, for instance, the story ‘Papa, Snake & I’, a tale about a black man forced to compensate a Portuguese man when his dog is bitten by a mamba while trying to fight a snake in the African’s poultry run.
“Good afternoon, Senhor Castro …”
“Listen, Tshembene, I’ve just found out that my pointer is dead, and his chest’s all swollen. My natives tell me that he came howling from your house before he died. I don’t want any backchat, and I’m just telling – either you pay compensation or I’ll make a complaint at the administration.”
“I’ve just come back from work – I don’t know anything …”
“I don’t care a damn thing about that. Don’t argue. Are you going to pay or aren’t you?”
“But Senhor Castro …”
“Senhor Castro nothing. It’s 700 paus (8 pounds in the 1960s). And it’s better if the matter rests here.”
“As you like, Senhor Castro, but I don’t have the money now …”
“We’ll see about that later. I’ll wait until the end of the month, and if you don’t pay then there’ll be a row.”
Senhor Castro, we’ve known each other such a long time, and there’s never …”
“Don’t try that with me. I know what you all need – a bloody good hiding is the only thing …”
Senhor Castro climbed into his car and pulled away. Papa stayed watching while the car drove off. “Son of a bitch …”
“Papa, why didn’t you say that to his face?”
He didn’t answer.
Can you imagine the mortifying pain of another man humiliating you, in this fashion, in front of your family? For those of us born free, it might be impossible to know.
In ‘The Hands of the Blacks’, Honwana provides a witty, naive and capsule (the story is only three pages long) intervention on the Hamitic conundrum of blackness itself.
“I don’t remember now how the we got on to the subject, but one day Teacher said that the palms of the blacks’ hands were much lighter than the rest of their bodies because only a few centuries ago they walked on all fours, like wild animals, so their palms weren’t exposed to the sun, which made the rest of their bodies darker and darker …”
A few lines later:
“… Dona Dores, for instance, told me that God made their hands lighter like that so they wouldn’t dirty the food they made for their masters, or anything else they were ordered that had to be kept quite clean.”
I have now reread Honwana, a richer and more rewarding experience than my first encounter with the man 14, or is it 15, perhaps even 16 years ago. “Rereading, not reading, is what counts,” quipped Jorge Luis Borges years ago. Or was it decades ago?