Today we remember the extraordinary and explosive life of Dambudzo Marechera, the Zimbabwean ‘enfant terrible of African literature’ who – thirty years ago today – died homeless, penniless and sick from AIDS on the streets of Harare, at the age of thirty-five. Born in 1952, into ghetto poverty and presciently named Tambudzai ‘the one who brings trouble’ by a mother whom he would later accuse of having put a curse upon him, it appears to have been Marechera’s destiny to question all and every kind of authority figure whom he encountered. For Marechera’s untimely vagabond death in no way reflects fairly the vivacious life of this extreme, almost heroically contrary figure.
Marechera’s life and art would be greatly informed by the poverty and turmoil of his country which, from 1965 under Ian Smith’s repressive white-minority government, existed in a permanent state of civil war until the creation of the Republic of Zimbabwe in 1979. As a young boy, he found his escape from his violent surroundings through reading, after obtaining his first book – a Victorian children’s encyclopaedia – from the local rubbish dump. His singular if vexatious brilliance emerged soon afterwards, but so too would the signs of an unstable personality that would persistently and ultimately sabotage his life. Marechera won a scholarship to the University of Rhodesia but was expelled after his participation in campus riots in the summer of 1973. He was shortly thereafter presented with a life-changing opportunity when he won another scholarship, at Oxford University. Marechera, however, did not adapt well to the cultural changes in Britain and in particular the rigid Oxford educational tradition. He was by now an alcoholic, which fuelled his inherent rebellious nature to behave evermore erratically; after causing numerous disruptions, his last act at Oxford was an attempt to set fire to the university’s New College. Given a choice between psychiatric treatment or expulsion, Marechera made his decision: “I got my things and left.”
This would be the opening line of his extraordinary book, The House of Hunger – a collection of eight stories and two poems – published three years after he left Oxford to live a shadowy existence in a tent by the River Isis in London where he wrote and drank. The semi-autobiographical account of violence, squalor, political upheaval, cultural and racial divides and personal torment through the eyes of a Rimbaud-like boy-brat visionary, found immediate acclaim – going on to win the Guardian Prize for First Fiction in 1979. Marechera however rejected the plaudits in favour of self-sabotage: he arrived at the award ceremony wearing a flamboyant red poncho and proceeded to throw china, chairs and accusations of hypocrisy at his fellow participants.
He returned to his homeland, the newly liberated Zimbabwe, shortly after the publication of Black Sunlight, a surreal novel about revolution set in his nation’s violent landscape. But his itinerant and recklessly provocative lifestyle continued in Harare where his reputation, talent and future prospects were not enough to prevent him from self-destructing. In the words of his biographer and champion, Flora Veit-Wild, Marechera’s “major quest in life and work was to fight any form of pretence, to unmask all forms of oppression of the individual’s freedom and rights.” That unrelenting quest sent him to an early grave but, as his legacy as an African literary hero continues to gain momentum, it also earned the would-be arsonist a celebration of his life at Oxford University in 2009.