[Crossposted at Cliopatria]
One of the overarching arguments in my current book project is that in Africanist scholarship, work by social historians has sometimes been difficult for outsiders to intuitively or empathetically grasp, that it is easier to connect to the historical experience of highly particular individuals even when they’re very much unlike yourself, as opposed to identifying with or intuitively grasping the collective history of abstract categories of people. You may recognize the empirical truth of history described in those larger, more abstract terms, but it may be hard to grasp the humanity of it.
It is always easier to complain about the work of others than to do a better job yourself.
Hence my current dilemma. I’ve just re-read a long narrative section of one chapter where I’m talking about the political history of one chiefship, in particular the career of one of the central figures in my manuscript, Chief Munhuwepayi Mangwende.
Now keep in mind that I’ve been thinking about this particular history for about eight years now. Even I have trouble following the ins-and-outs of assassinations, poisonings, conspiracies, plottings, competing claims to the chiefship, intermingled familial histories and so on. As I re-read it, I feel a bit like Michael Palin’s character in Monty Python and the Holy Grail who is trying to smooth tempers over after Sir Lancelot slaughters a wedding party: “Let’s not bicker and argue over who killed who.”
What is especially challenging for me as I think about my probable readers are the unfamiliar names of all the individuals, particularly given that some of the names actually repeat quite often within a generation. (I have to sort out at least three contemporary men who were commonly known as Gomba, for example.)
So a couple of questions for anyone reading.
1. Do you find kinship diagrams useful in general for following relationships within families? What about when they necessarily get really messy (The two chiefly lineages with which I’m concerned have a lot of cases where widows are remarried to rivals, sometimes forcibly, and have children by two, three or sometimes four men in their lifetimes)?
2. If you’re writing about byzantine conspiracies and confusingly entangled lineage politics, is it ok if readers remain largely confused about what’s going on, given that this is impressionistically what I’d like readers to feel anyway? Or does a rapid-fire review of plots, counter-plots and rival claims that features about thirty different African men with names unfamiliar to American readers just reinforce the feeling that African history is generally incomprehensible? (Basically I’m asking whether it’s better to make a point about how complicated things are by laying it out in all its glory, or just telling you all that it’s really complicated and boiling it down to its simplest particulars.)
Just to give you some flavor of what I’m dealing with, here’s one largish chunk of this section of the chapter. My central character is Munhuwepayi Mangwende; here I’m trying to explain the background to the attempted assassination in 1940 of Munhuwepayi Mangwende by his cousin Raguma, with the probable cooperation of his half-brother Enoch.
Timothy Burke, Spiders and Captives, Chapter Three, draft, 2006.
“In the late 1870s or early 1880s, following a period of famine, the holder of the chiefship was Katerere, who only held the chiefship for a year. The circumstances of his death were unknown, but immediately after his death, Mungate Mangwende of the other lineage became chief. Several oral histories claim that at this time, Katerereâ€™s son Chirodza attempted to assassinate Mungate and stage a coup dâ€™etat by sending a flock of bees to sting Mungate to death.
Mungate survived this attack and decided to retaliate, asking his sons Gatsi and Muchemwa to kill Chirodza. They got him drunk and threw him in a river to drown with his arms and legs tied, and Mungate claimed the chiefship. Later, in 1892, Mungate and Muchemwa were also thought by many to have set up Chirodzaâ€™s nephew Gomwe to be killed by colonial police. Mungate also tried to â€œeat upâ€ the rival lineage by giving away Chirodzaâ€™s wives to members of his own lineage, including to Muchemwa , but Chirodzaâ€™s younger brother Chibanda as well as some of his sons survived the takeover.
Muchemwa functioned as his fatherâ€™s most ruthless political enforcer, but eventually became politically estranged from him after Mungate pursued alliances with Portuguese traders moving into the Zimbabwe plateau in the 1880s and later accommodated the new white colonizers who came north in 1890. At least one scholarly account argues that both Muchemwa and Gatsi became broadly popular figures with the general populace in the chiefdom due in part to their opposition to colonial intrusion, but at the cost of being estranged from the elites within both chiefly lineages.
Muchemwa was an important leader in the 1896-97 uprising against the colonizers, and unlike many, refused to surrender at its end. During the uprising, he murdered Bernard Mizeki, a convert to Christianity from Mozambique who had moved into Murewa to prosletyze for the Anglican Church. He also continued to settle dynastic scores largely unrelated to the struggle against white rule during this same period, killing and threatening many of his enemies within the district. Muchemwa waged a personal guerilla war until 1903, when he brokered an agreement with the colonial official William Edwards that allowed him to avoid criminal punishment but compelled him to live next to Edwards and remain under his personal supervision.
In August 1909, Muchemwa confronted two sons of Chirodza, Mutsvatiwa and Gururi, during a meal. Mutsvatiwa was the son of one of Chirodzaâ€™s wives whom Muchemwa had taken as a wife after murdering Chirodza. Mutsvatiwa would later testify that Muchemwa frequently chased or attacked him whenever they met, and on this occasion, their mutual hostility boiled over. Muchemwa asked why the two men refused to greet him, and then grabbed their food away from them when they refused to reply. Mutsvatiwa and Gururi got up and left the hut, returning a few minutes later armed with clubs. Mutsvatiwa accused Muchemwa of plotting to poison or bewitch him and then struck him across the forehead with his stick, opening a deep cut three inches long. Muchemwa was able to make it the local clinic on his own, but his skull had been fractured. His condition went unnoticed or at least untreated and he died almost two weeks later after a police officer noticed how bad his condition had become. The Attorney General of Southern Rhodesia refused to prosecute the men for murder, calling the crime â€œjustâ€.
After Muchemwa died, his brother Gomba took one of his wives and completed the payment of bridewealth to her father that Muchemwa had begun. Here I arrive at the entangled relationship of Munhuwepayi, Enoch, Raguma and Ragumaâ€™s other victims, Mbumbira and Josiah. Munhuwepayi was Muchemwaâ€™s son, born only a year before his death, in 1908. Raguma was Gombaâ€™s son, born of Muchemwaâ€™s former wife. Enoch was also Gombaâ€™s son, but of a different mother, born before Raguma. Mbumbira was Munhuwepayiâ€™s older half-brother, also a son of Muchemwa. Josiah was Munhwepayiâ€™s nephew, the son of Muchemwaâ€™s sister and the district officer William Edwards. (Or the son of another district officer, depending on which source you trust.) Just to make it more difficult to follow, let me also introduce at this point Ragumaâ€™s sisters Erica and Ethel, who were born after him, and whose bridewealth was eventually ostensibly to spark the dispute between Raguma and Munhuwepayi.”