A writer born in the shebeens…The secret life of Ndabezinhle Sigogo

Ndabezinhle Sigogo

Ndabezinhle Sigogo

Bruce Ndlovu, Sunday Life Correspondent
THE famed godfather of Ndebele literature, Ndabezinhle Sigogo, was a man who did not mind a drink or two once in a while.

According to those that knew the lighter side of the astute man of literature, Sigogo always took a moment to unwind and find pleasure in the wise waters.

In colonial Rhodesia, where Sigogo spent his formative years as a young man, something as simple as a drink was a cause for division. After all, this was a time when places of leisure were segregated, a time when the white man’s coin and the black man’s pound were not supposed to mingle in the same cash register.

Sigogo, like all black people, was quickly taught that there were areas where only white imbibers could find joy. Those areas, usually near the city centre, where the places where Sigogo and other fellow natives were never supposed to set foot.

Like in South Africa, black people decided to make lemonade from the bitter lemons handed down to them by a brutal regime.

Thus, shebeens, beer halls and other places of entertainment started gaining popularity. Shebeens, as places of leisure made by black people for black people, were particularly popular.

It was in these illegal watering holes, bursting with life, colour and a hint of danger that the poetry and prose of Ndabezinhle Sigogo, found its voice.

“He captured the life in the shebeens,” said Phathisa Nyathi, a one-time colleague and friend of the author who passed away in 2006.

“This was a product of discrimination because we were not allowed to go into fancy places in town where the white people drank so we created our own spaces. That’s why now the phenomenon of shebeens has died somewhat. This is because we are now allowed in those places that we were previously barred from. He was a very alert writer who used his social conditions to write beautifully.”

This was not surprising as Sigogo had set himself up as someone determined to chronicle black life during a time when it was not easy to be African.

“He was a writer that was very alert and deeply affected by the social conditions around him. For example, on the novel Umhlaba Umangele he was capturing the plight of people that were evicted from Emakhandeni area by the colonial regime. It was a deeply painful saga that he felt he had to capture,” he said.

According to Nyathi, the man whose work is now a staple in Zimbabwean literature, a staple fed to children from secondary to university level, was a man of a few words. Only after he had a few sips of the wise waters would Sigogo’s demeanour change.

“I used to visit him at his home in Tshabalala and we would organise end of year parties. We would have our parties at Maleme Dam and of course Amagugu later on when it opened.

“He was generally a quiet man who didn’t say much. It was at those parties, after he had one or two, that Sigogo the writer would emerge. He would start reciting poetry and showing you some moves. He only showed that side of himself when he had had a drink,” he said.

This account of a gentle, yet strong willed Sigogo who did not mind a drink or two once in a while, is one supported by Albert Nyathi. As a budding poet and writer, Nyathi was nurtured by Sigogo while he was still a schoolboy.

“He was a quiet man who could stand his ground when the need arose. I remember this time, I was in Harare for a meeting for the Zimbabwe Writers’ Union and I had gone there in school uniform because I was the head boy at Msitheli High School.

We were going to the train so we passed by a hotel on the way and I remember him saying let me buy you a coke while I get myself a more senior drink. I remember being very annoyed with him at that time because, unknown to him, I was already a drinker. Somehow those words have always stayed with me,” he said.

Phathisa Nyathi first got acquainted with Sigogo while the latter was working for the Literature Bureau. As the head of that organisation, he had overseen many manuscripts from some of the country’s most famous writers including Nyathi’s first ever book. The demise of the Literature Bureau and Sigogo’s death in the new millennium had put the new generation at a massive disadvantage.

“This is what I believe has killed writing nowadays. The Literature Bureau does not exist anymore and so we no longer have a training ground for people to learn about the craft before they publish. The young ones no longer have mentors which the older generation had with the likes of Sigogo, David Ndoda and Themba Mpofu,” he said.

One of the writers who got a taste of Sigogo’s touch was Cont Mhlanga, a man who Sigogo entrusted with the task of taking Ndebele literature forward. Despite being labelled the godfather of Ndebele literature, Sigogo was desperate to see novels evolve from the style that he had pioneered on his widely read books.

“As I writer I can say I was a direct development and experience of his. He, alongside Mthandazo Ndema had a huge bearing on the writer that I became. I say this because when they saw my manuscript for my novel, Ngabe Kade Ngisazi, they immediately said that this is the new generation of the Ndebele novel.

“At the time publishers were resistant to the type of the literature I was trying to introduce. My novel was a detective story, which was something unheard of at the time. My book also had slang and was set in town so a lot of people were resistant to it. However, he felt that his way of writing the Ndebele novel was for the older generation and he needed a voice to take the art form in the future and to him I was that voice,” he said.

Despite the fact his books are widely read, Sigogo’s legacy is somewhat bitter. Rarely is he mentioned among the top names in Zimbabwean literature and 12 years after death put a cap on his pen, he is still largely a figure that does not come up for discussion when the likes of Dambudzo Marechera, Yvonne Vera or Charles Mungoshi are mentioned.

“That is the Godfather of Ndebele literature. The reason why he is so under-appreciated is that he chose to express himself in an indigenous language. It’s not that he could not write in English. He was someone who educated many people in that language because he was a teacher before he committed himself to literature.

“He structured how the Ndebele novel was to be written. When he was at the Literature Bureau, which was a government department in Rhodesia, a lot of writers, in all languages, whether it be in Ndebele, Shona or English went through his hands.

He was the editor of over 21 novels and at least 200 writers went through his hands,” said Mhlanga.

For Albert Nyathi, one poem from Sigogo’s vast collection stands out.

“His work was just amazing, especially his poetry. When you read poems like Ngiyesaba ukuya emangcwabeni, you can feel the fear and imagine the evil things he writes about. Such work never dies,” he said.

Sigogo wrote among others,  Amandla othando, Iziga zalintombi, Noma sengifile, A visit to the graves.