You Can’t Tell the Players Without a Scorecard

[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, Katerere’s son Chirodza attempted to assassinate Mungate and stage a coup d’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 Chirodza’s nephew Gomwe to be killed by colonial police. Mungate also tried to “eat up” the rival lineage by giving away Chirodza’s wives to members of his own lineage, including to Muchemwa , but Chirodza’s younger brother Chibanda as well as some of his sons survived the takeover.

Muchemwa functioned as his father’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 Chirodza’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 “just”.

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 Raguma’s other victims, Mbumbira and Josiah. Munhuwepayi was Muchemwa’s son, born only a year before his death, in 1908. Raguma was Gomba’s son, born of Muchemwa’s former wife. Enoch was also Gomba’s son, but of a different mother, born before Raguma. Mbumbira was Munhuwepayi’s older half-brother, also a son of Muchemwa. Josiah was Munhwepayi’s nephew, the son of Muchemwa’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 Raguma’s sisters Erica and Ethel, who were born after him, and whose bridewealth was eventually ostensibly to spark the dispute between Raguma and Munhuwepayi.”

This entry was posted in Academia, Africa. Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to You Can’t Tell the Players Without a Scorecard

  1. alkali says:

    Instead of trying to do it all in one diagram perhaps a series of kinship diagrams at various key points in time showing the major players at that time.

    E.g., “In 1990, A and B had a son C. When A died in 1994, B married A’s brother D and C fled.”




    D (A’s brother) + B (A’s widow)

    (C: fled to hinterlands, not shown)

    I think the series of diagrams would convey the complexity but at the same time would be actually useful to someone who actually wanted to understand what was happening at any given time.

  2. David Chudzicki says:

    Not that I have much experience reading histories (or any writing them), but I like seeing all of the complexity. The reader can decide how much care to take in following the story. In case he doesn’t figure it out for himself, maybe you can drop hints that you’re making a point about the complexity, or that the reader doesn’t necessarily need to keep track of all the details. I think phrases like your “Just to make it more difficult to follow…” work toward this end.

  3. SamChevre says:

    I like the complexity, but would find a kinship diagram very helpful. One helpful feature in kinship diagrams is to use color to highlight important features (for instance, in a Scottish clan diagram, keeping Highland and Lowland a different color).

  4. CMarko says:

    I like the complexity as well, and I also like alkali’s suggestion of a series of diagrams. I often find that photos or drawings of the subjects can help as well–something about putting a face to a name keeps me from mixing up the names in my head.

    Another idea: a brief dramatis personae (at the beginning or end of the book, or even of each chapter) that provides basic information about each important person you discuss–perhaps you could provide their approximate birth and death dates, their location, and their lineage. Depending on how your book is structured, this could be helpful to a greater or lesser extent. I’m taking the idea from Randy Shilts, who provided a cast of characters at the beginning of And the Band Played On. I would not have made it through the book without that index, and I have read a lot of books that would benefit from something similar.

  5. jpool says:

    For me, I think the thing that slows down or complicates my reading of the passage most is the absence of “this is why this is important” statements. If the point is indeed, this is all very complicated, full of innuendo and counter accusation, then yes that gets across, but it may work at cross purposes somewhat with the substantive narrative. If the point is these are two lineages whose blood feuds and political rivalries played themselves out over rapidly shifting political conditions, then that comes across too, but a bit more muddled.

    I think that trying to lay out the relationships, at least in the detail that you do, at the same time that you present the events heightens the confusion. I wonder if at times it wouldn’t be more economic to resort to the generic kinsman/woman as a descriptor, with perhaps a more detailed genealogical chart as an appendix.

  6. Doug says:

    Would you consider adding in local expectations of magic, adding maps and selling it as a major fantasy novel?

  7. Phil Palmer says:

    How about a range of action figures? Chirodza and his deadly bee-hive, Gatsi and Muchemwa with tying-up ropes, etc.

  8. Timothy Burke says:

    In the larger chapter, I think (I hope) it’s clear why I think this is important. First, because it demonstrates an argument I want to make about the nature of Shona political and social action, particularly the uses of violence and the commonality of conspiracy. Second, because I’m arguing that the colonial state actually had remarkably little effect on the interior politics of chiefship and lineage. This leads up to an argument that a lot of the “deep grammar” of Shona political theory and Shona social agency continues to influence contemporary Zimbabwean affairs, and from that to an argument that we should be able to appreciate the sophistication and complexity, the “civilized” character, of precolonial, colonial and contemporary Shona political imagination, but that appreciation doesn’t have to be endorsement–that in the end, conspiracy, indirect action, and assassination are a lousy way to run the railroad.

    Don’t tempt me with the action figure idea, seriously.

  9. Doug says:

    “Don’t tempt me with the action figure idea, seriously.”

    A useful reminder of the title of the blog…

  10. domurphy says:

    Have you considered presenting a boiled-down version of events in the main text, and then putting the details in an appendix to the chapter, so that people who want more information can look them up and other readers don’t get bogged down? This isn’t the most elegant way out, but authors presenting technical material sometimes do this, e.g. putting all the equations in an appendix. Think of it as a very long endnote. I think this solution works well.

  11. Aaron Friedman says:

    As someone who struggles with names in Tolstoy (and in real life), I’ve thought about this issue before. Two ideas:

    1. Is there a chance some of the names have another meaning that can be translated into English? Calling a character “Runs With Water” is no improvement (and you don’t want to sound Native American); I’m thinking more of names like “Jimmy the Snake” which fit the conspiratorial narrative. You could have both “Gomba” and “Gomba the Weasel” and no one will confuse the two.

    2. The biggest problem with the quoted passage is an over-compressed exposition. It’s hard to meet 50 people at a party all at once, but it’s possible one at a time.

    For example, after the passage where Chirodza stages “a coup d’etat by sending a flock of bees to sting Mungate to death,” I would want to know:

    — How do you “send” bees anywhere?
    — Had this method of assassination ever worked before?
    — How old was Chirodza? Was this a childish fantasy?
    — Was the story apocryphal and told to mock Chirodza, or to justify his later assassination?

    After a paragraph on the bee issue, Chirodza’s name will finally sink in. And then on to the drowning…

    By the way, hello Tim! I took one of your classes in Spring 1998, and you came in to co-host my radio Botticelli show for a couple of months the next year. Long-time listener, first-time caller, love the blog…

  12. Timothy Burke says:

    Ah, Botticelli. Fun.

    Anyway, I think it would be considered bad form to translate the names–most of them don’t have a literal meaning, but also even those that do aren’t understood as such by indigenous people, any more than you think that someone named “John Smith” is the child of a blacksmith.

    The flock of bees thing actually connects to a larger argument in the chapter, which is that Shona political theory, in my view, generally embraces a concept of political agency which is about indirection and the use of invisible powers. This is somewhat similar to common ideas about illness throughoout southern Africa, that a good deal of illness reflects social antagonism rather than purely naturalistic causes. Another example of this is actually the failure of Raguma to assassinate Munhuwepayi–he ended up just blowing off Munhuwepayi’s arm. Many people believed that this was evidence that Munhuwepayi was meant to be chief, not evidence that Raguma was a bad shot–there’s a deep assumption here that events in the natural and physical world are a kind of visible evidence of the action of invisible powers.

  13. Ellen says:

    Dear Prof Burke,

    I’d like to suggest you have to remember your readers use your book in ways you may not be thinking of. I am just now working on a paper about a 17th century English/Scots woman and reading secondary sources in which the internecine politics of the royalist and protectorate spy groups and conspiracies are detailed. I trawl through looking for citations of a man who was a spy at the time and this woman’s husband/bethrothed. Also of her.

    So I want complexity.

    As a writer I’ve confronted this problem in the one biography I wrote. I opted for simplifying in the text and adding details in the notes.


  14. jliving says:

    I like the series of diagrams idea. Diagrams are always fun (though of course holograms would be the most fun) and the more the better. I also think that part of what makes African history a hard read for Americans, is the inability to mentally pronounce the African names or terms (this is particularly the case in southern Africa, because of the unfamiliar consonants). Surely it is too cumbersome in the body of the text — but perhaps in the diagrams it might be possible to put a phonetic pronunciation in parentheses. This no doubt would annoy some people, but the reason could be explained in a note in the preface. Once you can pronounce someone’s name then it becomes a bit easier to keep track of them, than when you were busy trying to remember who –some guy whose name begins with m and has a few syllables and a b somewhere – is, only to run into another person whose name has these same characteristics in the next paragraph.

  15. Aaron Friedman says:

    The context for the flock of bees thing is really interesting. Can’t wait to see the book! But my point was just that you need *some* content in between the introduction of new names, or else it turns into a Biblical “and Phares begat Esrom” sort of passage.

    Re “translating” names into English — I had in mind something like what Norman Davies does in “Rising ’44: The Battle for Warsaw”.

Comments are closed.