Bryan Mukandi
Bryan Mukandi

The house of hunger

If Princeton economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman is to be believed, 2009 could be a very tricky year. Forget tricky; it has the potential to be an outright disaster. The sad thing is that this financial mess will probably affect weaker economies disproportionately, even though they had the least to do with it’s making.

I can’t to wait to see how African governments respond to this threat. In a perfect world, the African Union (AU) would convene an extraordinary summit early in the year to map out a collective strategy. Petty rivalries would be put aside domestically and between various member states. Armed conflict would be addressed head on and the warring factions forced to swallow bitter medicine and make nice. With everyone fully focused on the issues at hand, the continent would sit at the global table and contribute to the running of the world. This would make a nice change from being on the list of problems to deal with.

Because this is not a perfect world, these things are not likely to happen this year. If the “Great Depression II” that Krugman fears actually materialises, most of the continent will be caught off guard. Doing what? Squabbling over inconsequential issues or fighting over crumbs; food cannot be cultivated while people fight.

This frustrating state of affairs was captured by the late Zimbabwean writer Dambudzo Marechera in his first book, The House of Hunger. This semi-autobiographical work, published in 1978, is a collection of short stories set in pre-independence Rhodesia. Apart from the incredibly honest portrayal of the author and his personal struggles, it also spells out his suspicions of the liberation movement, its leaders, and the prospects for the future. This impolite, almost crass work, is a slap in the face that demands the reader ask difficult questions about the state of the world.

Two particular passages are especially significant with respect to Africa in 2009. The first involves a discussion between the narrator, his mother and his brother. His mother is unhappy because, having sacrificed to put him through school and then university, her son is still, for all intents and purposes, a bum. The brother is not surprised at all. He says to their mother,

All you did was starve yourself to send [Marechera] to school while [Ian] Smith made sure that the kind of education he got was exactly what has made him like this [a bum].

The second is similar. The narrator’s father is crushed to death by a train. Reflecting on this, Marechera writes,

The old man died beneath the wheels of the twentieth century. There was nothing left but stains … when the whole length of it was through with eating him. And the same thing is happening to my generation.

The Hose of Hunger is a difficult book to make sense of. But a theme that emerges from its loosely connected series of stories is both a frustration with the inequalities that were present at the time, as well as a skepticism of the future. Marechera rejects quick fix solutions and almost demands that the tough underlying questions be acknowledged and battled with.

Which brings us back to the year’s outlook. The truth is that the global economy is almost incidental. With some exceptions, Africa’s problems will manifest whether or not the American economy tanks. But if it does, maybe the pain that is inflicted will bring into focus the need for things to change. If not, it is only a matter of time before poor South African kids, for example, realise that no matter how hard they try, the system is set against them and neither the ANC nor Cope really cares about them. What is more tragic is that “civil society”, and the privileged classes who get to set the national agenda, couldn’t care less about them either. Most of us, though not usually as honest with ourselves or with others as is Marechera, find “the idea of humanity, the concept of mankind, more attractive than actual human beings.” Were that not the case, fewer of us would wage political battles for our own interests under the guise of seeking the common good. South Africa’s political discourse would be very different. Zimbabwe would have been sorted out years ago (but even if it hadn’t, the media would focus on “the people” rather than Bob and Morgan), and so forth.

I sincerely hope that Krugman’s fears are not realised and the world keeps a safe distance from “Great Depression II”. That said, I’m also aware that, for a large socio-economic bracket, especially on African soil, a depression could come and go without their day-to-day plight changing. Hopefully, this year will see a greater focus on this group of people.