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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.


  • Bryan used to be a doctor in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. To cut a long story short, he now lives in Ireland Australia, where he is attempting to write for a living, get into a funded PhD program, and mind his son. He chronicles his progress here.


  1. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 7 January 2009

    Actually Ian Smith spent a higher percentage of his budget on black education than Mugabe did. Check the stats.

  2. Pierre Hough Pierre Hough 7 January 2009

    Man’s dignity lies in his ability to think. “Let us therefore improve our thinking” one very wise man said once upon time. Are you suggesting we are so undignified so as to talk ourselves into hunger? I think not …

  3. Vic Vic 8 January 2009

    Just a reminder that Krugman was involved with Enron Corp – which later turned into one of the biggest financial scandals in the US.

    CNN: ” In fact, among those who got Enron money is Paul Krugman, a financial columnist for “The New York Times” who disclosed that he had been on an Enron Advisory Board, essentially got $50,000.”

  4. MFB MFB 8 January 2009

    Yeah, a depression is coming (you can tell, because the ruling class keeps denying it) and it will hit the poor hardest (the rich want to keep their privileges). However, the biggest problem is that after the economic depression comes the ecological catastrophe. 2015 will make 2009 look positively benign. Again, the ruling class is denying that the ecological catastrophe is coming (let’s cut petrol prices and watch people burn up that oil!!). Sigh. If only we had one political party in this country which cared about the future, or for anything except their paymasters.

  5. Tafi Mhaka Tafi Mhaka 8 January 2009

    Welcome to the jungle, that is the world. “Dog eat dog”, some might say. The basic premise of human existence is regrettably (or not?), self-preservation. Now, should we measure Dambudzo Marechera’s frustrations as expressed in House of Hunger or indeed his sad demise later in life, against the ‘dog eat dog’ human principle, Marechera, ever the intellectual failed in his greatest test: the real life survival series. The problems people, or the world, have where ever they prevail (check on Gaza this morning), are a direct consequence of the DNA make-up of humans. Like it or not the majority of us are sub-consciously wired to fight, tussle, argue, cheat, supress, con, dominate or abhor others, rightly or wrongly in the interests of self-prservation. That’s a fact of humanity.

  6. Bryan Mukandi Bryan Mukandi Post author | 8 January 2009

    Thank you all for your comments. I’ll try to address what I think lies at the core of this discussion by focusing on one of them. According to Tafi:

    Marechera, ever the intellectual failed in his greatest test: the real life survival series … Like it or not the majority of us are sub-consciously wired to fight, tussle, argue, cheat, supress, con, dominate or abhor others, rightly or wrongly in the interests of self-prservation. That’s a fact of humanity.

    I think Marechera never had a chance. He started off with the odds heavily stacked against him. That he survived as long as he did and that he rose to prominence is a testament to his incredible talent and intelligence as well as an incredible amount of good fortune. But that does not take away from the fact that the way the world works, a black man who grows up in abject poverty, in an environment dedicated to ensuring that he never forgets his place, without a stable family background, and with few realistic options… that guy isn’t likely to succeed.

    The question that I can’t seem to get away from lately is this: could African countries be run differently? Is it possible to set up a system that doesn’t cast people in preassigned roles based on their socioeconomic standing. It’s a question that’s especially pertinent in an African context because the costs of being left behind as opposed to the benefits of ‘making it’ are so great. And the truth is that the post independence plight of many people is not as different as it should be from the pre-independence one. The post colonial state is only different to the colonial one in that race is replaced by class as the prime social determinant.

    Where Tafi and I differ is that I think human nature is something that must often be fought, not fatalistically embraced.

  7. Dawn Dawn 10 January 2009

    Thanks for the insightful read.

  8. Bryan Mukandi Bryan Mukandi Post author | 10 January 2009

    My pleasure. And thank you, Dawn, for the feedback.

  9. ross Gordon ross Gordon 11 January 2009

    The question – ‘could African countries be run differently?’ needs to be addressed.
    No country is free from criticism, nor any leader.
    Many countries look at their mistakes, and try to do something about them, sometimes they succeed sometimes they dont, but in general, for those who are honest about what went wrong, or who have open debate, progress is made.
    Surprisingly enough those countries who have freed women from mens slavery have made more progress than others.
    Now to answer the question ‘could African countries be run differently?’, yes they could, and yes they could be run better. BUT – will africans give up tribalism, and bribery and corruption.

  10. Bryan Mukandi Bryan Mukandi Post author | 13 January 2009

    Ross, neither isms, nor corruption are uniquely African problems. I think they are amplified by structural problems with the continent, but a lot of that is the symptom of what’s wrong rather than the root problem.

    My answer to your question would be this: why are isms and corruption such big problems in Africa (ie, what are the root causes behind them)?

  11. Farai Farai 14 January 2009

    We inherit colonial economies designed to support the motherland, a small colonial white elite and ensure the mass black population is fed, sheltered and educated just enough to provide the required standard of labour to ensure the colony operates efficiently.
    Post-colonial African governments do not pursue the mandatory socialist policies that will ensure the raising of the mass populations educational, health, social and hence economic standards. This is from a combination of giddiness at suddenly being the “mlungu” and having capitalists kissing up to them, resistance from capitalist governments, their financial institutions and industries against supporting socialist-oriented nations, blatant and unchecked individual greed and most importantly by abdication by the whole population of their role in controlling politics and bringing to book the politicians they appoint.

    The inevitable crumbling of the state results in a rapidly disappering resources and a high unattainability of a decent livelihood – the result is the same you get when you cage a hundred hungry rats indefinitely with enough food to feed ten. Those -isms are indeed just a response.

    Western states may have pre-empted this by providing a sufficient level of social standards to ensure the population does not get agitated.

  12. Farai Farai 14 January 2009

    “Actually Ian Smith spent a higher percentage of his budget on black education than Mugabe did. Check the stats.”

    One of the saddest results of the tragedy in Zimbabwe is that it has given voice and arrogance to bitter ex-Rhodesians who now feel vindicated for their subhuman treatment of blacks during the colonial era.
    Bantu (Group B in Zimbabwe) education of the entire black population to a restricted level just enough to ensure they are literate and functional enough to serve as gardeners and waiters is nothing to gloat about.
    Given the amount of black “A” Level, College and University graduates Zimbabwe has produced since 1980, and the professions open to them as a result, Im sure you would be hard-pressed to find any black Zimbabweans who wish for the Simth-education era.

  13. Bryan Mukandi Bryan Mukandi Post author | 16 January 2009

    Farai, I think you are largely right, though I’m not sold on pure socialism. But yes, I also subscribe to the idea that the structure of the international economic system is such that countries on the periphery serve the economic interest of those at the core. Given that situation, it is crazy to not try and come up with a viable alternative. Socialism, or a form of it is a definite alternative. I would personally prefer a social democratic system, like the one Scandinavian countries employed, especially in the 70s.

    And you are also right that one of the greatest tragedies of the Mugabe regime is that people are repeating absurd things, like ‘things were better under Ian Smith’. They weren’t for the vast majority. History suggests that Zimbabwe will get past this episode. When we get to the other side, hopefully the nation will look at core issues like governance structures and economic philosophy and not just focus on getting a house in Borrowdale and other forms of ‘conspicuous consumption’.

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